Healthy Brains? It’s up to you!

Pete Hall

The human brain is pretty fascinating, isn’t it? Every day we seem to learn more about how the brain operates, where different elements of our life and psyche are controlled, and – very importantly – ways to optimize the performance of this chunk of gray matter between our ears. Over the last decade or so, I’ve worked very closely with Kristin Souers to help kids who have experienced trauma (and the adults who care for them) to develop resilience, grit, and a host of other characteristics. In that work, we’ve uncovered research supporting ten things that our brains need to be healthy, happy, and prepared for success (whether that means learning-ready, relationship-ready, and/or work-ready). Here they are, in no particular order (with primary sources inserted parenthetically):

1.       Sleep. On average, school-aged kids need 10 hours of sleep each night. That number decreases to 8 as we enter adulthood. During that restful time, our brains “log off” and clean out toxins (that might lead to dementia), sort and file important learnings and memories, and clear the path for neurons to communicate with each other. Don’t believe it? Try depriving yourself of sleep and watch your ability to recall information, mood, and processing skills dwindle, while your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity increase. So snooze away and let your brain “reboot.” (National Institutes of Health)

2.       Brain food. Not all foods are created equally, and some enhance brain function. The Cleveland Clinic lists foods that decrease likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s, increase our ability to focus, improve memory, and maintain mental acuity. Some examples: coffee, blueberries, oily fish, walnuts, chia seeds, quinoa, veggies, spinach, brown rice, tomatoes… Interestingly, easily accessible, cheap foods with high fructose corn syrup and trans fat don’t make the list – because they’re extremely unhealthy. Go ahead, read the ingredients – they matter for your gray matter! (Cleveland Clinic)

3.       Water. Fill ‘er up! And drink up! Water, that is. Our brains are roughly three-quarters water, and intaking sufficient water hydrates, feeds, cleans, and helps our brains to be more efficient, increasing mental alertness, processing speed, clarity, and creativity. If you’re thirsty, your lips are starting to chap, or your urine is dark yellow, you need to drink more water. And caffeinated beverages actually dehydrate us, so for each cup of coffee, drink a cup of water. (UC Davis)

4.       Exercise. It probably comes as no surprise that regular exercising is good for us. Not only does it build muscle and endurance and overall physical health, but regular exercising is shown to increase volume in the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex – the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory. Exercising strengthens brain cells, facilitates the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and can improve mood, sleep, and reduce stress and anxiety. Though the brain isn’t a muscle, don’t tell it that – it’ll get stronger the more we exercise! (Harvard Medical School)

5.       Breathe. Engaging in deep, controlled breathing exercises (such as pranayama breathing, typically used in yoga, meditation, and mindfulness approaches) can help calm the brain, affecting oxygen consumption and metabolism. This decreases the likelihood of psychological or stress-related disorders, increases the brain’s information processing functions, augments concentration, and puts us in a better mood. The key here? Breathing is an involuntary action; by becoming metacognitively aware of it and controlling it, we can gain significant benefits. (University of New Mexico)

6.       Teamwork. Brains, like many animals, thrive in the company of similar creatures. In this case, other brains. It seems that when we work together, cooperating in an attempt to achieve a common goal, our brains tend to get “in sync” with one another. Not only that, they release oxytocin, the feel-good neurochemical that is released when we eat chocolate, share a first kiss, or find out we’re the 9th caller to our favorite radio station, winning that amazing trip to Vegas! So go ahead and team up, link arms and brains, and win the day…together! (Science Daily)

7.       Challenge. This one seems like a no-brainer, haha. When you put your brain to the test – that is, learn a new skill, vary your routines, or engage in some rigorous research – you may in fact spur neuronal plasticity, which prompts the growth of new brain cells, creates new connections, and generally protects against cognitive decline. So there’s a good reason to learn the mamba, brush your teeth with the opposite hand, take a foreign-language class, or join a book club. Just like a muscle, these mental workouts will strengthen your brain’s performance. (Harvard Medical School)

8.       Limit screen time. Interested in developing your peripheral vision (which augments spatial learning, navigation, integration of information, and connections)? How about decreasing loneliness and depression? Want to sleep better? Increase mental acuity? The research in this category is still evolving (because let’s face it – screens have become ubiquitous and our lives with them are evolving), though the preliminary consensus is that excessive recreational screen-time impacts all the above. General guidelines offer an upper range of 1-2 hours per day, max. And none right before bed! (American Academy of Pediatrics)

9.       Laughter. Oh, indeed this is the best medicine! When we laugh, our stress response is relieved and our immune system is strengthened. Laughter stimulates circulation, relieves pain, and helps us to cope when the going gets rough. Imagine a healthy guffaw when you get cut off on the freeway or you’re facing a tight deadline at work! Then we can move forward in a healthier way – in fact, because the act of laughing triggers the release of endorphins, we can actually MAKE ourselves happy! An immediate mood-booster, all natural and in plentiful supply. (Mayo Clinic)

10.   Gratitude. We’re often told to count our blessings. Well, that’s actually a really good idea. Practicing gratitude improves our psychological health, increases happiness, enhances empathy, reduces aggression, and decreases the desire to seek revenge. Folks who write in a gratitude-journal right before bed report sleeping better, too. And who wouldn’t want better self-esteem and mental strength, two other benefits that are two simple words away from our grasp? You’re welcome. And thank you. (Psychology Today)

Pete Hall is one of the 99% who believes he uses a little more than 10% of his available brain power. He’s also a former school principal and co-author (with Kristin Souers) of two trauma-related resources: Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for creating a trauma-sensitive classroom (ASCD, 2016) and Relationship, Responsibility, and Regulation: Trauma-invested strategies for fostering resilient learners (ASCD, 2018). You can email his brain at