Brain Fuel

15.03.2019 |

Episode #9 of the course Learning how to think clearly by David Urbansky


Your thoughts can only be clear when your brain is healthy. Today, we’ll talk about how to make sure your “hardware” is always running optimally.


Drink and Dine for Brain Power

Your brain needs water! Drink about eight 8-ounce glasses per day [6], and start right after getting up in the morning, as you are rather dehydrated after hours of sleep. Simply keeping yourself hydrated has shown to improve your cognitive functions and how fast you can process tasks [7].

While water is the foundation for proper functioning, your brain actually runs on sugar—glucose, to be precise. You need about 120g of glucose per day [24]. With sugar being everywhere, this is not hard to reach, but be aware that sugar does not equal sugar as far as your brain and body are concerned. Opt for glucose-rich foods that are also full of vitamins and minerals, such as dried apricots.



The less saturated fat you eat, the better [6], and absolutely no trans fat [8, 9]. Omega-3 fats, found in high quantities in salmon, mackerel, sardines, etc. are crucial for the brain [6]—a three-ounce serving is already enough.

The B vitamins [11] and especially choline [6] are welcomed by your brain. Choline is an essential nutrient (meaning your brain can’t produce it by itself) and is a precursor to an important neurotransmitter for learning and memorization. You need about 500mg per day, which you can get from a five-egg omelet if you’re really hungry. Other great sources are caviar, shiitake mushrooms, and almonds.

Other brain-empowering ingredients include ginkgo extract [12], ginseng [13], turmeric (as used in many Indian curries) [14, 15], and of course, antioxidants (found in berries, nuts, and dark green veggies) [16].


Move It!

Exercise is good for you. I’m sure that’s not news to you, but did you know that exercise helps you grow new brain cells? When you exercise, your heart rate increases and more oxygen is pumped into your brain. This stimulates your brain to release chemicals that affect the health and survival of new brain cells, grow new blood vessels, and create new neural connections [20]. Your brain areas linked to thinking and memory are actually physically growing and getting bigger [21].

In addition to pumping blood to your brain that delivers oxygen and nutrients, exercise has been shown to improve mood, enhance sleep, and reduce stress and anxiety. Poor mood, bad sleep, and too much stress and anxiety are all frequently linked to impaired cognitive functions.

Don’t wait until Monday, though. Studies have found that exercise has an immediate positive effect on your brain [18]. But stick with it, as continuous exercise is connected to improved cognitive performance [19]—one study found effects lasting over 25 years [22]. The best available scientific recommendation is to do 30-60 minutes of exercise three to five times per week for the most benefits to your mental abilities [23].


Take a Time Out (and Then Some)

Proper thinking requires a great deal of energy, and you need to replenish this energy frequently. In fact, you should plan rest time in at least three different intervals—hourly, daily, and annually.

Work that requires thinking also requires concentration, and nobody can concentrate indefinitely. Researchers have found that work with brief mental breaks can improve concentration compared to uninterrupted sessions [17]. One way you can put this information to use is to apply the Pomodoro technique, which breaks work stretches up into short sessions. A single Pomodoro cycle consists of four work sessions of about 25 minutes, each followed by a 5-minute break, except for the last break, which lasts about 20 minutes and should be used to really relax.



Once you’re done with your day’s work, you need a longer break, so make sure you get enough uninterrupted sleep every night [1]! Everybody has different sleep requirements, but usually between seven to nine hours should suffice [3].

After many weeks of work, you will need a much longer break, so pack your bags! It’s time for a vacation. The benefits of vacation—reduced stress, better mood, healthier heart—are rather obvious to everyone who has ever had one [5], but did you know that the optimal vacation length is eight days [3, 4]? Or did you know that mental health benefits last for several weeks after the vacation is over [2]? Try to space out your annual vacation in chunks of eight days to get the maximum benefits. Your brain will thank you.

So far, you have learned numerous tools and techniques for improving your thinking—congratulations! As this course comes to an end tomorrow, we’ll learn a few final tips and review a checklist of topics we covered that you can print out and use to practice and improve your thinking.


Recommended books

Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power by Lisa Mosconi PhD

The Twenty-Minute Break: Reduce Stress, Maximize Performance, Improve Health and Emotional Well-Being Using the New Science of Ultradian Rhythms by Ernest Lawrence Rossi



[1] Optogenetic Disruption of Sleep Continuity Impairs Memory Consolidation by Rolls A. et al.

[2] Leisure as a Coping Resource: A Test of the Job Demand-Control-Support Model by Joudrey A.D. and Wallace J.E.

[3] Journal of Happiness Studies

[4] Annual Vacation: Duration of Relief from Job Stressors and Burnout by Dalia Etzion

[5] Are Vacations Good for Your Health? The Nine-Year Mortality Experience after the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial by Gump B.B. and Matthews K.A.

[6] Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power by Lisa Mosconi

[7] Edmonds C.J. et al. — Frontiers Human Neuroscience 2013

[8] Barnard N.D. et al. — Neurobiology of Aging 2014

[9] Morris C. et al. — Archives of Neurology 2003

[10] Sokoloff — Journal Neurochemistry 1977

[11] Summarized Information on B Vitamins

[12] Tan Ms et al. — Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 2015

[13] Lee Ms et al. — Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 2009

[14] Chandra V. et al. — Neurology 2001

[15] Lim G.P. et al. — Journal of Neuroscience 2001

[16] The Total Antioxidant Content of More Than 3,100 Foods, Beverages, Spices, Herbs and Supplements Used Worldwide by Carlsen M. et al.

[17] Brief and Rare Mental “Breaks” Keep You Focused: Deactivation and Reactivation of Task Goals Preempt Vigilance Decrements by Ariga A. and Lleras A.

[18] The Effects of Acute Exercise on Cognitive Performance: A Meta-Analysis by Chang Y.K. et al.

[19] Aerobic Exercise and Neurocognitive Performance: A Meta-Analytic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials by Smith P.J. et al.

[20] The Effects of Physical Exercise and Cognitive Training on Memory and Neurotrophic Factors by Heisz J.J. et al.

[21] Regular Exercise Changes the Brain to Improve Memory, Thinking Skills by Heidi Godman

[22] Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Cognitive Function in Middle Age: The CARDIA Study by Zhu N. et al.

[23] Association between Physical Exercise and Mental Health in 1.2 million Individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: A Cross-Sectional Study by Chekroud S.R. et al.

[24] Sugar for the Brain: The Role of Glucose in Physiological and Pathological Brain Function by Mergenthaler P. et al.


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