Clearing the mind so the brain can work better

I have been “experimenting” a bit with my morning routine, seeing what works and what doesn’t. I am mixing in exercise and specific eating habits, as well as planning strategies. I’m also mixing in the unexpected.

I went off my morning routine for a few days, over the weekend, and I found it does not work very well at all. I had a bunch of unplanned activities come up a few times, first thing in the morning, and that kept me from exercising. The rest of those days were not very productive, and I had a lot of trouble focusing and keeping up with what was going on around me. I also had temper problems.

On the days when I have been exercising, however, I’ve been able to really focus and maintain my calm and composure. I really think there’s something to that  “exercise as cortisol management” idea.

What works best for me is exercising for a little while, right when I get up. I can think through my upcoming day while I’m doing that. Then I follow it with breakfast and vitamins, and I get into my day.

I have found that exercising really helps me clear my mind. Taking my attention off everything except my physical form as I exercise, helps me remove some of the clutter that just seems to “show up” as soon as I wake up. And working up a sweat while I’m doing it also helps clear out the cobwebs.

When my brain doesn’t have all those extra minutiae and distractions and unfinished/poorly formed thoughts rolling around in it, it can focus in on what needs to be formed — the snippets of ideas that are all running through my head have a chance to be carefully thought-through. And by the time I’m done exercising, I have a clearer image in my head of what I want to achieve, and how.

More morning brain boosts

I came to my senses and rode the exercise bike again this a.m., before I did anything else. It’s amazing to me, how much more awake I feel, after I finished my (relatively short) ride.

One of the things about TBI is that it can slow down the brain’s processing. That makes total sense, if the usual connections are sheared and the impulses need to hunt around for other ways to get where they’re going. It’s like the Loma Prieta earthqake in the SF Bay area back in the late 1980s – a former co-worker of mine spent 4 hours trying to get home from work, when the drive usually took them 45 minutes, tops. All the usually routes were washed out or diverted. And when they got home, their apartment was fine and there was no sign of anything having gone wrong… but all the dishes and glasses were lying smashed on the kitchen floor. Apparently, the building had rocked one way far enough to open all the cupboard doors, empty the shelves onto the floor, and then it rocked back and closed all the doors neatly.

I tend to think about TBI the same way — especially Mild TBI. Our world is rocked, and things get broken inside, but then we get rocked back into place, and as far as anyone can tell, we’re just fine. But all our dishes and glasses are lying smashed on the floor — and we have to tread carefully to not cut ourselves.

And the routes our thought processes normally take to get to and from where they’re going are also diverted and changed. So, it takes us longer to get where we’re going.

Absent restoring my brain to its original condition — as if there ever was such a thing, as I’ve been having mild TBIs since I was 7 — I can do some things to help it along.

This morning, I did some of those things — exercised, and then had a big glass of water, ate my breakfast, and took my vitamins. I am religious about breakfast — high fiber cereal with rice milk, a cup of coffee, and a piece of fruit. I’ve really cut back on coffee — I have a mug in the morning and another in the afternoon (no longer the 3-4 big mugs each day). And when I have it, I make a point of eating something while I’m drinking it, so it doesn’t upset my stomach.

This morning, I had a banana with my breakfast. I’ve read that a banana and coffee will help your brain work better. The potassium in the banana helps, and the caffeine helps with the absorption. Or something like that.

I also (amazingly enough) remembered to take my supplements.

  • B-Complex for my nerves — very important
  • Chromium Picolinate — helps my body manage insulin production and helps with how I use glucose in my system — also very important
  • Fish oil from Norwegian salmon — deep sea, algae-fed fish which have lots of good fatty acids and Omega-3’s
  • Evening Primrose Oil — for the Omega-6 essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), that is said to “support the body’s heart, nervous, immune and reproductive systems. The GLA contained in Evening Primrose Oil is a nutrient used by the body to maintain healthy cells and vital body functions. Evening Primrose Oil enhances the health and strength of cell membranes throughout the body, and promotes a proper inflammation response. Evening Primrose Oil is also used by the body to maintain healthy hormone levels.” (Note, I’m not including an attribution here, because it comes from a sales site… nevertheless, I think it’s interesting information. If you really want to know what site it comes from, you can Google the above sentences in double-quotes.)

Basically, my morning brain boost is about helping my brain get going in the morning and stay that way. I take the B-Complex to help my nerves, so I don’t get physically taxed by stress, which then fogs my mind. I take the oils for the brain and cellular support, and I take the chromium picolinate to help with how my body handles glucose.

The brain is the Number One consumer of glucose in the body. It needs it to survive — to think properly and to keep its energy level up. There’s good reading over at http://www.fi.edu/learn/brain/carbs.html — I’ll post a tiny bit of it below, but please follow the link to get the whole story.

Brain Energy Demand

Your brain cells need two times more energy than the other cells in your body.

Neurons, the cells that communicate with each other, have a high demand for energy because they’re always in a state of metabolic activity. Even during sleep, neurons are still at work repairing and rebuilding their worn out structural components.

They are manufacturing enzymes and neurotransmitters that must be transported out to the very ends of their– nerve branches, some that can be several inches, or feet, away.

Most demanding of a neuron’s energy, however, are the bioelectric signals responsible for communication throughout the nervous system. This nerve transmission consumes one-half of all the brain’s energy (nearly 10% of the whole body’s energy).

Read More…

Interestingly, one of the points of this web page is that the brain needs carboyhydrates to function properly. It pretty much pointed me away from those low-carb diets that everyone is crazy about. Especially with my head injury history, I’m not going to deprive my brain of its primary source of energy — carbs. I’m just going to be smart about it.

As in, balance my carbs with other things — if I have bread, I’ll have it as part of a sandwich that has plenty of protein and extras on it, like lettuce and tomatoes and other stuff, if possible. If I have crackers, I’ll have an apple (fresh with the skin on) to complement it. And if I’m really craving carbs, that won’t be the only thing I have.

Well, anyway, I have a full day ahead of me, and I’m off to a good start.

It’s wild, how much of a difference just 15 minutes of aerobic exercise helps me. That, and my brain boost breakfast.

Stay strong everyone — and eat right!

A day that didn’t start with exercise…

… sadly did not go well 😦

I decided this morning to forego my 20 minute bike ride and just get on with my day, but I found myself frittering away the hours doing this and that, rather than the project I am tasked with completing.

I also had a major meltdown this afternoon over changes in scheduling and unexpected things I had to do. It wasn’t pretty, and I felt like a complete and utter fool after the fact.

Oh, well. Tomorrow is another day. I’m headed out of town to a family event, which should be interesting. But the long drive there and back will be welcome. It will be good to get out of town for a while.

I’m looking forward to starting fresh in the a.m. Even if I only ride for 15 minutes, at least I can get a jump-start on the day.

On a related note, I came across this blog post the other day — Tired, Stressed, Fat and Depressed: What You Need to Know About Cortisol (New Video) It talks about how the one thing that will help you deal with cortisol is exercise and getting plenty of sleep.

I’d be interested to hear how cortisol and TBI intersect. Surely, there must be information somewhere. For that matter, I’d like to know how TBI and the endocrine system interrelate. I’ve heard that TBI can lead to major endocrine system dysfunction/upset, but it’s not widely known or understood.

Makes sense to me — the glands in the brain (and elsewhere) that produce all those chemicals must be pretty finely tuned (for example, the thyroid drives the whole body’s metabolic system on about a teaspon of its hormone each year — yes, a teaspoon-full of TSH does the trick for the entire body)… so if the brain’s finely interconnected circuits are re-routed, surely it must do something to the overall functioning.

Or maybe I’m crazy… being an undereducated lay-person, after all. I’m sure there are plenty of experts out there who can tell me/you better and/or different. But common sense tells me there must be a connection.

Anyway, it’s getting late (for me), and I need to get ready for this big trip. I just hope I’ll be able to sleep. I’ll have to see if the motel I’m staying at has an exercise bike and/or gym. Here’s hoping…

My early-morning brain treatment

A few days back, I was mulling my morning routine and how to fix it. I tend to wake up aroung 5-6 a.m., which gives me an early start on the day. I often jump out of bed with lots of energy and feeling like I’m rarin’ to go. But then I usually get bogged down in some activity or another — checking email or writing or fiddling with some piece of information. I might wake up early, but I end up running late. And although I have lots of physical energy, I rarely feel mentally awake until much later in the day… sometimes not till 3 p.m. Not feeling mentally awake makes it difficult to get into the day, let alone enjoy my life as it comes.

I don’t much care for the feeling of a foggy head, first thing in the morning. It’s a part of my life that I guess I have to accept on some level, as my brain has been rewired to move more slowly than I’d like. But I really don’t care for  it, mentally or logistically. My team at work has a status meeting first thing each Monday a.m., and for the past couple of months, I’ve been either late or too rushed to prepare properly. That’s a lousy way to start a Monday. It has a crappy snowball effect on the rest of my day. And the rest of the week.

This will never do. I mean, honestly… it’s just embarrassing. For months on end, I’ve been trying to get to work early in the morning, on Mondays and beyond. No go. And work isn’t the only place this is a problem. For weeks on end, I’d been trying to get some very basic stuff done — contact the insurance companies who are handling my fender-bender from June (yes, it happened over a month ago, and as of two days ago, I had yet to finish the paperwork), give certain parts of the house a long-overdue scrubbing, take the trash to the dump, mow the lawn, and so forth. A collection of standard-issue weekend tasks and some extra outstanding things needed to be done — they’re not optional — but they have gone undone. Like I said, this will never do.

So, yesterday I told myself enough was enough, and I decided to try something different… something I have been meaning to do for many, many months. I decided to exercise first thing in the morning when I got up. Not after I had my cup of coffee. Not after I had my cereal and fruit. But first thing. Being somewhat neurotic about getting my coffee first thing, I promised myself I would at least put the kettle on before I started my workout. I promised myself I would turn the stove on medium, then exercise while I was waiting for my coffee water to boil. And (hopefully) to make getting my day under control a little easier, I decided I would devote the 20-30 minutes of my workout to thinking about what I had to get done that day… Thinking through the stuff on my to-do list, planning how I would get it all done that day. Basically mapping out my day.

I was skeptical, at first, thinking that getting on the exercise bike was going to be boring and drab and monotonous. But you know what? While I was pedaling away, my mind was waking up and getting into the day. While I was pedaling, I was going over the things I needed to do — things I didn’t really look forward to doing, like fill out paperwork, but had to be done. I thought through the act of doing each thing.

I thought about my paperwork — how I would take it step-by-step, first getting out the forms, double-checking the info there, filling in what was missing, making copies, signing them, adding a cover letter, and mailing them out.

I thought about my morning chores — cleaning and taking out trash and running to the store to pick up food for the dinner party we were having last night. I walked myself through each of the things I was supposed to do — and I threw in a nap for good measure. Pedaling and pedaling, I found myself not at all bored, but actually quite energized. And you know what? My brain was thinking better, first thing in the morning, than it had in quite some time.

By the time I got off the bike, I not only had a plan for my day, but I had thoroughly visualized overcoming all the tricky pieces that I thought might keep me from succeeding. I had a visual of my to-do list in the back of my head, and I had “road map” for all the different pieces of my day. I had effectively “choreographed” my day so that I had a pretty good idea what I could expect to get done (and what wasn’t going to get done), and I had a pretty good idea how I was going to handle things, when they came up. I had a common-sense plan for what order to do things in — do the messy chores before I took my shower, and then take a nap after my shower (hot showers always relax me and make me sleepy)… and wake up refreshed and with all my chores done before company came for dinner.

And you know what? It worked. After I got off the bike, I actually felt energized and awake. That’s rare. The blood pumping and the sweat I’d worked up, really cleared my mind. And as I got into my day, I found that I was able to not only get the really critical things done, but I managed to quickly take care of a few jobs I usually do at a fairly leisurely pace on Sunday mornings. That meant that I gave myself Sunday morning off, ahead of time… which meant that I could relax with our company on Saturday night, and not fret about staying up later than I would normally. My Sunday morning tasks were already done, so I would have more time to rest and relax, if I needed a Sunday afternoon nap (which I usually do).

All this, because I got on the bike and rode, first thing in the a.m., with the express intention of planning my day. Not only did I finally manage to exercise, first thing in the morning — which I’ve been trying to do for many months — but I also took command of my day — and my life. The exercise helped oxygenate my brain and it helped focus the kinetic energy I have in the a.m. into something I could use, that served me well.

For good measure, I did it again today. Once more, I felt myself waking up more, feeling clearer, and able to handle my morning tasks better than usual.  Something so simple — 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise (I do work up a sweat and get my heart beating faster) — makes a huge difference.

Best of all, I don’t have to stop my life completely to do it. Years ago, when I was working out regularly, I used to have to completely halt all my activity to go to the gym or go for a run. That was fine then, when I didn’t have as many responsibilities as I do now, but nowadays I’ve got so much going on, that just stopping everything to exercise isn’t an attractive option. But now my morning exercise bike ride can be part of my active life, part of my day, part of my “personal planning and strategy sessions” that help me live my life that much better.

I’m sure it sounds elementary to some people, and there are plenty of folks who already know this. But this “discovery” that I don’t have to halt my life and stop everything I’m doing to fit in exercise, and that the exercise actually adds to my productivity (rather than takes away from it), is something I’m really reveling in. It is good.