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How to increase mental sharpness? Get rid of the afternoon brain fog and boost productivity? While some factors of brain health are beyond our control, there are many which are in our power to improve. The brain is the most complex organ in the body, with an intricate network of billions of nerve cells. To support the multifarious processes it performs, the brain requires the proper fuel, conditioning, and rest. Specifically, optimizing exercise, diet, sleep, and nutrient intake can all support mental acuity over the long term.
What is Mental Acuity?
Mental acuity, or sharpness of the mind, comprises memory, focus, understanding, and concentration. As we age, these factors begin to decline naturally. Environmental and lifestyle factors can also take their toll on brain health, contributing to further decline of mental acuity in the form of conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
In the following sections, we will discuss the ways in which you can enhance these four factors to benefit your brain health.
How to Improve Mental Sharpness and Brain Health with Exercise
The fact that exercise has many health benefits is indisputable. Its advantages are both physical and mental, internal and external: from building lean tissue and improving muscle elasticity to increasing cardiovascular efficiency and stamina, the list goes on and on. Now, however, there is emerging research acknowledging the impact of exercise on brain health, and the findings are truly remarkable. [1,2]
Exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF), proteins that promote the survival of nerve cells. It also increases Glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factors (GDNF) and neuronal growth factors (NGF), both of which also contribute to the proliferation of neurons. Specifically, these growth factors maintain neuronal health as well as that of neural synapses, or the chemical messages that are exchanged between neurons. Synapses are essential to neuronal function and are also believed to play an important role in the formation of memories. 
The growth factors identified above also support another important mechanism: they prevent Amyloid beta peptides (Amyloid-B) and neurofibrillary tangles from developing. Amyloid-B and tangles are suspected to contribute to degradation of nerve cells in the brain, and the subsequent development of Alzheimer’s disease. 
Interestingly, these remarkable benefits are only observed in moderate- to high-intensity training. Elevating the heart rate to a higher degree than that which is experienced at lighter intensity levels causes the body to adapt. When we train harder, our brains must work harder to maintain synchronicity with the muscles we are using. This increased training intensity results in the highest possible elevation of growth factors, thereby achieving the strongest line of defense against Amyloid-B and tangles.
Additional Benefits of Moderate- to High Intensity Training
Additionally, weight training and complex compound movements support the development of new motor learning patterns. Each time we learn a new exercise or motor skill, we increase the number of motor neurons we can use to perform these movements (called motor units). The greater the stimulation, the more our minds must grow and develop (known as brain plasticity). Consistently challenging the brain and neuronal pathways can also impede buildup of Amyloid-B and tangles.
Every day, our body’s cells perform chemical processes needed to survive, also known as metabolism. This often leads to the development of metabolic waste, which must be removed. In addition to this waste produced internally, we are also exposed to more external chemical sources than ever before. Exposure to these chemicals results in the build-up of reactive oxygen species (ROS), also known as free radicals. Our body does a great job of filtering these free radicals out on its own through processes such as urination, digestion, and sweat. Yet, physical inactivity can significantly slow this process, leading to an eventual elevation of free radicals and oxidative damage. This can seep into the brain, affecting healthy brain tissue. When we exercise, however, it rids the body of this waste: there is a significant increase in antioxidant enzymes within the brain, which work to remove any elevated ROS and subsequently maintain neuronal health.
Finally, exercise leads to an increase of dopamine, which is also known as the “feel-good hormone.” It also increases dopamine receptor sensitivity through increased vasodilation (widening of the arteries) and restoration of the basal ganglia, the structures within the cerebral hemisphere where dopamine is released. This, too, supports the health of neuronal synapses, allowing for the efficient passage of chemical messages from neuron to neuron. The release of dopamine also leads to improved mood, as well as decreased depression, which are both affiliated with degenerative brain health over time.
Nutrition’s Role in Brain Health and Proper Neurological Function
While proper nutrition is a known component in maintaining overall physical wellness, its role in neurological health tends to be overlooked. When we think of food, the factors that come to mind are typically calories, weight loss or gain, and body composition. However, much like exercise, nutrition can contribute to brain health and optimal neurological function over a long life.
The process of maximal development and maturation begins at birth, which includes neurological function. In fact, infants use nearly 90% of their fuel to strengthen and develop the brain. With age, this figure drops to approximately 25-30% of our daily nutrition. While lower, this percentage still represents a considerable portion of our daily nutrition, and the interplay between diet and brain health should therefore be taken seriously. 
Poor nutrition can have detrimental effects on many aspects of neurological function and health. A diet high in saturated fat and processed foods and low in essential nutrients and minerals, for instance, can lead to anxiety, depression, severe fatigue, and even brain atrophy and brain disease.
Conversely, good nutrition can combat the natural decline in brain health. When we learn a new skill or challenge our minds with unique stimuli, our neurons and brain cells respond accordingly. These new skills and their subsequent motor pattern development support:
- An increase in myelin sheath, which lines neuronal cells to support the efficient communication of messages between cells
- An increase in the presence of neurotransmitters including dopamine, noradrenaline, epinephrine, and glycine, which carry messages into the synapse from cell to cell
- Maintenance of optimal sizes of the cerebral cortex and hippocampus (responsible for memory and mood)
As we age, however, a natural decline in neurological function and efficiency takes place, characterized by:
- A decline in the number of synapses, leading to less efficient transfer of messages from one neuron to another
- The decrease and wearing down of myelin, which also decreases the speed of transmission of messages between cells
- Atrophy of the cerebral cortex, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus
- An increase in the oxidative stress in the brain
- Buildup of toxic Amyloid-beta in the brain
Key Nutrients for Improving Mental Acuity
Left unchecked, these factors can severely impede neurological function, as well as the development of age-related brain disease such as Alzheimer’s. The following key nutrients prevent against this deterioration:
- Dietary Lipids: Found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and cod, as well as eggs, avocados, and non-hydrogenated oils, lipids maintain the strength of the myelin sheath and neuronal cell walls.
- Carotenoids and Flavonoids: These antioxidants can be ingested through yellow and orange fruits and vegetables and reduce oxidative stress and free radicals throughout the body.
- Micronutrients: Making up DNA and RNA in the cell, the following micronutrients also play a role in natural neurological function and support healthy brain lipids and neurotransmitters:
- Iodine: Get your iodine through Himalayan sea salt, kelp, and unprocessed table salt, as well as most types of seafood, to maintain healthy neuronal enzymatic activity.
- Iron: Iron deficiencies are associated with decreased oxygen delivery to the brain, which leads to decreased focus, attention, and overall neurological function and brain health. Nuts, fish, eggs, legumes, and lean meat are healthy sources of iron.
- Protein: Proteins aid in the production of peptide-based neurotransmitters, including dopamine, noradrenaline, glycine, and tryptophan, which converts to serotonin. Low levels of these neurotransmitters lead to depression, anxiety, and bipolar mood swings. Healthy protein sources include meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, and legumes.
- Folate: Also known as vitamin B9, deficiencies in this nutrient are associated with brain atrophy, specifically in the cerebral cortex. Folate is found primarily in leafy greens.
- B12: Found in lean beef, salmon, and eggs, B12 deficiencies are also associated with brain atrophy.
- Vitamin D: This essential vitamin acts as a neurosteroid, which increases the excitability of nerve cells. While eggs and fatty fish are two well-known dietary sources, you can also acquire vitamin D through sunlight.
- Essential Fatty Acids: Two essential fatty acids (EFAs), linoleic and alpha-linolenic, are not synthesized by the body, and therefore must be consumed through nutrition. These fats are used to build specialized fats called omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which support the function of all tissues. They provide structure for the myelin sheath and contribute to the structure and composition of neurotransmitters and other peptides. You will find EFAs in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, cod, oysters, trout, tuna, and halibut.
The Impact of Sleep on Neurological Function
Sleep deprivation is rampant across the country, with roughly 50-70 million adults suffering from a sleep disorder.  Whether it is from work-related stress, family or social obligations, or late-night TV watching habits, we are losing precious sleep and paying the price with our health. Poor and diminished sleep volume contributes to decreased energy, increased cravings, decreased muscle protein synthesis, and decreased cognitive awareness and performance. In terms of brain health, lack of sleep can also lead to:
- Increased buildup of Amyloid beta
- Increased oxidative stress and free radical buildup
- Decreased myelin sheath and total synapses
- Decreased size of the cerebral cortex and hippocampus
These factors combined are precursors for many of the nation’s leading causes of death, including obesity, diabetes, and heart diseases; as well as degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The degree to which lack of sleep is slowly killing our population can therefore not be overstated. A concerted effort to achieve better sleep, in terms of both quality and quantity, must therefore be taken to support long-term mental acuity, as well as overall wellness.
If you are someone who struggles to get proper sleep, here are some practical strategies you can implement to facilitate a restful night of slumber:
- Avoid Light: Before trying to get to sleep, you should spend at least 20 minutes in a cool, dark room away from all electronic devices, including handheld phones or tablets and large technology. The light from these devices can disrupt the body’s natural rhythm, making it more difficult to ease into deep sleep.
- Lower the Temperature: To enter REM sleep, your core temperature must be lowered. A stuffy, hot room can cause restlessness.
- Time Your Gym & Caffeine Routines: Going to the gym and consuming caffeine both elevate heart rate and blood pressure, which could be difficult to bring back down to baseline before sleep. These activities should therefore be done well before bedtime.
- Take Naps: When taken in the early afternoon or earlier, naps of no more than 30 minutes can improve cognition and focus.  Just be sure to set your alarm for 30 minutes, as sleeping any longer can actually cause drowsiness.
- Weight Train: Weight training can increase muscle protein and cause fuel breakdown, prompting the body to need more recovery. Your body will therefore make more of an effort to enter deep sleep, and will be more likely to stay that way as well.
How Supplements Support Brain Health and Mental Acuity
Even the healthiest diets can leave gaps in nutrition. Despite conscious efforts to improve eating habits, we may still come up short in certain micronutrients and substances that improve overall health. Supplements can make up for these deficiencies but are best reserved for individuals who actually have an established deficit. Micronutrient deficiency testing is therefore worth consideration for patients looking to improve mental acuity.
The following supplements have been shown to improve brain health through numerous pathways:
Fish oil is one of the most heavily researched supplements, and for good reason. Omega-3, found in both fatty fish and fish oil supplements, contains docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic (EPA), which can have an effect on mental acuity. Omega-6, on the other hand, is found in red meat and eggs.
EPA and DHA act as eicosanoids, which are lipids with 20 or more carbon links. These lipids are released, in response to stress, and help keep stress levels under control. Eicosanoids will release whichever fatty acid your body has more of, omega-3 or omega-6. Having a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is the best way to ensure the proper fatty acid is being released in response to stress. Additionally, high levels of EPA (1 gram or more) has been shown to improve serotonin levels, which can have a positive impact on individuals with depression.
Research has not yet identified a positive effect from fish oil supplementation on individuals with a healthy dietary omega-3 intake or those with fully developed Alzheimer’s disease. Nonetheless, based on what experts have seen so far, it is clear that the best plan for supporting longevity and mental acuity is to start incorporating fatty fish into your diet as early as possible, and maintain consistent exercise and sleep habits.
While fish oil is commonly measured in grams, the potency/quantity of essential fatty acid content per gram can vary between products. Aim for fish oil products with more than 500mg of EFA per 1g of fish oil.
Taking 1 gram of fish oil per day proves to be beneficial for general health. However, up to 6 grams per day (usually split into 2 to 4 doses) can improve inflammation and soreness. Be sure to take the supplement with food in order to avoid unpleasant “fish burps.” 
Also known as the water hyssop, Bacopa Monnieri is an herb which can improve mental acuity, focus, and cognitive function. Unlike other supplements taken to support brain health, it does not have any age-specific effects and can therefore be taken by adults throughout any stage of life.
Bacopa Monnieri improves neurological function by increasing the length of dendrites, which are found at the beginning and end of neurons. Dendrites release and gather information, acting as the link between one neuron to another. The longer your dendrites, the more efficiently neurons can transfer messages from the brain throughout the body. Bacopa Monnieri is also an antioxidant, which can fight off free radicals such as Amyloid beta peptides in the brain.
Patients can take 300 mg of the supplement daily (55% bacoside content), which has proven to support better overall health. Additionally, 750-1,000 mg of Bacopa Monnieri leaf powder has also shown to benefit wellness, and when ingested in this form, it does not need to be taken with food. It has been shown to produce a more powerful effect when taken with coffee in the morning on an empty stomach. 
Gingko Biloba, also known as the maidenhair tree, has gained the attention of researchers for its suspected ability to improve mental acuity. Evidence points to its power to reduce levels of Platelet Activating Factor (PAF) in the blood, thereby lowering thrombotic levels (buildup of blood clots). This anti-inflammatory effect is also extended to neuronal activity, and helps the efficient message delivery between neurons. Finally, the supplement is a natural antioxidant, which lowers levels of Beta-amyloid coloring in critical areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex.
For better mental performance, individuals can take 120-240 mg of the supplement, while 40-120 mg can be taken 3 times per day to alleviate cognitive decline. 
Extracted from the huperziceae family of herbs, Huperzine A is a compound, which acts as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. Acetylcholinesterase degrades acetylcholine, the major neurotransmitter responsible for passing chemical messages between neurons, causing slower information transfer. By inhibiting acetylcholinesterase, Huperzine A helps to increase acetylcholine for improved information transfer and better overall cognitive function.
The daily recommendation for Huperzine A is 50-200 mcg, and the supplement does not need to be taken with food. 
Choline is a vitamin found naturally in beef liver, eggs, legumes, and nuts. It acts as a precursor molecule for acetylcholine, which as mentioned above, supports the efficient transfer of information from one neuron to the next. As such, it pairs well with Huperzine A.
While 250 to 500 mg of choline can be taken daily for general health, 1 to 2 grams have been linked to an improvement in overall acetylcholine levels. 
How to Improve Your Mental Acuity – In Conclusion
Aging brings on a myriad of challenges, which must be addressed proactively to sustain optimal brain health. When these challenges are left to manifest over time without taking preventive steps to improve nutrition, physical fitness, and sleep, our health is compromised in terms of both physical and mental decline. The impact exercise, sleep, nutrition, and nutrient deficiency can have on the brain is demonstrated below.
Together, these four factors provide the best line of defense in supporting mental acuity for the long term. The research is definitive and clear, and by implementing the practical tips laid out above, you can take the most effective approach in minimizing degenerative brain disease and supporting cognitive function well into the future.
Next Steps: How to Increase Mental Sharpness
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About the Contributor
Global Director of Nutrition & Exercise
Rudy Inaba is Cenegenics’ Global Director of Nutrition & Exercise. He is a recognized fitness and sports nutrition consultant with nearly 15 years of experience in clinical exercise physiology and lifestyle management. After pursuing his Master of Science in Clinical Exercise Physiology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Rudy joined Cenegenics where he leads 20 clinical locations nationwide in their advancements in kinesiology, nutritional biochemistry, and their analyses of industry research & market trending.
 Figure 2f from: Irimia R, Gottschling M (2016) Taxonomic revision of Rochefortia Sw. (Ehretiaceae, Boraginales). Biodiversity Data Journal 4: E7720. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.4.e7720. (n.d.). doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f
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