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mental health

Like your body, your brain needs to be trained so that it can achieve its full potential. In part one, you read about two of the most important tools to boost your brain health. In this article, I talk about the rest of the 8 tools that will help optimise your brain.

“Train hard and push yourself.” This is the advice that you’ll typically get if you’re a regular at the gym (or wherever it is that you work out).

Why? Because as time goes by, your body tends to adjust to the workout. The same routine that was making you sweat is no longer as effective because your body’s gotten stronger.

I mention this because like the rest of your body, your brain can (and should be!) be trained so that you can achieve your full potential. I’ll tell you exactly how.

Last week, I covered how to fuel your brain. This week, I’ll go over the last 8 strategies that will transform your brain.

Tool #3: Exercise

When our body moves, our brain grows! That’s why exercise is an excellent brain health booster!

As I’ve mentioned previously, our body has been designed to move and not to sit for a long time. You can observe this in you daily life: whenever you move, you feel mentally and physically better. That’s because you don’t get an adrenaline rush when you sit for a long time. You also don’t get the accompanying feeling of having accomplished a goal.

So, moving or exercising is one of the best ways to improve all of your cognitive abilities!

Working out

  • improves your mood,
  • lowers your blood pressure,
  • lowers your blood sugar levels,
  • reduces your overall stress levels, and
  • improves the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to the brain

Given the benefits of working out, it’s no surprise that 100s and 1000s of studies have found that cognitive abilities are best in those who exercise.

Any movement or exercise is beneficial to your brain health. However, make sure you strike a balance by adding strength exercise, interval exercise and moderate cardio to your exercise regime.

Even mindful exercises, such as yoga, help reduce anxiety and increase your focus.

Tool #4: Get Some Sleep!

One of the quickest ways to hurt your brain is to get less than 7 hours of sleep at night.

Studies show that getting less than 7 hours of sleep impacts our memory and learning ability negatively. Those who had less than 7 hours of sleep recalled more negative rather than positive thoughts during the day.

In a previous article, I’ve detailed the dangers of skipping or reducing sleep.

Apart from these dangers, there’s one more crucial connection between sleep and optimal brain function.

In one of my favourite TED talks, neuroscientist Jeff Iliff reveals the findings of his latest research. He says that our brain’s waste clearance happens when we sleep.

At the end of talk, he leaves us with a powerful reminder; he says:

In your house, if you stop cleaning your kitchen for a month, your home will become completely unlivable very quickly. But in the brain, the consequences of falling behind may be much greater than the embarrassment of dirty countertops, because when it comes to cleaning the brain, it is the very health and function of the mind and the body that’s at stake, which is why understanding these very basic housekeeping functions of the brain today may be critical for preventing and treating diseases of the mind tomorrow.

You can watch the 11-minute talk here:

Tool #5: Declutter Your Space

Clarity comes through focus. And focus doesn’t emanate from a place of chaos.

If your environment is cluttered, your brain’s ability to focus and process information is highly restricted.

Researchers from the Princeton University found that a cluttered environment competes for your attention and leads to wearing out your mental resources. So, you’re not only distracted in a cluttered environment, you may also feel more agitated.

Consequently, if you want to increase your focus and boost your brain’s ability to process more information, then you need to first start decluttering your space.

For more information about this topic, I highly recommend the book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

Tool #6: Remember to Pray/Meditate

Every commandment and prohibition from Allah (SWT) and His Prophet (PBUH) is a mercy to humankind. Following the principles that have been outlined for us is not only beneficial for us in the Aakhira (afterlife), but they’re also highly beneficial for us in this world.

We know that salah (prayers) is the key to our Ultimate Success, i.e. Jannah (paradise)! But salah can also be an equally powerful tool for success in this world, if and only when we perform our prayers with khushu (humility)!

Keep in mind, salah is a form of meditation. And recent scientific researches unequivocally suggest that meditation helps us to achieve many spiritual and medical benefits, including optimising brain health.

Meditation helps us:

Besides prayers, here are other forms of meditation mentioned in the Quran and Sunnah:

  • make adkhar (words of remembrance) in a quiet space, and
  • take the time to sit and ponder over Allah’s creation.

Tool #7: Embrace Optimism

We know from the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet (PBUH) that no matter how difficult things were, he was always an optimist. Abu Hurayrah (RA) reported that the Messenger of Allah liked optimism and detested pessimism. (Musnad Ahmad).

So, optimism is a beautiful Sunnah! In fact, we have been frequently reminded to be an optimist and assume the best about Allah:

‘None of [us] should die except while assuming the best about Allah’ (Sahih Muslim).

In a recent study, scientists have shown that optimism – especially positive emotions – can improve our health positively.

For example, Dr Amen, a brain expert, talks about Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANT) in his groundbreaking book “Change Your Brain, Change Your Health”. He says those ANTs are great at robbing our joy and happiness.

He says, “every time you have a mad thought, an unkind thought, a sad though, or a cranky thought, your brain releases negative chemicals that activate your limbic system and make your mind and body feel bad.”

On the other hand, a good thought can release chemicals that make your body feel good. So, kill your negative thoughts and be an optimist like the Prophet (PBUH)!

Tool #8: Learn New Things

Have you heard the saying, “be useful to be youthful”? This applies to your brain too. If you want your brain to be young and dynamic, make sure to use it to learn new things.

That’s because new scientific discoveries in neurogenesis and neuroplasticity indicate that we can grow our brain cells until the day we die. Yes, you heard that right! As long as we continue to learn, our brain never stops growing.

I know some Islamic scholars who are in their late 80s but still write new books and issue fatawas. They continue to sharpen their intellect and memory by constantly learning new things.

Here’s how you can be a lifelong learner:

  • Spend at least 15 minutes a day learning something new.
  • Break your routine. For example, are you a right-hander? Try using your left hand the next time you brush your teeth.
  • Memorise the Quran, even if it’s a few verses a day.

Tool #9: Your Circle of Influence

You are whom you spend time with. That’s why Prophet (PBUH) advised us about the type of company we keep.

In an authentic Hadith, he (PBUH) said: “A person is likely to follow the faith of his friend, so look to whom you befriend.” (Abu Dawood, Tirmidhi)

Good companionship provides you with benefits in this world and in the Hereafter. Likewise, bad companionship derails your success in both worlds and will make you miserable. After all, misery loves company!

That’s because your friends’ healthy or unhealthy habits can be contagious. In an interesting research, scientists found that a person’s chance of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who was obese. If that friend is a close friend, then that figure shot up to 171%.

If you aren’t surrounded by good companionship, consider replacing your circle of influence with people of goodness.

Tool #10: Protect Your Head

Our brain, which has a consistency of a soft butter, is housed in a hard skull. This hard skull protects us from the outside. But inside the skull, there are many sharp ridges that point towards the brain. So, if there’s an accident, even if you don’t break your skull, you’ll most probably experience internal brain damage.

This is evident in the large-scale study of professional NFL players’ brain injury and brain rehabilitation. The study, conducted by Dr Amen, shows that although all of the players were wearing helmets while playing, almost all of the players had experience different degrees of brain damage.

The football “headers” aren’t spared from this too. Latest research from scientists in the UK suggests that football headers could lead to brain damage.

So, why am I talking about this? Whether or not you play sports or ride a bike, make sure you to protect your head.

Your Brain’s Health

Your brain’s valuable and the way you take care of it should show this. Whether you fuel your brain through proper nutrition or by learning new things and working out, remember that it can do a lot more that you think it can!


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