Ayurveda, the ancient system of healing from India, describes three aspects to mental performance: "dhi" - learning and comprehension, "dhriti" - retention of knowledge, and "smriti" - memory or recall.
"For the best mental performance and realization of the fullest mental potential, each of these three factors individually needs to be at its peak, and, more important, the co-ordination among the three factors also needs to be optimal," says Rama Kant Mishra, Ayurvedic expert. Ayurveda recommends paying attention to the three fundamental pillars of good health - diet, sleep and lifestyle - to achieve this state of mental balance. Here are some tips from Mishra to help boost brainpower:
Eat Pure, "Intelligent" Foods
"According to Ayurveda, it is very important to eat foods that are natural and pure for their full benefit to be absorbed by the body," says Mishra. When foods are as close to their state in nature as possible, that's when they deliver the most potent nutrition. Foods that have been genetically altered, processed or refined have much of their natural intelligence stripped from them, and Mishra contends that they disturb the intellect and the co-ordination between the three aspects of mental prowess - comprehension, retention and recall. Also taboo are foods that are canned or preserved with artificial additives and preservatives, or foods with artificial colors and flavors. "Cooking with fresh, organic ingredients can take a little more time and effort," agrees Mishra. "But your brain, and indeed your entire system will thank you for it and repay the effort with accelerated performance."
Maintain a Supply of Balanced Nutrition
The recommended Ayurvedic diet is vegetarian. "Grains, beans and legumes provide nutrients for the brain," says Mishra. "Be sure to include plenty of cooked leafy greens. Several helpings of fruit and vegetables are recommended. Sweet juicy fruits are excellent cleansers; they help flush toxins out of the body. Don't count fat out entirely, fat performs some essential functions in the body, including the brain." Mishra suggests cutting down on "empty" junk foods and sugared drinks that interfere with the absorption of nutrients by the body. According to Ayurveda, good eating habits are as important as what you eat. Sitting down to eat, focusing on the food rather than on work or other activities, and savoring the meal are important. Ice-cold drinks disrupt digestion and impair the assimilation of nutrients by the body, and should therefore be avoided.
Harness the Power of Antioxidants
The brain is especially susceptible to damage by free radicals, reactive oxygen-based chemicals that thrive on stress, pollution and chemicals in your food. Free radicals have been widely linked to disease and aging. Antioxidants are therefore crucial for effective functioning of the brain. Recent research showed that blueberries are powerful brain food, primarily because of their antioxidant value. Ayurvedic antioxidant supplements contain Amalaki, the Indian gooseberry, considered the richest natural source of vitamin C, along with other herbs. Look for an antioxidant that works both inside and outside cell walls for full-spectrum protection from free radical damage.
Use Herbs and Aromas to Enhance Mental Potential
Ayurveda talks about a special class of herbs called "Medhya" herbs - herbs especially useful for the mind. "These herbs individually enhance learning, retention and recall as well as the co-ordination among the three factors," says Mishra. "They provide powerful nourishment for the brain." Shankhapushpi or Aloeweed, the authentic Brahmi or Herpestis monniera and Indian Pennywort or Centella asiatica, also known as Gotu Kola, are some well-known Ayurvedic herbs known to promote the health and functioning of the mind. "Synergistic formulas that contain not only these herbs but other supporting and balancing herbs such as Ashwagandha (Winter Cherry) to help boost resistance to stress are ideal," suggests Mishra, "especially for individuals in high-stress job environments who need to be at the peak of their mental potential on a consistent basis." Some essential oils are excellent aromatherapy for the mind. Try rosemary for mental clarity and alertness or basil oil to help dispel mental fatigue and enhance your mind's innate ability to focus. Peppermint oil and lemon oil are also effective pick-me-ups for the mind.
Manage Stress Levels
Stress and anxiety, whether caused by time pressure or difficult work relationships, can have a significant negative impact on mental performance. A calm mind, serene and centered in its equilibrium, is unquestionably superior in terms of focus, attention span, retention of knowledge and problem-solving ability. "It is important to manage stress before it becomes a severe problem," says Mishra, "because stress has been known to damage or destroy brain cells and many prescription pills for anxiety can have side-effects that can further erode mental performance." Planning tasks ahead and managing timelines, taking occasional short (even five minutes) breaks during periods of intense mental activity, and maintaining a healthy balance between work and relaxation can all help. The Transcendental Meditation technique, or other relaxation techniques are also useful in managing stress. Listening to relaxing music, diffusing aromas that help relax you, such as sandalwood or lavender, or a quiet evening stroll, alone or with a nurturing companion, can all help balance the mind and emotions.
Get Adequate, Quality Sleep
Related to stress is the other plague of modern society - lack of deep, restful sleep. "With diet and lifestyle, sleep is a fundamental pillar of Ayurveda," says Mishra. "Optimal physical and mental performance is impossible if all three of these factors are not addressed." Getting eight hours of sleep is less important than striving for quality sleep, which, according to Ayurveda, occurs when the mind is totally disconnected from the senses. Quality sleep recharges and rejuvenates the mind, improving both short-term and long-term mental prowess. Mishra advises a daily warm oil full-body massage to increase stamina during the day and promote quality sleep at night. Cutting down on stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine; making work-related materials taboo in the bedroom and winding down the evening with calming activities, instead of stimulating ones, to help prepare the mind for restful sleep; are key to getting your zzzs. Aromatherapy can also help - try a blend of lavender, chamomile, jasmine and sweet orange, or just plain lavender.
Use it or Lose it!
No matter what your age or your occupation; your brain needs to be constantly challenged to be at its peak in terms of performance. "Whether it's doing logic puzzles, memorizing lines from Shakespeare, or learning a new skill, keep your brain busy," advises Mishra, "if you don't want it to rust away like a car in a junkyard." Asking questions to clarify things in your mind, visualization techniques and associative memory games can keep the brain nimble.
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