We have learned so much about the human brain over the last quarter century that it is at times mind-numbing (pun intended). What has emerged though are a few broad lifestyle categories that most affect how our brain functions, learns and impacts our lifespan. Let’s take a look.
The human brain needs sleep – and plenty of it. Unfortunately our society has come to regard sleep as a bit of a “waste of time” and adults and students often even brag about how little sleep they get, as though it’s an attribute to be lauded. That’s just not true. Sleep is critical for learning and for brain health. It’s during sleep that our brains are able to sort through the day’s experiences, categorize learning and information, clean house, strengthen connections and restore the brain to peak efficiency for the next day’s learning.
How much sleep should people get? This varies by individual and by age. While the old rule of thumb of 8 hours is a good place to start, be aware that different people have different sleep needs. Our sleep requirement tends to decrease somewhat as we age, but most adults still need at least 7 hours. Children require 8 – 12 hours of sleep.
Wondering how much sleep your body needs? There are a couple of ways to find out. First, do you need an alarm to wake you? If so, you’re not getting enough sleep. The brain will wake up, naturally, when it’s finished its maintenance for the night. If you wake artificially using an alarm, you’ve cheated your brain out of repair and maintenance and long-term learning. A second way to find out is to all allow yourself to sleep and wake on a natural schedule over the long school summer break and log it. This will give you an idea of what your sleep needs are. Once you know your sleep requirement, adjust your bedtime so that you can wake naturally for your school day.
Go to bed and wake at the same time every day. Every day. Every day. (that required repeating). So many people suffer from what is termed “weekend jet-lag”. These are folks that short themselves on sleep during the week and then stay up particularly late on the weekend, knowing they can sleep in the next day to catch up. Your brain suffers from this weekend shift just as much as if you went jetting off 4 times zones each weekend and then back again. Be as consistent as possible every day of the year.
Make sleep one of your big priorities and then speak about it to your students so that hopefully they might come to value it as well. The bottom line is that sleep-deprivation leads to shorter lives, difficulty learning, and overall poor health and brain function. Sleep on that tonight!
Coming in as a close second for factors influencing brain health, is nutrition. Here again, we need to be role models for our students. This is especially true in primary grades as our students are more likely to share eating time with teachers in the early grades, via snack time or even teacher lunch duty time. Take advantage of teaching moments regarding nutrition.
Focus on the 3 macro-nutrients our bodies and brains need – protein, fats and carbohydrates. Brains need all three of these – but fats in particular. Some researchers have begun to blame an increase in age-related brain function issues such as Alzheimer’s and dementia to a generation raised to fear and avoid fats in their diets. Fat is fuel for the brain. Deprive yourself of fat and your brain will be the first to suffer. Just a few days of increased fat consumption results in better brain performance.
Not all fats are created equal. Our brains prefer Omega-3 rich, natural fats. Because the modern western diet has been inundated with shelf-stable, Omega-6 fats, many of us run on Omega-3 fatty acid deficits. Incorporate more natural fats, found in things like nuts, fish, free-range eggs and fatty fruits such as avocados into your diet.
Carbohydrate sources should come from a variety of plants – (not just everyone’s favorite wheat-based products). Aim for 8 – 12 different plants each day. Incorporate as many colors as possible, realizing that each color represents a different phyto-nutrient – each with brain benefits.
Artificial sweetners, high-fructose corn syrup and sugar-laden foods have all been linked to brain degradation and poor learning skills and memory impairments. Read labels. Teach students to read labels. Discuss alternative sweet treats such as apple slices, dates and berries.
The standard western diet is not a healthy diet – for brains or bodies. It needs to change. The best place to teach the change is in our schools. The adults in the building should set the example.
Here’s are a few quick tips for helping to improving the brain health of students through nutrition education:
- Snack with students. Discuss what you are eating and why.
- Teach children to identify nutrient dense foods.
- Teach students to balance protein, fats and carbohydrates at each meal.
- Send home suggestions to parents for simple, nutritious snacks.
- Present items in “snacking shapes and sizes”. (apple slices vs a whole apple, pickle chips, hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced, cubes of cheese, celery dipping sticks for almond butter, etc)
Teachers are role-models. Take advantage of your position.