Our brains are fascinating, right?! We hardly ever think about it (ha! puns.) but it's a muscle that is heavily responsible for most of our livelihoods. The way we move around, talk, behave and think are all huge pieces of the brain puzzle. So, in honor of Brain Awareness Week, we're getting down to the nitty gritty on some of our brain behaviors, talking about some typical scenarios you may have experienced, and how your brain interprets and solves them. Get your noggins ready!
You’re craving sweets.
Well hello, sweet tooth! Sugar is kind of a one-two punch for our brains. It triggers the reward path, making us happy (yay, cake!) and it releases serotonin, which calms us down in stressful situations. A recent study found that drugs used to treat nicotine addiction have the same effect on sugar cravings. Besides the fact that sugar is highly addictive to our brains, it makes us eat more. Sugar inhibits appetite regulation, so it confuses our brains into thinking we're hungry.
What to do:
If you're wondering how you can curb your sweet tooth, start by replacing refined sugar (candy, ice cream, cookies, soda, etc.) with natural sugar (oranges, apples, fruits, honey). If you're a chocolate junkie, replace it with dark chocolate with a high cacao percentage. In moderation, dark chocolate is healthy and can help satisfy that difficult sugar craving.
We all know the feeling. You skipped breakfast and every little thing around you is annoying: That guy driving too slow in the fast lane, that group text you've been wrangled into for over a week, and even someone saying, "Good morning," in an extra chipper mood sets you off. Your energy levels are dropping, and you just can't deal. You’re hangry. That combination of an empty stomach and an attitude. But why do you get irritable and dizzy when you’re hungry? Low blood sugar. It’s your brain’s way of saying, “Hey buddy! I’d like to function today. Food please.”
What to do:
Go get some food! This is obvious. But also—make sure the food you’re eating is going to keep you well-energized, and not just give you a quick boost. Sugar and caffeine are quick boosts. Protein and vitamins are long-term sources of energy. Quinoa has a higher level of protein than most grains and gives you all the amino acids you need for sustainable energy. Need some quinoa recipes? We wrote about them here.
You’re stressed out.
Time to queue David Bowie's "Under Pressure"... A little stress can be good for us, but if you’re feeling overloaded, your brain could be dealing with an excess of stress hormones. Your adrenal glands fire out adrenaline and cortisol when you're feelin' the heat, spiking your body into full alert. Short-term stress is fine, but over time, heavy amounts can take a huge toll on your body. Cortisol damages the cells in your hippocampus, aging your brain faster, and studies have shown that extra cortisol can cause depression.
What to do:
You have a couple options to bust that stress. First, food: Eat small, high protein meals to keep your energy levels up naturally. Resist sugar—it will only burn you out faster. Second, find time to chill out. No seriously, chill. It’s easier said than done—but if it means finding ways to stay organized among the chaos, checking off a to-do list, or even asking for help with tasks, you may be able to find a bit of time to relax. When you have the downtime, make it count and treat yourself to some relaxation. It’s okay to make YOU a priority.
You can’t focus on one thing.
Also known as a "case of the Mondays" or "brain fog". It could be that you’re existing in a tornado of distractions. You could be juggling some stuff, and you're operating on a multi-tasking level that’s trophy-worthy. Or maybe you were up all night because of that annoying, seemingly nocturnal, squirrel on your roof. In any case, getting your brain to stay focused and productive is a struggle right now.
What to do:
Taking a nap at work isn’t going to be earning you any gold stars for performance, is it? So, maybe wait until your shift is over, but then, first and foremost—sleep. Go home, kick off your shoes, and snooze it out. Your brain needs energy to focus, and you’re running on fumes. Also, drink plenty of water. Did you know your brain is 78% water?! You gotta keep that badboy hydrated and sloshing around up there!
You’ve got a killer headache.
This is a tricky one. There are many different types of headaches, and they all can mean different things. A tension headache (the most common) could be triggered by the tightness in your neck muscles. A cluster headache comes in groups and is focused on one side of the head. A sinus headache is brought on by a cold, flu or sinus infection.
What to do:
The first part is to identify the type of headache you have, and the triggers that set it off. For me, I know I need to have at least one cup of coffee before 11am each morning, or I will start to get a caffeine headache. Figuring out your headache can be a long, experimental process, but once you nail it down, it can be easier to fend off. On another note, if you're prone to chronic headaches, take a trip to the doctor and make sure there are no underlying conditions.
You’re about to embark on an exciting online shopping binge.
Dolla dolla bills! Your brain is triggering the reward pathway in your brain, aka: all aboard the dopamine train! You’re ready to splurge! Even if you don’t have the dough to back it up, you may be justifying this behavior with sayings like, “I work hard. I deserve this. I need this.”
What to do:
I'm putting an emphasis on instant gratification through online shopping, because that can be such a slippery slope for our reward pathways. This can also apply to retail, brick-and-mortar shopping, going out to eat too often, or generally overindulging on a lot of the other "spending" pathways that make our brains all warm and fuzzy. While it’s perfectly fine to “treat yo self” every once and a while, if your main go-to is to spend, spend, spend… you can find other ways to get that reward trigger going instead. Listening to music, making a to-do list and checking it off as you go, browsing the internet, exercising, creating things or fulfilling a hobby, and meditating are all dopamine releasers. And these will be less hindering to your wallet. Dopamine is good thing, because it makes our brains more productive and happy, we just need to channel it in the right ways.
You’re laughing… and it’s not a joke.
Sometimes serious or sad situations make us react in inappropriate ways. It can be embarrassing or even anger others around us. But, take heart. If you’re the kind of person who laughs in moments when you should be crying, you’re not insensitive or disrespectful. Laughter releases endorphins and makes us feel better. Your brain is trying to heal your emotions of pain and sadness, no matter how awkward you feel about it.
What to do:
I don’t have any advice on laughing at a funeral; really, it’s just an involuntary physical response to pain or awkward, unhappy situations sometimes. However, there are ways to redirect your healing process and release endorphins in a different, less confusing way. Drinking ginseng tea, participate in group exercise routines, eat chocolate or spicy foods, and take in a little aromatherapy with vanilla or lavender. These are all activities that release endorphins, give you an opportunity for healthy self-care, and can help if you’re trying to heal from an emotional trauma. Your mental health is very important to your brain.
You’re “bored eating”.
Picture this: It’s a snow day and you’re relaxing in your slippers with your feet up. You enjoy a cinnamon roll and coffee... And then, toast... And then, a second breakfast...
Here's another scene: It’s your night off. You have no plans. You bust out the cheese and crackers... And then, that secret stash of chips... And then, a pint of ice cream...
You’re not hungry; your brain is bored! It wants stimulation and that reward pathway, and you're feeding it. Literally.
What to do:
Sure, sometimes it can be satisfying to binge-watch an entire series on Netflix, but in other instances, you’re just killing time. Your brain knows it. Turn off the TV and get your body moving around. Physical exercise helps increase the blood flow to your brain. Exercise your brain too. Puzzles, word games, or taking a new course can flex that gray matter in your brain.
Part of being healthy is making sure we treat our brains right. Be good to your brain!