Thursday, January 13, 2011

Food for thought...literally

It's Therapeutic Thursday AND my 50th blog post! I can't believe I hit 50. It feels like a birthday, albeit a fairly young birthday in blog years ;). In the spirit of staying young, I want to hit on a topic that I feel is so important to a writer's health and productivity. Food.

Food for thought...literally. We often hear writers complain about their muses going into hibernation. We've all read articles on how to battle writer's block. Some even claim that writer's block doesn't exist...that it boils down to nothing but writer laziness. Well, when it comes to serious writers, laziness is a strong word, and I think that it may carry the wrong connotation. Drained is more appropriate. How would you feel if you starved yourself for days? How would you feel if you ran a marathon, but didn't drink or eat afterwards to replenish your reserves? Drained of energy. Jittery. Unable to focus or think worth a darn. Guess what? Your brain needs nourishment too. I'm not talking about a day at the spa, a nap, or a movie. I'm talking food.

Studies have shown that thinking actually drains the brain of energy. Seems like common sense. I don't know about you, but I feel hungry after typing away at pages and pages of a manuscript. Seriously though, all that plotting, creative thinking, emotional investment, and editing we do actually depletes energy stores in our brain. That's why we feel exhausted after writing. That's why we can reach a plot problem and not see a solution until we've eaten dinner and had a good night's sleep. It's also why not eating breakfast is like trying to drive to work on an empty gas tank.

So what should we be feeding our brain? The brain is made up mostly of fat. That means it needs fat (fatty acids) to be healthy, but the good kind of fat like we get from olive oil, avocado, seeds, and nuts. The myelin sheath that protects neurons and promotes rapid signal travel is also made up of fat. See how important it is? Omega 3 fats are extremely critical to good brain health. You can find these in seafood, flaxseed, and walnuts. Omega 6, found in fruits, other seeds and certain nuts, is also important, but the balance between 3 and 6 is a bit off in today's diet, compared to that of the cavemen. The abundance of processed foods, even those using healthy oils, has tipped the scale for omega 6. More omega 6 than omega 3 in our diet can lead to inflammation, including that of the brain. The trick? Eat more foods high in omega 3 and opt to eat natural sources of omega 6. The less 'off-the-shelf' foods, the better.

By the way, TRANS/HYDROGENATED OIL is POISON for the brain! It actually weakens brain cells and disrupts communication and mental performance!

The brain also runs on glucose for fuel. Yep, sugar. But not the refined, bad-for-you, table sugar. The brain breaks down complex carbs from whole grains and fruits to gather the glucose it needs to function at optimum levels. If you gorge on refined sugars that put you at risk for diabetes, you'll actually starve your brain rather than feed it. That's why simple sugars lead to a sugar crash experience...jitters...inability to concentrate etc... That's also why following a low glycemic index diet works so well and a zero carb diet doesn't. By eating fresh fruits, vegetables, and complex carbs that don't sugar up our system too quickly, we give our brains the constant energy source it needs...and it gives back by letting our muses work their magic.

The brain also needs amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and essential micronutrients found in a balanced, varied diet. A few other foods that boost our concentration and thinking are caffeine, chocolate, and blueberries. Good news, huh? Caffeine, even that from chocolate, has been shown to increase short term concentration and focus. As with everything, don't overdose. Chocolate, the dark type (lower fat and sugar), is full of antioxidants that help protect against cognitive decline. All you need is once ounce per day and that'll keep the calories in check. Blueberries are high in antioxidants and have been shown to protect the brain from oxidative stress. In studies, they actually brought the learning capacity of older rats up to par with younger rats!

Okay, I tried to keep it basic, but I'm probably boring you with facts anyway. Hear me out though. Think about it. Maybe the way to mastering your muse is to feed it. I did a recent blog post about being cave women at heart. Well, we need to eat like cave women and men if we want to keep our minds healthy. Measure out a handful of nuts and dark chocolate chips (about an ounce each) and keep them on your desk for snacking instead of chips or candy. Have some blueberries, whole grain, and coffee at breakfast. Try it and you might find yourself spending less time zombie staring at your computer screen and more time quality typing.

I really did skim over brain/diet detail, but if you're hungry for more check out The Brain Food Pyramid by The Franklin Institute's Resources for Science Learning. Click on each of the brain's essential components. Interesting stuff made simple.

Here's to a year of good food, excercise, and healthy muses!


  1. Hey Rula, I got so excited about this post, especially when I learned that the brain needs fatty acids - I straight away congratulated myself for all the fat I eat, then you burst my bubble. Luckily I chomp on a lot of nuts and avocado and cook with olive oil only. I won't tell you about all the butter, cream and lusciousness I crave constantly.

    Well, writing is hard mental strain and takes a lot of energy which you rightly say needs to be replenished. Writing is like running a never-ending marathon really. And there is writer's block - it means don't write, silly, go for a walk, read a book, interact with real people, not just your characters for awhile...

    BTW the Publication Party has kicked off on my blog. I'd love it if you could come by and read what authors have to say about getting published. Perhaps you could leave a comment about your aspirations. There are prizes each week. Please come by. The champagne's free!

    Denise :)

  2. Hi Rula,

    Our brain do need fat, na? And chocolates? No wonder we keep craving these!

    Thanks for the link and as usual great post.

  3. are you a doctor? this was really informative and helpful from one complex brain to the other :-)

  4. Hey Denise! I use olive oil when cooking as well...even for frying eggs. I've been planning to join your party! I'll be there soon :)

    Hey Nas! Isn't it great to know stuff like chocolate is actually good for us? ;) It's a good thing that it's the dark type that has health benefits because that's the kind I like to eat. I've been known to suck on a small piece of unsweetened, bitter, baker's chocolate. Some folks cringe at that.

    Hi Joanna! Yes, I'm an eye doctor. When I finished optometry school, I worked in ophthalmology practices examining patients with ocular disease, both before and after surgery (not during). I had a concentration of cornea and refractive surgery patients. I also come from a family of doctors including a neurologist (although I didn't tap his brain for the post, as most relatives don't know I write romance...yet). Being an eye doc means you have to study a lot about neuro/brain since the eyes are an extension of the brain. However, I stopped seeing patients about 4 years ago so that I could concentrate on raising my kids...and writing ;). Hard to shrug the biology background :). I wrote one of my earlier posts on struggling with career changes. More of an answer than you were expecting, huh? LOL!

  5. Happy anniversary!! Fascinating information, Rula. I guess that's why writers talk so much about needing chocolate! And coffee! You kow, while I was on my detox program this month I was munching on about 8 almonds a day. It wouldn't have normally been something I would have done, but I think it made a HUGE difference. Think I'll keep that new habit. I also eat fish probably 5 times a week and I've always benefited healthwise from that, I believe. Great information geared specifically to the writer as always !!

  6. Well. THAT was really interesting, especially about the trans/hydrogentated fats being posion for your brain.

  7. Kaily - A detox program? I'm intrigued! I can't live without almonds in the house. Of course, since we're dairy free, my kids use almond milk in their cereal as well.

    Jennifer - With your pharmacy background, you'd be much better at explaining the molecular structure changes a natural fat undergoes when it's processed/hydrogenated than I would be (didn't love chem class). I personally don't want chemically altered fat finding a place in my body's cells. Not good. Of course, with medicine, it may be 'artificial' but it has serves a short term purpose. Not so with trans fats.

  8. An eye-opening and informative post. Thanks. I ended last year and started this one with an exercise plan, but I do need to eat healthier.

  9. Thanks, J.L.

    You make an important point. Excercise goes hand in hand with a healthy diet. Cavemen didn't drive cars! We really have to take a well rounded approach if we want to be healthy and not...'well rounded'. :)

    Thanks for stopping by!