Neuroscientists Tell Us the First Things They Do Every Morning for Peak Brain Health

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Modern life often moves at a relentless pace, so it can be hard to keep a clear head. You might feel more like a zombie than you'd like to admit, as things like stress, fatigue, and burnout regularly hijack your mind. We get it. Humans aren't really designed to take on the sheer multitude of tasks most of us do each day, which means we often find ourselves struggling to stay sharp and focused. One thing that can potentially help? Adding a few brain-healthy habits to your morning routine.

I don't know about you, but my noggin is filled with fog, so whatever I'm doing in the AM to prepare for the day is not working (read: excess amounts of coffee, very little water, and breakfast tacos). To find out what should be done instead, I picked the brains of Patrick K. Porter, PhD, a neuroscientist and creator of the meditation app, BrainTap, and Kristen Willeumier, PhD, a neuroscientist whose research focuses on neurobiology and neuroimaging.

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Keep reading to find out what these two brain health experts do every morning to ensure their minds are ready for the day.

Both neuroscientists wake up mindfully (and Dr. Porter doesn't set an alarm)

Technically, the first thing Dr. Porter does to support his morning brain health actually takes place in the evening: he does not set an alarm. "One of the worst things you can do to your nervous system is wake up to a blazing alarm," he says. If you can't wake up without one, he recommends opting for a relaxing tone.

If you want to get rid of your alarm altogether, Dr. Porter suggests investing in a chili pad, which is what he uses to ensure his body wakes up on time. "It changes the temperature of my bed, so I sleep at about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and it wakes me up at 70 degrees," he explains. In other words, it helps to raise his body temperature so that he awakens naturally, without the jolt of an alarm.

Both he and Dr. Willeumier find time for a few minutes of meditation in the mornings, too. "Meditation alleviates stress and anxiety by reducing cortisol and epinephrine, which helps to regulate blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing patterns," Dr. Willeumier says. "It also serves to create a whole-brain synchronization that enhances creativity, learning, focus, and attention." Consistent practice, she adds, has been demonstrated to increase the brain's gray matter in areas associated with learning and memory.

They reach for water instead of caffeine

Dr. Willeumier never starts her day with caffeine. Instead, she hydrates with two 8-ounce glasses of good ol' H20. "Given that the body has just gone through an 8-hour or longer fast during the night, we want to begin our morning with hydrating fluids," she says. To this end, she starts with two 8-ounce glasses: the first is plain, filtered water, and the second glass includes fresh lemon.

Dr. Porter also prioritizes hydration. Before he works out in the morning, he's had three 20-ounce glasses of water. Whether you reach for one glass of water or several, hydration does help cognitive function. A study conducted by exercise physiologists at the Georgia Institute of Technology showed increased neuronal activity in dehydrated individuals performing activities that engaged their brains, which essentially means that their minds had to work harder than usual.

Neither of them eats breakfast right away

When Dr. Willeumier eats her breakfast (which doesn't happen first thing in the morning), she reaches foods to support her intestinal microbiome because the gut impacts brain health. "The microorganisms in our gut release neurotransmitters (i.e., serotonin, dopamine, and GABA among others), vitamins, hormones, and other signaling molecules that can impact our mood, behavior, and cognitive function," Dr. Willeumier. For example, 95 percent of serotonin—a neurotransmitter essential in the regulation of appetite, digestion, sleep, and overall well-being—is made in the gut.

With that in mind, Dr. Willeumier says her go-to foods are plant-based: fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. "My go-to breakfasts include oatmeal with oat milk and organic blueberries, Ezekiel bread with avocado, a tofu scramble with kale and red pepper, or a smoothie with one-half of a banana, one-third cup oat milk, one-third cup water, one-half teaspoon cacao powder, one-half teaspoon nut butter (almonds, coconut, Brazil nuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, flax seeds, chia seeds) and one tablespoon of mushrooms to enhance immunity and support cognitive function (Chaga, Cordyceps, Lion’s mane, Maitake)," she says.

They make time for a morning workout

Dr. Willeumier gets moving for at least an hour in the morning. "I start my day with running, pilates, and rowing in addition to resistance training three days per week," she says. Dr. Porter agrees that exercise is one of the best ways to keep your brain healthy, and so he, too, prioritizes it accordingly. To begin with, he takes a 15 to 20-minute walk. This serves the purpose of getting him moving while also exposing him to mood-boosting vitamin D and connecting him with nature.

Exercise, overall, has many brain health-boosting benefits, Dr. Willeumier explains. It can help you sleep better and more competently cope with stress and anxiety, both of which are beneficial to your cognitive well-being. And cardio workouts, specifically, increase oxygen flow to the brain, enhance your ability to form new connections, reduce your risk of memory loss, and increase your capacity for mindfulness. This is because the exercise increases blood circulation and encourages the release of proteins and hormones responsible for nerve development and plasticity in the brain, Dr. Willeumier says.

Of course, everyone's body is different, so it's important to talk to a doctor to see what brain-healthy habits might be effective (and doable) for you. (Some of us will never not need an alarm to wake up, sorry!) "[People should] embrace the lifestyle changes that work for them," says Dr. Willeumier. "It's about becoming more conscious about the daily habits that you engage in and asking yourself if those habits are serving your long-term cognitive health. Even one new habit practiced consistently over time can make a measurable difference in your brain health and longevity."

—reviewed by Smita Holden, MD

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