For a Healthy Brain, Drink Tea

Throughout history, tea has been an integral part of many momentous events, from the elegant tea ceremonies of Japan to high-society tea and scones parties in Britain. But tea is not just a drink for the elite — studies have repeatedly demonstrated numerous beneficial effects of tea on the brain, which point to the conclusion that we could all use to drink more tea.

While in-depth studies are still underway, one of the best effects of tea on the brain include alleviating fatigue and providing increased alertness and focus during the day. This is due to the presence of an amino acid called L-theanine, an active ingredient in green tea and caffeine.

So how is tea different from coffee? Both provide caffeine but tea undergoes a much simpler process allowing for greater retention of the important anti oxidants as well as the helpful amino acids to help in better brain functioning. Coffee is high in caffeine, providing the jolt but the quality of tea ensures low caffeine to provide the beneficial effects without the highs associated with caffeine.

There are other benefits to tea, aside from brain improvement:

  • Healthier teeth and gums. A previous study conducted in 2009 who drank green tea regularly have lower incidences of periodontal disease as well as lower the incidence of tooth erosion.
  • Preventing Strokes. Regular intake of green tea, at about three cups daily can reduce the risk of stroke by 21%. Drinking more than three cups can provide an additional 21% risk reduction for stroke.

But most importantly, drinking tea, especially green tea, increases the cognitive ability of the brain. In a study conducted in Japan, individuals that drank green tea four to six times daily have a lesser risk, about 38% risk, of experiencing cognitive impairment as they age.

Thus, having a cup of tea every morning would not be a bad habit to adopt. (I should note: we’re not talking about commercial iced tea, which is rich in sugar, something that hot tea does not have intrinsically). Switching to tea can help make the world seem clearer and brighter for you, especially if you aren’t a morning person.

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Beating Jet Lag

As the world’s economies continue to become interconnected, air travel has become more and more common. One of the seemingly unavoidable drawbacks of this is jet lag, especially when one travels across many time zones. However, a study shows evidence that jet lag might not be ineviable after all.

When someone travels across time zones, their circadian rhythm goes out of sync, as there is a difference between their local time and the time at their destination. This phenomenon is called “jet lag” and its symptoms include insomnia, irritability, disorientation, confusion and indigestion — or more commonly just fatigue and a feeling of being “out of it” for a couple days. The symptoms typically last, according to an accepted computation, one day for each time zone crossed. Thus, when traveling across five time zones from your home can have jet lag effects last for at least five days. However, some symptoms might take up to several weeks before the body fully adapts. Another further complication would be the direction of travel, where eastwardly travel is more severe compared to westwardly travel.

Since this has become a common issue in the new world economic order, researchers from the Harvard Medical School in conjunction with the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston have discovered new information on how better to manage this temporary condition.

The research found that jet lag is a common occurrence and one way to recover from this condition is simply not eating for sixteen hours after arrival. This conclusion was based on observations of the individual circadian rhythm that is governed by a particular region of the brain called the hypothalamus. Specific cells in this region of the brain govern the main body clock and are highly sensitive to the light conditions observed by the eye’s optic nerve. Now, the research found that there is also a secondary clock, which is governed by the availability of food.

According to Clifford Saper, the study’s senior author, this second clock takes over when food is unavailable and scarce. This may be an evolutionary mechanism to ensure that mammals continue on searching and foraging for food to stay alive, even foregoing sleep altogether. The side-effect is that this can be exploited by long-haul travelers in order to override the circadian clock rhythm and be able to adjust quickly to their new time zone.

Dr. Saper said, “A period of fasting with no food at all for about sixteen hours is enough to engage this new clock.” He added, “Once you eat again, your internal clock will be reset as though it is the start of a new day.”

There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done in order to confirm these findings. In the meantime, the following are some of the remedies many have recommended to alleviate the effects of jet lag:

  • Melatonin Supplements. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in the body that is released only in the absence of light. When the optic nerve is stimulated by light, melatonin release is suppressed. When ingesting melatonin supplements, the body is able to sleep. This though must be for a limited use only as high long-term usage can cause side-effects like daytime sleepiness and headaches.
  • Schedule Adjustment. One way is programming the body to the time zone before actually going to the new time zone. This can be done in by shifting your sleep schedule over the course of a few days. Even diet can be adjusted prior to the actual travel.

Until an actual pill can be taken for jet lag, you have to be more malleable and flexible when traveling across time zones. If you can’t, you’d better stay put.

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Want to be More Productive? Take a Nap

Ever feel sluggish after lunch? Many say that it is the body’s way of adjusting to a meal. The problem, however, is remaining productive for the rest of the day. Is it possible to maintain your energy levels so you’re just as productive in the afternoon as you are in the morning?

Recent studies from the University of California at Berkeley show that an hour-long nap during the day can tremendously help the individual recharge as well as restore brain acuity for the remainder of the day. This is a result of what may be termed as brain fatigue, as the more hours one is awake, the more sluggish brain functioning becomes. In one study measuring the effects of sleep deprivation while studying, or “cramming” as it’s so affectionately called, the numbers were surprising: cramming the night before an exam actually inhibits the brain’s ability to absorb information by as much as forty percent as sleep deprivation forces many brain areas to shut down.

According to the researchers, even a short nap allows the brain to clear up its short term memory cache, allowing for new information to be stored. This is done by transferring the short term fact-based memories from the temporary storage in the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex during sleep. This occurs only during Stage 2 non-REM sleep, the stage between deep sleep and dream state Rapid Eye Movement.

We’ve heard this all before, in a system called the Power Nap. A 20 minute power-nap allows the brain to reset, resulting in greater alertness and better dexterity in motor learning skills. Naps of longer duration, such as those between half an hour and an hour, can help with memory enhancement and creativity. Other skills known to benefit from this kind of nap would be decision making, memorization, and recall. Naps above an hour to an hour and a half help with allowing the brain to create new connections for better problem-solving abilities.

This is one of many clinical studies that has shown the benefits of a midday nap. It looks like we had it right in Kindergarten — remember nap-time? While most adults in the Western world tend to associate napping with being lazy, it looks like we’d all benefit from a more accepting attitude toward a daily nap. We should take an example from Spain, where the whole country takes a break in the middle of every day for a “siesta.”

However, despite regular clinical studies that support napping as a healthy way of recharging during a stress filled day, many continue to turn to stimulants such as cigarettes (nicotine) or coffee (caffeine) to perk up the brain. This may seem helpful in the short-term, but as the chemical rush eventually dissipates after some time, the individual is left feeling much more exhausted and unproductive than before.

The take-home message here? Try to schedule a short nap during the day somewhere into your schedule, preferably at the same time every day. Find the time every day where you tend to feel most sluggish. The nap doesn’t have to be long — 20-25 minutes is perfect. Taking a daily nap will refresh your mind, allowing you to maintain peak productivity throughout your work-day.

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Switching from being a “night person” to being a “morning person”

It’s 6:30 a.m. as I write this article, but I actually woke up at 4:30. And that’s not an abnormal occurrence; I wake up at 4:30 a.m. every morning, 7 days a week. Am I a “morning person?” Some rare breed of human with some exceptional ability that the majority of the population lacks? Hardly. In fact, for the majority of my life (12/13ths, to be exact), I was the very definition of a “night person.” If I had nothing to do the next day, I would stay up until the early hours of the morning, then sleep until the afternoon. More than once in my life I’ve gone to sleep after the sun came up, and woken up at dinner time.

Life as a Night Owl

In high school, I would rarely go to sleep before 1 or 2am. Considering I had to wake up at 6am, most of the time I was just a sleep-deprived zombie. College allowed me the luxury of choosing only afternoon classes, which meant for the first time in my life I could sleep in — and sleep in I did. It was rare that I woke up before noon. I would stay up late, and then sleep in as late as I could to catch up on sleep.

After college, I moved to Korea and started teaching English at an after-school academy. Since I worked from 3pm – 10pm, my late-night cycle continued. I would go out with my coworkers after work to get something to eat or for a few drinks, sometimes stay out quite late, and wake up around noon (or later) to get ready for my day of work. It doesn’t help that Seoul is a city that doesn’t sleep — in fact, the streets are much busier at night than they are during the day.

Seoul at Night

Being the night person I was, I got deeply involved with the nightlife scene. In fact, I even ran a website about clubs in Seoul and worked part-time as a party promoter for a while. I was going clubbing 2-3 nights a week, staying out until 5am or later, and then sleeping until 1 or 2pm. If ever there was a natural “night owl”, it was me.

What Changed?

But from the title of this article, you realize that I’m no longer a “night person”. As I said before, I wake up at 4:30 every morning — I’m more “morning” than most morning people. Nowadays I wake up and go for a run before I would have even gone to sleep two years ago. What changed?

For one, it was a shift in my goals in life. I don’t party any more, and I have some pretty ambitious goals for the future. Whereas when I was a night person I spent most of my time on the Internet or socializing with friends, just trying to kill time, nowadays I’m more interested in maximizing my time and being productive.

About the same time I started making this transition, I got a new job at an international school, working mornings. I knew I was going to have to start work at 8:30am every day, and that I couldn’t keep staying up late at night. I think the knowledge of this inevitability helped me convince myself that I couldn’t stay up late anymore, and that I needed an early bedtime.

The transition itself wasn’t difficult, it was simply a matter of deciding to become a morning person. Sure, my body was jet-lagged for a few weeks, but after that I was pretty quick to adapt. I just made the transition one day, and never went back.

Is it in our genes?

I reject the notion that being a morning or night person is somehow encoded into our genes. If it’s dark outside, how could your body possibly know if it’s 11pm or 1am? Considering that you could move time zones at any time, and your body would have to adapt to the new cycles of light and dark, I don’t see why the same thing wouldn’t apply to shifting your sleep schedule. You just pretend like you’ve moved to a new time zone, go to sleep a few hours earlier, and wake up a few hours earlier.

It’s simply a matter of desire. If you don’t want to wake up early, waking up early will seem hard. But if you’re driven to wake up early and work on something, it won’t seem like a chore anymore.

Which brings me to the next obvious question — early is one thing, but why in the world do I wake up at 4:30?!

Basically it comes down to, I’ve found I’m most productive in the mornings. Since I have to leave for work at 7:45am, subtracting the time it takes me to run, shower, and get ready, that leaves me 2 hours of productive work on my high-priority tasks every morning. If I didn’t have to work until later, I might not wake up until 6. But there’s definitely something magical about waking up before the sun rises and making significant progress toward your life goals while most people are still sleeping.

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