The internet is flooded with articles and blog posts claiming to offer the secret recipe to a successful morning routine. Some have even looked to celebrities, athletes, and influencers for their personal tips for a productive morning. It can become overwhelming to start separating fact from fiction amongst the sometimes bizarre accounts of green smoothies, cryogenic chambers, and 5 am alarms. We have done the research for you and tapped into the latest studies in neuroscience to develop a simple and actionable morning routine proven to boost cognitive function, performance, and overall mood. We call it a BrainScrub.
The most important part of your morning routine; however, happens before you even wake up -- sleep. The importance of sleep to both our physiological and mental wellbeing cannot be stressed enough and the evidence supporting it is overwhelming. Sleep deprivation has been linked to, among other things, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and poor mental health. Despite this, we live in an increasingly sleep-deprived society.
In 1942, less than 8% of the U.S population slept less than six hours a night. In 2017, one in two people did. So what's keeping us awake? Artificial light and electronic devices make the days last longer, and working hours even longer. Sleep is sacrificed to make time for family, social events, and entertainment. The use of alcohol, caffeine, and medication has further aggravated the issue. Culture, unfortunately, has often stigmatized sleep and associated it with weakness and laziness. Some even boast about how little sleep they are getting as a badge of honor of sorts.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night while teenagers need up to 9½ hours a night. Anything less than seven hours is sleep deprivation and should be taken seriously. There is nothing you can do in your morning or day to undo the damage caused by lack of sleep. So before you even think about making any drastic changes to your morning routine, make sure you are getting enough quality sleep each night. Once you have prioritized your sleep, why not try out these tips to start your day out on the right foot:
Step #1 Get Moving
Most of us know that exercising releases a dose of 'feel-good' chemicals in our brain which, by the end of the workout, makes us forget the stitch we had in our side for most of our run and leaves us feeling on top of the world. Thanks to neurochemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, exercise does wonders for our mood and mental health. It only takes ten minutes of light aerobic exercise (such as walking) to trigger the release of these mood-boosting chemicals.
Studies have shown that exercise does much more for the brain than just making us feel good.
Dr Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist at New York University, and leading expert on learning and memory, recently caught the attention of the world in her 2018 TED Talk entitled 'The Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise'. Suzuki's research has shown how exercise has the ability to protect the brain against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia.
Exercise also has the power to boost our cognitive performance -- the way we learn and the way we remember. This is thanks to the powerful growth factor called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). During exercise, BDNF is produced in the brain and goes directly to the hippocampus where it stimulates neurogenesis -- the creation of new brain cells. The hippocampus is the area in the brain responsible for learning and memory. Every time you move your body, Dr Suzuki explains, you are giving your brain a 'bubble bath of chemicals'.
Luckily, you don't have to become a marathon runner or even get a gym membership. The research shows that in order to reap the cognitive and mood-boosting benefits of exercise, you just need to move your body for 30-45 minutes, 2-3 times a week. For two hours after you exercise, your brain will be at its sharpest. That's why the best time to exercise, according to Dr Suzuki, is in the morning. If 30 minutes seems daunting to begin with, start with 10 minutes. Your brain will still be in the metaphorical bubble bath, and your body will thank you later. So dust off those old trainers, tie up those laces and move your body every morning!
Step #2 Get Cold
There's nothing better than a hot shower to wake you up in the morning and ease you into the day -- or so you think? But the latest research in neuroscience has suggested the opposite to be true. Similar to exercise, exposure to cold releases a cocktail of chemicals that have been said to improve mood, buffer the immune system, and reduce inflammation.
This is because when our body is exposed to cold, a stress response is triggered in the body and as a result, our brains release epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). One study showed that immersion in cold water (of 57 degrees Fahrenheit) for an hour raised levels of norepinephrine by 530% and dopamine by 250%. Dopamine is the neurochemical responsible for elevating our mood, making us feel energized, and helping us focus.
The same study showed that the increase in dopamine continued for up to two hours after the initial cold exposure. Interestingly, no significant increases in the stress hormone cortisol were found during the study. This means that the quality of stress that cold immersion is creating in the body is 'eustress'. As opposed to 'distress', 'eustress' is stress which provides the body with positive health outcomes.
Just like exercise, cold exposure can have a positive effect on our cognitive performance. According to Professor Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, "Any stimulus that delivers more epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine to our system will sharpen our mental acuity and elevate our mood." This means that cold exposure not only makes us physically healthier and happier, but can improve our focus, memory, and learning.
The benefits of cold exposure continue for hours after you have warmed up, that's why doing it in the morning can shape the rest of your day for the better. This doesn't mean you need to immerse yourself in an ice bath or plunge into the cold ocean. Cold immersion can start small, in the comfort of your own home.
The easiest way to start is in the shower. That's what Dr Suzuki does each morning. At the end of your warm shower, turn the cold water on and stay under it for as long as you can. You may only be able to last for a few seconds to start with, but slowly, as you adapt, you will be able to last longer.
It will be cold, and it will not be fun. But once you start to see and feel the benefits, you won't be able to go without it. As Dr Suzuki says, "I can tell the difference when I forget to do it... It's just generally activating. I feel so alive."
Step #3 Get Meditative
Once your brain has had its metaphorical bubble bath of neurochemicals and your body has had the literal bath of cold water, the third step is a little more gentle on the body -- meditation. Meditation is no longer the fluffy or new-age concept that it once was. Today it is backed by science and its benefits are far-reaching.
In 2019, a study examined the benefits of daily meditation on a series of participants. The participants listened to a daily 13-minute guided meditation for a duration of eight weeks. Another set of participants listened to a 13-minute podcast daily for eight weeks. The study found that those who meditated daily exhibited a significant decrease in stress and anxiety as well as enhanced attention, working, and recognition memory.
Other studies have shown that meditation can decrease levels of depression, anxiety, pain, stress, and substance abuse. In addition, it has been seen to improve overall health, reduce blood pressure, decrease inflammation and improve immune function. Meditation also promotes better sleep quality!
If you're new to the concept of meditation, it can be a little confusing to know where to start and how. So why not begin where the participants in the 2019 study did - 13 minutes, daily. The internet is full of guided meditation apps, videos, and instructions. Why not start with a body scan? It's one of the easiest ways to begin a mindfulness meditation and become more in tune with your body and the present moment. A guided body scan meditation will talk you through becoming aware and connected with the way the various parts of your body feel. You don't have to get it perfect at first. Just focus on your breathing and on becoming more aware of how you feel.
Your morning movement, cold exposure, and meditation should not take up more than 45-minutes to an hour of your morning. In fact, it can take much less time than that if you are starting with a 10-minute walk, a 5-minute shower, and a 13-minute meditation. The bottom line is it's quick, it's easy and it's backed by neuroscience to prepare you mentally, physically, and cognitively for the day ahead. That's exactly why we've included the BrainScrub in our Coachbit curriculum - if your kids can do it, so can you!