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Sleep and nutrition: Fundamental building blocks of the high-performance brain

Regardless of the performance context, the better the brain functions the greater the chance of positive performance outcomes. The main reason for this is that much of performance is actually brain (cognitive) performance, either consciously or sub-consciously. So, it makes sense to do what we can to ensure the brain is in the best state to be able to performance at its best. While there is a lot you can do in terms of performance psychology to enhance performance, the foundation upon which these techniques can be applied is good quality sleep and a balanced nutrition-rich diet.

All adults need between 7-9 hours sleep. Sleep is important as it leads to many positive outcomes including cardiovascular health, cognitive functioning, healthy ageing and lengthened lifespan, greater capacity for learning, creativity, enhanced mood and stress management, enhanced mental health and wellbeing. It is not just the volume of sleep that is important however, the quality of the sleep experienced is also important, with a blend of the different stages of sleep (i.e., Non-REM stages 1-4, and REM sleep). Understanding the importance of sleep is probably best viewed from the perspective of what happens to the brain if we don’t get enough sleep. On-going lack of sleep results in increased distractibility, impaired performance on attention-intensive tasks, a greater likelihood for risk taking, reduced working memory capacity, decreased psychomotor performance, and symptoms that can be similar to ADHD. So, just by ensuring individuals get good sleep quality and sleep volume we can significantly increase the likelihood that their brain can function more optimally. This in turn suggests that sleep quality and sleep hygiene (steps to maximise sleep) should be a core consideration for performance psychologists.

The nutrition that you provide the body, and specifically the brain, is also an important foundation required to allow the brain to function at its best. Performers often think about nutrition in relation to physical performance (fats, carbohydrates, proteins, water etc), but often not for psychological performance. There is probably greatest awareness around nutrition and mental performance regarding the need to keep the body and brain sufficiently hydrated. As many people know failure to consume sufficient quantities of water can result in dehydration, with research highlighting that a decrease in body weight of 2% can result in a reduction in physical, visuomotor, psychomotor, and mental performance outcomes. Decreases in body weight of only 1% due to dehydration have also been linked to a reduced ability to concentrate, a less effective memory, increasing feelings of tiredness, reduced motivation, and increase feelings of tension and anxiety. Minor dehydration has also been linked to more negative mood states.

In terms of nutrition, it is not just water that is important for mental performance. The brain is highly active and as a result requires a constant supply of glucose (sugar) to meet its energy needs. The ‘burning’ of this fuel in the brain requires several vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid. Certain minerals, such as magnesium, iron, and manganese, are also needed to complete the burning of glucose to produce energy for the brain. This information about specific vitamins and minerals serves to highlight just how important consuming a balanced diet is, especially for the brain. The vitamins, minerals and trace elements that are part of the recommended daily intake are crucial to the body’s ability to function optimally, and this is especially true for the brain. For example, there is a link between a lack of thiamin (vitamin B1) and a range of negative behaviours including irritability, aggression, and in extreme cases even personality changes. Therefore. Eating a balanced nutrient-rich diet is crucial if you want to maximise your brain’s ability to function optimally, and crucially to be able to perform well under pressure or where high levels of mental performance are required.

So, if you want to maximise mental performance, before you start focusing on specific performance psychology-focused interventions it is worth ensuring a strong foundation of good quality sleep and a nutritionally rich diet are in place. Which in turn can significantly increase the performers ability to perform at their highest level.

As ever, if you have thoughts or comments please get in touch, or add your comments below.


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