Thursday, February 20, 2014

Brain Boosting: The Physical Factors


 In a mental fog?  Feeling sluggish or forgetful or distracted?  I’ve been there, too!  Our brains are amazing, complicated organs, affected by so many factors.  I’ve been working on various areas of brain boosting over the past few years and thinking lately about how to increase my mental accuity and focus even more.  

I've been planning to write this post for a while, but my memory was jogged this morning by these electronic sign messages outside my son's high school about preparing for the upcoming standardized writing tests.

Great reminder, but it's not just for students preparing for tests!  We all need to remember to care for our brains!

Before we take a look at the physical factors affecting brain function, I want to mention two books that I am currently reading.  Please note that I haven’t finished either of them yet, and I’m sure I would not endorse everything in them, but they are extremely helpful for both inspiration and practical ideas.  Next time, we’ll cover mental, emotional, and life management factors. 
  • How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day by Michael J. Gelb: This book takes a long look at how da Vinci approached life and learning, incorporating curiosity, learning through experience/persistence, cultivating sensory attention, embracing ambiguity, balancing between the arts and sciences, nurturing the physical body, and an appreciating interconnectedness.
  • No More Brain Drain: Proven Ways to Maintain Your Mind and Memories by Readers Digest: Based on more than 100 scientific studies, this easy-to-read, visually pleasing book is full of practical and innovative ideas for boosting your mental edge – foods, exercises, mental games, sleep tips, etc.  Please note that there are other books with similar titles.  Maybe they're good, too! 

Ready for a little tour through the brain factors?  


This is the biggest one for me.  I have a hard time making myself go to bed on time if I don’t have somewhere to go the next morning.  Then I pay for staying up until 1 AM with grogginess the next day – and even for a few days sometimes.  Working too late on the computer is also said to overstimulate the brain, though I don’t seem to have much problem getting to sleep once I’m in bed, so that’s not as much of an issue for me.

The other thing that affected my sleep for years is that I have a severe case of obstructive sleep apnea, which means my airways get blocked while I'm in bed at night, and my brain doesn't get the oxygen it needs.  Untreated, this would cause me to wake up briefly at least once per minute.  Even though I am not conscious of it when it happens, it definitely prevents a good night’s sleep and creates other health risks, including heart attack.  Last year, I finally went to do an overnight sleep study at Florida Hospital, and started using a CPAP machine with a breathing mask every night.  I breathe so much easier and sleep so much better with it!

Another thing that helps me sleep better at night is using a side pillow to support me in the correct position.  If I don’t use it, my back is too uncomfortable to sleep well.

If I find myself getting really foggy or cranky during the day, I will lie down for a nap.  Sometimes it is just five minutes to close my eyes, and sometimes I need to crash for a few hours to get my brain back.  I guess it should also be said that too much sleep can also impair brain function.  Find out what works for you.

Some people take sleep medicines, but many of these are known to cause serious side effects or make you feel groggy in the morning. Melatonin is a more natural supplement for assisting healthy sleep.

Aim for eight hours of nightly sleep in a cool, dark, quiet room.  The ideal hours are before midnight!

What is affecting your sleep?  Going to bed too late?   Chronic pain? Anxiety?  Too much caffeine?   Too much household noise?  Small children?  Too much screen time?  What can you do to get more ZZZZ's?


This is probably the other biggie for me, but it’s very confusing.  There are so many opinions out there about what we should eat and how it affects brain function.  You have the paleos and gluten frees on the one side, and the vegetarians and whole grainers on the other side.  I think all agree that junk food is detrimental to clear thinking!  I don’t have much to say about nutrition at this point, except for try to be aware of how individual foods affect you personally.  I do best with protein first thing in the morning.  I try to stay away from inflammatory foods since I have arthritis and other joint problems.  My biggest struggle is sugar.  I keep saying I want to cut it out, but then I go right back to it.  I’m sure the extra weight I’m carrying around is no help to my physical and mental health.  Blech.
Some of the brain-happy foods listed in the No More Brain Drain book are olive oil, nuts, fish, whole grains, fresh produce (blueberries, apples, bananas, spinach, brocolli), flaxseed, garlic, low-fat dairy products, and green tea.  What I'm confused about is that Dr. Perlmutter, the medical consultant for this book is also the author of the book Grain Brain, in which advocates a low carb, gluten free, higher fat diet with minimal grains.   You can read his article 5 Keys to Eating for Better Brain Health. I guess the jury is still out on brain nutrition!  Like I said, I'm not sure quite what to think.  I guess I will stick to what is generally known as healthy food, and all in moderation.  Other brain foods I've seen on multiple lists are almonds, coconut oil, eggs, avocados, dark chocolate (yes!), salmon, kale, strawberries, curry/turmeric, rosemary, sage, apple cider vinegar...

Oh, and don't forget to drink plenty of clean water!   A body that is not properly hydrated can feel sluggish and tired!  How much water?  Take your weight in pounds.  Divide that in half.  Drink that many ounces per day.   That's a lot of water, but your body needs it for so many reasons!


Exercise - especially aerobic - gets your blood and oxygen flowing to the brain, and improves mood and general stamina.   It also increases physical awareness, such as hand-eye coordination, that is crucial to strengthening your mental muscles.  It helps posture and flexibility, and, done correctly, can alleviate pain.  It releases calming hormones like serotonin and dopamine, reducing stress.   All of these will help you think better, too.

Can't afford a gym membership or just can't get out much?  Lace on your sneakers and take a brisk walk in your own neighborhood!   Walk with a friend for extra motivation. Or buy yourself an exercise DVD to use in your own home!  I just bought the "Keeping Fit in Your 50's" DVD set at Sam's Club, but I need to go to the chiropractor before I start using it!

Health & Medications

Other health issues that affect my own mental powers are low thyroid, chronic pain, seasonal allergies and Attention Deficit Disorder.  (See ADD and Me? We’ll Manage!)  Fortunately, there are medications for these and other maladies.  

Unfortunately, some medications have side effects which hinder brain power.  For example, some allergy medicines cause drowsiness.  Make sure you buy one that specifically says it is non-drowsy or daytime. (I use loratidine, and my children use chewable Alavert.)  

Some pain medications and anti-depressants can make you more tired and foggy brained.  According to friends who take it, Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant stimulant, doesn't seem to have that effect.  It is known for helping people with ADD focus better, as well as promoting energy level and weight loss.   For pain, I use ibuprofen (not every day since it has long-term side effects), Icy Hot arthritis lotion, chiropractic adjustments (every several months) and occasional massage therapy.  Muscle and joint pain can be a huge mental distraction to me, so I have to deal with it in order to concentrate well. 

Other health factors which commonly effect brain function include high blood pressure, vision/hearing problems, smoking, alcohol or drug use, migraines, brain injuries (even mild ones), and neurological & psychiatric disorders, etc.   Be sure to go in for regular physical exams, and, if needed, ask for referrals to a specialist such as a nutritionist, optometrist, audiologist, allergy doctor, chiropractor, endocrinologist, neurologist, psychiatrist, or cognitive behavioral therapist.  This goes for your kids, too!  If your child has a health issue which impairs learning, better to catch it and treat it early!
Other supplements are also used to increase brain power.  Vitamin B complex, vitamin E, fish oil, potassium, magnesium, calcium are all ones listed in the No More Brain Drain book.  Gingko biloba is another one commonly used, but I don't know much about that. Caffeine can be either positive or negative.  I only use the sugar-free drink packets when I really need to be able to focus for a few hours. It's not good to drink a lot of it, get dependent on it,  or use it within a few hours of bedtime.

Stay tuned!  Next time, I'll write about the mental, emotional, and life management factors of boosting brain power.

Virginia Knowles

Monday, February 10, 2014

Good Words from Colossians 4

Good Words from Colossians 4

commit effort and affection

communion with God and intercession for others

attentive to God’s voice and 
to what’s going on in the world around us ~
ready to respond appropriately

gratefully aware of blessings (even in disguise) 
and acknowledging their source

a divine opportunity to move into
a fruitful communication of grace

call attention amid the distractions of the world 
and then share the details of the gospel

a story unfolding to open hearts,
not immediately clear but progressively revealed

prudent choices, 
carefully thought through
and then carried out

the chances and choices are there ~
what will we do with them?

out there interacting, not in isolation,
not a lecture but a dialogue

attractive ~ inviting ~ savory ~ intriguing


intelligent ~ informed ~ listening
appreciating nuances ~ responsive

constant ~ diligent ~ active
on behalf of real people with real needs

spur others to faith, love, and courage
in the inner core ~ it flows from there

friendliness sent forth ~
“I am thinking of you and I care”

“well come” ~ make it a good and gracious arrival 
not awkward but accepting with open arms and hearts

where our citizenship belongs and our loyalty is due ~
what are our responsibilities?

we all need this, from the timid to the zealous ~
a place for soul to rest ~ embrace grace ~
be filled with peace

“in the Lord” and “of Christ” ~
action with humility

 “in all the will of God” ~ 
time to sink down roots ~
grounded in truth learned through study

not presumptuous or hasty or naive,
but confident and patient ~ seasoned


letting faith seep in and
fill up the crevices of doubt ~
convinced through testing

going the extra mile ~ above and beyond ~ pressing onward

follow through ~ get it done ~ persevere

know the injustice which exists in the world
so you can intercede and intervene

When I went to the Refresh Retreat a few weeks ago, we were each encouraged to take most of our time there to read through the book of Colossians and journal our responses.  I finished up through chapter 3, jotting down key "Good Words" on one part of each page, a “Jesus Is…” list in another area, and tucking in “Exhortations to Me” and other notes wherever they fit.  It’s a good thing my newest journal has big pages!  I used some of my good words on my Kaleidoscope picture.

I’ve been meaning to get back into Colossians to journal through chapter 4.  Yesterday, while I was waiting for my children to get out of youth group, I took out my journal and my iPod Bible app and worked away.  This time, at least so far, I only did the “Good Words” section, and didn't even finish that much until today.  I decided to expand this section, and write a brief impression of each key word or phrase.  That’s what you see above.  Obviously there is much more to Colossians 4.  You'll have to read it yourself.

I also thought about what I would write in an “Exhortations to Me” section for this chapter.  I think the main gist of it is to be fully engaged with my Christian life, to be immersed in fruit-bearing spirituality and ministry, not as a hobbyist but as a disciple of Jesus.  It means living authentically and on purpose, looking for opportunities to serve and share.  It means not letting myself drift into apathy or empty busyness. It means doing my part, with my unique gifts and sphere of influence, to extend the Kingdom of God through the good news of truth and grace.  It means multiplying these efforts by equipping and encouraging others to do these same things in their own way with their own gifts.  In my life, so many of those “doors for the message” are right in my own home with my own children.  So much of that depends on living with Christ at the center of my life, which can be the most powerful example in word and deed.  I’m certainly not there yet, so this is a lot of meat to chew.

I have more to say, perhaps in another post, but for now, a few extra encouragements for you: 
  • Read all the way through Colossians.  It’s a wonderful book, full of both inspiration and practical instruction.  Take it a little section at a time.  Meditate on it.  No need to hurry. When you are done with that, work through the Gospel of John.
  • Jot down your impressions.  It doesn't have to be formal or fancy or even terribly profound.
  • How do the words speak to you right where you are at in life? 
  • While the words in this chapter were written in the context of a larger ministry setting, how can you, as a mother, apply them as you seek to disciple your children?
More posts!

Nurturing your own spiritual life:

Teaching children spiritual truth:

Virginia Knowles

P.S.  The photos are from the EPCOT Italy pavilion.  I thought I had lost them, so I didn't use them in my other photo post here:  Impressions of EPCOT

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Refresh Retreat

Dear friends,

Nearly two weeks ago, I had the immense privilege of attending a Refresh Retreat hosted by my friend Sandy Traugott.  I'd like to share it with you through pictures and captions.  It's funny that "Refresh" was my "one word" for 2013, and I still need it now more than ever.

Sandy is a veteran home school mom
whose children are all grown.
She is a seasoned saint,
well-acquainted with the trials of life,
but filled with a flourishing love of Jesus.

She inspires me.

Drop your cell phones here!
This is a day to get away 

without distraction.
(But it's there if you need it.)

A time to breathe and stretch,
in a posture of devotion and worship.
It's called DoxaSoma, an integration
of Christian prayer and movement.
Pray and praise 
with body and soul.
I loved it.  Sandy brought the mats.

After a time of listening 
to worship music,
we each sat with our own 

Bibles and journals,
turned to Colossians,
and asked God to speak 

into our hearts
as we reflected on his Word.
This was not a lecture and workshop retreat.
It was mainly a silent retreat.

Communion was available
to take in solitude as we wished.

Plenty of healthy snacks - strawberries,
hummus and gluten-free crackers,
lemon water, a variety of teas...

We also brought our own lunches.

Only six ladies come to each retreat.
One of my fellow participants
is my son-in-law's sweet grandmother.
Chatting on the porch with her,
I find that she hosted dozens of ladies' retreats
at her mountain cabin in North Carolina.
Between that and visiting missionaries,
2,000 people from 20 nations 

stayed overnight at Higher Ground
which is now available for week-long rentals.
She is also active in homeless ministry,
as are most of the others who came that day.
Shirley's hospitality and grace astound me.
I am so grateful for the 

family legacy she lives
for my soon-to-be born grandson Lucas.

Art time with lots of supplies -
a way to creatively express 

who we are in Christ,
and who we want to become in him.

Everyone else made 
collages from magazines.
I had already decided,
after pondering on Colossians,
to sketch my version 

of a kaleidoscope image,
inscribing Scripture 
of grace and truth
onto the broken pieces my life, 
reflecting radiant beauty in the 
light of God's glory.
You can see and read about 

my finished piece here:

Kaleidoscope (Big Words)

We ended our day with a brief time 
of sharing what we had learned,
encouraging and praying for one another.

Our view out the window
of the condo clubhouse...
I went outside later
to take pictures by the lake.
You can see them here
in this related hymn post:
What a Friend We Have in Jesus.

What a refreshing day! 

If you live in the Orlando area, and would like to attend one of Sandy's free day long (9 AM - 4 PM) retreats, please visit her web site here:  Refresh Retreat.

Note on February 10: I finally finished journaling through Colossians 4.  Here are my Good Words!

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

P.S. Please enjoy one of the songs of worship from the retreat... "I Need You Now" by Matt Redman.  I downloaded it for my iPod, of course.

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