By Brett Jordan Maletic, Guest Blogger for the BodyMind Institute
Most people want more energy.
Increased energy means better performance, longer endurance, greater reach of skill, more prolonged learning potential, and the stamina for profound depths of social interaction. Basically, more energy means more brain power.
For the purpose of this post, I want to focus on the theme of executive functioning.
By ‘executive functioning,’ I simply mean the ability to conduct higher-level thinking and decision-making. This would typically involve the type of cognitive work that’s needed for choices that involve some level of discipline. This includes things like the actions we take in maintaining key relationships (maintenance and accommodation), as well as our deliberate attempts to restrain from habitual patterns of behaviour.
Executive functioning includes our efforts to mediate some of our personal biases and prejudices in certain situations. We could also say that we use our executive functioning when we exercise logical reasoning and, similarly, when we attempt to regulate and balance our emotions. Ultimately, it’s whenever we use our brains to actively think and discern, as opposed to reacting or compulsively responding to our environments and to the maelstrom of stimuli around us.
Research has consistently shown that the capacity for human executive functioning depends on a limited energy supply. While glucose (the sugars in our bloodstream that feed our brains) has been identified as a primary source of such energy, new research has been placing emphasis on another energy provider: brain glycogen. Researchers are becoming more interested in brain glycogen’s unique role in the endurance and the success of cognitive executive functioning (Obel et al., 2012) and, similarly, its role in the process of high-level physical performance.
What makes brain glycogen unique from the role of standard glucose is that it’s a type of sugar that’s generated directly in the brain itself through a conversion process, as opposed to being fed to the brain through the bloodstream. More simply, surplus levels of glucose in our bloodstream become stored in the form of glycogen inside our brains. These stores are then reserved for those key periods when our minds are called upon to engage in superior-level cognitive processing and decision-making. Over the course of these periods, glycogen stores are used up until depleted altogether (at least until they become replenished through natural means).
As it’s been understood by many researchers, our baseline ability to engage in executive functioning has limits. Traditionally, the capacity for sustained, higher-level, voluntary activity has been observed to deplete itself fairly quickly after the completion of certain tasks. Basically, we start to show signs of mental exhaustion after using the power of our minds to think our way through the various situations and circumstances that happen on a daily basis.
Likewise, we similarly become depleted in our ability to perform well in decision-making after experiencing stress. For those of us with lives that are especially stress-filled (chronic-stress), we have a much harder time sustaining the wherewithal to engage in any level of high-level thinking altogether. While it’s true that we may get by when the situation demands, we nevertheless become so taxed by the effects of the ongoing stress reaction that it leaves us emptied and drained. Subsequently, we have a hard time even just thinking in a way that moves us forward in a positive, thoughtful direction. It’s not unlike the spouse who endures a cyclical pattern of domestic abuse over time, leading to an eventual condition where they simply cannot sustain the mental functioning to reasonably assess their situation and effectively plan a resolution of personal safety and healing. The power, for lack of a better term, is just gone.
That being said, just how limited is our brain’s capacity for executive functioning? Are we supposed to take great pains at planning our lives around avoiding stress so that we can ultimately maximize our higher-level thinking in order to get through our day?
Is our cognitive performance confined to a genetically pre-determined neuro-pathway?
Absolutely not, according to what the research says. In fact, it’s been shown that the deliberate act of engaging in exercises that require executive functioning ultimately leads to greater levels of executive performance overall. This happens over time, of course. In fact, it’s not unlike the process of rebuilding our bodies through physical exercise, especially when we understand that stress on the body – when properly applied and spaced out – yields greater stores of strength and endurance over the long run.
As far as exercise goes, there is such a profound connection between working out and stretching the amazing neuro-plasticity of our minds. A workout is a stress activity, as we know. And while individual sessions of intensive exercise does deplete the glycogen levels in our brain – the long-term application of a consistent exercise routine has been reliably proven to generate more sustained levels of executive functioning over time. In other words, the more you exercise – the more you invest in your personal brain development.
The emphasis here is that exercise should be deliberate and measured. In addition, our lives need to be balanced with a serious investment in personal rest. There is some debate in the scientific community in regards to why we tend to have more energy in the morning. While it’s been traditionally assumed that it has to do with our natural glucose levels (one of our ‘energy fuels’ in our body), the funny thing is that glucose levels – at least in a non-diabetic body – apparently do not fluctuate sufficiently enough to account for this phenomenon. Similarly during night time, as Gailliot (2008) explains, while the process of sleeping improves and restores the capacity for executive functioning, glucose levels in and of themselves do not fluctuate in significant ways across the sleep cycle.
What sleep does do, however, is assist in the replenishing of glycogen. This is the store of energy that gives us that drive-force, that optimal warehouse of power reserves that gets us through the day. When we sacrifice our sleep, we sacrifice our commitment to a better life.
That’s the plain truth, as far as I see it. Take it from a guy who had to break the habit of watching movies and eating garbage just before going to sleep. It really doesn’t take long before you feel the effects of all that artificial stimuli; particularly as your body is quietly trying to prepare itself for that critical regenerating of all those important juices inside of you.
If you’re anything like me, you take your health, your energy, and your spirituality very seriously. Naturally, it goes without saying that the quality of your thinking is also of great importance to you. This is why we need to remember that life is not about surviving; it’s about thriving! To merely survive is to give up on what you can contribute to a better world and a healthier society. To thrive, on the other hand, is to acquire the optimal wellness you need in order to pursue the things that are the most important to you, and to ultimately bless your family and your community.
Let’s face it. Our world has enough doubters, haters, spongers and consumers. It doesn’t need any more lives sacrificed to that system.
Instead, we need to seriously evaluate the potent roles of exercise, cognitive stretching, and rest. These are the deliberate activities that will pay huge dividends in terms of our personal well-being – in addition to the social and spiritual contributions we make to those around us.
After all, an intact mind and body is a beautiful tool, and it’s one that’s capable of accomplishing so much good in the world.
Have a wonderful day, and always treat yourself right.