Improve Your Productivity & Focus Through Diet, Rest, & Exercise

Today's post is a guest post by Amanda VanDeWege of ResetYourWeightBasics.com. She is an avid reader of non-fiction, making connections between "genres" of fields of study and applying them to life in every way possible. She is currently fascinated with nutrition-based weight loss...with the brain in mind. She is also the author of Writing...With the Brain in Mind.

Jen and I have worked collaboratively over the past six years on multiple cross-discipline projects. Knowing my passion for brain-based learning strategies as well as educating people on the significance of nutrition for a healthy weight, I’m excited to explore the links between diet, rest, and exercise as they relate to improved productivity, energy, and focus.

Improve Your Productivity & Focus Through Diet, Rest, & Exercise

Let’s start with these main points:

  • Diet, rest, and exercise work synergistically and yet independently of each other
  • Productivity, energy, and ability to focus are tools for communicating effectively
  • All six factors develop interpersonal skills for successful entrepreneurial passions because they can be controlled, or regulated, at any time
  • Diet (rest + exercise) {A} à energy + focus + productivity {B} = effective communication skills {C}

The goals of increased energy, focus, and productivity {B}, however, may not always be as easily manipulated as the first part of the equation {A} - especially if you are not (or have not) exhibited self-regulation or discipline. Unfortunately, this is the reality for too many people: focus and energy cannot be regulated often or well enough to positively affect one’s productivity. 

The great news is that all six of these tasks, or things “to do,” can be developed as personal assets for your business’s profitability through simple brain-based strategies and optimized, functional nutrition.

Build A Foundation on Diet

By defining and simplifying the first part of this equation, the relationships between diet, rest, and exercise can be seen as a hierarchy of needs to be met.  If there is an unmet “need” or lack of substance to one level in the pyramid, then eventually there will be an insufficient foundation to support long-term achievement.

The introduction for both your body and mind to sustain effective communication is through your diet.

Why? The food that you feed your body is its source of fuel. In many cultures, there is starting to be a very large disconnect between food as fuel. Instead, convenience and flavor have become the primary drive for what type or quantity of food is consumed, regardless of quality and need, with a movement toward food as pleasure.

 

Identify Your Needs

Do you sometimes feel like coffee is your primary fuel source? Soda? Donuts or chips?

These foods tend to be a preferred “fuel” because they provide an immediate surge of energy when you are most likely in need of a recharge. The reason for this is chemical, triggering both emotional and physical reward circuitry in your brain as your body responds to the met need for an energy source.

Fortunately, evidence-based research tends to show that a healthy, real food lifestyle diet can be enough on its own to positively influence energy, focus, and productivity-without adequate rest and added exercise.

Going back to the overall equation, did you know that all parts can be controlled by you at all times?

Absolutely. While that may seem like an impossibility to you at this very moment, the one key to it all is simple: diet.

It may take time to get every “task” in the equation brought back into balance, but a real food lifestyle that meets your specific body’s nutritional needs is the basis for positive growth in all these other areas. Food is the fuel that your brain uses to then process information, make informed decisions, and create meaning. The macro and micronutrients in the food are used by your body to regulate, absorb, and create chemical reactions in support of healthy body and brain functions.

While sufficient rest and weekly exercise is extremely healthy for your body and important for your end goal of profitability, you could almost get by with minimal attention to rest and exercise when you are eating and properly absorbing the food that your body needs. 

 

Potential Influences: Perspective and Habits

The qualifier is this: how healthy is your diet, and what type of personality do you have?

Have you considered the synergistic relationship between how you think, act, and make decisions to your overall health and wellbeing?

There are two distinguished authors I’d like to introduce you to whose fields of study help explain this relationship between food, nutrition, and personality:

  • Psychologist and neuroscientist Elaine Fox, PhD, author of Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain (2012)
  • Nutritional psychiatrist Michael Lesser, M.D., author of The Brain Chemistry Diet (2002)

To start, how you think and feel is simply a series of chemical reactions that are wired together in certain neuronal patterns.  Habits, repetition, the nature verses nurture debate, reward, automaticity and pattern, unconscious and attentive thought are just a few influential variables that impact these chemical reactions.

The classic, “Is your cup half empty or half full?” question, tends to be a basis for how we, as entrepreneurs, approach our workload and communication skills.  If you are a “Sunny Brain” person, it seems like you are full of optimism and just wired for success.  Those with a “Rainy Brain,” however, most often have to contend with pessimism before tackling a project. 

Dr. Fox states that “optimism is about more than feeling good; it’s about being engaged with a meaningful life, developed resilience, and feeling in control” (48).  If you are Rainy Brain, chances are that while this is something desirable, you are actually inwardly scoffing because you contend with the reality of your brain being “unable to sustain the firing of [their] pleasure brain after initial activation” (44).

Basically, genetic factors are influenced by the hormonal regulation systems, on the neurotransmitter level, which then is utilized by the Rainy Brain or Sunny Brain primary regions.  These brain regions are physically different, require different chemical reactions, and are fueled by different micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, EFAs, amino acids).  All these aspects influence your personality, abilities, health, and productivity.

To make matters “worse” per say, the Rainy Brain circuitry has multiple pathways between the Prefrontal Cortex (your decision making region) and the Amygdala (the flight-fight and fear center). The Sunny Brain, in juxtaposition, communicates between the PFC and the NAcc (nucleus accumbens) with one super highway each direction, channeling your decision making thoughts through the reward center of the brain.  The emotional and physical edge that people who see the cup as “full” have over “empty” just widens the productivity gap exponentially!

The great news is that habits take longer to develop and create lasting change than neurotransmitter activity modification. Diet for the win over the exhaustible willpower! Dr. Fox states that the circuits that make up RB/SB highlight what’s important: the “motivational landscape of the environment” (141); diet and mindful practice can bring about “real changes in the way that brain circuits operate” (127) and override a person’s natural tendencies (161).

A healthy diet, regardless of rest and exercise, can rewire your brain for increased productivity through neurotransmitter activity to the reward/pleasure brain region when combined with “attentional training” (161) to change the reaction to stress, depression, and anxiety. 

 

Potential Influences: Nutrition and Stress

Published a decade prior, Dr. Michael Lesser’s research in The Brain Chemistry Diet delves into the specific nutritional needs your body requires in order to optimize the “positive aspects of various personality types while minimizing weaknesses” (16). Again, the focus of the targeted nutrition is on the neurotransmitter activity, on which diet has a tremendous impact, and how the “brain types have distinct positive traits” and characteristic ways “of breaking down under stress” (29).

He categorizes personality traits into six groups, detailing how that trait’s thought processes create nutritional patterns that need to be supported through diet and supplementation for overall wellbeing. He recommends higher supplementation during periods of stress to help restore balance to how each person responds to the fluctuations in neurotransmitter chemicals.

Dr. Lesser delves into what a nutritious diet and vitamin supplementation looks like for each personality trait.  Taking note of your strengths as well as your weaknesses in times of stress will help you to focus your food “fuel” for greater productivity.

  1. Those who are very stable and serene in their personality are labeled as “Stoic.” Their bodies thrive on high protein, moderate to low refined carbohydrates and fats, and the hormone serotonin promoting foods like walnuts, bananas, pineapple, and tomatoes.   When under stress, the body will benefit from limiting carbohydrates and processed foods in exchange for high quality, low fat protein sources.
  2. The “Guardian” personality is very faithful and loyal, very intelligent and logical.  In times of imbalance, they tend to exhibit OCD traits in an effort to account for a loss of control.  The body benefits from hormone boosting foods for increased regulating serotonin levels: high protein, limited carbohydrates, and frequent meals to stabilize blood sugar responses.
  3. “Warrior” types are extremely goal oriented, enthusiastic, and sometimes impulsive in risk management.  The characteristic way of breaking down under stress is manifested in increased impulsiveness, shorter attention span, anger, and aggressive behavior.  Maintain balance with a diet high in plant-based protein, fruits and veggies with frequent meals.  Proper hormonal balance is crucial for Warrior personalities to thrive and be productive and be effective communicators.
  4. “Star” personalities can have very long cycles of active productivity giving way to periods of quiet, introverted behavior.  They are cheerful and highly creative people that battle against thoughts of depression when they are in need of targeted nutrition.  To correct the imbalance, one must first determine if the hormone levels of serotonin and cortisol are low or high.  A diet high in healthy fats and moderate protein from whole grains, beans, and vegetables is beneficial.
  5. Those personalities who are open, outgoing, and thrive on connectedness are labeled as “Lovers.” They have strong emotions and crave security and when in distress, they tend to be anxious with physical symptoms from suppression of feelings.  Low blood sugar levels is the key issue for restoring balance in times of nutritional distress and a diet high in protein, low in refined sugar, and frequent meals supplies their body with the ability to be calm and productive.
  6. Lastly, “Dreamers” are the rarest and most complex personalities and can be mixed with other character traits listed above.  Overall, Dreamers are visionaries, full of compassion and empathy.  While they are very competent, under stress they tend to disconnect from reality and exhibit a lack of self-confidence. 

 

Dreamers have extreme biochemical profiles and their diet is determined in part by which other type of personality tends to contribute. Regardless, not deterring from a proper diet is essential for these personalities because their brains tend to be malnourished due to shortages in micro and macronutrients coupled with blood sugar issues. The diet needs to be high protein, moderate fat, and no simple sugars and supplemented with B Complex.  Fermented foods are high in B Complex vitamins.

I highly recommend reading Dr. Lesser’s book as he goes into specific nutritional deficiencies, foods, and supplementation dosages for times of balance and distress from stress.  If you are feeling less connected to your work, productivity, and experiencing frustration over your ability to communicate effectively with people, a healthy diet tailored to your unique personality traits and activated brain regions will bring relief.

 

The Multipliers: Rest and Exercise

News flash: you can be rested and still stressed. Fortunately, rest and exercise are the emotional and physical super boosters to the foundation of diet in your quest for greater productivity.

Take a look at the equation again: Diet (rest + exercise).  Combined or not, rest and exercise multiply the benefits of diet, largely due to their ability to regulate and create hormonal balance to boost neurotransmitter activity. When you take time to rest-either emotionally or physically, you are creating more hormones, and hormones are the main players in neurotransmitter activity. 

 

Rest Minimizes the Effects of Stress

Rest is important for productivity because it reduces the amount of the stress hormone called cortisol in your body. Stress triggers the fight or flight response in your brain region, and if you are a Rainy Brain type of person, that is going to slow you down and distract you even more.  Since cortisol is also triggered by carbohydrates, I recommend eating a higher proportion of healthy fats like avocado, mayonnaise, eggs, and oils like coconut or olive with each meal.

With respect to diet, keep cortisol in check by minimizing sugar intake, simple carbohydrates, and caffeine. Instead, try to bulk up on veggies, healthy fats, and smoothies-- made with vegetables and only one fruit. If you need more energy, eat a small portion of a complex carbohydrate with a protein as a snack. Or, take a swig of vegetable juice! These types of real foods will stimulate your energy levels without crashing your blood sugar levels.  

Another way to rest the body is by calming brain activity by lubricating the brain circuitry. For most people, this can be done by supplementing with an essential fatty acid (EFA) like Krill or fish oil. This will help tremendously with communication between your brain hemispheres.

EFAs are a source of healthy fats so they significantly reduce inflammation, allowing for better blood flow and nutrition to be utilized throughout your body.  This supplement is known to improve cognitive functioning and the ability to think clearly because it keeps the neurotransmitters and receptors fluid, squishy like, so that more signals can fit together for greater reception.

Just as EFAs help combat the effect of stress within the body (inflammation), you can also control how your body reacts to stress in another way: while you may not be able to avoid or remove constant stressful triggers from your lifestyle, relaxation exercises actually help to counteract the effects of stress on your body and mind:

“Yoga teaches the deliberate command of movement and breathing, with the aim of turning on the body’s ‘relaxation response.’ Science increasingly backs this claim. For example, a 2010 study put participants through eight weeks of daily yoga and meditation practice. In parallel with self-reported stress-reduction, brain scans showed shrinkage of part of their amygdala, a deep-brain structure strongly implicated in processing stress, fear and anxiety” (source).

This is great news for Rainy Brain types of personalities! I highly encourage you to rest your brain by doing even one simple breathing exercise like this: slowly breathe in through your nose and then exhale with your mouth partly open. As you exhale, focus on the sound and feeling of the air pushing past your lips as well as any other immediate sensory experience that you find pleasurable. This breathing exercise will also retrain your brain to be more mindful of the moment and increase your joy in experiencing your life, combating stress and chronic exhaustion from whatever tasks you may be handling.

What is the science behind this?

“[Vagal maneuvers] are designed to help you stimulate your vagus nerve—which can reduce stress, anxiety, anger, and inflammation by activating the "relaxation response" of your parasympathetic nervous system….[the] HRV biofeedback works and reaffirm that diaphragmatic breathing is part of a feedback loop that improves vagal tone by stimulating the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Notably, the researchers also report that people with a higher HRV (which represents healthy vagal tone) showed lower biomarkers for stress, increased psychological and physical resilience, as well as better cognitive function” (source).

Did you know that your brain actually consolidates memories and experiences while you are sleeping? Rest is not only an important part of your physical health but also in being able to organize and store information long term.  Main point? Don't skip your 8 hours of sleeping at night; instead, do some breathing exercises before bed to relax, making your nighttime productive as well!

 

Exercise Provides A Natural Rush

While diet is a solid foundation for equipping your body with the nutritional tools for effective communication in the brain via neurotransmitter activity, exercise acts like a high-octane fuel running through an expensive racecar designed for speed.

Exercise is an inexpensive way to physically reboot your brain and emotional mood because the endorphins released during activity help bring clarity and increased cognitive speed.

In fact, a recent study linked the relationship between learning and exercise: “Exercise seems to increase the production of biochemicals in the body and brain related to mental function.” These endorphins help to increase your positive outlook in the moment and in general (source).

Another study demonstrated (in mice, at the moment) that “the new brain cells created by exercise appeared to help them resist stress. In other words, exercise — a "positive" stress — effectively rewired their brains to help them better deal with less pleasant stress. Researchers say the same may be true of humans” (source).

Those who need to be coerced into exercising will like this research that links different activities to specific mental boosters.  In general, exercise is important for the formation and storage of memories and learning, improved focus, and attention to task. Here’s some targeted activities and the performance boost:


(Waking Science, 2016, link)

A specific type of hormone, called the human growth hormone (HGH), is responsible for cell regeneration. According to Dr. Axe, “laughter, sleep, liver detox, [supplements], and exercise” are simple ways to increase HGH (source). Foods rich in vitamin C, raw and green vegetables, healthy fats like grass-fed butter and coconut oil, and bone broth (not stock) help the body create and utilize these hormones.

Any amount of exercise will bring more productivity to your day because of the activation of the growth hormone and connection to cognition and learning. This is helpful because you may find that you become more distracted the longer you work on a project.

The reason? Your brain is using up a tremendous amount of fuel and so it needs a recharge. First, reach for some water to hydrate your body. Then, do some stretching to start loosening up your muscles--both emotionally and physically. Rest, exercise, and a healthy snack will help you to refocus on your task at hand.

 

Stability Is Key to Productivity and Communication

The largest influence on productivity and effective communication is going to come from having a stable energy or mood throughout your working day.  This is a natural overflow of a healthy diet mixed with rest and exercise.

So where can you get stable source of energy that you can rely on when you need to start working and focus? The answer is not going to be coffee, a bag of chips, or a candy bar! These will bring you further away from improved productivity because it's going to mess with your chemical neurotransmitters through hormone balance.

Again, I'm going to stress that diet plays a huge role in stabilizing energy levels. A diet full of refined sugars and flours, processed snacks and meals, and even gluten-free baked items are going to mess with your blood sugar levels--every time. You may be ready to sit down and work and be productive but your body will not be able to self-regulate effectively if your energy levels have been impacted by irregular sugar spikes and crashes.

There are three ways that you can get a good source of energy so that you have a stable mood and improved focus. The first one is emotional stability and this comes through a healthy diet and supplements that meet your Rainy (or Sunny) Brain and personality traits. This is addressed within the field of functional nutrition, where blood work and assessment can really help isolate and identify what your diet is lacking so that your brain can function at an optimal level.

In general, most people can benefit from EFA supplementation, a raw, plant-based B complex vitamin, and probiotics. Probiotics are huge because they help to stabilize your gut bacteria and the gut is directly linked to your emotional well-being.

Probiotics are actually a source of energy for your body as well because the beneficial bacteria work to break down carbohydrates. In addition, probiotics are necessary for a healthy digestive system, healing and strengthening the gut lining barrier.  This prevents toxins from leaching into the bloodstream and circulating into the brain, which causes damage and disease in addition to chronic inflammation.

Furthermore, if the beneficial bacteria in your digestive system are not diverse enough or are severely diminished, studies have confirmed that depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can be statistically more prevalent. Eating a real food diet rich in probiotic foods and drinks will naturally help your emotional stability because they are high in B complex vitamins and live, beneficial bacteria for a healthy gut microbiome.

The third source of energy is exercise. Exercise burns calories, which is energy for your body. Exercising in the morning-- especially a high intensity interval training (HIIT) routine, and strength training will increase energy for many hours after.

Concerning the relationship between energy focus and productivity, their hierarchy is similar to the first part of the equation. A quality energy source is necessary for naturally enhanced focus, which then leads to increased productivity. You will find it very hard to be productive if you do not have a stable source of
energy that will supply your brain with the nutrients it needs to have focused attention on a task.

 

In fact, most of the nutritional supplements that are effective for improving focus have to do with hormonal regulation and those very significant neurotransmitters. How do we build and repair neurotransmitters? Through a healthy diet that is naturally boosted and fueled by rest and exercise.

 

Conclusion

To become an effective communicator, a healthy diet with adequate rest and exercise will greatly improve your energy focus and productivity.

Depending on your current state of health and diet, you may need to increase your intake of certain foods based on their nutritional values in order to naturally boost your productivity without any additional effort on your part.

If you are someone who tends to be more pessimistic about reaching and achieving your personal goals, there are targeted foods that will help you overcome the nutritional deficiencies both in your brain and body.

A diet that consists of real, minimally processed foods (instead of boxed meals and snacks full of preservatives for freshness) will also keep your energy levels and moods stable because of how sugar influences your hormones and therefore neurotransmitters. Real food supplies your body with variety and diversity of nutrients that support a healthy brain and a healthy gut that is less reliant on mood and energy stimulants.

Depending upon what type of personality you have and your thinking patterns, a diet rich in certain foods or proportions of protein:fat:carbohydrates will also effortlessly make you more productive because your body has adequate levels of micro and macro nutrients your specific systems needs to think more clearly without added effort on your part.

Are you a bit overwhelmed about how to transition to enjoying real foods for increased productivity? Don't be! Download my FREE Daily Reset Planner + 15 page Guide to easily incorporate real foods into your day, reaping the benefits of a healthy diet on your productivity.