Plants protect themselves from environmental hazards like insects, drought and heat by producing salicylic acid, also known as aspirin. A new understanding of this process may help plants survive increasing stress caused by climate change.
UC Riverside scientists recently published a seminal paper in the journal Science Advances reporting how plants regulate the production of salicylic acid. The researchers studied a model plant called Arabidopsis, but they hope to apply their understanding of stress responses in the cells of this plant to many other kinds of plants, including those grown for food.
“We’d like to be able to use the gained knowledge to improve crop resistance,” said Jin-Zheng Wang, UCR plant geneticist and co-first author on the new study. “That will be crucial for the food supply in our increasingly hot, bright world.”
Environmental stresses result in the formation of reactive oxygen species or ROS in all living organisms. Without sunscreen on a sunny day, human skin produces ROS, which causes freckles and burns. High levels of ROS in plants are lethal.
As with many substances, the poison is in the amount. At low levels, ROS have an important function in plant cells. “At non-lethal levels, ROS are like an emergency call to action, enabling the production of protective hormones such as salicylic acid,” Wang said. “ROS are a double-edged sword.”
The research team discovered that heat, unabated sunshine, or drought cause the sugar-making apparatus in plant cells to generate an initial alarm molecule known as MEcPP.
Going forward, the researchers want to learn more about MEcPP, which is also produced in organisms such as bacteria and malaria parasites. Accumulation of MEcPP in plants triggers the production of salicylic acid, which in turn begins a chain of protective actions in the cells.
“It’s like plants use a painkiller for aches and pains, just like we do,” said Wilhelmina van de Ven, UCR plant biologist and co-first study author.
The acid protects plants’ chloroplasts, which are the site of photosynthesis, a process of using light to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugars for energy.
“Because salicylic acid helps plants withstand stresses becoming more prevalent with climate change, being able to increase plants’ ability to produce it represents a step forward in challenging the impacts of climate change on everyday life,” said Katayoon Dehesh, senior paper author and UCR distinguished professor of molecular biochemistry.
“Those impacts go beyond our food. Plants clean our air by sequestering carbon dioxide, offer us shade, and provide habitat for numerous animals. The benefits of boosting their survival are exponential,” she said.
Waking up already feeling worn out? Unable to overcome the afternoon slump? These may be signs that various lifestyle factors are taking a toll on your energy levels, leading to brain fog and straight-up exhaustion.
When constantly on the go, it may be difficult to find ways to recharge. However, Dr. Alfred Tallia, professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health in the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, explained that more often than not, low energy levels can be remedied by adopting simple changes to your daily routine.
So, how can you combat unchecked stress to boost your energy levels? Vasan explained that it’s crucial to “find ways to integrate meditation or mindfulness into your daily life,” even for just five minutes each day. Experts also say that identifying coping skills that work for you — such as journaling or reading something that brings you joy — can help you destress and feel more energetic.
“If you’re consuming large amounts of caffeinated beverages throughout the day, it is probably going to affect your sleep pattern. This can then affect your energy levels,” Tallia said.
It’s important to note that suddenly cutting back on caffeinated beverages can also leave you feeling tired at first. As Tallia explained, “the body gets used to caffeine as a stimulant, and when it’s not present, you can experience an energy slump.”
Practice good sleep hygiene and establish a routine.
It goes without explaining that catching enough Zzzs is key to boosting your energy throughout the day. However, your energy levels are not just impacted by the amount of sleep you get each night, but by the quality of that sleep.
Even when practicing good sleep hygiene, you may find you’re waking up feeling fatigued. Raelene Brooks, the dean of the College of Nursing at University of Phoenix, said that could point to a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder, don’t hesitate to pay your physician a visit.
“Even low-impact movement is shown to increase your oxygen flow and hormone levels, which give you a boost of energy,” Vasan explained. “It is the No. 1 tip I recommend to anyone feeling fatigued.”
Drink more water.
Dehydration is a common cause of low energy. According to Brooks, the science behind this is quite straightforward: “Our red blood cells carry oxygen. Ideally, a plump and round red blood cell allows for a full oxygen-carrying capacity,” she said. “When we are dehydrated, the red blood shrinks and this decreases the capacity for the cell to carry a full load of oxygen. Low oxygen levels are manifested by fatigue, irritability and restlessness.”
If you struggle with being mindful of your water intake, consider trying hacks such as investing in a smart water bottle to ensure you’re drinking enough H2O every day.
Be mindful of your screen time during the evening hours, and also during the day.
It almost goes without saying that excessive screen time at night can mess with your natural sleep cycle and energy the following day. As Vasan explained, “spending too much time on your phone, computer or watching your TV can cause fatigue by disrupting the neurotransmitters that are essential for sleep and restoration.”
However, the time you spend looking at your phone or computer during the day can also have a harmful impact on your energy levels. Too much screen time can lead to eye fatigue, which may trigger headaches and make it more difficult to concentrate.
We live in a digital world, so spending extensive time looking at a screen is unavoidable for most people. Making the “20-20-20 rule” a habit is a step towards tackling tiredness. According to Harvard Business Review, “when you’re working on a laptop, take a break every 20 minutes. Look at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds to give your eyes a chance to relax.”
Avoid skipping meals.
If you ever skipped breakfast or worked right through your lunch break, you probably noticed you feel groggier than usual. While it’s totally normal to miss a meal, making a goal to regularly eat nutrient-rich meals and snacks throughout the day can increase your energy levels.
“Your brain needs nutrition to really function appropriately,” Tallia said. “A lot of people skip meals, and their blood sugar levels are going up and down all through the day.”
Moreover, Tallia said to steer clear of fad diets that encourage people to majorly cut back on caloric intake or to eliminate essential nutrient groups like carbohydrates. This can deprive you of energy. While it’s not uncommon to wake up feeling low on energy every once and a while, chronic fatigue could point to an underlying health issue.
“If you are eating well, getting enough sleep, integrating movement and exercise into your daily life but still feel tired for more than two weeks, you should consider reaching out to a medical professional,” Vasan said, explaining that a consistent drop in energy “can be an indicator of a host of mental and physical health issues ranging from fairly benign to severe.”
Ultimately, boosting your energy often comes down to taking inventory of different activities and current habits that could be draining you. Adopting just a few simple changes to your daily routine could be key to beating the fatigue once and for all.
One of the highest sweat rates ever recorded was that of marathon runner Alberto Salazar at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. In the months leading up to the games, which were expected to be oppressively hot, the marathoner was put through a regimen of temperature acclimation training with the goal of helping him adapt to running in the heat.
While Salazar placed only 15th overall, the program was deemed a success, physiologically speaking—vitals taken after the race found that Salazar’s hormonal and thermoregulatory systems were completely normal. His body had compensated by causing him to sweat at an incredibly high rate—about three liters per hour, compared to the roughly one liter per hour for an average human.
Researchers have been looking at the effects of heat on athletic performance for decades, and their results have been consistently surprising. Studies have found that, in addition to an increased rate of perspiration, training in the heat can increase an athlete’s blood plasma volume (which leads to better cardiovascular fitness), reduce overall core temperature, reduce blood lactate, increase skeletal muscle force, and, counterintuitively, make a person train better in cold temperatures.
In fact, heat acclimation may actually be more beneficial than altitude training in eliciting positive physiological adaptations, says Santiago Lorenzo, a professor of physiology at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and a former decathlete at the University of Oregon. “Heat acclimation provides more substantial environmental specific improvements in aerobic performance than altitude acclimation,” he says.
And in contrast to the live low, train high philosophy, we more quickly adapt to heat stress than we do to hypoxia. In other words, heat training not only does a better job at increasing V02 max than altitude, but it also makes athletes better at withstanding a wider range of temperatures.
Athletes can adapt to heat in one of two ways. The first is through incremental improvements in tolerance over time—work out in the heat a little bit every day, and eventually your body will dissipate heat more effectively. The second way is through thermotolerance, which is a cellular adaptation to an extreme heat experience, like suffering such severe dehydration after a run that you need an IV.
Essentially, if you shock your system, your body will be able to withstand greater temperature stresses later on. But successful heat adaptation is difficult—and clearly dangerous—to achieve outside of controlled settings. Lorenzo explains that performance gains are possible only when athletes elevate their core body temperature, and without careful monitoring, it’s possible to elevate your core temperature to lethal levels.
When performed safely, however, heat training can have extraordinary effects. This phenomena fascinates Chris Minson, a professor of human physiology at the University of Oregon, who studies heat acclimation responses in athletes. According to his research, heat training can expand blood plasma volume, but Minson says there also seem to be inexplicable changes to the heart’s left ventricle, which helps to increase oxygen delivery to the muscles.
In addition, he says that athletes who train in warm temperatures generally get better at regulating heat by sweating earlier, as Salazar did, or developing a colder resting body temperature. A 2011 study by a group of researchers in New Zealand also found that overall volume of blood plasma increased at a greater rate when athletes did not drink water during exercise. While some coaches are carefully experimenting with dehydration, Minson and Lorenzo are not because it adds too much additional stress.
However, they do say that this type of training can be beneficial because it produces a higher number of “heat shock” protein cells. Ahead of Western States this June, ultrarunning coach Jason Koop worked on heat training with Amanda Basham and eventual winner Kaci Leckteig. Koop believes this type of acclimating is a good example of blending an academic concept with real-world training. But, says Koop, “at a certain level, you have to compromise training quality for the heat acclimation.
Acclimating to the heat is additional stress [on the body], just like more miles or intervals, so you can’t simply pile it on. Something on the training side has to give.” One method of heat acclimation that Minson uses with his athletes is to do hard workouts on colder days or earlier in the morning, and then start training in hotter conditions with less intensity. He is also looking into adding heat in ways that wouldn’t require an athlete to train in high temperatures at all—using hot tubs, for instance.
All this being said, not everyone responds to heat at the same rate or with the same physiological gains, which makes it similar to altitude training in that it might make a high-performing age grouper, college athlete, or elite a little better, but it won’t compensate for intelligent, consistent training.
How to Incorporate Heat Acclimation into Your Training Schedule
When acclimating to heat, you’ll be forced to compromise training quality, says Koop. While he understands the benefits of heat acclimation, he still prioritizes smart, solid training. But if you want to incorporate heat into your workouts, here’s how he recommends doing it safely.
1. First, pick a protocol (sauna, hot bath, or exercising in the heat) that minimizes the impact on training, both physically and logistically.
2. Koop most commonly recommends that his athletes use a dry sauna immediately after running. “It doesn’t impact training nearly as much as running in the heat, and the effects are similarly positive,” he says. He often tells his athletes to not drink water during these sessions to enhance the effect. Koop recommends spending 20-to-30-minutes in the sauna, depending on tolerance.
3. Koop says that when he has his athletes exercise in the heat—either naturally or by wearing extra clothing to simulate the experience—it will be on a long, slow day for 60 to 90 minutes. The time completely depends on the athlete’s tolerance and previous experience. But he stresses to not do this on a recovery day, because heat training is an added stress on the body. Koop recommends drinking 30 to 40 ounces of an electrolyte drink per hour during these sessions And for safety, he advises using low-traffic sidewalks and bike paths—not trails.
4. Despite the benefits of heat training, Koop reminds his athletes that running in the heat is extremely difficult and usually replaces a hard day. “You are substituting one potential gain for another one,” he says. In other words, use it carefully.
Although training in the heat offers some benefits, it does have drawbacks too.
The Mayo Clinic reports exercising in a high temperature environment can sometimes result in heat-related illness. The most common illnesses include:
Heat cramps – These are painful muscle contractions. Though caused by excessive heat, they can also occur when body temperature is normal.
Heat syncope – If the client feels lightheaded or faints due to high heat exposure, heat syncope may exist.
Heat exhaustion – This occurs when the body’s core temperature approaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include nausea, vomiting, headache, and clammy skin.
Heat stroke – If the core body temperature exceeds 104 degrees, heat stroke can occur. This results in feelings of confusion, heart rhythm issues, and vision problems. Immediate medical attention is necessary to help preserve the brain and organs. If untreated, death can result.
Heat stress and heat-related illness are a major concern. Reduce this concern by helping clients acclimate to the heat and humidity common in summer training sessions. Research reveals that the human body goes through certain changes when exercising in a hot environment. Our core body temperature increases, first rapidly then at a slower rate. Metabolic rate increases as well, especially in heat stress conditions. Blood flow is altered to transfer the heat from our internal body to our skin, where it is released via our sweat. These changes are necessary to help prevent the body from overheating.
Though the human body is good at adapting to warmer climates, heat acclimation training improves this response. This enables clients to exercise more safely in hot environments. It also improves their performance. What does an effective acclimation program look like? A study on endurance athletes found that, for those not acclimated to the heat, high intensity exercise increased fatigue and weakened performance. Therefore, a lower-intensity workout regimen is recommended. At least until the client becomes used to the heat and humidity.
Another piece of research noted that 6-7 high-heat exposures are needed to improve adaptation. Each one should be at least 30 minutes in length. If you live in an area that is not particularly hot or it isn’t summer, there are a few ways to add heat to an exercise session. These include using a sauna or working out in heated water. Wearing multiple layers of clothing will also raise the body’s internal temp.
Some gyms and fitness facilities have an athletic chamber. This is a room that enables you to raise the heat and humidity to specific levels. You might also find these rooms at universities and colleges.
Yes, heat acclimation helps boost performance. But its number one goal is to help clients avoid heat illness, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke. Here are a few more safety tips that will help too:
Drink lots of water. Dehydration occurs faster in hot environments because heat increases sweat rate. This makes hydration critical when exercising in hot weather. Harvard University suggests consuming 2-3 cups of water per hour if you’re sweating a lot.
But don’t overdo your water consumption. It’s also important to note that you can drink too much water. This is called water intoxication and reduces the sodium in the bloodstream. This can cause headache, nausea, and vomiting. In severe cases, blood pressure rises, it’s harder to breathe, and the client feels confused.
Consume sports drinks for lengthy trainings. During longer workout sessions, water may not be enough. Because your sweat contains many chemicals and salts, these need replacing. In this case, sports drinks can replenish the electrolytes lost via excessive sweat. Sports drinks also supply a limited level of carbohydrates. This gives your body the energy it needs to continue to work out.
Avoid exercise during extremely high temperatures. If you live in a place where extreme heat is common, exercise when it’s a bit cooler outside. This limits the likelihood that you’ll suffer a heat illness. What’s the best time of day to exercise in this type of environment? Either early in the morning or later in the day.
Pay attention to the humidity. When it is both hot and humid outside, the body responds differently than in dry conditions. Specifically, humidity increases your sweat rate, which impacts your hydration. The Cleveland Clinic suggest not exercising if the humidity is over 80 percent and it’s 80 degrees or higher.
Wear the right clothing. Your body must be able to sweat to better control its internal temperature. Lightweight clothing assists with this. Wearing clothing in lighter colors is preferred as well since they don’t absorb as much heat as dark colors.
Monitor your heart rate. Heart rate increases 10 beats per minute for every degree the body temperature rises. So, wearing a heart rate monitor helps clients better identify whether their cardiovascular system is experiencing heat stress. Heart rate monitors can also signal if dehydration exists.
Starting its scientific surveying in July 2006, the European Space Agency’s(ESA) Venus Express has been carrying out the most detailed study of the planet’s thick and complex atmosphere to date.(Image credit: ESA)
A European spacecraft has discovered an ozone layer high in the sweltering atmosphere of Venus, a new study reveals.
The discovery will help astronomers better understand the composition of Venus’ murky atmosphere, and by comparing it to the atmospheres of Earth and Mars, the findings could even help shape the search for life on other planets, the researchers said.
The European Space Agency’s Venus Express spacecraft detected ozone, which is a molecule containing three oxygen atoms, while gazing at stars that can be seen at the very edge of the planet through its atmosphere.
“This detection gives us an important constraint on understanding the chemistry of Venus’s atmosphere,” study leader Franck Montmessin, of the Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales (LATMOS) in France, said in a statement.
Ozone layer on Venus
The probe’s Spectroscopy for Investigation of Characteristics of the Atmosphere of Venus (SPICAV) scrutinized the starlight for key characteristics of gases in the atmosphere as it is absorbed at different wavelengths. The Venus Express SPICAV instrument discovered the ozone because it absorbed some of the ultraviolet light from the stars, the researchers said. [Amazing Photos of Venus]
The findings were presented Oct. 6 at the joint meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress and the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences in Nantes, France.
Computer models show that the ozone on Venus forms when sunlight breaks up carbon dioxide molecules, which releases oxygen atoms. Winds in the atmosphere of Venus sweep these atoms around to the night side of the planet, where they can combine to form two-atom oxygen molecules, as well as three-atom ozone molecules.
The discovery will help scientists better characterize the chemistry of Venus’ atmosphere, but it could also be useful for astronomers searching for life on other worlds, the researchers said.
By comparing the properties of Venus’ atmosphere with equivalent layers of the atmospheres of Earth and Mars, scientists could narrow down their search for life on other planets, Montmessin explained.
The research will be detailed in the November issue of the journal Icarus.
Ozone on other worlds
To date, ozone has only previously been found in the atmospheres of Earth and Mars. On Earth, it plays a critical role because it protects life on the planet by absorbing much of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Furthermore, it is thought to have been generated by life itself, the researchers said. [The Strangest Alien Planets]
The exact reason for the buildup of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere 2.4 billion years ago is not entirely understood, the scientists said, but microbes that expelled oxygen as a waste gas likely played a role.
Like plants, this process continues to replenish Earth’s oxygen and ozone. Some astrobiologists have pointed to this to suggest that the existence of carbon dioxide, oxygen and ozone in an atmosphere could be a key marker for life on a planet.
Using this as a guide, future telescopes could pinpoint planets around other stars to examine their potential habitability. But, it’s important to note that the amount of ozone is a critical part of the recipe.
The small amount of ozone in Mars’ atmosphere has not been generated by life, but rather it is the result of sunlight breaking up carbon dioxide molecules.
Similarly, Venus is thought to have built up its ozone by non-biological means. The ozone layer on Venus sits 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the planet’s surface, which is roughly four times higher in the atmosphere compared to Earth, and is also a hundred to a thousand times less dense.
Astrobiologists have theorized that a planet’s ozone concentration must be about 20 percent of Earth’s value before life should be considered as a cause. The results of this new study line up with this theory, since Venus remains well below this threshold.
“This ozone detection tells us a lot about the circulation and the chemistry of Venus’s atmosphere,” Håkan Svedhem, a project scientist for the Venus Express mission at the European Space Agency, said in a statement. “Beyond that, it is yet more evidence of the fundamental similarity between the rocky planets, and shows the importance of studying Venus to understand them all.”
In 2020, the world spent more than $7 billion on supplements that promised to enhance brain health. We may as well be setting that money on fire. The quest for the perfect IQ-boosting pill, memory game, or creativity elixir has not been a successful one.
If you’re seeking that one weird trick to improve your brain health, the best place to look might be your feet. That’s the conclusion I reached after my journey through hundreds of studies assessing brain zapping, microdosing, games, and other popular interventions for my book, The Tailored Brain. It turns out one of the only legitimate ways to tailor our brains has been available to us all along: physical activity.
Getting moving has a number of effects that tie directly to the brain’s resilience, from increased blood flow to refreshed connections in the brain itself. But one of the less appreciated ways to enhance these effects even further is to engage with other brains while we engage in exercise.
Humans are, like elephants or naked mole rats, a social species. Evolution shaped us not as single brains making our way through life but as brain collectives, interacting, problem-solving, creating, and, yes, moving through the world, literally, together. A fascinating new hypothesis from evolutionary biology posits that physical activity builds a buffer against the insults of age so that we stick around and are healthy enough to support other people, not so we can sit alone in a cave or a castle and be lonely geniuses.
Interacting with others as we move can unburden our minds, leaving space for crisp new ideas, increased attention, memory power, and a lighter mood. The best news is that even modest amounts of activity offer benefits. Science says so.
How physical activity and social interaction work together
If you find yourself groaning at the idea of more exercise, that may be because “exercise” is an artificial form of physical activity, which can encompass many pursuits from gardening to shopping. And it may be that doing something social while we move around comes to us naturally.
Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman co-authored a recent review of evidence for the argument that physical activity is an evolutionary adaptation that supports brain health into old age. The idea is that as humans evolved, we moved around a lot to keep ourselves fed and cared for, which supported brain health. Both the physical activity and the healthy brain in turn made us able to care for younger generations into old age.
This idea is an evolutionary explanation for why humans survive well past the reproductive years, which is extremely rare among animals. It goes hand in hand with the “grandmother hypothesis,” which posits that in our post-reproductive years, we stick around to care for little ones in younger generations who carry our genes. By keeping them alive, we keep alive the genes we passed along to them, too. Lieberman and co-authors add to this picture by proposing that physical activity supports the brain and body “healthspan” that allows for a physically active old age.
Exercise gets molecules moving, too, for repairs and remodeling
Physical activity causes damage, Lieberman and his co-authors say, in the form of muscle breakdown and release of damaging oxidant molecules. But the scientists offer evidence that when we repair this damage, we overshoot a bit, leaving things even better off than when we started. A huge antioxidant release in response to oxidants from exercise, for example, could buffer against inflammation, which is linked to degenerative brain diseases.
Even a little exercise, like 20 to 30 minutes a few days a week, goes a long way. Moving around gets our blood moving, and that moves molecules to our brains more efficiently. It’s well known that physical activity can send more oxygen to the energy-hogging brain, for example. The presence of oxygen triggers cells to start using glucose, the brain’s preferred energy molecule.
Low glucose use in the brain has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, even in people without symptoms who carry genetic risk variants for the condition. One 2017 study looked at how well the brains of 93 late-middle-aged adults metabolized glucose after physical activity. The researchers used devices to objectively track physical activity for a week and found a link between moderate physical activity and enhanced glucose use in the brain, which is an indicator of good brain health.
Another study using devices for objective physical activity measurement found that people with higher levels of daily physical activity and good motor abilities scored better on tests of cognition. The 454 participants in that 2019 study underwent the monitoring and testing in the years before their deaths, and agreed to donate their brains for analysis after their deaths.
Even when the brains showed changes linked to conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, physical activity levels and motor ability each separately were associated with better performance on the cognitive tests. The researchers speculated that factors like physical activity could enhance the brain’s “cognitive reserve,” or ability to work around damage to the brain and maintain function.
Another measure of the brain’s flexibility and health is how easily it switches from one task to another, which is called “set shifting.” Set shifting is different from multitasking, which is when you’re doing two things at once, like talking on the phone and making dinner.
We use set shifting in social situations, for example: think of how you redirect mental resources at a party as you shift from talking with someone about the food to a conversation with someone else about the state of the nation. In a 2021 meta-analysis of 22 trials of how easily people engaged in set shifting, the authors found that light physical activity was associated with easier set shifting, especially for people who were older.
This ability to adapt fluidly as a situation shifts is the domain of the CEO in our heads, otherwise known as our executive function. Executive function is our ability to manage ourselves through working memory, self-control, and flexibility in thinking.
A meta-analysis published in 2020 assessed the findings of 36 randomized controlled trials of physical activity’s effects on brain-related measures of executive function. Trials like these are considered the most rigorous kind of research design. These 36 studies collectively included 4,577 young people, and the review pointed to links between physical activity and benefits for different aspects of executive function.
These analyses of findings from more than 100 studies suggest that physical activity benefits the aging CEO in our brains. If Lieberman and his colleagues are right, one upshot may be a longer healthspan for our brains to match our life spans.
How supplements have turned out to be “brain enhancer” duds
The pursuit of the fountain of youth has never turned up a supplement that works as well as physical activity. Researchers initially thought omega-3 fatty acids might get some traction as brain improvers, especially for mood. These fatty acids stood out in uncontrolled studies, where scientists just observe people who have been exposed to a factor and compare them with those who haven’t.
These so-called observational studies hinted enough at brain benefit from these fatty acids that omega-3s became quite popular as an “evidence-based” brain supplement. Imaging also seemed to indicate that brain connections might reconfigure in presumably beneficial ways with omega-3 use.
We use these molecules in building our brains, so the defensible intuition was that we could take them in pill form and reap brain benefits. But when omega-3 supplements were entered into more rigorous randomized controlled trials, they didn’t keep their brain-based promises for effects on mood and anxiety. They didn’t even best corn oil for improving depression symptoms when added to an antidepressant therapy. And randomized studies of the effects of these fatty acids on cognitive impairment, along with mood, have foundno benefit.
Generally speaking, no supplement stands out for brain benefits. Longtime stalwarts in some circles, including ginkgo biloba and vitamins B, D, and E, haven’t yielded protection from cognitive impairment in studies. So until we can get the effects of exercise into pills, the best we can do for cognitive enhancement is regular physical activity … perhaps with a dose of engagement with other brains.
The benefits of exercise and social interaction are a two-way street
When I talk about “being social,” the definition is broad and largely references connections between brains, in person or from far away in time or space. You and I are making a connection right now. Hello!
What I found in writing The Tailored Brain is an interesting interaction among a few easily accessible tools that seem to best serve our brains. You’ve met one: physical activity. Another is making connections with other people. When we connect with other people and hear their stories, we can boost general thinking capacity and enhance the influence of being physically active. Both can ease stress and anxiety, sand the edges off a bad mood, and lighten cognitive loads.
Strong social links on their own offer life span benefits that could be on par with quitting smoking. A 2020 study in China of almost 8,000 people age 45 or older found that social behaviors, including engaging in sports, benefit cognitive skills. The authors also concluded that the window of opportunity to take up these practices and gain improvements stays open into old age.
The benefits of exercise and social interaction are a two-way street. Physical activity eases anxiety, stress, and an overloaded brain, which makes space for us to truly engage socially. It’s tough to have empathy when your brain is sitting there like the “this is fine” meme featuring the dog in the room on fire. There’s no space left to react to, or try to interact with, or understand others.
But if we move around with others, as generations of humans have before us, we make that space. And if we share our burdens with each other on an evening walk, we get brain-boosting exercise and brain ease all at once, perhaps in a way that feels less forced and more like a fit for the brains that nature gave us.
Emily Willingham is a science journalist and author of The Tailored Brain: From Ketamine, to Keto, to Companionship, A User’s Guide to Feeling Better and Thinking Smarter (Basic Books, 2021) and Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis (Avery, 2020). She is a regular contributor to Scientific American.
Emily Willingham is a science journalist and author of The Tailored Brain: From Ketamine, to Keto, to Companionship, A User’s Guide to Feeling Better and Thinking Smarter (Basic Books, 2021) and Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis (Avery, 2020). She is a regular contributor to Scientific American.