In today’s hyper-connected, fast-paced environment, the challenge more than ever is to have the discipline to slow down. Modern-day technology also inundates your life with distractions that draw your focus outward. It’s possible to mask chronic stress and other unhealthy psychological states, but society has begun to recognize the need for a counter movement.

Taking a “brain break”—relearning how to slow down and go inward—has become increasingly popular. That may be due, in part, to recognized meditation benefits for the brain.

Meditating is a great way to ease the frantic state of mind many find themselves in. Once thought to be an enigmatic practice, meditation has gained traction in recent years. One study shows regular meditation by adults tripled from 2012–2017. The growing literature on the benefits of meditation is expansive and promising.

The practice of cultivating mindfulness through meditation can be achieved in many ways. Put simply, it’s being aware of where you place your conscious attention. What comes up may be pleasant or unpleasant. But as you practice this inward dive with nonjudgmental attention, you’ll be able to access an inner peace that already exists within you.

Anyone can start a mindful practice of meditation to find a new level of calm. It’s all about the discipline of sitting down and going inward.

Big Brain Benefits

Meditation benefits for the brain are abundant. Meditating strengthens neural connections and can literally change the configuration of these networks. With regular practice, you can cultivate a more resilient neurobiology that:

And with practice, meditation can also help you develop empathy and be more compassionate.

Sound amazing? Read on to reveal even more meditation benefits for the brain.

Mindfulness to Manage Your Mood and Well-Being 

Like exercise for your body, meditation helps to condition your mind. Confronting and letting go of unwanted psychological states, like anxiety and fear, releases their hold and the associated conditioned response. Studies now prove control over your internal experience, once thought to be fixed, can be altered with the simple practice of mindfulness.

Though not a cure for chronic emotional and psychological stress disorders, meditation has many extraordinary benefits for mood and overall well-being. A few minutes of mindfulness and meditating can help hold off overwhelming emotion and guard against the powerful thought patterns that fund unproductive worries.

Here’s a small slice of the research backing mindfulness and meditation benefits for the brain:

  • One randomized controlled study found mindfulness-based therapy over 56 weeks significantly reduced the period of time before relapse of episodes of low mood. It also helped with long and short-term healthy mood maintenance. Participants reported experiencing a better quality of life.
  • Another study showed eight weeks of mindfulness-based therapy improved participant’s mental health scores. This lead to important conclusions, like relief of anxiety in the mind from meditation being tied to the regulation of self-referential thought processes. Anxiety is a cognitive state that occurs when you’re unable to control your emotional state due to perceived threats.
  • After an eight-week mindfulness course, participant MRI scans showed a reduction in the brain’s fight or flight center associated with fear and emotion. The amygdala—a part of the brain that controls your body’s stress response during perceived danger—is a key biomarker of stress in your body.

Tune into Greater Attention and Focus

Everyone’s mind gets distracted. It could be putting off homework, losing track of your words mid-sentence, or thinking about work while your significant other tells you about their day. Humans developed selective focus as a coping mechanism for dangerous threats in the ancient past.

Today, there are fewer physical threats to worry about. Instead, people ruminate psychologically, letting worry and anxiety overtake the present with past emotional pain or future anxiety.

Your brain naturally, easily slides into boredom, so it may welcome distractions. A default-mode network of neurons is associated with mind wandering—also called the “monkey mind.” But scientists have found that abnormalities in this system of the brain can lead to anxiety, depression, attention disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Meditation allows you to be in the present moment, a timeframe associated with feelings of happiness. It can increase your attention span and combat mind wandering and excessive self-referential thoughts. With over-activity, these unhealthy states of mind can lead to a state of unhappiness.

Mindfulness helps you focus and ignore the distractions around you. It also helps to hone your ability to notice more in your environment. This gives you access to the present moment with a fuller perspective of your experience. Managing your monkey mind through daily meditation is a simple and easy first line of defense for endless modern-day distractions.

Play the Long Game: Aging and Brain

Free to all, meditation is a fountain of youth for mental aging. The human brain naturally begins to deteriorate in your 20s. Maintaining a healthy brain can be supported with the powerful practice of meditation.

Meditation is shown to thicken the pre-frontal cortex. This brain center manages higher order brain function, like increased awareness, concentration, and decision making. Changes in the brain show, with meditation, higher-order functions become stronger, while lower-order brain activities decrease. In other words, you have the power to train your brain.

Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist from Harvard Medical School, found consistency with meditation is key. In her study, she discovered that experienced meditators 40-50 years old had the same amount of gray matter as an average 20-30-year-old. In this older group, the health of the frontal cortex was maintained.

Brain Structures and Neuroplasticity 

Mindful meditation can create physical changes in the brain through neuroplasticity.

This increasingly popular concept refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize and change continuously throughout your lifespan. Behavior and lifestyle are major influencers on the brain. So, your life makes your brain constantly create new neural connections. That’s because neurons (nerve cells) actively adjust to compensate to changes in your environment.

Brain cells go through a process of reorganization, dynamically adapting by creating new pathways inside the brain. How you think and feel changes these neural structures. By flexing the muscle of thoughtful attention, again and again, you effectively change the “physique,” or shape, of your brain. And it’s doesn’t take much time, either.

Studies have shown it only takes eight weeks to change the shape of your brain, including an increase of gray matter volume. Gray matter is found in your central nervous system, and makes up of most of your brain’s neuronal cell bodies. This type of tissue is particularly important in areas responsible for muscle control, sensory perception, emotion, memory, decision-making, and self-control.

Through neuroplasticity, you can create and improve the connections between neurons as you alter the density of gray matter. You can effectively change your brain in just a few minutes a day.

Seeing the Brain Through Meditation

The gray matter in your brain tells a lot about what happens as you sit down for brain training. The many meditation benefits for the brain triggered by daily practice are staggering. But what happens, exactly, to produce these exciting effects?

During the first few minutes of your meditation session, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is the first area to light up. This part of the brain filters experiences through a self-referential lens. As you ease into a meditative state, your brain is still bouncing from thought to thought—the monkey mind active in the trees. Thoughts that surface can be exaggerated outcomes due to your lived experience.

When you’re able to rein in your attention, the lateral prefrontal cortex activates. Regardless of the method you use—a mantra or breath—this shift can help you override the “me” from moments earlier. Thoughts during this phase are more rational and balanced, helping you see a more neutral perspective. Now you’ve settled into the sweet spot of meditation.

Practice for several weeks (8 to 12) activates the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. In this state, empathy can develop, and compassion easily arises. This range of activation in the brain becomes stronger the longer you practice. The dedicated practice creates a gateway to a dynamic, gracious life.

Release Chemical Helpers with Mediation

Your brain naturally releases key neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that help regulate the balance of vital hormones. They influence systems throughout the mind and body.

Studies show practicing meditation can directly impact the level of these crucial neurotransmitters produced in the brain. Mindfulness can have a measurable impact on these brain chemicals:

  • Serotonin—increases this “feel good” chemical to help regulate mood
  • Cortisol—decreases this stress hormone
  • DHEA—boosts levels of this longevity hormone
  • GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid)—improves the calming effect of this major inhibitory transmitter in your central nervous system (CNS)
  • Endorphins—increases the “natural high” of this overall happiness neurotransmitter
  • Growth Hormone—elevates levels of this youth-preserving chemical that naturally declines with age
  • Melatonin—boosts this “sleep hormone” responsible for restful sleep and helps with mood regulation

Moving Towards Alpha

Your bustling brain is a continuous source of electrical activity. It makes sense. Neurons communicate with each other through electricity.

Brainwaves convey information through a rate of repetition—oscillations so powerful they can be detected. An electroencephalogram (EEG) machine measures five basic types of brainwaves, at different frequencies, slow to fast. Corresponding to Greek letters: delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma. As you might guess by now, meditation allows you to manipulate the frequency of your brainwaves.

Meet the 5 Main Types of Brain Frequencies

  1. Gamma brainwaves: The fastest measurable brainwaves detected by EEG. This quick, oscillating brainwave is associated with heightened mental activity including perception, learning, consciousness, and problem solving. They’re active when your brain is processing information from different regions simultaneously.
  2. Beta brainwaves: Detected during active, alert, and busy thinking. They are present at times of concentration, conversation, or when you focus on a task.
  3. Alpha brainwaves: Identifiable when the mind is in a calm, relaxed, yet alert state. They are present during creative activities, found right before you fall asleep, and increase during meditation.
  4. Theta brainwaves: Measured during deep meditation, day dreaming, or REM sleep. They can also be detected while performing automatic, repeated tasks that disengage the brain, like showering or washing dishes.
  5. Delta brainwaves: These slow brainwaves occur during deep, restorative sleep where you lose body awareness altogether.

Your brainwaves are just one aspect of the complex processes in the mind that produce your experience. And meditation can help you control them.

As you meditate and turn attention within yourself, alpha and theta waves increase. Producing alpha waves helps you tap into the voluntary onset of rest and relaxation. This wave comes over you when you’re not focusing with effort on anything in particular.

Dipping into alpha oscillation through meditation can also fuel your creativity. A 2015 study showed a surge in creativity induced by producing more alpha waves. Moving towards alpha waves isn’t a magic elixir, but it’s a promising start to accessing a calmer, more imaginative life experience.

Your Mindful Destination

For a beginning practitioner, developing mindfulness takes dedication. But as you deepen your craft through physical repetition and mind-body connection, you’ll experience the mediation benefits for the brain. Increased research on meditation presents proven benefits for well-being, enhanced memory and attention, a boost in serotonin, and the list keeps growing.

Training your brain to still fluctuations is easier than it sounds. If you haven’t tried it, meditation is simple. It requires no extra equipment, no previous training. Simply sit in a comfortable position, either in a chair on the floor, and begin to focus on your breath. When your attention strays, gently bring your thoughts back to your breath.

Countless methods exist to practice creating a healthy brain and body through meditation.

Try varying your technique by trying out vipassana, breathwork, transcendental meditation, chanting, focused attention, and moving meditation, to name a few. Each of these can be guided or silent.

Seek out the method that’s best for you. But just trying it on for size is the important part. Step off life’s crazy ride for a few minutes each day to go deeper into the mechanics of your own mind. With regular training, you’ll bring resilience to your mental state, better manage high levels of stress, and become more agile in the face of distressing thoughts, anxiety, and distraction.

Meditation, just like exercise, can transform your brain. As a more mindful individual, you’ll create a more whole, conscious experience with more meaningful connection. It’s within your power to change your brain—start today.

Neurotransmitters are the language of your brain. They allow neurons to communicate to other brain cells. That’s not it, though. Muscles receive cues from neurotransmitters, too. In fact, these chemical messengers send information throughout the body.

The different types of neurotransmitters vary widely. Some manage your heart rate and blood pressure. Others make you feel motivated, stabilize your mood, or help you fall asleep.

To understand how neurotransmitters work in your body, let’s study the most notable chemical messengers. And you’ll learn how important they are for your brain and body.

How Neurotransmitters Help Your Body Communicate

Communication is key to your health. Neurotransmitters do that work, sending instructions from one brain cell to the next and transferring information throughout the brain and body.

The process starts where these chemical messengers are stored in tiny compartments at the end of neurons. These are called synaptic vesicles. Neurotransmitters live here until your brain needs to relay a message.

When a neuron makes a command (known as firing an action potential) neurotransmitters spring into action. These action potentials temporarily boost neurons into a higher energy state. More energy means brain cells can dump chemical neurotransmitters into the space between them and the next neuron. This gap between neurons is called the synapse.

Neurotransmitters are then collected from the synapse by neighboring neurons after an action potential sparks. A chain reaction follows. Each brain cell releases neurotransmitters to spread the message. When the command is completed, the neurotransmitters break down, float away, or are taken back up by the synaptic vesicles they came from.

Understanding 7 Major Neurotransmitters

While there are dozens of known neurotransmitters, there are seven major ones to focus on. They fall into two different types, depending on their actions.

Some are excitatory neurotransmitters. This means they encourage other brain cells to fire commands. Other neurotransmitters are considered inhibitory. They stop action potentials and help your brain turn actions off. Both are useful and necessary for your body to function at its best.

Familiarize yourself with each of the major chemical messengers that influence your health. They do a lot to keep your body and brain working in tandem.

1. Glutamate

This amino acid is common in your diet. And it acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter, stimulating neurons to fire commands. Glutamate isn’t just in your diet. It’s present in 90 percent of synapses, acting as the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system.

It only takes a small amount of glutamate to excite neighbor brain cells. When neurons are working properly, all the glutamate released by the cell is picked back up by glutamate transporter molecules. This ensures levels of glutamate remain low in the synapse.

Too much glutamate can be tricky for your brain. Excesses can over-excite cells. So much so that neurons can’t bring their energy back down again. This toxic excited state causes brain cells to lock up and stop working. Good thing those transporter proteins are there to clear away the extra glutamate and protect your brain by cleaning up the synapse after each action potential.

Neuroplasticity also relies on glutamate. That’s because your brain uses glutamate to build pathways between neurons that reinforce your memory and help you learn.

2. GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid)

If glutamate is the most excitatory chemical messenger, then GABA is its polar opposite. GABA is a main inhibitory neurotransmitter. It reduces the activity in the central nervous system and blocks certain signals from your brain.

Without GABA, your brain would be “on” all the time. You need GABA to produce a calming effect that slows you down. It lowers your heart rate and blood pressure. GABA helps you relax and fall asleep. The normal stresses of your life respond well to GABA.

Take time to wind down before bed. Reducing your exposure to blue light can support the production of GABA in your brain. Deep breathing and mindfulness meditation can boost GABA, too. Helping you lower stress and fall asleep faster.

3. Dopamine

The most thrilling neurotransmitter has to be dopamine. That’s because it plays a major role in your brain’s reward system.

Dopamine floods the synapse between neurons when something rewarding happens. It’s responsible for that rush of joy when you accomplish a goal or succeed at a task. Dopamine perks your brain up and brings feelings of pleasure.

Some drugs prey on your brain’s reward system. They stimulate the brain to release an overabundance of dopamine. This creates a temporary sensation of pleasure, or a high. But coming down from a dopamine high is a hard fall. Afterward, you might feel depressed, tired, and less interested in your favorite activities.

Drugs aren’t the only way to mess with the normal dopamine levels in your brain. Addictive activities like video gaming, gambling, and shopping create similar highs. The surge of dopamine in your brain can make these habits hard to shake. That’s why it’s so important to understand how dopamine works so you can keep these behaviors in check.

Dopamine has plenty of positives, though. It encourages wakefulness. It helps your pancreas release the appropriate amount of insulin after you eat. Dopamine also coordinates your brain and your body to create voluntary movement. Writing your name, typing, and driving a car are all possible because of dopamine.

4. Adrenaline (Epinephrine)

If you have ever been spooked before, you know the feeling that comes from adrenaline—also called epinephrine. This neurotransmitter is responsible for your body’s fight or flight response.

Adrenaline is produced by adrenal glands located above your kidneys. But the chemical messenger works throughout the central nervous system to ramp up your heart rate and bring oxygen to your muscles quickly.

Why do you need adrenaline if you may never be in a true fight or flight scenario with a predator chasing you? Because your daily life provides plenty of situations where a similar—less life-saving—response is needed.

Adrenaline is your body’s defense mechanism against stress. If you’re running late and are afraid to miss your plane, epinephrine speeds up your breathing and heart rate so you can run through the security line.

Theme parks profit by taking advantage of adrenaline. They capitalize on the thrill a jolt of adrenaline can bring. It can make you feel jumpy in a haunted house or make your palms sweaty while you ride a rollercoaster.

Adrenaline sharpens your decision making, too. You can feel it kick in when you’re taking a test in school. Neurotransmitters like adrenaline can help your body to know how your brain wants to respond to stressful situations.

5. Serotonin

Take a break from your brain and shift your focus to your gut. Serotonin is an important brain chemical that does a lot of its work in your small intestine, too.

Serotonin in your digestive tract promotes feelings of satisfaction after eating and keeps your appetite in check. When a food you eat doesn’t sit well with your stomach, serotonin helps your body get rid of it.

Rotten or spoiled foods can make you feel nauseous. That’s because serotonin kicks in when you eat a potentially toxic food. It triggers your brain to make you feel queasy and helps your bowel dispose of the food quickly.

In your brain serotonin works a bit differently. It has a lot of influence over your mood, promoting feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Serotonin also helps you achieve more restful sleep and sets your body’s internal clock.

A serotonin imbalance can happen. When the brain doesn’t produce enough serotonin, you might experience a lower mood and sleeplessness. Confusion and brain fog may even set in.

On the other hand, too much serotonin coursing through your brain can be more dangerous. Some illegal drugs cause your brain to dump all of its serotonin stores into the synapse at once. This sudden spike in serotonin and later crash is called serotonin syndrome. It can create paranoia, impair your judgement, and negatively impact your memory. So, safeguard your brain’s supply of serotonin to maintain the delicate balance.

6. Oxytocin

Let’s debunk some myths about oxytocin. This neurotransmitter is much more than the “love hormone.” It’s more than the cuddly chemical messenger it’s been made out to be.

Oxytocin is a powerful neurotransmitter that affects many bodily functions. Your brain makes oxytocin in the hypothalamus and releases it via the pituitary gland to trigger responses all over the body.

Oxytocin urges the walls of the uterus to contract when a woman delivers her baby. This same chemical messenger fosters the bond between mother and child immediately following birth. Oxytocin also makes breast feeding possible, and stimulates the release of milk from mammary glands.

Men, don’t feel left out—oxytocin plays a significant role in your body, too. It helps your brain form strong connections of loyalty and trust. This helps you create important relationships with friends and family.

Be grateful for the chemical messenger the next time you interact with the people you care about. Your body needs oxytocin for its physical and social health— to live and love.

7. Acetylcholine

It may be last on this list, but this neurotransmitter was the first discovered in the human body. Acetylcholine is unique because it directly affects your muscles.

Acetylcholine works at the neuro-muscular junction. That’s the point where your nervous system and muscles meet. When acetylcholine is released from neurons, receptor proteins on muscle fibers take hold of it. Then the presence of acetylcholine triggers an action potential or command in the muscle fiber. But instead of sending signals to a brain cell, acetylcholine makes your muscle contract.

Every time you move your muscles, acetylcholine is in play. This can be voluntary movements or unconscious ones like your heartbeat or the contractions of peristalsis that moves food through your digestive tract.

Muscle movements aren’t all acetylcholine does for you. Your brain’s learning and memory functions are also impacted by this important neurotransmitter.

Apply Your Neurotransmitter Knowledge

Now that you know how neurotransmitters work, consider ways to help them be more efficient for your health.

Planning for enough sleep each night is a great way to give your brain a break that’s possible because of GABA.

Serotonin keeps your gut happy by eliminating foods that upset your stomach. So, eat plenty of protein to restore the serotonin levels in your gut.

You can increase the production of oxytocin by holding your kids close and spending quality time with the people you love.

And you can keep your dopamine levels in check by keeping an eye out for addictive behavior creeping into your daily routine.

Take a minute to appreciate all the work neurotransmitters do in your body. From your heartbeat to your breathing, digestion, and bonding, chemical messengers keep your brain and your body communicating.

Exercise and brain health are closely connected. That’s because your brain, like the muscles in your arms and legs, is strongest when you exercise regularly. And while there’s no machine in the gym to work your brain, it still reaps the benefits of physical activity.

Raising your heart rate perks your brain up, too. And moving your body is good for your weight and great for your memory. The brain benefits come from the increases in blood flow and oxygen that comes from regular exercise.

With lots of available blood and nutrients, your brain is fueled for optimal performance. Daily movement also allows new brain cells to develop while reinforcing neural pathways. Your memory improves through exercise, and physical activity helps maintain your cognitive health as you age.

Ready to up the intensity of your daily exercise to maximize your brain power? Start by checking out all the ways physical activity supports your brain health.

Science of Exercise and the Brain

Current research establishes the link between regular exercise and better brain function. As little as 30-to-45 minutes of movement each day is enough to trigger a cascade of memory-preserving benefits. Explore the five ways working out can support your cognitive skills.

1. Exercise Increases the Size of the Hippocampus

The area of your brain responsible for learning and verbal memory is called the hippocampus. When you exercise, your hippocampus increases in volume. It literally grows. Neurons in the hippocampus become denser, and connectivity in the region is reinforced through your physical activity.

The hippocampus is the first region of your brain to dull with age. Exercising regularly helps keep it sharp and protects it from the normal, age-related decline.

Exercise also ramps up activity in this memory and learning center. Just 10 minutes of mild-to-moderate exertion is enough to strengthen the connection between neurons and the memory-focused section of the brain.

This improved connectivity in the hippocampus can lead to better performance on memory and cognitive skills tests. Short spurts of exercise—which may fit better in your busy life anyway—can even boost recall. This could include remembering where you parked your car, or what appointments you have during the day. Think about your hippocampus and all the good you are doing it the next time you hit the gym.

2. Working Out Reduces Stress Hormones that Inhibit Brain Activity

Many people seek solace from stress in a walk or jog. If you’re stressed, your brain is, too. And exercise is a powerful tool for relaxing your mind.

Physical activity reduces the stress hormones (cortisol and norepinephrine specifically) that build up in your brain when you’re worried and anxious. Too many stress hormones can make you feel sluggish and contribute to brain fog. This can even slow your cognitive skills and dampen brain power.

Bust through the haze of stress by planning regular exercise. The endorphins released in your brain after exercise clear away stress hormones and boost your mood. Exercise and endorphins also stimulate growth in the hippocampus—as you learned above.

Your brain and body need exercise to relax. Think clearly and improve your mood by prioritizing regular exercise.

3. Sleep Improves With Exercise

Another way exercise improves your mind is by helping you sleep well at night. Challenging your body every day makes it easier to fall asleep. And it leads to the kind of sleep that helps you feel rested and recharged come morning.

Restful sleep also improves mental clarity and executive function. You need good sleep to focus, make decisions, and process your emotions. It provides much-needed time off for your brain to rest and prepare for the day ahead—even though your brain still does work during sleep. Your brain is at full capacity after a good night’s sleep. Cognitive skills are sharpened and memory is reinforced. Start working out for the sake of your sleep and the strength of your brain.

4. Aerobic Exercise Triggers the Release of Growth Factors

Your memory relies on the neural pathways and connections deep inside your brain. Proteins called growth factors are necessary for your mind to create new connections and reinforce old ones. Lucky for you, regular exercise is an easy way to increase the amount of growth factors available in your brain.

Moving your body triggers the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein helps your brain generate new cells and preserves aging ones. BDNF is also responsible for developing new blood vessels in and around the brain. This allows more nutrient and blood circulation in the area.

If you want to help your brain grow and receive the blood and nutrition it needs, start moving. BDNF levels increase whenever your exercise, even for a few minutes. That means giving your brain support only takes a few minutes of activity.

5. Regular Movement Slows Aging of the Brain

Growing older doesn’t mean your brain has to slow down. There are lifestyle measures you can take now to preserve your memory and keep your mind sharp. A lifelong habit of regular exercise can help you keep a healthy brain later in life.

A study of the tie between memory and exercise illustrates this well. Research shows older adults who exercised consistently in their youth outperformed their peers on memory and cognitive skills tests. Their scores matched most closely with other test takers up to 10 years younger.

Since you are only as old as you feel, keep your body and mind feeling young by prioritizing regular exercise throughout your life.

Pick Either Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise for a Healthy Brain

Your brain isn’t too picky about the exercise it needs to thrive. All you need to do is ramp up blood circulation to start seeing improvements. Like you learned above, the brain benefits of exercise come from increased blood flow to the region.

High-energy activities like tennis, cycling, swimming, and soccer elevate your heart rate above its resting norm. These movements are considered aerobic exercise and are great at quickly moving blood through your body. Aerobic exercise and brain health go hand in hand. Fast-paced movements increase blood flow in your head and neck, supplying your brain with plenty of oxygen and nutrients.

But it doesn’t have to be all aerobic exercise all the time. Anaerobic exercises produce similar brain-boosting results. Resistance movements and strength training are also great ways to work out for your brain.

You don’t even have to go all out for your brain to see benefits. Activities like yoga, tai chi, and other low-impact sports hone your concentration skills and focus while lowering stress levels.

Variety of movement is great for your body and brain. Developing multi-faceted workouts that include strength training, balance, low-impact, and aerobic movements should be your goal.

See this relationship in action yourself. Protect the health of your brain and body with regular physical activity. Exercise daily and notice how your brain responds.

COVID-19 (the disease caused by the novel 2019 coronavirus) has changed the world. The health and safety of our readers and everyone around the world is at the forefront of our minds. And we know right now—maybe more than ever—health and wellness occupies a place of prominence in yours.

At Ask The Scientists, we will continue to provide you with the accurate, science-based information about nutrition and living a healthy lifestyle you need right now. We believe information and understanding is power—to maintain your health, to keep your family healthy, to battle fear with truth.

That’s why below you’ll find collected stories about topics of utmost importance—immunity, mental health, self-care, and healthy habits at home. We aren’t experts on the novel coronavirus, so there are no specifics about symptoms or the virus’ spread. But you’ll also find a guide to sourcing trustworthy, scientific information about COVID-19 and the ever-evolving global pandemic.

And if you need an answer to a question about health, wellness, nutrition, or healthy living, we’re here, in this with you. We’ll be doing what we always do—arming you with quality, science-based information to help you continue living your life in these uncertain times.

If you don’t find an answer or the information you’re looking for, all you have to do is ask. Reach out through the site or on our Facebook page.

Understand More About Your Immune Health

Practicing Self-Care and Attending to Your Mental Health

Thriving at Home

Your Guide to Quality Sources of Coronavirus-Specific Information

What you didn’t find in the links above was specific information about COVID-19. We aren’t experts in epidemiology, virology, or infectious disease. But we can point you to quality sources about symptoms, how the virus spreads, case numbers, and more. And remember that the information you put in your brain is as important right now as the food you put in your body.

Here are tips for finding trustworthy sources of coronavirus information and links to those sites:

  • The World Health Organization is the first place to look for global COVID-19 information.
  • National government health departments (like the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health in the U.S.) will have more specific information about what’s happening in your country.
  • Local government health department sites have resources that will be most applicable to the situation unfolding around you.
  • For the latest research, turn to reputable scientific journals, like Nature Reviews Immunology, New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.
  • Seek out more general coronavirus information from recognized experts. This includes places like the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Cleveland Clinic, and academic sites from credible universities around the world.
  • Also turn to the Examine.com and Worldometers coronavirus pages for solid statistics and information.
  • Entertain and inform yourself by turning to blogs from brands and authors you can trust. Maybe check out What’s Up USANA? for more lifestyle tips about working from home and much more.

What you don’t want to do is constantly scroll through your social media feeds, plucking out the most sensational tidbits being posted. Evaluate the sources of any information popping up on your Facebook or Twitter feeds. Or slim down your information diet to only include trusted sources like the ones listed above. Managing your mental health might even mean taking a break from the deluge of news about the global pandemic.

When you’re ready for more information, we’ll help you find the best source. And if you’re curious about your immune system, eating to help support your immune health, or healthy habits at home, we’ll be here for you. Come back to Ask the Scientists for more immunity, overall wellness, nutrition, and healthy living content you can trust and act on to help you maintain your health.

You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to grasp the basics of how the brain works. Sure, your body’s command center is complex—a lot happens inside your skull. But a handful of key concepts can help you establish a working knowledge of the fundamentals of brain power. 

Start flexing your mind muscles and learn about four basic brain-science concepts. 

The Mechanics of Brain Power  

Your brain is packed with nearly 100 billion (100,000,000,000) neurons. Each links with other neurons to create networks that, in total, boost trillions of connections. This massive, complex web makes your brain the powerful central computer it is. And that’s how it’s possible for the brain to handle all the world throws at it—thinking, reacting, recalling, and controlling every aspect of your life.

But how does it work? The complexity makes it hard to understand. But knowing the parts and spinning a simple metaphor can help unravel the mysteries of brain mechanics.

The neurons in your brain look like a tree stump, with a main body (called the soma) and roots reaching out all around. A tree’s roots are for collection—spidering into the soil to bring in nutrients and water. The roots coming off a neuron body need to collect and communicate. 

That’s why neurons have two types of extensions—dendrites and an axon. Dendrites collect information and take in signals from other neurons. And the axon transmits messages using specialized chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Synapses are the interfaces where messages are transferred. These connections between the axon terminals of one neuron and the dendrites of another make communication in the brain possible. 

Each of your neurons is like a tiny TV news network. The reporters and producers are the dendrites reaching out to sources, collecting facts, and gathering the news. The anchor who broadcasts the news is the axon, passing on messages from the news network (or, in this example, the neuron). 

Together, this connected community of information sharers keeps your brain up to date and communicating fluidly. 

Exploring Your Ability to Adapt with Neuroplasticity

Your brain takes in so much data every minute of every day. Your environment, emotions, and other circumstances are also constantly changing. With all the input and perpetual transition, your brain has to adapt.

Neuroplasticity describes your brain’s incredible flexibility.

This is much more than the ability to change your mind about a topic. Neuroplasticity is the physical adaptations your brain makes by rewiring neural connections and networks. Using neuroplasticity, your powerful brain can switch the area where certain tasks are performed if the need arises. (Be careful not to confuse neuroplasticity with neurogenesis, which is the process of creating new neurons.)

Many circumstances have been shown to prompt the brain reorganization done through neuroplasticity. Physical injury, emotional trauma, and emotional stress all initiate change. More positive situations, like learning and improving your environment, can also stimulate neuroplasticity.

You know your brain is going to adapt. What you can do is help guide that rewiring through positive habits.

Executive Functions Help You Grow Up Mentally

Your ability to conquer your daily life has a lot to do with a collection of cognitive skills called your executive functions. And you learned and earned these skills—because you aren’t born with fully developed executive functions.

They include:

  • Shifting attention around
  • Controlling your impulses
  • Regulating behavior
  • Considering consequences before acting
  • Remaining focused

Executive functions also help you toss around abstractions until you eventually create concrete conclusions. And they encompass your working memory, mental flexibility, and aspects of your creative problem-solving abilities.

Even if this concept is new to you, it’s not to your brain. You’ve used your executive functions to make your way through school. They’ve helped you achieve physical health goals. Executive functions even aided with managing emotions during tricky or rough times. And now you know what to call them.

Working Memory vs. Short-Term Memory

Defining memory seems simple. It’s what you can remember, right? Your brain’s storage capacity. What you can recall when you need to.

There’s a little more to memory than that. It starts with defining and differentiating the main types of memory.

Long-term memory is pretty self-explanatory, and easily separated from short-term and working memory. If it’s stored for more than a minute, it likely falls under long-term memory. But comparing working and short-term memory is a little bit more involved.

Short-term memory is the ability to remember small amounts of information for under a minute. Your ability to keep a number in your mind for long enough to write it down is an example of short-term memory. But you forget a lot of what’s stored in short-term memory. 

Working memory has limited space, but it’s a conduit for moving information from the senses to short- and long-term memory. And it also shuffles longer stored items to the front of your attention and mixes them with current stimuli to help you accomplish tasks in front of you.

Cooking your favorite meal provides an example of working memory. You’re pulling the ingredients, proportions, and timing from your long-term memory. Your working memory helps you complete the dish by mixing sights, sounds, and smells with the stored data in the recipe. That helps your meal come out right—without extra or incorrect ingredients and cooked properly.

So, the main different between working and short-term memory? Working memory allows you to manipulate memories and stimuli. Short-term memory is just temporary storage.

What’s Next for Your Neuroscience Journey?

This is just the tip of the brain-science iceberg. But now that you know more about these topics, you can expand your learning with some interesting facts about your brain. Or maybe it’s time for you to take action. Start feeding your brain the right foods, and establish a baseline to aid in tracking the progress of your cognitive skills.

No matter where this rabbit hole leads, you understand how your brain will adapt, the way neurons will facilitate the communication of new information, and how facts will be stored in your memory.

Look in the mirror and you see dead skin. Don’t be shocked. Your body needs it to be that way. All the skin cells that interact with the world are dead by design. This layer protects you. But if it doesn’t move over for more freshly deceased cells to pop to the top, it could be time to exfoliate.

What is Exfoliation?

The simple definition for exfoliation is clearing away excess dead cells on the surface of your skin.

“Out with the old and in with the new” is the principle behind exfoliating. Remove the older cells to make room for newer, fresher skin.

Why You Should Exfoliate

You might want to understand more about exfoliating before you start scrubbing, peeling, or otherwise expelling the top layer of your skin. The practice of exfoliation comes from the knowledge of how your skin cells grow and replenish.

Cells are born deep in your skin, and they’re pushed to the surface by the growth of new cells. By the time they reach the surface, your skin cells have died. But they shingle together to help create a protective barrier before eventually being shed completely.

Exfoliation speeds up the shedding. And it helps you avoid buildup of stubborn dead skin cells that can impact your skin’s appearance. If you’re seeing dry patches or dealing with flaky areas, exfoliating could be for you.

Additional benefits of exfoliation include:

  • helping skin appear brighter
  • aiding in the absorption of your skincare products so they work better
  • assisting in keeping breakouts at bay by clearing pores of dead-skin buildup
  • supporting production of a key skin protein—collagen

Discover the Different Varieties of Exfoliation

Picking a way to expunge the outermost layer of your skin may sound like choosing your preferred version of torture. But exfoliation shouldn’t be painful. Whether you choose a mechanical or chemical means—the two main types of exfoliating—you’ll have plenty of pain-free options.

Mechanical exfoliation (sometimes also called physical exfoliation) isn’t the most comforting term. But it just means using the force of friction to remove dead skin. That encompasses a lot of options:

  • light buffing with a washcloth
  • grainy sugar polish or other gentle scrub
  • homemade coffee scrub
  • wet pumice stone (never use a dry one on your skin)
  • exfoliating glove
  • brushes
  • microdermabrasion

Even though you may have guessed how chemical exfoliation works, it’s not quite as harsh as it sounds. Yes, chemicals are involved. Typically, they are enzymes, retinoids, and gentle, natural acids. These compounds loosen the bonds holding skin cells together so they’re more easily removed.

Those choosing to chemically exfoliate often opt for alpha or beta hydroxy acids. Popular alpha hydroxy acids are water soluble and similar to the acid found in citrus fruit, apples, grapes, and yogurt. Beta hydroxy acids are often used as treatments for skin issues. But these oil-soluble acids (like salicylic acid) are also exfoliant options.

Enzymes provide a more ancient approach that started with putting fruit on the skin. Even today, the enzymes used in chemical exfoliation also come from fruits and vegetables. These enzymes work on skin proteins, breaking them down to eliminate dead-skin buildup.

Retinoids (commonly found in plant pigments) are more modern, and they’re commonly used as medication. These compounds come from the antioxidant vitamin A.

You have your choice of over-the-counter options for chemical exfoliation. Choose wisely, with your skin type and goals in mind. You should consult your dermatologist or healthcare provider before starting a new exfoliation practice. 

How to Exfoliate for Your Skin Type

Just like your cleanser, moisturizer, and other skincare products, the exfoliation tactic you choose depends on skin type. If you don’t know it, take this skin type quiz to find out where you fall on the spectrum.

Removing your outside layer of skin is an inherently irritating process. So, your skin type should guide the form and frequency of your exfoliation experience. Sensitive, dry, oily, and combination skin all tolerate exfoliating differently.

Here’s what you need to know before you choose an exfoliating method:

  • Sensitive Skin Type: Exfoliate gently and less frequently to minimize the redness and stinging that comes easily for this type. A very mild scrub or a simple washcloth may be all the mechanical exfoliating your skin can tolerate. And mild hydroxy acids and enzymes are your best bet for chemical exfoliating.
  • Dry Skin Type: Like those with sensitive skin, care should be taken to minimize over-exfoliating. Gentle is also the standard for mechanical or chemical exfoliant methods. But the flakes and rough buildup of dry skin does require regular exfoliating to keep those issues at bay and maximize your skincare products’ effectiveness.
  • Oily Skin Type: Exfoliate away. This type tolerates more robust approaches to chemical and mechanical exfoliation. Tools like brushes and pumice stones, along with rougher scrubs, are great for oily skin. Stronger chemical peels are also options for this skin type. And exfoliating more frequently isn’t off the table like those with dry or sensitive skin.
  • Combination Skin Type: You have two skin types to deal with, so exfoliate them separately. Be gentle with the dry sections and stronger on the oily parts.

Your skin will tell you if you’re exfoliating too often or taking an approach that’s too harsh. Pay attention to what the color and feel of your skin is telling you. Exfoliating improperly or too often can cause problems for your skin. Watch for redness, small breakouts, and unusual sensitivity to your normal skincare products.

Help Reveal a New Shine for Your Skin

Taking care of your skin sometimes means shedding some of it. Properly exfoliating one to three times per week (depending on skin type) is the best way to scrub or peel away the buildup of dead skin to help you shine. Just remember to consider the proper approach for your skin and always follow-up with an appropriate moisturizer. And like with your overall health, listen to what your body is telling you. The good news is that the results of your exfoliating efforts should be obvious—and written all over your face.

You’re probably pleasantly (or painfully) aware of your current physical fitness. But can you gauge the sharpness of your mind? In a world where exercise is king it’s important to whip your brain into shape, too. That starts when you test your cognitive skills so you can judge your baseline brainpower. And it’s trickier than you might think.

Instead of counting push-ups or running speed, you need different means to assess your memory and cognitive skills. Luckily, there are metrics you can measure to see where you’re at. And plenty of resources exist for gathering data on your brain.

Take the first step and familiarize yourself with the mental skills you can measure and tests you can take to establish your baseline brainpower.

Assessing Your Short-Term Memory

Your short-term memory is an easy cognitive skill to test. And quick, too. Short-term memory lasts for about 30 seconds—one minute at the most—and only stores about five to nine items of information. You use this type of memory for a phone number before you dial, or the confirmation code on a plane ticket.

There are dozens of online quizzes and mobile phone apps dedicated to improving your short-term memory. But, first, it’s important to see where you’re starting from so you can track progress.

To appraise your current short-term memory capacity, you can complete tasks that involve recalling a series of numbers or letters from a master list.

Here are two tests you can take right now to see where you’re at:

https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/stm0.html

https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/puzmatch.html

Put Your Working Memory to the Test

Knowledge stored in long-term memory and information from your environment combine to create your working memory. Reading, cooking, driving, and mental math all require working memory. These tasks take the rules and skills stored in long-term memory and apply them to solve new problems.

Attention and concentration are also made possible through working memory. Your brain uses working memory to help you focus on work and ignore distractions.

Testing working memory can be fun. Activities like Sudoku and search-and-find games put your brain to work filtering out competing sources of information. They challenge you to focus your attention to complete a task.

Another good assessment of working memory and attention is the Stroop test. You use this type of memory to identify words and colors with variable rules.

Try these working memory tests out for yourself:

https://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/memory/distraction/

https://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/memory/types/Stroop-test.pdf

Look at How Your Sensory Memory Stacks Up

A final component of memory you can test involves your senses. Your brain is always receiving sensory information. Scent, sound, taste, touch, and visual data enter the brain and are stored in your sensory memory for a very brief period of time.

When you test this kind of memory, you do it one sense at a time. A common evaluation is called a change blindness test. It plays on your sense of sight and requires your brain to tell the difference between two very similar images.

Take a stab at a sensory memory test with these change blindness demonstrations:

Test Your Cognitive Skills

Cognition may be the most subjective brain metrics. By definition, cognition is the sum of all the processes going on inside your brain. Language, thought, judgment, and memory are all part of cognition.

Your cognitive capabilities are as unique as you are. So, in an effort to create a measurable standard, there are tests available to summarize your cognitive strength. Some cater to specific groups of people (young children, for example), but a few can be applied to anyone looking to gauge their overall cognitive abilities.

  • Inductive reasoning tests task your brain to identify patterns and find meaning in large amounts of data. Games that ask you to guess the next in a sequence of numbers, letters, or shapes are examples of this sort of test. The children’s game “one of these things is not like the other” also assesses inductive reasoning skills.
  • A situational judgement test is another evaluation of cognition. It’s often administered in questionnaire form, asking you to judge the best or most appropriate response to a given situation. Job applications and interviews often utilize situational judgement testing to narrow down a list of candidates.
  • Intelligence tests are a common form of cognitive skills assessment. These are tricky, because many factors influence a person’s intelligence, including education, nutrition, environment, etc. But the Miller Analogies test (MAT) is a reliable version. The MAT uses analogies to evaluate your logical and analytical reasoning.

Check out these online resources to test your cognitive skills:

https://www.shldirect.com/en/assessment-advice/example-questions/inductive-reasoning

https://www.shldirect.com/en/assessment-advice/example-questions/situational-judgement

https://magoosh.com/mat/miller-analogies-test-mat-sample-questions/

 Measuring Neuroplasticity

You might be wondering how your brain can keep up with all the information you learn and absorb. Neuroplasticity makes it possible for your brain to grow and change over time. And while it doesn’t literally grow in size, your brain can definitely grow in strength.

The vast networks of neurons in your brain shift and grow as you learn and gain new experiences. Your brain’s ability to adapt and create new neural pathways makes it possible for you to learn a foreign language or pick up a new hobby.

Learning a new skill is the best way to test neuroplasticity. But you can see your brain’s neuroplasticity in action through the power of an fMRI machine that makes neural networks visible.

These machines track the flow of blood in all the regions of your brain. When fMRI scans of the brain are compared over time, it is possible to see new brain pathways develop. This kind of testing is incredibly interesting and expensive, though.

A Word to the Wise About IQ Tests

Odds are you have heard of an IQ test, or even taken one before. IQ stands for intelligence quotient. So, it makes sense that this test aims to quantify your intellectual capabilities and compare them to a general population.

The catch is it’s really difficult to assign a number to anyone’s intelligence. Many factors determine how “smart” you are. IQ tests measure concepts, rather than actual intelligence. They don’t account for the more abstract and individual traits that make a person’s reasoning skills and personality.

They may be interesting, but don’t read too much into IQ tests. They serve a purpose but aren’t the end all be all. Instead, try to use multiple cognitive tests and brain tasks to see where you’re at.

Take Ownership of Your Brainpower

You have a lot of brainpower available to you. Apply some of it to measure your cognitive skills. And use what you’ve read in this review of memory tests and mental tasks to establish your cognitive-skills baseline. Then put your skills to the test or start finding ways to strengthen different aspects of your brainpower.

Over the course of the year, seasons change, daylight varies, and—depending where you live—snow or rain may be eminent. But even in milder climates, you might find yourself affected by the “winter blues” from the lack of sunshine inherent with shorter days. This phenomenon is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). You may notice shifts in habits and feelings of well-being as the days grow longer and shorter.

So, no, you’re probably not stuck in a bad mood or going crazy. There’s a legitimate reason for feeling down when there’s less sunshine than normal. Learn what causes seasonal affective disorder and 10 ways to cope with the most common symptoms.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a biochemical imbalance in the brain. SAD is prompted by shorter daylight hours and less exposure to the sunshine your body uses as a sign to produce chemicals and hormones for wakefulness or sleepiness.

It’s estimated 10–20 percent of people globally are affected by SAD. Those living far from the equator are more likely to experience SAD, and the disorder is four times more common in women than men. Generally, you become less prone to SAD as you age, with 18-30 being the most at-risk age.

A number of symptoms and behaviors point to seasonal affective disorder, including:

  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Loss of interest in activities or social events
  • Problems with sleep—both oversleeping and difficulty getting restful sleep
  • Overeating and craving simple carbohydrates
  • Changes in weight
  • Loss of energy
  • Restlessness or nervous habits

These symptoms are associated with SAD, but they also could be signs of a condition beyond the winter blues. It’s recommended to consult your health-care advisor if you experience any of these symptoms long-term.

The Science Behind SAD

Let’s shine a little more light on SAD. Seasonal affective disorder is caused by fluctuations in your circadian rhythm (your internal, biological clock). That’s why you’re more likely to experience SAD the further you are from the equator—the shorter the day, the greater the effect.

Your retinas normally receive special cues from exposure to sunlight, triggering the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Reduction in sun exposure causes a dip in this naturally produced brain chemical. With SAD, there are seasonal fluctuations in the regulation of serotonin levels in the brain, as well. Most people know serotonin for its mood-balancing properties, but it also helps your body maintain health from your bones to your bowels.

Insufficient light in the day may also cause an overproduction of melatonin, the hormone responsible for your sleep-wake cycle. So, condolences to those who live in Juneau (Alaska’s capital city) who receive only six hours and 22 minutes of sunlight during the winter solstice. Others have it even worse. Rjukan, Norway doesn’t naturally receive sunlight six months out of the year. 

Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD isn’t new. The disorder was first reported by scientist Norman E. Rosenthal in 1980 from The National Institute of Mental Health. Over time, studies and trials have found effective ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder.

Try these tips if you feel SAD symptoms. Even if you haven’t felt symptoms due to shorter days, anyone can benefit from these holistic lifestyle tips.

Seek Professional Advice

Common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder overlap with depression. If you think you’re experiencing depression, seek medical attention. For milder symptoms, consult your health-care advisor. Either way, it’s always good to talk with professionals before making lifestyle changes.

Eat A Healthy Diet

Eating a variety of wholesome foods is central to a life of good health. Certain nutrients, like vitamin D, help your body with normal bone mineralization, which might be affected by less exposure to the sun’s rays. Magnesium and coenzyme Q10 are used by the body to generate energy in your cells, and B vitamins play an important role in maintaining a healthy metabolism. Here are a few sources of these beneficial nutrients:

  • Vitamin D: fatty fish, cheese, egg yolks, mushrooms, and foods fortified with vitamin D
  • Magnesium: green leafy vegetables, avocados, bananas, raspberries, nuts, and seeds
  • B vitamins: whole grains, red meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds

One key indicator of seasonal affective disorder is craving simple carbohydrates like non-diet soda, baked treats, and breakfast cereals. These foods provide little satiety and often lead to more cravings. Reach for healthy fats, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources. They’re more satisfying, and often include valuable nutrients like those listed above.

Make Sleep a Priority

There are many reasons to savor a good night’s sleep. Maintaining proper sleep habits is a lot of work, but the physiological benefits to restful slumber are well worth it. First, maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle. Go to bed at the same time every night whenever possible, and set a waking alarm for the same time every day, seven days a week. This means no cheating on the weekends. Keep in mind, it can take four days to recover for every hour of “sleep debt” accrued. So, waking up at the same time will help your body adjust, and you should start to feel naturally tired at the end of the day.

Second, avoid invigorating activity within an hour of bedtime, and abstain from stimulants like coffee in the evening. Cocktails are off-limits, too. They can help you fall asleep, but alcohol inhibits REM sleep cycles. Find a screen-free, calming activity that works for you. Try meditation, writing in a journal, listening to music or a podcast, reading a book, or simply brewing the perfect pot of caffeine-free tea.

Beat the Winter Blues

The shorter the days, the more cognizant you need to be about spending time outside while it’s still light. Set a reminder. Otherwise, by the time you remember to head out, the sun may already be down. Try to take a brisk walk at lunch, go for a run, take phone calls outside, or do whatever you can to grab some time outdoors. Even in colder climates, you can find the motivation to get outside on the snowiest days.

It can be challenging to sneak in outdoor time. But, with the extra energy you’ll have from high-quality sleep, backed by fuel from healthy foods, your body will be up for the task.

Work It Out

For many folks, summertime means exploring their surroundings by foot without a second thought. As the days darken, it’s harder to carve out time for these activities. If you find yourself adventuring less as the days shorten, commit to working out several days a week to compensate. Adequate exercise is one of the best ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder. There are many physiological benefits to working out, and it’s another excuse to keep moving when the couch starts calling your name. Plus, working out can be a social activity, which has its own SAD-stomping benefits you’ll read about later.

You don’t have to drive to the gym to enjoy the benefits of a good sweat session. When it’s pitch-black out and the last thing you want to do is leave the house, there are plenty of workouts you can do at home.

Build a Brighter Day

If you’re like those living in Rjukan who seriously lack natural light sources, sometimes you have to make your own sunshine. There are various light therapy lamps available—nightstand lamps, glasses lined with gentle blue lights, even full-blown luminary saunas. Studies show that getting bright light first thing in the morning after waking, is better than light therapy later in the day. While this kind of SAD solution doesn’t work for everyone, it has been shown to be effective in several studies. So, it’s well worth a try to beat the winter blues.

Make Time to Socialize

A healthy social life brings a host of mental and physical benefits and is a great solution to cope with seasonal affective disorder. Bonus: it pushes you out of the house (or, if it’s your turn to host the party, spurs some extra cleaning). Socializing is associated with better overall health, and maintaining a larger social network is a key predictor of positive mental health outcomes throughout life.

Invite friends over for a snack tray social, casual trivia night, or hunker down with board games. Whatever you do doesn’t have to require a lot of effort or expense. Being together is enough to help tackle SAD symptoms.

Find Your Zen

Meditation has benefits beyond bedtime routines. Even a minute of mindfulness can bring a calm detachment, returning your mind to the present, and reminding you to keep calm and carry on. To help find your Zen, try this breathing exercise:

  1. Assume a comfortable, relaxed position and close your eyes.
  2. Breathe slowly, taking pauses between exhale and inhale.
  3. Clear your mind and count out 50 breaths.
  4. Each time a thought pops into your head—and, inevitably, many will—pause counting.
  5. Continue breathing and recite the phrase “I am aware of ______,” listing the object of your thought.
  6. Once your mind is clear again, resume counting breaths.

Serve Others

Donating your time in the service of others has many physical, mental, and social benefits. This makes it one of the best ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder. Taking your mind off your problems to focus on caring for others is a natural way to relieve the stresses that build up from lowered serotonin levels. Gratitude helps you deal with anxiety and grief by contributing to your brain’s release of dopamine and serotonin.

Write a Letter

Writing to friends and family is a good way to keep in touch, and it’s a wonderfully unexpected surprise for the recipient. Hand writing takes more effort than typing, but that’s the point. The brain processes differently when writing longhand versus typing. That’s because there’s more method and nuance when you pick up a pen. If you’re not sure where to begin, try writing a gratitude letter to yourself as a small reminder of why you’re grateful.

A Brighter Tomorrow

If you find yourself in the rut of seasonal affective disorder, remember there’s light at the end of the tunnel—literally. Seasons eventually change and longer, brighter days are ahead.

As you figure out the best ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder, you’ll notice how much overlap there is in the above list. Writing gratitude letters in the evening checks several boxes, as does volunteering to pack food at a local charity. So, focus on addressing your SAD symptoms in ways that fit your life.

Setbacks are to be expected. Don’t get discouraged. It’s natural to get frustrated when your body doesn’t just work the way it should. But it’s important to focus on your whole self, taking care of your body and mind. Bonus points if you do it all year long and not just when the winter blues set in. Ask for help if you need it, reach out to friends and family, or talk to a medical professional. Before you know it, even the darker, shorter days will look better and brighter.

Your shape is all your own. A unique mixture of your in-born genetic blueprint and lifestyle choices manifest what’s reflected in the mirror. While nobody shares your body’s specific shape, there are categories of body types most fall into.

You’ll have a chance to figure out your type below—if you don’t know it already. But there’s an important fact to cover first that’s essential no matter the shape of your body.

An endomorph, ectomorph, or mesomorph can lead a healthy, happy life. Having any morphic body type doesn’t shackle you to specific health outcomes forever. Your life and health are yours to shape.

That doesn’t mean helpful information can’t be gleaned from a discussion of body type (also more formally called somatotype). Knowing what signifies a body type and which lifestyle tips work better for different body shapes may be enlightening.

General recommendations of frequent physical activity, a balanced diet of whole foods, good sleep, and other health habits work across the board. But knowledge about your specific somatotype can help guide you in the development of goals and healthy lifestyle approaches to achieve them.

After all, the shape you’re in now is just the starting point. Your body type is as much a reflection of your recent choices—diet, exercise, sleep, and more—as anything. From that starting point, and with the additional information below, you can make changes so your goals are what’s eventually reflected in the mirror.

Your Guide to the Endomorph Body Type

You might recognize an endomorph by their stockier or rounder shape. This body type has a tendency to accumulate fat around the midsection and hips. Some of that can be attributed to a slower metabolism. Sedentary lifestyles and calorie overages exacerbate fat build up.

Fighting the natural inclination for gaining and holding onto fat guides the health choices endomorphs should consider making. Diet and exercises focused on fat loss and maintaining proper calorie balance are key.

Diet suggestions for endomorphs include:

  • Watching refined and simple carbohydrate intake (especially sugar). The propensity to store fat leads to these easily overeaten items to help pack on unwanted pounds.
  • Turning to lean proteins to fill up and fuel muscle growth.
  • Choose the right fats. Don’t shy away from beneficial omega fatty acids—like those found in cold-water fish—and plant-based fats just because fat storage is a common concern for this body type.
  • Keeping a watchful eye on calories in vs. calories out. It’s the key to weight management for any body type, but it’s even more important for endomorphs.
  • Fill up on colorful, fiber-rich plants. These fruits and vegetables are lower calorie and have the fiber to keep you feeling fuller for longer.

Exercising as an endomorph should focus on burning fat while maintaining muscle mass, stabilizing joints, and promoting cardiovascular health. That means using a mix of cardio exercises (walking, running, biking, etc.) and strength training. This helps burn extra calories while working to maintain or grow muscle. Using a combination of cardio and strength exercises has also been shown to burn more fat after your workout ends than sticking to one type of exercise.

Gaining weight around the midsection can be troublesome for long-term health. So, endomorphs need vigilance to fend off this trend. Healthy lifestyle choices can help fight off the weight-related health issues that can crop up.

Your Guide to the Ectomorph Body Type

Slender. Narrow. Petite. All these descriptors fit a typical ectomorph. A fast metabolism plays a big role in keeping this body type thin, with long, lean frames.

An ectomorph can have trouble gaining weight and building muscle, though. To some, that may sound like a good problem to have. And one that means you can eat whatever you want and not exercise. But that’s not actually true. Ectomorphs still need to focus on a healthy diet and physical activity to support their best possible life.

The dietary specifics for the ectomorph body type include:

  • Packing the menu with nutrient-rich foods, and not simply feeding on less nutritious foods to fuel a fast metabolism.
  • Shooting for a high-protein approach. This macronutrient is essential for everyone, but is especially helpful for ectomorphs to maintain or bolster muscle mass.
  • Aiming for an energy imbalance of more calories eaten than burned if weight gain is the goal. Use these extra calories on beneficial fats, lean proteins, and nutrient-rich options.
  • Pick smart carbs. Since carbohydrates can take up more of the macronutrient balance for ectomorphs, your options open up. More choices could lead to less-than-ideal selections, though. Stick to smart sources of carbs—like whole grains.

The exercises an ectomorph chooses should fit specific goals—like any body type. But that frequently means heavy weight training for those looking to bulk up. These weight-bearing exercises are also good for the bones and joints.

A tip for ectomorphs is to take more rest between sets. This leads to fewer calories burned during exercise. And that’s a good thing because ectomorphs’ fast metabolisms can quickly rack up a calorie deficit that hampers efforts to gain mass.

With a natural tendency to be thin, it can be easy to fall for the misconception of “skinny always equals healthy.” Just because you could get away with a laissezfaire approach to eating and activity doesn’t mean it’s good for your healthspan.

That’s where a balanced, varied diet and regular exercise comes in. One feeds a fiery metabolism while providing nutrients needed to help maintain overall health. The other assists in supporting cardiovascular, bone, joint, and muscular health.

Your Guide to the Mesomorph Body Type

A little bit of Latin and Greek helps crack the code of the mesomorph. You can roughly translate mesomorph to the middle shape. So, it answers the question: what’s in the middle of endo- and ectomorph?

And that’s a good place to start.

If endomorphs are stockier and ectomorphs are thinner, mesomorphs stand athletically in the middle. Broader shouldered and muscular, this body type takes more of a v-shape.

Much of this springs from the mesomorph’s place in the metabolic sweet spot. Weight goes on and comes off fairly easily. So, muscles are easier to grow, but fat isn’t as hard to burn. If this sounds perfect, that’s because many cultures have held up the mesomorphic body type as the aesthetic ideal. And the average gym is full of different body types trying their hardest to achieve a mesomorph somatotype.

That doesn’t mean people with this body type can ignore their diet. A mesomorph should target a diet that:

  • Focuses on proper calorie balance. They can turn the calories dial to add weight or lose it.
  • Promotes nutrition through a focus on fruits and vegetables. Fitness goals need to be supported by quality nutrition. It’s no different for mesomorphs, and nutritious plant foods are vital.
  • Splits the essential macronutrients basically in thirds. An efficient, but not overachieving metabolism means this body type can aim for a fairly equal split between fat, carbs, and protein.

When it comes to a workout routine, the mesomorph has definite advantages. Pick a fitness goal, and this body type makes it a bit easier to hit it. Building muscle means aiming for light cardio and more strength training. Dropping weight may look like more running or biking. The raw materials for gaining speed, power, or enhancing athleticism are on the surface for mesomorphs. It’s just a matter of matching a fitness goal to the right exercises.

Any activity that helps hit the recommended 150 minutes a week works great. Even though mesomorphs rule the gym and the pop culture spotlight, they aren’t immune from the hazards of a sedentary lifestyle or poor diet.

That’s because the way you look in the mirror is a literal reflection of your health. But it isn’t everything. A visually striking exterior still might paper over long-term health issues if proper care isn’t taken with diet, sleep, activity, and stress management.

Your Body Type is a Freeze Frame of Your Health Right Now

There’s no skirting the truth of what you see in the mirror. Where you stand with your shape today is an impression of your health—a snapshot of where you are right now.

That’s a more modern view of body type, though. The original concept of somatotypes—proposed by W.H. Sheldon in the 1940s—was more rigid. It locked people into their type, even attributing personality traits to people’s shapes.

This philosophy has been thoroughly debunked. Today, fitness and health professionals have kept the beneficial information these classifications provide. But they focus on body type as a starting point, not a trap.

Throwing away the whole theory would ignore the immutable aspect of body shape—genetics. The perfect diet and right exercises aren’t likely to make you taller, reshape the structure of your bones to widen your shoulders, or change how where you store fat.

But—as you’ve read above—lifestyle factors like diet and exercise can help each body type achieve health goals and live their best lives. It’s also possible to reshape your body.

If you’re born an ectomorph, you can build muscle to climb closer towards a mesomorphic type. Endomorphs, if they want, can sculpt a stockier starting point into the mesomorph’s characteristic v-shape. It goes both ways, too. Poor diet and inactivity can round out any body type with extra fat accumulation.

Shape Your Life, Shape Your Health

You can be an endomorph who is healthy and happy. You can be an ectomorph who is healthy and happy. You can be a mesomorph who is healthy and happy.

It’s worth repeating one more time: wherever you fall on the somatotype spectrum—and most people will be some combination of types—you can be healthy, happy, and live a fulfilling life.

Don’t be defined by your body type because that isn’t the totality of who you are. Don’t let it box you in because you can make changes if that’s what you want or need to do. And remember, people of all shapes and sizes are beautiful and valuable. It’s most important to be healthy and happy—and that’s not one-size only.

Your old, reliable meals are the easy answer to a dinner dilemma. But when you find yourself mired in menu malaise, do yourself a favor—mix up the food you buy and eat. Chowing down on a varied diet supplies the wide range of nutrients you need to live well.

Dietary variety delivers other health benefits, too. Diversifying the food you eat helps support total-body health—see more on the specifics below. It also tastes good! And eating a varied diet leaves you feeling better than the fast food and packaged snacks that can often replace a nutritious meal.

Take up the challenge and add new foods to your routine. Here’s how you can give your go-to meals a break and inject variety into your diet.

Dietary Variety Starts at the Grocery Store

By definition, a varied diet means eating foods from across all food groups. This ensures you acquire a broad-spectrum of the macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals your body needs to help you feel your best. However, not everyone is great at buying and cooking the variety of foods a healthy diet requires.

A recent study paints a clearer picture of how little variety people have in their diet. In 2017, researchers compared the grocery shopping habits of four generations of adults.

Scientists wanted to learn about shopping and eating behaviors across a range of ages. This was the focus because you can tell a lot about a person’s health by the way they shop for food. And in the case of the millennial generation, it’s what they’re not buying that’s more revealing.

The study showed millennials spend less money on groceries than any of their predecessors. They prefer to dine out more and cook at home less. And the smallest portion of their money goes to buying healthy foods like whole grains, vegetables, and lean meats.

Instead, millennials are devoting the biggest chunk of their budgets to ready-to-eat food items that fall short of meeting the standard for good nutrition.

How does that impact the variety of your diet? When it comes to convenient snacks and prepackaged foods, the contents are similar. Starches, sugars, trans fats, and little fiber. Not the wide range of nutrients you can find in a diverse diet of whole foods.

The vibrant array of vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables can be largely absent in a diet of ready-to-eat foods. But you can boost the quality of your nutrition by including more food groups on your shopping list.

Millennial or not, pull your diet out of the rut that relies on prepackaged foods. Take a lesson from older generations and set aside more money for healthier, whole foods. It will make your shopping list more interesting and increase dietary variety.

Body Benefits of a Varied Diet

Plentiful evidence supports the concept that eating a variety of foods is best for your health. That’s because diversifying your diet broadens the sources of the vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients that fuel your body, which is important.

Your body utilizes dozens of nutrients your diet has to provide. That’s one reason eating the same thing every day proves tiresome. A healthy body has a high demand for macro- and micronutrients. And you can’t amass them all from one place.

Supplying your body with a bounty of nutrients is important for total-body health. All of your body’s systems, organs, and cells need these essential macro- and micronutrients. But there are specific body benefits.

Dietary variety predicts a healthier heart and weight range. Those are great reasons to opt for diversity in your dining. With a goal to eat more from each food group, you’re more likely to skip the crackers and chips and choose wholesome and more sustaining foods. This leads to picking high-fiber, low-calorie, nutrient-packed foods that support a healthy heart and weight.

Another reason for a more varied diet is the strength diversity brings to your gut. So much in the body is influenced by the digestive tract. Almost all nutrient absorption takes place in the small intestine and your immunity takes root in the gut, too.

Bacteria and microbes work alongside the cells in your small intestine to digest food and extract nutrients. But your microbiome needs nourishment just like the rest of your body. Prebiotic (those with fiber) and probiotic foods (those containing good bacteria) help you maintain a beneficial microbial balance. This makes what you feed your microbiome important.

In your quest for variety, try to find ways to add foods that facilitate good digestion and microbial diversity to your diet. Legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are good sources of the prebiotics that support gut health. Fermented dairy products (yogurt and kefir) as well as sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, and other healthy, plant-based options help provide the probiotics your guts need to maintain health.

So, the case for a wide-ranging diet is pretty simple: Including items from across the food groups fills your meals with substance and variety, while supplying the spectrum of nutrition you need to be healthy.

Tips to Increase the Variety in Your Diet

If you want to infuse you diet with more diversity, here are a few ideas to help get you started:

  1. Buy In-Season

A great way to increasingly vary your food is to buy fruits and vegetables during their peak season. Not all fruits and vegetables are available year-round. But when you shop for food in its growing season, you enjoy exceptional taste and freshness. Get to know when to expect your favorites to be the ripest.

Picking seasonal produce adds a layer of variety to your diet all year because what’s in season is always changing. Instead of always grabbing an apple, choose blackberries and strawberries during the warm berry season. Pick oranges in cooler months. You’ll adopt a revolving calendar of healthy foods to eat as fruits and vegetables rotate through their seasons. 

  1. Try Perimeter Shopping

Maybe a change in the way you shop is all you need to spice up your meals. Give perimeter shopping a try.

This technique can help you shake up what you choose in the grocery store. And the principle is simple. Try to only put foods found along the perimeter of the store in your shopping cart. Here’s why. The perimeter of most grocery stores is lined with healthy foods not found on the shelves at the center of the market. On the outside edges you find fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats, dairy, and whole grains.

Processed, conveniently packaged food tends to reside in the aisles lining the center of the store. Since items from the aisles in the middle are quick and easy to grab, you might forget that they’re not the best for you. Branch out from your comfort foods and try making meals with what you can find along the perimeter.

  1. Get Creative

Plan meals that use foods in new ways. Substitute spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles for your regular pasta. Try riced cauliflower in place of white rice. Swapping out food staples like these makes adding variety to your diet simple and satisfying. Not to mention the added vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients you’ll also pick up.

  1. The Brighter the Better

Noticing the colors of the food on your plate puts you on your way to creating a more varied diet. That’s because diverse foods come in a rainbow of colors, and a meal featuring several means you’re off to a good start.

The colors of your food also hint at the nutrients they bring to the table—literally. Orange and yellow foods (like carrots and peppers) are full of vitamin A to help support your vision. Green foods like broccoli and spinach have iron and calcium to maintain the health of your red blood cells. Red and purple fruits and veggies are packed with vitamins C and K to support your immunity and help with healthy mineral storage in your bones.

Imagine what you’d miss out on if you ate monochromatic meals. Instead, flood your body with the nutrition it deserves by splashing more color on your plate. And challenge yourself to eat from every color of the rainbow.

  1. Plan Ahead

A sure-fire way to diversify your cooking is by prepping healthy, assorted foods ahead of time. Busy days squeeze out any room for cooking, so it’s tempting to settle for a bowl of cereal or a trip through the drive through. Those options leave you without the healthy variety your diet desperately needs.

Pack your freezer full of mixed fruits and vegetables for days when you can’t cook. Steam frozen veggies for a quick bite. A fruit smoothie with berries, peaches, and banana is a great alternative to a lackluster fast-food sandwich—with many times the nutrient value.

Keep an assortment of healthy, fun, and flavorful foods at your fingertips so you can enjoy the dietary variety your body deserves.