Tag Archive for: cognitive functions

exercise and aging

exercise and aging

Most people know the basics of staying healthy—at least in theory. Eat nutritious foods. Exercise regularly. Sleep enough. But putting these healthy habits into practice is where there’s room for improvement. This is natural. Nobody is perfect, after all, and change can be difficult, especially after years of forming certain lifestyle habits.

Here’s the good news: supporting health at any age is possible no matter how long you’ve been putting off healthy lifestyle changes. It’s never too late to start living your best life.

Many people—especially those in middle age and later—think they’ve passed a point of no return on their health journey. That is, they think it is too late to see the health benefits of certain lifestyle changes. But studies show you can enjoy the benefits of healthy lifestyle changes at any age.

In other words, it’s never too late to start caring about your health and learning how to take care of your body. The first step is learning about the supporting science, and then applying health tips for all ages to support physical and mental health throughout your life.

Neuroplasticity: Habits, Change, and the Aging Brain

Humans are creatures of habit. Daily life is built around routines—meals, work, sleep, and hobbies. And, as you’re probably aware, these habits can be hard to break or change.

There’s a neurological reason for this. As you repeat certain behaviors or activities, the neurons in your brain rewire and adjust the way they fire to code that behavior as a habit. So the behavior literally becomes wired into your brain.

Naturally, these wired habits are difficult to break—difficult, not impossible. Your ability to change habits has, in part, to do with neuroplasticity, which is simply your brain’s ability to change.

From infancy and childhood (even into early adulthood), the brain is incredibly plastic. This means it changes and develops easily. As you age, this process slows so much that scientists used to think neuroplasticity disappeared completely around age 25. In other words, they thought the brain’s wiring was fully set by your mid-twenties.

Recent studies, however, have shown this isn’t the case. Your brain can form new connections, create new neurons, and change its structure at any age. The process might look different as you age, but it is still possible.

So yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks. And, more importantly, you can form new habits to support health at any age.

Out With the Bad: The Benefits of Dropping Unhealthy Habits Today

When people confront lifelong habits—whether it’s smoking, drinking too much, or eating too many processed food—they often ask the same question: how much of a difference could it really make?

The answer is simple. Dropping unhealthy habits as soon as possible can have a huge positive impact on your health.

Take smoking for instance. For a pack-a-day smoker of 20 years, each additional day spent smoking might seem like drops in the river. But the health benefits of quitting smoking, such as decreased risk of heart disease, can be seen after just one day.

Remember, if your goal is to replace unhealthy habits in your lifestyle, you have to start somewhere. Each day that you stick to your goals, you work towards rewiring your brain. So even if you’re not seeing immediate health benefits, you are working to create new neural pathways that will help you maintain a healthier lifestyle going forward.

Making the Change: How to Take Care of Your Body as You Age

The habits you set in early adulthood are factors that will shape your health profile later in life. Depending on your lifestyle, your risk for serious ailments will change. But those statistics aren’t set in stone.

Adults in their sixties, seventies, and beyond can still see the benefits of improving their diet, physical fitness, and mental health. Together, these positive lifestyle changes can set the stage for a happy and healthy life that extends well into old age. Whether you’re a teen, early adult, or pushing past middle age, look at the following tips for supporting health at any age:

  • Incorporate exercise into your routine: Whether it’s a daily walk, weight training, or high-intensity cardio, it’s important to stay active no matter your age. In young adults, high levels of physical activity improve cardiovascular health, respiratory health, and can help you maintain a high level of fitness later in life.
    If you’re middle aged or older, physical activity is just as important, if not more so. Increased levels of physical activity can help support you overall cardiovascular health, and more. And for older adults, physical activity helps keep muscles strong, helping maintain mobility and ensuring you can continue performing day-to-day tasks.
  • Eat nutritious food: Your diet affects nearly every aspect of your life. Food is fuel, and you want to make sure you’re giving the body the nutrients it needs to run effectively throughout life. During childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, your diet provides your body with the fuel it needs to grow and develop.
    As you age, your diet can help you maintain a healthy weight—which looks a little different for everyone—and can help support total body health throughout your life.
    Additionally, healthy eating can just make you feel better. It’s hard to quantify, but people who eat nutritious foods often report feeling more satisfied and energized throughout the day. And this is a benefit you can take advantage of at all ages.
  • Keep your brain engaged: Scenic walks, reading, or learning a new skill are a few activities that can help keep your brain engaged throughout life. The brain loves a challenge—so why not give it one?
    By striving to learn throughout life, you can keep your brain active. This promotes neuroplasticity and your brain’s ability to continue to learn and grow into old age. Staying mentally engaged and challenged can also help optimize mental health throughout life.

Stay Positive with a Growth Mindset to Stay Healthy as Your Age

No matter your age, caring about your health involves adopting a growth mindset. It means believing that your health and lifestyle can change for the better. It’ll just take time and effort.

Remember, these changes don’t have to occur all at once. Start small and work towards your larger goals. It’s natural to slip up, but it’s up to you how you respond to your mistakes. So what are you waiting for? Take the first step towards health—no matter how small.

puzzle solving

puzzle solving

Aging is inevitable. Worrying about your brain health as the years start adding up doesn’t have to be.

It is true that getting older impacts your brain. Aging has some minor impact on memory as your brain and body change. But you have the power to protect your brain health as the years add up. The solution: developing healthy behaviors now to keep yourself mentally sharp and cementing good brain habits for the future.

Brain Health Behavior 1: Target the Right Food for Brain Health

When people hear “healthy nutrition,” fats are the last macronutrient many might think about. However, the right kind of fats are critical for your brain health! In fact, more than half your brain is made up of fat.

Healthy fats (those coming from plants and certain fish) are vital for the structure and function of your brain and its cells. The best source of these essential fats are omega-3 fatty acids found in foods like nuts, seeds, and fatty, oily fish—like salmon, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines.

In addition to the right fats, a brain-healthy diet also includes plenty green leafy vegetables (like spinach), veggies like broccoli, and berries.

A simple trick for supporting brain health is swapping foods like bread or mashed potatoes for healthier alternatives. A side of green vegetables or mashed cauliflower are good options. Also switch out your snacks by reaching for nuts and seeds instead of chips and cookies. Another tip when meal planning is to aim for two or three servings of fish for healthy proteins and the fats you read about above.

Brain Health Behavior 2: Exercise!

Your brain uses up more energy than any other organ in the body. To get that energy in the right place, your heart supplies your brain with nutrients and oxygen through lots of blood.

Protecting your heart and blood vessels is one key way you can make sure your brain has the energy it needs. And exercise is one healthy behavior proven to maintain a healthy heart and blood vessels. When you exercise, your body pumps more blood throughout the body, including to the brain.

When you exercise, vary the type of physical activity and your routine from day to day. A combination of different types of exercises can help keep you interested and mentally stimulated.

For example, you could do aerobic exercises like jump rope, swimming, or walking one day. Then resistance training exercises—like weightlifting—are tackled another day. You can even switch it up within the same routine. Whatever gets your body moving and keeps your mind engaged!

Brain Health Behavior 3: Seek Quality Sleep

One of the best ways to support your brain health as you age is tucking in for six to eight hours of uninterrupted quality sleep every night. This healthy slumber gives your brain enough time to process the experiences of your day and perform natural repair functions.

Think of it like required daily maintenance for a sensitive and powerful machine. If you skip out on maintenance, you risk damaging the machine’s parts. Eventually, that means having a device that doesn’t work as well as it should.

Regularly skimping on quality sleep can have serious consequences later in life. One study found that people who consistently slept six hours or less every night were at a 30% higher chance of developing cognitive issues.

If you find yourself having trouble with sleep, your environment might be the culprit. Put away phones and other screens an hour or two before bed. The light from these devices can make it difficult for you to fall asleep.

Other factors in your environment can impact your ability to get some shut eye: the temperature, ambient light, sounds, or pets. You should also avoid using your bed for activities that don’t need to happen in a bed (like working from home), so your brain won’t associate being in bed with performing other tasks.

Your behaviors before bed can also affect your sleep cycle. Avoid drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages in the evening and stick as close as possible to the same sleep-wake schedule every day.

Brain Health Behavior 4: Stimulate Your Mind Every Day

Your brain is always growing and adapting to every experience you go through. To keep your brain healthy, you must encourage it to continue learning and growing.

There are many activities that can be counted as brain-health exercises to stimulate your mind and keep your brain healthy and adaptable. For example, try something new! Pick up some knitting needles, a paint brush, a new food recipe, a musical instrument, or a pen and paper. It doesn’t matter if you’re any good at the skill; it only matters that you do it and let yourself enjoy it.

Brain Health Behavior 5: Spend Time in Nature

Urban life is incredibly busy. There’s traffic, other people, loud sounds, and myriad of sources of information for your brain to process nonstop.

While mental stimulation can be great, your brain needs breaks to process and relax. Besides adequate sleep, one of the best ways to give your brain a chance to breathe and optimize your mental performance is to spend time in nature. Whether you take a hike or just take time to smell the flowers around the neighborhood, nature can help maintain brain health.

If all you have is 10 minutes a day to take a walk, find somewhere to immerse yourself in nature. This could be a park or a pathway by your work or home. On days you can’t make it outside, listening to nature sounds can also optimize your mental function and stress responses.

Brain Health Behavior 6: Manage Stress in Healthy Ways

Stress is normal in life. A little bit keeps you alive and protected from potential threats.

However, too much stress can have many negative effects on your health—including your brain health. That’s why you need to find healthy coping techniques to manage stress in your life.

Have multiple coping techniques in your arsenal in case you need them. Since everyone’s situation is different, it’ll take trial and error to find the right techniques that work for you.

Some healthy coping techniques for stress are the same healthy behaviors to support your brain health! For example, activities and skills you participate in to stimulate your mind can be great ways to relieve stress, and spending time in nature can give your mind time to reset and relax away from stressors.

You can also practice mindfulness techniques. Meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, or guided meditations are great options. Whatever techniques you choose, practice the techniques often, so you can stay on top stress management and make sure your coping methods of choice are available when you need them.

Healthy Behavior 7: Maintain Your Relationships

Humans are social creatures by nature. Societies are built on the foundation of communities—groups of people working together to survive and thrive.

With the need for other people so ingrained into human existence, it isn’t a surprise that relationships with others became important for your health. As social beings, human brains are programmed to thrive from activities that stimulate the mind—including being social.

Maintaining strong relationships with your friends, family, coworkers, or others around you supports brain health as you age. Regular social activities are an excellent method to stimulate your mind, and the support from relationships can help you find relief in times of stress.

To help maintain your relationships, set time every day to connect with others. This could be chatting briefly with someone at the grocery store or scheduling a time every day to eat a meal with your friends or family.

Healthy Aging Begins Now

Regardless of your age, healthy aging deserves your attention today. Healthy habits take time to develop and choosing to support your brain health now will prepare you to maintain its normal functioning as you age. You’re never too old—and it’s never too late—to take charge of your health!

essential oils

essential oils

Some days just stink. Whether you mean that literally or metaphorically, turning to the soothing aromas of essential oils is a good choice. The intense fragrances of popular scents can help sweep away the feelings of frustration gathered throughout your day and replace them with a sense of serenity and calm. But before you started on a peaceful aromatic adventure, learn how to safely use essential oils.

Start harnessing the strength of calming scents by adopting the 10 tips for proper essential oil usage that follow.

  1. Understanding Essential Oils is Key to Safe and Effective Usage

You may be able to recognize the bottle or smells of an essential oil. But it’s also important to learn what goes into making the potent liquid inside. The easy answer is: a whole lot of whatever plant is picked for its aroma.

The good parts about using so much plant material in the making of essential oils are the strength of scent and the variety and accumulation of important plant compounds. But this super-concentrated liquid has the potential for adverse effects when not used properly. Essential oils are strong substances, and must be used as directed.

  1. Consider the Reason You’re Using Oils

You should investigate your impetus for turning to these relaxation tools. There are plenty of benefits to using essential oils—feeling relaxed, creating a calming environment, or helping with a sense of well-being.

You need to ask if you aim to create smells around you or target specific areas of the body for sensations of cooling, warming, or soothing.

  1. Your Reason for Use Leads to the Right Oil and Best Method of Use

Once you understand your needs, you can choose the right method and oil for the results you’re looking for:

  • If you’re seeking calm feelings, turn to scents like lavender, geranium, rose, ylang ylang, and vanilla.
  • If you want to feel energized, good bets include: citrus, thyme, peppermint, and cinnamon.
  • If you aim to change the smell of your environment, you’ll need to use a diffuser, dilute oil in a spray bottle for spritzing, or take a bath with a few drops of essential oils.
  • If you want a specific sensation on your body, choose a topical application. But you need to take an extra step, which is conveniently described in the next essential oil tip.
  1. Use the Proper Carrier Oil for Topical Applications

Using powerful essential oils in their pure form can cause irritation and more. For example, lavender—and other members of the mint family—can dry out skin after direct application. That’s why a carrier oil should be used for comfortable topical use.

A carrier oil is a neutral oil used to dilute the essential oils you use on your skin. And you want your carrier oil to be made of plants. Coconut, olive, and grapeseed are common carrier oils.

It also helps to test your mix of carrier and essential oil on a small patch of skin to see how your body reacts before applying on a large area.

  1. Maximize Your Diffuser

A diffuser is one of the best ways to fill your immediate environment with the pleasant, relaxing smells of your favorite essential oils. A diffuser works by creating a fragrant mist that fills the room—and your nostrils. Different diffusers accomplish the task in a variety of ways, but the basics are the same across the board.

Proper cleaning and storage help keep your diffuser working properly. Clean after each use (unplug the machine first) and store dry. And, as always, follow the instructions for use that come with your diffuser.

You can use your diffuser to have fun with essential oil blends. You can buy pre-mixed blends or experiment with different recipes. A quick search of Google or Pinterest will supply a wealth of examples of oils blends. But you can also experiment with mixing special scent creations.

  1. A Few Drops Will Do: Essential Oils and the Bath

You don’t need an exploding ball of foamy glitter to make your bath a soothing experience. A few drops of your favorite essential oils enhance bath time by providing soothing feelings of well-being. And, no matter the size of your tub, a couple drops are enough.

  1. Sometimes a Whiff is Enough

Drawing a bath or setting up a diffuser takes time. If you need a quick aromatic reprieve, twist off the cap and inhale a few breaths of your favorite essential oil.

  1. Safely Practice Uncommon Uses

This may sound familiar, but restraint is the key to safely and effectively using your essential oils. A few drops on your dryer balls will adequately freshen up your laundry. You can easily amp up your hand soap or lotion with a drop or two of essential oil. Spritz your bed with a spray bottle filled with water and a couple drops of lavender oil. Just keep it to a couple of drops to safely achieve scent serenity.

  1. Use Essential Oils Safely During Pregnancy, Nursing, and on Children

Pregnancy is a time for extra care. That’s why you should talk to your doctor or medical professional about if, and how, essential oils can be used during pregnancy.

Also, make sure to keep essential oils out of reach of children. And use them carefully and properly diluted in a carrier oil for topical use on little ones. Checking in with your kid’s pediatrician is also good idea before using with children.

  1. Remember What NOT to do When Using Essential Oils to Avoid Issues

There’s a right way to experience the power of essential oils. And there’s a wrong way. Here’s what NOT to do:

  • Don’t use internally in any way. That means you should never inject oils. Also, don’t take essential oils by mouth (unless under the direction and supervision of your medical doctor).
  • Don’t use outside of the instructions on the label—including applying more product or doing so more frequently than recommended.
  • Don’t use without diluting in a carrier oil, diffuser, or spray bottle of water.
  • Avoid exposing mucous membranes, eyes, or your groin area to essential oils. (This is especially true for peppermint oil.) If you do get some oil where it doesn’t belong, use a carrier oil, not water, to deal with the issue.
  • Don’t add more than the recommended number of drops (typically one or two) for any method of use.
  • Don’t continue using an essential oil that causes skin irritation.
  • Don’t dilute an essential oil with water for a topical application. Water will aid absorption, which can make irritation worse. Use a proper carrier oil instead.
  • Avoid direct exposure to the sun after a topical application of certain essential oils—especially citrus varieties. Lemon oil, for instance, can cause significant irritation when applied topically and later exposed to sunlight. Test with a small patch of skin to see the impact before you head outside for a longer amount of time. It’s always best to practice safe sun exposure—using umbrellas, long pants, long sleeves, and sunscreen.
  • Don’t use essential oils without proper consultation with a medical or healthcare professional. This is especially true for those who have medical conditions or are taking prescription medications.

Each aroma your nose encounters sends your brain scurrying into action. Good smells may prompt a mental escape to a familiar location or pleasant memory with the accompanying calming feelings. But bad odors could send you spinning on your heels for a different kind of retreat.

These powerful reactions are the result of hard-won experiences by humans throughout the years. A sharp sense of smell was an evolutionary advantage. And it’s still coded into future generations’, shaping their interactions with the wider world.

Thanks to the abundance and advancements of modern life, survival might not depend on sniffing out rotten or harmful substances. But you can use your nose to aid your attempts to feel relaxed and refreshed during your busy days.

The Benefits of Aromatherapy: Why You Should Surround Yourself with Pleasant Aromas

Good smells are such a powerful draw that the global scented candle industry accounts for well over $300 million (USD) a year. It’s a much bigger number when you add in the fragrances, scented bath products, and other aromatic items people buy every day.

The money signals one thing: people are looking to improve the aromas around them. And this practice is nothing new. Ancient traditions around the world have used scent to better their lives for centuries.

That’s because the concept of using aromas to induce feelings is straightforward. And the benefits of aromatherapy are easily explained and experienced. They include:

  • Promoting calm feelings
  • Providing a sense of well-being
  • Prompting soothing feelings of escape and peace
  • Creating an uplifting environment
  • Helping establish a sense of harmony between mind and body
  • Sparking an energized feeling (for some specific scents)
  • Promoting a grounded feeling

Learning what certain smells can do for you is the first step. But now it might help to understand the science of aromatherapy.

Simplifying the Science of Aromatherapy

Scents signal portions of your central nervous system that deal with emotions, memories, and more instinctual actions. So exploring the science of aromatherapy starts with the interface between your nose and brain—the olfactory nerve.

Your nasal cavity is full of olfactory receptors that gather information from what you inhale. That information is sent up to the olfactory bulb—housed in your forebrain—for processing.

Important parts of your brain connect directly to the olfactory bulb, but for the purposes of aromatherapy, the hippocampus and amygdala are the most interesting. That’s because these two areas are tied to memories and emotions, respectively.

That’s only the physiology side of the science of aromatherapy. Other research has focused on how these neural connections manifest in links between aroma, memory, and emotions. Studies have consistently yielded data supporting the ability of aromas to trigger memories and an array of feelings—calm, energy, and well-being.

Many aromatic compounds studied chemically, as well. There are plenty to pick from, because fragrant plants contain hundreds of different chemical compounds. Some of the most notable include: Limonene (from lemon), linalool (found in lavender), the sesquiterpenes/terpenes in pine, and peppermint’s menthol.

Your Guide to Finding the Scents for You

Everybody has their favorite smells. They’re the ones that bring a smile to your face or summon a happy memory. Seeking out those scents that promote feelings of calm or serenity in you is made easier by aromatic aids powered frequently by essential oils (potent distillations of plant material).

Selecting the right scent for your personal aromatherapy experience is complicated by the sheer number of available options. Don’t fret. Modern approaches and ancient traditions can help guide your choices.

Scents that promote feelings of calm or well-being include:

  • Lavender
  • Vanilla
  • Jasmine
  • Ylang ylang
  • Rose
  • Chamomile
  • Geranium
  • Bergamot
  • Basil

If you’re looking to feel energized, there are scents are associated with those feelings, too. Look to citrus (lemon and sweet orange especially), peppermint, rosemary, cinnamon, thyme, and eucalyptus scents for prompting feelings of liveliness.

Also, earthy, woodsy, and some spicy scents are often seen as helping to provide a sense of groundedness.

Ancient Eastern traditions have incorporated aromatherapy for hundreds of years. But it relies on slightly different categorizations—yin, yang, and neutral scents.

Florals, citrus, and cooling aromas like peppermint are yin scents that can be associated with calm. Yang scents are spicy, warm, and energizing. They include rosemary, thyme, and ginger. Orange and sage are considered neutral, while woody smells can vary in their categorizations.

Start Your Own Exploration of the Benefits of Aromatherapy

Everyone has slightly different associations with smells, though. That means you may need to explore different scents and their impact on your feelings. Variety packs of essential oils are a popular starting place.

You can also mix different scents to create interesting blends. These combinations can create aromatherapy experiences. Try some common combinations:

  • rosemary, lavender, orange, and peppermint
  • eucalyptus, peppermint, basil, tea tree, and rosemary
  • lemongrass, orange, cedarwood, lavender, and frankincense
  • lemon, eucalyptus, and lemongrass
  • lavender, eucalyptus, and frankincense

Whether blended or alone, essentials oils are super concentrated with aromatic compounds. You only need to crack open the lid and take a whiff to experience the calming (or energizing) feelings that may follow. You can also add a couple of drops of a favorite scent or blend to a diffuser. And enhancing your bath with tea tree or geranium is another good option.

Whatever approach you choose, use scent to escape your day and focus on providing yourself with a sense of well-being. Experiencing the benefits and science of aromatherapy can help you facilitate soothing feelings of escape and peace. That makes aromatherapy the perfect addition to your self-care routine.

Sometime between 1 pm and 2 pm each day, students, stay-at-home parents, and corporate employees all fight the same battle: staving off mid-afternoon, post-lunch drowsiness. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know it can do a number on afternoon productivity. For most people, the solution is simple: load up on caffeine or an energy drink and power through. It gets the trick done, but is there a better way to cope with afternoon drowsiness?

As it turns out, there is! Recent studies suggest that instead of ignoring those heavy eyelids, you should succumb to them. Or, in other words, take a nap.

Some countries and cultures have an afternoon nap built into their daily schedule. But for most of us, napping is a rare treat—something to be enjoyed on the weekends or vacations. After all, the nine to five schedule doesn’t really leave time for a nap. As research continues to reveal the health benefits of napping, however, this might begin to change. (In fact some companies have already begun experimenting with company-sanctioned napping in the office!)

So whether you’re a nap enthusiast, skeptic, or simply curious, here’s why an afternoon nap might be just what you need.

The Science of Sleep

Sleep is one of life’s basic routines. It’s something everyone does (hopefully) every day. You’ve probably heard that the average adult needs somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep each night—and that’s true. But why? What’s so crucial about sleep?

It’s a question scientists have researched for decades and they’re still uncovering new information each year. Here’s what is known: Many of the benefits of sleep have to do with the brain, more specifically, with memory and brain plasticity (also called neuroplasticity).

Plasticity refers to your brain’s ability to interpret and respond to stimuli. Basically, when you’re well-rested, your brain can interpret inputs faster. In practice, this might mean reacting to visual information more quickly or simply digesting written information the first time you read it. You know the sluggishness that often follows a poor night of sleep? That is, in part, the result of reduced brain plasticity.

The role sleep plays in memory consolidation is still being explored. Throughout the day, you store countless details, facts, and other information in your brain. It’s not until you sleep, however, that this information is solidified into long-term memories. For decades, researchers believed that memory consolidation occurred during rapid eye movement (or REM) sleep—the final of the four stages. New research suggests this might not be the case.

Because sleep plays such a big role in memory formation and retention, much of the research surrounding napping also deals with memory. But more on that in the next section!

Napping and Memory Retention

If memory consolidation only occurred during REM sleep, naps probably wouldn’t do much for your ability to remember. It takes about an hour and a half of sleep to reach the REM stage—that’s longer than most naps. And though scientists are still exploring the exact relationship between sleep and memory, one thing is clear: a quick nap can do wonders for your memory.

Does this mean taking a nap will help you remember the name of that one kid who sat next to you in first grade? No. But let’s look at the areas of memory napping can help.

Most people are familiar with the concepts of short-term and long-term memory, but that’s only one way to categorize your brain’s storage capacity. Human memory is actually divided into a number of other categories. Item memory, for instance, refers to your ability to recall individual items from a list. Associative memory, on the other hand, refers to your ability to remember things that are paired or linked. Examples include: This face goes with that name; that car is always parked in front of this house—stuff like that.

In studies focused on item memory, napping has no effect on participants’ recall. When individuals take a 90-minute nap, however, their associative memory has been shown to improve.

Napping can even increase your ability to learn and encode new information. In one study, participants were given an associative memory task in the morning and evaluated on their recall. After that morning session, half of the participants took an afternoon nap, half did not. When the participants regrouped in the evening, they were all given another associative memory task and evaluated on their recall. Those who hadn’t napped performed worse than they had that morning—that is, they remembered fewer pairings. Those who had napped—you guessed it—performed better than they did in the morning.

How to Nap Properly: How Long is Too Long?

Like most good things, napping requires moderation. Snooze for too long and you might miss out on some of the health benefits of napping—and negatively impact your nightly slumber.

A good nap should be refreshing, and, as it turns out, short. While there’s no agreed upon “ideal” nap length, most experts suggest keeping naps under an hour and a half—the length of time it takes to reach REM sleep. Some even suggest napping for just ten to twenty minutes. If you’ve ever taken a much needed afternoon nap only to wake up feeling groggy and, frankly, worse than you did before the nap, there’s a good chance you slept too long.

In addition to giving you that groggy feeling, long naps can throw off your sleep schedule, especially if you’re napping later in the afternoon. To get the most from your naps, try to catch those afternoon zzz’s before 3 pm. And always set an alarm. A 20-minute nap may not seem like much, but it might be just what you need to shake off afternoon drowsiness and boost productivity for the rest of the day.

Coffee Naps Aren’t an Oxymoron

Most people drink coffee to help them wake up or stay awake, so you might not think to drink coffee before you nap. Here’s the thing: it takes about 20 minutes for your body to feel the effects of caffeine. And that’s the perfect amount of time to catch a quick nap.

At least that’s the logic followed by proponents of the “coffee nap.” It might seem counterintuitive, but drinking a cup of joe and then immediately settling down for a quick nap can help you wake up feeling more refreshed than if you’d just napped or just had coffee.

The benefits of coffee naps are hard to quantify—after all, it’s hard to measure how “tired” or “refreshed” someone feels. It’s all subjective. That being said, studies have shown that consuming 200 milligrams (mg) of caffeine (about two cups of regular black coffee) and then napping for twenty minutes may help you feel more refreshed upon waking.

Taking Napping to the Extreme: Segmented Sleep

If you’re regularly napping for three or more hours, your sleep cycle might begin to shift from a monophasic sleep pattern—that is, one big chunk of sleep—to a biphasic or even polyphasic sleep pattern. And, depending on your schedule, this might not be such a bad thing.

A biphasic sleep pattern means you’re sleeping in two chunks or shifts, usually for about four hours each. Some scientists believe this is a more natural sleep cycle for humans, as it aligns with the sleep patterns of many other mammals.

With biphasic sleep, the idea is to go to bed when the sun goes down, sleep for four hours, wake up for a few hours of meditation, prayer, reading, etc., and then settle back down for four more hours of sleep. Some people swear by this approach, but unfortunately most of the world is built around monophasic sleep. So biphasic sleep is not the most practical schedule to follow.

Harness the Health Benefits of Napping

Traditional work schedules can make napping difficult, but as more people become aware of the scientific benefits of napping, sneaking some shut-eye on the job is becoming a more mainstream practice. And who knows, maybe this article was the push you needed to finally incorporate an afternoon nap into your daily schedule.

Even if it’s just a 20-minute catnap, an afternoon snooze could change your relationship to work and your daily grind! So why not give it a shot? The health benefits of napping are right there—all you have to do is fall asleep.

Nothing can ruin your day like a restless night. You go to bed exhausted, hoping for some sweet rest and recuperation, only to toss and turn for hours. And then you wake up, somehow even more exhausted. It’s an awful feeling.

After one of those nights, you might notice that your vision, hearing, and other senses feel a little, well, off. So what gives? Why does a poor night’s sleep affect your senses?

Sleep is an incredibly complex part of life, though it may not appear that way. Scientists are still trying to reveal a more complete picture of sleep’s vital role for the human body and brain. But there’s already a wealth of research on the subject out there. And some of that research explores the connection between sleep and the senses.

As it turns out, this connection between sleep and the senses is a two-way street—or maybe even a multi-road intersection. Poor sleep can reduce the acuity of the five senses, but the five senses can also be responsible for a bad night’s sleep. And, conversely, you can sleep better using your senses with just a little bit of planning.

The Physiology of Sleep

It’s only in the last 70 years or so that scientists have come to realize that sleep is not a passive activity—at least not on a neurological level. While you sleep, your brain is actively engaged in various activities that help your brain and body function properly.

There are two types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM). Sleep is further broken down into stages. During stages one through three, known as quiet sleep, you experience NREM sleep. It’s only in the fourth stage, sometimes called active sleep, that REM sleep starts.

The exact nature of each stage of sleep and the brain’s activities during each is still up for debate. But here’s what is known: sleep plays a critical role in solidifying and compiling memories. Without sleep, you’ll likely find it more difficult to remember things. Originally, memory compilation was thought to occur during REM sleep. Recent studies, however, indicate that NREM sleep might be more critical in maintaining healthy memory function.

Lack of sleep can also affect brain plasticity—or the brain’s ability to process new information and input. This is where sleep, or lack thereof, can start to impact your senses. Your senses are simply stimuli picked up by various receptors and interpreted by your brain. If your brain plasticity decreases, it responds more slowly to that sensory input. And the interpretation side of sensation slows.

Sleep and the Senses: What Happens When You Get Too Little Sleep?

As you just read, the less you sleep, the more your brain plasticity decreases, which can affect your senses. But what does that look like in practice? How exactly are the senses affected?

Let’s start with vision. Everyone knows that driving drowsy is dangerous. But, as it turns out, falling asleep at the wheel isn’t the only danger. In a study conducted on long-haul truckers, researchers tried to measure the effects of sleep deprivation on vision.

After 27 hours without sleep, participants responded to a series of visual stimuli. The results were about as expected: In their sleep-deprived state, the participants reacted more slowly to visual cues and they missed more cues than when they were well rested. This had nothing to do with eye function, however. The researchers conducting the study realized that participants’ vision impairment was all due to issues on the cognitive side. That is, participants weren’t seeing any worse; their brains were just interpreting more slowly and less fully.

When your brain’s ability to interpret input slows, it doesn’t just affect vision—it extends to all of the senses. In a sleep-deprived state, you might notice you react to auditory stimuli (or sounds) more slowly. And the mental fog that accompanies sleeplessness may begin to encroach on day to day tasks.

Keep Your Senses Sharp With a Good Night’s Sleep

At this point, you’ve hopefully picked up on one main fact: poor sleep can have a negative effect on the acuity of your senses. But let’s move past the negative and focus on action and self-improvement. This raises a new question: how can the connection between sleep and the senses be used to improve your senses?

Well, if you’re basing your answer on the past few sections of this article, the answer is pretty clear: to keep your senses sharp, be sure to sleep enough. This, of course, is easier said than done.

Fortunately, when it comes to sleep, you can use your senses to your advantage. With a few intentional practices, you can leverage sight, sound, smell, and touch to sleep more soundly. But more on that later!

Are Your Senses Working While You Sleep?

Even while you’re asleep, your ears are hard at work. That’s why loud noises will jolt you awake. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense. If your body and senses completely shut off during sleep, you would be incredibly vulnerable. There would be no protection from predators.

Instead, your ears are constantly scanning for potential threats. And, even while you sleep, your brain is actively interpreting auditory stimuli, deciding what is relevant and what is not. (Which is why you might wake up to your baby’s cries, but not your air conditioning unit chugging away.)

Your ears aren’t the only sense organs at work while you sleep. If someone turns on the lights, there’s a good chance you’ll wake up—that’s because your eyes are still taking in visual information, even while your eyelids are closed. The same is true of your sense of touch and even smell.

So what does this mean for you and your sleep?

Sleep Better Using Your Senses

When it comes to sleep, most people focus on the moments leading up to it. And while there is a lot you can do before you fall asleep, you can also take advantage of the fact that your senses are still operating while you sleep to promote sound, restful nights of sleep. Here’s how you can sleep better using your senses:

  • Sight: When it’s time to sleep, your body begins to release the hormone melatonin. But how does it know when to do this? It’s part light cues and part circadian rhythm—which is just a fancy way of saying your body’s internal clock. As the sun goes down and the world gets darker, the body naturally begins to release melatonin.
    Here’s the problem: the sun isn’t the only source of light in your life. And there’s a good chance you don’t turn the lights down until you’re settling in for the night. You may have better luck falling and staying asleep if you dim the lights in the hour leading up to your bedtime. Try to avoid any bright lights. And yes, that includes your TV and phone screen.
  • Sound: Obviously, a quiet environment is the most conducive for sleep. You may not realize, however, all of the noises present in your life. Whether it’s the sound of traffic from outside or your AC unit in the window, the noises that fade into the background while you’re awake can interrupt your sleep. To counteract this, consider soundproofing your room or turning the AC off at night.
  • Smell: Many people find that certain smells, such as the scent of lavender, help relax them. By exposing yourself to these smells, you can help yourself unwind before bed. Stress is a big culprit for restlessness, so the more you can relax before bed, the better you’ll sleep.
    There is some evidence that suggests these scents cannot only help you fall asleep, but also stay asleep. If you use a diffuser, consider leaving it on all night.
  • Touch: For many people, especially those who regularly toss and turn with anxiety, weighted blankets provide a big benefit. The physical sensation of weight on your body can have a calming effect, helping you both fall and stay asleep.
  • Taste: Chamomile tea has been used to help support healthy sleep for years—and with good reason. Studies have shown that chamomile contains the flavonoid apogen, which can have mild sedative effects. This can help you feel relaxed and, in turn, help you fall asleep.

None of these suggestions are a fix-all solution. Some may work for you, others may not. The point is not to make huge lifestyle changes. Instead, simply try being more mindful of your senses and the way they affect your sleep. And as you do that, intentionally try a few of these practices out. Hopefully your sleep will thank you!

Waking Your Senses Up in the Morning

You’ve woken from a good night’s sleep—now what? In the morning, you’ll likely want to shake off the drowsiness and start your day. Once again, your senses (especially sight) can help! Rather than keeping the curtains drawn and avoiding the sunlight, try to introduce some more light into your mornings. This will help suppress the release of melatonin, waking you up faster.

Additionally, you don’t want to overload any of your senses immediately. Take it easy at first, being mindful of your senses and surroundings. Smell your coffee, and allow the scent to seep in. Savor the flavors of your breakfast. Slowing down a little bit in the morning can help you gear up for a productive day.

If you’ve ever seen a master chef taste food, there’s a good chance you were a little mystified. Can they really taste all of that in a single bite? It’s like they’re pulling a rabbit from a hat. Not even the subtlest flavors elude their palates. Experienced chefs can taste each flavor with an acuteness that allows them to create subtle, delicious combinations.

Most people tend to write this off as natural talent. And some of it certainly is. But, as it turns out, everyone—and that means you—can train their palate to be more sensitive and perceptive. Like most things in life, it just takes a little practice.

Here’s the good news: expanding and improving your palate is a straightforward, rewarding process. And you can start your journey towards a more flavorful life today!

Why Bother? The Benefits of Expanding Your Palate (And Improving it, Too)

To improve your palate, it helps to be adventurous (more on that concept to come). But expanding your palate doesn’t have to be an intensive, laborious process—you can put as much or as little into it as you like. Still, you might have one question upfront: why bother at all? Most people like food, and are perfectly happy sticking to their established culinary routines. They cook and eat the same select foods, taste the same flavors, and, at the end of the day, enjoy themselves.

So if it’s not broken, why fix it, right?

Listen to any chef talk about food for two minutes and you’ll have your answer. They’ve worked to improve and expand their tasting experiences and abilities. And to the trained palate, a meal becomes more than just a meal—there’s a connection to the food that wasn’t there before. That connection can open the door to a world of deliberate, mindful, and, yes, healthy eating.

Sold? Good. Let’s get into some palate development tips.

Improving Your Palate Starts With the Basics: The Five Building Blocks of Flavor

As you expand and train your palate, you are, in a sense, learning a new skill. And as with any new skill, it’s best to start with the basics. (Walk before you run, right?)

Your body can detect five basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. Before exploring the ways these tastes interact to create complex, satisfying flavors, you should be able to identify each on its own. The first four are pretty straightforward, but umami can be tricky to pin down. The term umami comes from the Japanese word for “savory” and is used to describe the savory flavor found in meat, mushrooms, and broth.

Think of your sense of taste like a muscle: the more you try to pick out individual tastes, the better at it you’ll become. So next time you drink a cup of coffee, slow down a bit. Let it sit on your tongue. What do you taste? Obviously, it’s going to taste bitter. But what else can you detect? There might be a slight sourness, too.

Do the same when you eat fruit. The predominant taste may be sweet, but you’ll likely notice other flavors, too. Is it slightly sour? Bitter? As you practice picking these basic flavors out, you’ll start to get a sense for the way they combine and complement one another.

Follow Your Nose—Or At Least Use It

Most people associate taste directly with the tongue. It is, after all, where your taste buds are located. That being said, your taste buds are actually pretty limited in their sensory capabilities—they can detect the five basic tastes, but not much else.

Your nose, on the other hand, can detect somewhere between 10,000 and 1 trillion unique scents. As you eat, your senses of taste and smell combine to create a single experience of “flavor.”

And when it comes to improving your palate, your nose is just as important as your mouth. Before eating (or drinking), give yourself time to sit with the aromas. What elements of the dish can you pick out using just your sense of smell? By identifying these smells, you’re priming the pump so when you do finally eat the food, your attention to smell will help enhance your experience of the food’s flavor. 

Step Outside Your Comfort Zone: Improving Your Palate With Exploration

One of the easiest—and most crucial—ways to improve your palate is simply expanding the variety of foods you eat. If you’re a creature of habit at the grocery store and in the kitchen, it might be time to break the cycle.

This doesn’t mean you should go out and buy a pound of lutefisk the first chance you get. Start small. If you typically stick to “safe” greens like iceberg and romaine lettuce, pick up some beet greens, kale, and chard. And just like that, you’ve transformed the flavor profile of tonight’s salad.

Another great way to explore new flavors is by diving into the cooking traditions of countries and cultures that are different from yours. The world is full of diverse, delicious flavors—there’s no reason you need to stick to the ones you are comfortable with. As you dip your toes into various global cuisines, it’s OK to start by eating at restaurants. When you find new dishes and flavors you love, you can then try replicating (and tweaking!) them in your kitchen.

You might be surprised by the familiar ingredients that go into unfamiliar dishes. Something as simple as a potato—which is typically prepared with salt and other basic seasonings in the U.S.—can be transformed into a vessel for myriad herbs and spices in, say, aloo gobi, a popular dish in Indian cuisine. So go out and buy a new cookbook or subscribe to a new food blog—there’s a world of flavors out there waiting!

Remember: you don’t have to like everything. Part of exploration is discovering the flavors and foods you don’t enjoy.

Hit the Reset Button With Palate Cleansers

Flavors linger in the mouth—some more than others. (Think onions, garlic, and other pungent foods.) It’s a fact that’s ruined many a first kiss, and, as it turns out, your ability to detect subtle flavors. Residual tastes in the mouth can mix with new flavors, masking or altering the true flavor of whatever food you happen to be eating next.

Fortunately, there’s a quick solution to this problem: palate cleansers. These neutral-tasting foods help clear residual morsels off of the tongue and “reset” your palate. It’s the reason sushi comes with pickled ginger and why some swanky restaurants bring you sorbet between courses.

But let’s be honest, most people don’t have pickled ginger or sorbet on hand. Don’t worry, because you can use something as simple as a plain cracker, white bread, or a glass of water to cleanse your palate.

Keep Your Mouth Healthy

At this point, everyone is well aware of the health risks associated with cigarettes. But health risks aside, smoking cigarettes can also impact your ability to taste food.

According to one study, the relationship between smoking and reduced taste sensitivity is linear: the more you smoke, the less acute your sense of taste will become. The good news is that the damage to your taste receptors isn’t permanent. Within two months of quitting, most smokers see their sense of taste return to normal.

Smoking, of course, isn’t the only thing that can affect the sensitivity of your taste buds. You should also try to avoid excessively hot, salty, or sugary foods—all of which can dull your sense of taste.

Make Time for Food

Most of these tips and suggestions have built towards a common theme: slow down and really enjoy your food. Savor the moment. If you’re constantly eating on the go, working as you eat lunch, or watching TV during dinner, your attention is split. And good food deserves your full attention.

There’s a name for this practice: mindful eating. You’ve maybe heard of mindfulness in the context of meditation or mental health treatments. But you can also apply the practice to food!

Simply put, mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present. What thoughts, feelings, and sensations are you experiencing? Acknowledge and accept each one. So what does this look like during a meal?

There are few steps you can take during each meal to make eating a more deliberate, mindful activity:

  • Express gratitude: First, take time to consider the labor, ingredients, and expertise that went into growing and preparing your meal. (This applies to home-cooked and restaurant meals.) A lot went into it—be sure to express your appreciation, even if it’s just internally.
  • Limit portion sizes: When delicious food is on the table, willpower crumbles. It’s tempting to dive right in and eat as much as you can as fast as you can. But ultimately, this takes away from the experience. Start with smaller portions and chew your food slowly and deliberately. You’ll be shocked at the way the flavors open up when you take your time. When you slow down, your body has more time to register how hungry or full you are, and you’ll likely need to eat less to feel satisfied.
  • Don’t come to the table hungry: OK, so this bullet point might be a little misleading. Obviously you should come to the table with an appetite—you want to be able to eat, after all. But you should try to avoid coming into a meal absolutely famished. If you’re ravenously hungry, it’ll be tough to slow down and appreciate the food. Try to find the balance of hungry but not too

What the Destination for Improving Your Palate Looks Like

Picture this: you set out to improve your palate a few months ago and have been gradually enjoying new foods, flavors, and experiences. What’s next? At what point is your palate fully “developed”?

That’s a trick question. Improving and expanding your palate is a never-ending process. As you develop, expand, and improve your palate, you’ll find there’s always more to try. It’s one of the joys of the process, but it can also be a bit imposing. So remember: take this journey on your own terms.

You might not become a master chef, and maybe you’ll always hate Brussels sprouts. At the end of the day, though, all that matters is that you’ve developed a new, exciting relationship to food and flavor.

Taste: it’s what makes eating so enjoyable. For all the pleasure taste brings, the mechanisms behind it are underappreciated. Food goes in the mouth, tastes good (or bad), and then it’s swallowed. The apparent simplicity makes taste a process most people take for granted.

Ask any passerby how taste works, and they’ll likely rattle off the basics: taste buds on the tongue pick up sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami flavors. And together these five components create, well, the flavor of food.

All of that is perfectly true, but there’s more to food than meets the tongue.

Think of a wine enthusiast sticking their nose into the glass before taking that first sip. Or a picky eater plugging their nose to make unpleasant foods go down easier. As any sommelier or chef can probably tell you, there’s a connection between taste and smell.

But how—and why—are taste and smell related? They’re simple questions with complicated answers. Fortunately for you, what follows digs into those questions and more. So read on to learn all about the taste-smell connection!

Taste vs. Flavor: An Important Distinction

In most situations, people use taste and flavor interchangeably. “This pasta had a nice taste” or “That pizza has great flavor.” For all intents and purposes, the phrases mean roughly the same thing. Parsing out the complex relationship between taste and smell, however, requires more exact language.

So let’s take a look at terminology. Throughout what follows, taste and flavor will refer to two distinct subjects.

  • Taste refers to the sense—the chemical process in which taste receptors respond to the molecules in food.
  • Flavor, on the other hand, is more abstract. It refers to what might casually be called taste, but is in fact a blend of taste, smell, texture, and more.

In short, taste will be used to describe an individual, isolated sense. Flavor, on the other hand, will describe the overall effect of food on a number of the senses.

What is Taste?

Each sense is a complex subject on its own, never mind putting two together. To avoid biting off more than you can chew, let’s start simple: how does the body translate the food in your mouth into the sensation of taste? Or, to put it a little more simply, how do you taste food?

Taste, also known as gustation, occurs when saliva breaks down and dissolves the food in your mouth enough for the molecules in said food to bind to taste receptors. Your taste receptors are located on the tongue, throat, and roof of the mouth. (Fun fact: Taste receptors are even found in the stomach and intestines, too!)

There are five types of taste receptors, each corresponding to one of the five basic tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. Contrary to popular belief, specific tastes aren’t restricted to certain parts of the tongue—all five types of taste receptors can be found throughout the mouth.

When a molecule—let’s say a sour one—bonds to the corresponding taste receptor (a sour taste bud), the electrical charge of the receptor cell changes. This electrical impulse is then relayed to a neuron, which sends the information to the brain. And, lo and behold, your mouth puckers up, your eyes squint, and you experience a sour taste.

It seems strange that there are only five distinct tastes. Why five? And, more specifically, why those five? As it turns out, this might be a question for evolutionary biologists.

The Evolving Role of Taste

In the early days of human evolution, taste was a matter of survival. The sense people often take for granted helped early hominids distinguish between nutritious and toxic foods.

And though humans have come a long way since then, many of those evolutionary impulses linger. Have you ever had a craving for a salty bag of kettle-cooked potato chips? What about something sweet? This may be because, on some level, your body still associates those tastes with nutrient-rich foods.

But these days, the five basic tastes are less about survival and more about enjoyment. Most people like to eat—and most people have certain preferences about what they eat. And those preferences, though they might be influenced by evolutionary factors, are based largely on flavor. And this is where smell comes in.

A Brief Overview of Smell

Remember how taste receptors can only register five distinct tastes? Well, the nose knows no such bounds. Scientists haven’t agreed on the exact number of scents humans can distinguish, but the number lies somewhere between 10,000 and 1 trillion. Either way, it’s a whole lot more than five.

But it’s not entirely clear how the body detects so many distinct scents, as there are only a few hundred types of olfactory receptors. (The brain really is miraculous.) These receptors, located in the back of the nose, are actually neurons that go directly to the brain. As molecules float into the nose, they bind to olfactory receptors that send the information to the brain via the olfactory nerve.

That’s enough about the mechanics of smell to provide background for the discussion of the connection between taste and smell. But there is another important distinction to make.

There are actually two types of smell: orthonasal olfaction and retronasal olfaction. Don’t be intimidated by the scientific terms. It’s just a fancy way of distinguishing where the smell entered the nose: orthonasal for the front (through the nostrils), retronasal for the back (through the mouth).

People often forget that the nose and mouth are linked. If you’ve ever laughed while drinking water, one of two things probably happened. You either coughed, sputtered, and spewed water out through your mouth. Or you laughed until the water came out your nose. In retronasal olfaction, molecules take the same route as the water in the aforementioned scenario: into the mouth and then up into the nasal cavity. There, they latch onto olfactory receptors.

This will come into play as you learn more about the connection between taste and smell.

When Taste and Smell Mix: All About Flavor

There’s a good chance you’ve heard that your sense of smell is responsible for a majority of a food’s perceived flavor. People love to throw around statistics, some shockingly high: this person might tell you 75 percent of taste is actually smell; another person claims it’s 90 percent. So which one is correct?

It’s complicated. And, unfortunately, a good way to measure the ratio exactly has yet to be discovered. Here’s what is known.

Smell can impact your perception of flavor in one of two ways: as a constitutive part of that flavor, or as a modulatory force. In the former case, a smell is part of the flavor itself. And in the latter, a smell alters or adjusts your perception of a taste.

One theory suggests that orthonasal olfaction (or smelling through the nostrils) acts as a modulatory force. It primes the pump, so to speak, telling your brain what to expect from your food, thus altering the food’s perceived flavor.

Think again of wine enthusiasts. Why do wine tasters stick their noses deep into each glass before taking the first sip? The practice is, in part, used to identify any imperfections in the wine. But it is also thought to enhance the flavor of wine. As you inhale the aromas of the wine and imagine their sources, you begin to anticipate the flavor. Only then, once the flavor palate of your imagination has been suitably stimulated, do you take a sip.

This process isn’t limited to wine. Pungent cheeses, sautéed onions and garlic, or a steak on the grill can all have the same effect on your nose.

OK—back to wine tasting. Once the wine is in your mouth, your other sense of smell, retronasal olfaction, kicks in. Molecules from the wine float up from your mouth and into the nasal cavity. But, of course, smell isn’t the only sense engaged at that moment. As those molecules are floating up, other compounds stay in the mouth, where they bind to taste receptors.

All of this sensory input is processed by the brain simultaneously. The information from your taste buds and your olfactory receptors blends into one indistinguishable experience. Because these two sensory experiences are so intertwined, retronasal olfaction is considered a key component of flavor.

A Look at the Numbers—Or Lack Thereof—About the Connection Between Taste and Smell

Experiencing a flavor is a difficult sensation to describe. But why? For starters, it’s rooted in experience. To understand the exact flavor you’re tasting, someone would have to eat the same food.

This is partly why it’s so difficult to assign proportions of flavor to smell and taste. Scientists understand both senses from a physiological standpoint. But flavor is, at its heart, a phenomenological (that is, based on direct experience) issue. The blending of both senses creates an experience that is hard to quantify.

If you came looking for numbers, this conclusion might be disappointing. Here’s the good news: you don’t need numbers quantifying the exact connection between taste and smell to enjoy a great meal. If it smells great, tastes great, and has great flavor, who cares what percentage of the work your nose is doing? Just dig in and enjoy some delicious, healthy food with a better understanding of how taste and smell are related.

Positive thinking isn’t just a great catchphrase. You can experience the scientific benefits of positivity. If optimism oozes from your every pore, cheers to you! But if your glass sometimes seems half empty, there’s good news—with a little effort, it’s relatively easy to trick your brain to be happy.

A positive outlook supports your immune system, aids in maintaining calm, and helps you adapt to change. Studies on the effects of positive thinking even show links to supporting long-term cardiovascular health.

Eric Kim, research fellow in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard says, “Our new findings suggest that we should make efforts to boost optimism, which has been shown to be associated with healthier behaviors and healthier ways of coping with life challenges.”

Positive thinking activates happy brain chemicals that can optimize your health, coping skills, and quality of life.

How Positivity Affects the Brain: The Science

Positivity affects the brain through chemical messengers. Neurotransmitters—like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin—play a major role in supporting your physical and mental health. They do this by sending instructions from brain cells to your muscles and organs. These chemicals help your brain and body work in tandem—so keeping them balanced is key.

The release of neurotransmitters has many triggers. And some may surprise you—like the plants that surround you. Multiple studies show indoor plants keep you feeling healthier and happier, but the benefits go both ways. You’ve probably heard talking to plants may help them grow better. But why? The theory is that plants may respond to the vibration and tones of the human voice (or music).

You aren’t so different. Just like plants, humans respond to vibration and tones. Life is a sea of rhythms that regulate several cardiac and neurological functions. Music and tones can support the activation of measurable stress-reducing pathways, and may even help maintain healthy heart rate, respiration, EEG measurements, body temperature, and blood pressure already in the normal range. Tones are also tied to immune and endocrine support, which may keep you feeling calm, energized, and in a good mood. All this explains what you already experience for your favorite songs. When you hear that perfect pitch, you feel it from your head to your toes.

If kind words and good vibrations—from music or positive talk—help plants grow, imagine what speaking kindly to yourself will do.

Physical Effects of Positive Thinking

When talking about the benefits of positive thinking, it’s not to encourage “toxic positivity”— invalidating what you’re experiencing by pretending everything is fine. But when a rough patch comes your way, finding the positives is better than allowing negative thoughts to run amok.

Even a few happy thoughts can evoke the following scientific benefits of positivity:

Support the immune system—When your body encounters occasional stress, these stressors can negatively impact your endocrine system and immune response. But your attitude toward stress also affects your immune response. It’s time to look at positivity as a tool that can help lead to health benefits.

Maintain calm—If anxiety is exacerbated by negative and intrusive thoughts, the opposite is also true. Expecting a positive outcome is a helpful formula to support calm, serenity, and balanced mood.

Optimizes resilience—How well you cope with problems defines your resilience. Rather than falling apart during challenges, positivity helps you to carry on and adapt to change.

Your positive thinking is reflected back to you in amazing ways. The next step is to train your brain to be happy, while respecting that all your feelings are valid.

3 Ways to Boost Your Bright Side

Living a healthy, happy life through the effects of positive thinking is appealing. But the world isn’t always hearts and flowers, and a positive frame of mind doesn’t come naturally for everyone.

Training your brain to be happy takes a little bit of work, but it’s your best go-to when life gives you lemons. Here are three ideas to spur positivity:

1. Trigger Your Happy Brain Chemicals

Tailor your lifestyle to fire up those neurotransmitters!

Use body movement to create positive thoughts—Certain body movements release happy brain chemicals. That’s why smiling, even if you don’t feel like it, can make you feel better. Even the simple gesture of holding both arms above your head in a victory stance sends happy signals to your brain. Move in ways that make you feel good—dance, swim, exercise, stand up straight, or just smile.

Listen to tones and music that help release neurotransmitters—Test key tonality and vibrations that work for you. Examples include music, laughter, or applause. To experience some funky tone therapy, listen to binaural beats by playing this Happiness Frequency track with headphones in both ears.

2. Keep a Grip on the Now

It’s easy to be so caught up in the daydream of your past and future that you forget that now is the only time there is. Teaching yourself to focus on the present is possible, and it offers plenty of benefits. It gives you time to calm down, prevents overthinking, and helps you make better decisions. To bring yourself into the moment:

  • Focus on your breath—Feel the air movement, watch your chest rise and fall, and count your breaths.
  • Pay attention to your senses—Focus on what you see, smell, touch, taste, or hear right now.
  • Meditate—Use guided meditation, sit quietly in a traditional way, or focus on white noise. Other ideas are to “feel” the energy in your hands, count the dishes you’re washing, or tally your steps.

3. Be Your Best Friend

Positivity is an inside job. Does the person in your head say nice things to you? Do you talk to yourself the way you would speak to your best friend? Jack Canfield, creator of Chicken Soup for the Soul, says “affirmations are to the mind what exercise is to the body.” And repeating affirmations helps to reprogram your unconscious mind for success.

Your positive self-talk should be simple and believable. Positive affirmations you don’t believe will get you nowhere. Try these techniques:

  • Start small and work your way up—Begin by telling yourself easy and general affirmations:

“I am enjoying the sunshine on my face.”

“All I need to do right now is breathe.”

“I have made it through hard times before.”

  • Get specific—As you become more confident in the positive reality you’ve created, you’re ready to move on to more personal affirmations:

“I welcome good things in my life.”

“I am healing.”

“I am worthy.”

“I can do this.”

Retraining your brain takes effort, but the effects of positive thinking last a lifetime. Even if life is not all roses and sunshine, learn to let the rain water your garden. Then you can sit back and watch your health blossom.

When you think about it, brains are strange. They keeping your organs working and monitor the environment for danger. Basically, it keeps you alive. Yet the brain is also able to randomly pop up the lyrics to decades-old one-hit wonders. You can crack some of the mysteries of the brain by understanding the basics of neuroscience. But interesting brain-body connections still bring up tantalizing questions.

You’ve come to the right place to find your answers about how the brain and body work together. The six fascinating questions explored below help provide enhanced perspective about the brain-body connection.

Is the Brain Involved in Every Single Process and Function of My Body?

The short answer is yes. You would think your brain needs to delegate sometimes. But the brain monitors and reacts to changes everywhere in your body—and in your environment.

That doesn’t mean you’re conscious of all that’s going on.

Paying attention to every little function of the body would drive you insane. That’s why many functions are basically automated—especially those that keep you alive. It’s the reason you don’t have to think about moving your food through the digestive system, regulating blood flow, or consciously convert light into images.

So your brain is involved in everything, but thankfully, your conscious attention isn’t always needed.

Does the Brain Communicate Directly with the Whole Body?

The answer depends on what you consider direct communication. Your brain isn’t hopping on the body’s loud speaker to announce a wound cleanup on the finger you just cut on a piece of paper.

But the brain-body connection is built on solid two-way communication.

Your nervous system is responsible for relaying many of these messages. These nerve pathways allow probably the most traditionally direct communication—like the special connection of the gut-brain axis.

Your brain also uses chemical messengers. This can be done through the release of neurotransmitters or hormones—depending on the desired result.

Your stress response is a good example. Your brain senses stress and triggers the proper glands to release stress hormones like cortisol. These messengers tell the body to prepare for fight or flight—ramping up the physical sensations of stress you experience.

The methods may not be as direct and simple as anyone—especially those studying the brain-body connection—might like. But the communication methods are effective, which helps maintain health and happiness.

Are Parts of the Body Assigned Their Own Space in the Brain?

Your brain doesn’t have a Department of Bones or a Ministry of Arm Muscles. But different areas of the brain do specialize in certain functions.

Here’s how it breaks down (in alphabetical, not anatomical, order):

  • Brain Stem: Your brain’s connection to the spinal cord is a hub for information and nerves throughout your head and body. It also contains the medulla oblongata, which participates in keeping your heart and lungs working properly.
  • Cerebellum: Thank this part of your brain for any sports success you’ve had. Movement, fine motor skills, and balance are the responsibility of the cerebellum.
  • Diencephalon: It contains the thalamus, epithalamus, and hypothalamus. Together, they’re involved in how you feel emotionally, how you sleep, what you remember, how you behave, and how your body maintains the status quo of homeostasis.
  • Frontal Lobes: The front part of your brain helps you pay attention, strategize, judge, and solve problems. It also plays a role in your motor skills.
  • Occipital Lobes: You’re reading this thanks to this area’s ties to vision.
  • Parietal Lobes: Coordinating and making sense of information from your senses happens here.
  • Temporal Lobes: This area helps you recognize people’s faces and emotions. It’s also a primary reason you can learn spoken languages.

Parts of the Immune System are Found Throughout the Body. Is the Brain Really Commanding all Those Immune Cells?

Your immune system is often described as an army patrolling the borders of your body. In that scenario, you may mistake the brain for their commanding officer. But the relationship isn’t s a strict chain of command.

It’s much more of a collaborative effort, with plenty of communication pathways between the brain and immune system. Your nervous system connects directly to the thymus and bone marrow where cells are produced, as well as the lymphatic system. The cells on the front line of immunity also have receptors for brain messages. And they signal the brain with cytokines.

What you have is a complex dance of sensing, communicating, and reacting that results in immune protection. Your brain and immune cells are perfectly paired because they’re programmed to respond to changes in your body and environment. So it make sense they work together to keep you feeling your best.

Does the Blood-Brain Barrier Interrupt Brain-Body Connection?

It does, but selectively so. The blood-brain barrier protects your central processing center from unsavory items circulating in your blood.

This is accomplished by clamping down the space between the endothelial cells lining blood-vessel walls. Larger molecules—especially toxins and pathogens—can’t pass. Oxygen, fuel, and other important molecules make it through. Cellular communication and an array of transport proteins also allow some flexibility for what can cross the barrier.

That means your brain has a way to protect itself from everything in the body. But this barrier doesn’t typically stop the normal processes of your brain-body connection.

Mind Over Matter is a Popular Mantra During Exercise. But is Your Brain Really Able to Overcome Physical Factors to Push You During Exercise?

Your heart pounds, a deep breath escapes you, and your muscles are gelatin. But a couple of minutes remain in your workout. Your body feels done. Your brain is helping you push through.

That’s because your body sends signals, and your brain decides how to interpret them. Your motivation and mindset come into play. Your experiences building resilience and endurance also determine how far your brain will let you push your body.

There is a point where you must stop. Your brain’s main concern is survival, and you do have physical limits. Reach a point where survival is threatened or you have too much lactic acid in your muscles to keep running, you won’t be able to push through that wall. But your brain does make it possible to go harder and further than you might think.