Take Care of Your Brain

Be a Better IT Professional by Taking Care of your Brain

It is obvious that being a good IT professional takes some brainpower. With optimal brain function you will be able to remember all sorts of technical details, troubleshoot problems faster, come up with creative approaches to tough technical challenges, and help you manage the stressful life as an IT professional. You need to remember to take care of your brain to optimize your performance.

While at Cisco Live this year in San Francisco, I was reading one of the event handouts regarding taking certification tests and I ran across some good advice. In a section of the event guide on "Tips for a Successful Testing Experience" it listed the following strategies to help maximize your score on a certification exam:

  • Get a good night's sleep.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast.
  • Arrive early before your exam…

This got me to thinking about how important having good fundamentals are to performance at work.

It is true that your mental state and your physical state are completely dependent on each other. Just like the rest of your body, the brain is made up of cells (100 billion nerve cells/neurons). Key components of the brain are neurotransmitters (acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin) made up of amino acids that help carry signals between neurons so that we can think. Having the right amounts of these neurotransmitters aids brain function.

The bottom line is that if you take care of your brain and it will take care of you. Here are some ways that you can improve your brain's function while working in the stressful fast-paced life of an IT professional.

Rest that Brain

It is difficult to be at peak mental processing capacity when you are starting a network change window that starts at 10PM and ends at 4AM the following day. Getting a good night sleep, not only the night before, but in the week leading up to that change window is essential. Getting a good night's rest may also help your subconscious solve problems while you are dreaming.

As organizations strive to "do more with less" it means that current networking staff must pick up the slack of maintaining the current environment but handling new technology deployments. That puts a strain on IT teams. That is why it is important to take vacation. I know many people in the IT industry who don't take their full allotment of vacation time each year. Year after year, more vacation time gets "rolled" into the following year till the point where you start losing vacation time because you have more than the company policy allows you to have at any moment. It is important to take a break from it all and give your brain a rest in order to return to your full potential. I recently took a good long vacation and it really helped me be able to cope with the stress of work. In previous years, where I haven't taken vacation regularly, I could definitely tell that work stress would build up on me and I would reach burn-out faster. Managing your vacation time throughout the year and taking time for yourself will help you concentrate when you return to work.

Feed that Brain

I was reading a cycling magazine recently and it had an article about how important it was to keep your brain active during exercise. The article talked about how carbohydrates feed your brain. Unlike muscle fibers, your brain cells cannot store glucose. To give your brain a constant supply of glucose you must consume complex carbohydrates. When blood sugar levels are low there is an increase in serotonin and adenosine which cause fatigue and decrease dopamine. Higher dopamine levels contribute to increased concentration and focus.

I know many network engineers that keep an energy bar in their computer bag for emergencies when they are stuck in a data center and can't get to any food. Consuming carbohydrates throughout the day will help you stay alert. There is a reason why carbohydrates make up the foundation of the food pyramid. I have known people who are on those extreme all-protein diets have problems remembering the simplest things. Furthermore, the old adage, that "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" is very true.

Water that Brain

The human body is made up of approximately 60% water. Water is essential to life and continued health. I think that most humans do not drink enough water each day to keep their internal systems well lubricated. If you don't drink enough water then your essential organs will pull water from other parts of your body in order to function causing other problems. If you drink the right amount of water daily that all your bodily systems operate better and that includes your brain.

You should be careful not to drink too much but not drinking enough can also cause problems. Your body size dictates how much water you should drink daily. Let me put it this way, you will know when you are drinking enough water when you are looking for a restroom every couple of hours.

Vitamins

Vitamin supplements can also nourish our bodies when we don't always have time to eat healthy. There are several vitamins that can boost your brain waves. I have noticed that taking Vitamin-C has also made a big improvement in my memory. Linus Pauling was an advocate for taking Vitamin C as a way to ward off the common cold and avoid cancer. B-complex vitamins can help with mood and reducing stress. Your brain sheath is made up of fats and it has been shown that omega-3 fatty acids improve brain cell communication. Eat good fats found in fish, nuts and olive oil, and avoid the bad fats which will clog your arteries. Eating a healthy diet and taking a multivitamin will help your brain function optimally.

Caffeine

Everyone knows that caffeine can be used as a stimulant to help jolt your brain into action. Caffeine can help the body process carbohydrates and since the brain needs carbohydrates caffeine can help you think. A little bit of caffeine may be a good thing. In fact, some believe that consuming caffeine and playing video games will help you "Hack your Brain".

While caffeine can temporarily stimulate your Central Nervous System (CNS), too much caffeine and sugar can cause a crash. Most colas have about 40mg of caffeine, energy drinks can have as much as 80mg of caffeine while a cup of coffee can have between 100mg and 200mg of caffeine. This past year my wife has got me hooked on green tea. I am not sure why this might help (she says it has to do with antioxidants) with brain function but I think that during winters in Colorado the soothing effect of warm fluids combined with the low-level amount of caffeine in tea (~15mg to ~30mg) allows for greater higher-level brain function.

Increasing Blood Flow to the Brain

In my 20s I used to be in exceptional physical condition through cycling and running. After moving to Seattle and getting out of the habit of exercising, starting a family, and few years of being on the road caused me to gain a bunch of weight. About 5 years ago I started to notice the weight gain and I took action to get myself back on track. I started with light exercise, drinking more water (3 liters/day), stopped drinking soda pop with sugar (diet soda from now on). Now I am back to the weight I had in my 20s and I have noticed an increase in my brain.

The brain uses about half of your body's total supply of oxygen in your blood. If you can improve your ability to get oxygen into your bloodstream then you have directly improved your brain's function. Through exercise, taking vitamins and antioxidants you will lose fewer brain cells over time and be smarter for longer.

Conclusion

I am not saying that you need evolve yourself into a Lance Armstrong or Dean Karnazes to have higher brain output. Actually, I believe there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

I am merely suggesting that taking a few simple steps may help you manage the stressful life of an IT professional and allow you to take full advantage of the brainpower you have. I hope some of this advice was helpful to you and that you will notice a change in the performance of your body's most important organ. Maybe this advice will help you score higher on your next certification exam.

If you are interested in other ways to get smarter you can read last year's May issue of Wired Magazine that was entirely dedicated to this topic. "Get Smarter: 12 Hacks That Will Amp Up Your Brainpower"

If you have any other ideas of ways to make the brain function better please share them. I am always willing to try "legal" ways of expanding my mind and doing the best with what few brain cells I have left.

Scott

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