• Martina Ratto

Keeping our brain in tip-top condition this summer

The summer heat is back and it’s glorious! Although that heat wave last week might have left our brain feeling a little stewed. Perhaps your ability to think doesn't seem to work as efficiently as in cooler weather? Holidays and summer breaks are round the corner to give our minds a rest, but we might be worried about losing our healthy routines that we finally managed to build in the past months. You know what’s coming though… we got you! Keep reading to find out how to keep your brain on top this summer.



Our brain in summer


High temperatures are not the best for our brain. It is well known that vulnerable people, like the elderly, may experience health issues from extreme heat, but the general population isn’t usually bothered too much by heat waves - other than constantly having a dab on and saying “hot isn’t it?” to anyone who’s still listening.


However, a study led by the University of Harvard [1] shows that summer heat has an impact on our thinking abilities, slowing down our responses and affecting our working memory, responsible for our ability to make mental calculations, solve problems and make decisions in healthy, young people. We can see this negative impact of summer heat when we live or work in an environment that is not protected from high temperatures, while our thinking keeps on working properly if we spend time in a fresh environment, with aircon for example. This may not sound like great news from the perspective of climate change and the energy bills going up these days, but there are several ways to keep our environments cool and our brain fresh. From fans to blackout curtains and blinds, keeping windows closed during the hotter days, staying in the shade, eating fresh and hydrating foods and plunging into cool water (even if it’s just the shower).


But there’s one more thing, a very key thing, we can do for our brain during summer: keeping ourselves hydrated. Our brain is like a plant and it doesn’t work well without enough watering.


If you came to the conclusion that summer is not the best season for your brain, here’s some good news. A study led by the University of Liège [2], Belgium, found that our thinking abilities are impacted by seasonal changes in the length of daylight, and summer is the time when our ability to focus is at its best, since our brain requires less resources to maintain attention on a task.


While longer daylight and heat may influence our brain, it is always what we do with it that makes the difference.


What do we do with our brain during summer?


Summer is typically the time for vacation and we are usually able to make the most of our free time, with longer and sunnier days. This is a good time to take any stress off of our brain, switch off and restore. We can use the extra free time for dedicating ourselves to healthy routines, starting that book that has been on our bedside table for the last six months, walking outside after a day of work, or spending some time meditating in the garden. This all sounds ideal, until holidays come in and suddenly we found ourselves booking, packing, organising and leaving. Don’t panic. Leaving our routines for a holiday break is actually good for our brain to recharge, and an opportunity for stimulating it in ways that are out of our ordinary life. As long as we don’t overindulge too much on laziness and food, we make the best of it and treat ourselves a bit.


Here's some tips on how to look after your brain during the summer holidays:


Keep moving. Depending on your holiday plans, you might already have a lot of walking in your schedule. If your plan is to lay on a beach for the next three weeks, your brain will benefit from some regular movement. Have a refreshing and invigorating swim, try an adventurous activity that the place you are staying might offer, or pack a light yoga mat or mobility bands with you to keep up your usual routine if you prefer.


Keep fuelling your brain. Enough hydration and healthy nutrients are even more important during summer, especially if we are in extreme heat. Always take a water bottle with you when you go for excursions and tours, be mindful of alcoholic beverages and sugary soft drinks when you fancy an aperitif - consider a fruity, herbal or spicy mocktail instead. Have light meals with plenty of green vegetables, fish and nuts to recharge your brain of the nutrients it needs to function well, and even try local dishes to provide a variety of nutrients to your diet.


Stimulate your thinking. You have plenty of opportunities and time to exercise and stretch your brain during holidays. Take a book with you - holidays are often a good time to read or do puzzles and crosswords when you’re feeling bored. Take some pocket board games with you, learn something new - going to museums or joining a guided tour is a great way to give your brain something new to process, while having fun, you could even practice the language!



Restore your brain. It’s what holidays are for after all, even if you don’t want your brain to melt entirely, giving it a rest is just as helpful in keeping it functioning in tip-top condition. Take a break from tech and minimise the use of digital devices and social media, try to maintain a regular sleep routine (even if it’s a holiday routine), have a mindful holiday, and give yourself the time to take any experience at your own pace.


Beat the heat: Even with all the tips in the world, as it gets hotter we’re going to feel the effects. Do what you can, and if your brain has had enough by 4pm, go get a cool flannel and hydrate, maybe have a lie down on a cold hard surface. Don’t beat yourself up if work, parenting or simply doing the household jobs slips away a little, it’ll be cool again before we know it and we can resume as we were shortly!

 

References


[1] Cedeño Laurent JG et al. (2018). Reduced cognitive function during a heat wave among residents of non-air-conditioned buildings: An observational study of young adults in the summer of 2016.


[2] Meyers C. et al. (2016). Seasonality in human cognitive brain responses.