Language ability obviously starts in the brain, and so we should do everything we can to maximize this organ’s functionality. Poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle narrow your body’s arteries and increase inflammation, restricting how much blood (and by extension, how much oxygen) reaches your brain. In addition to the obvious health risks, this also greatly diminishes your ability to learn, think, and remember.
Fortunately, there are three guaranteed, certifiable, kid-tested, mother-approved ways to improve how fast you learn, how much new information you retain, and how well you perform in a foreign language: 1) get adequate sleep, 2) eat right, and 3) exercise regularly. “Gee thanks Captain Obvious.” Yah, I know, nothing groundbreaking here. But as I’ve researched and experimented with what exactly constitutes high quality sleep, good nutrition, and healthy exercise, I’ve been amazed how wrong (and even dangerous) most mainstream health advice tends to be. Case in point:
- Saturated fat does not cause heart disease and is in fact one of the most important fatty acids. Guess what? Butter is health food!
- Dietary cholesterol has little impact on serum levels so avoiding cholesterol rich foods is idiotic even if you buy into the highly flawed “lipid hypothesis” of heart disease.
- Vascular inflammation is the real issue in heart disease; high cholesterol is but a symptom. As Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions, puts it: “Just as a large police force is needed in a locality where crime occurs frequently, so cholesterol is needed in a poorly nourished body to protect the individual from a tendency to heart disease and cancer. Blaming coronary heart disease on cholesterol is like blaming the police for murder and theft in a high crime area.”
- More cancer is caused by under exposure to the sun than over exposure. Vitamin D deficiency is an extremely widespread health problem, made even worse by our indoor lifestyles and overuse of sunscreen (which often contains known carcinogens and prevents the skin’s vitamin D production system from kicking in).
Okay, enough ranting. Back to the language-health connection.
Get Enough Sleep
Most modern humans are severely sleep deprived, both in terms of quantity and quality. Instead of going to sleep when it’s dark and waking up when it’s light as we evolved to do, our natural circadian rhythms have been reset by high-stress lifestyles, artificial lighting (especially the blue light of TV and computer screens), alarm clocks, and regular over-consumption of sugar, starches, and alcohol.
In addition to hurting our ability to learn (our brains encode and store new information while we’re conked out during the night), sleep deprivation also hurts our performance while we’re awake, including our performance in skill-based endeavors like language. As John Medina shares in his excellent book Brain Rules (quoting a study on the performance of soldiers):
“One night’s loss of sleep resulted in about a 30 percent loss in overall cognitive skill, with a subsequent drop in performance. Bump that up to two nights’ loss, and the figure becomes 60 percent.”
And the negative effects of sleep loss are not just from pulling all-nighters:
“When sleep was restricted to six hours or less per night for just five nights, for example, cognitive performance matched that of a person suffering from 48 hours of continual sleep deprivations.”
￼So obviously sleep matters a great deal in learning and performing in a language. And yes, foreign languages are a performance. So what can we do to get more sleep and improve the quality of whatever hours we do get?
Eat Right and Exercise Enough (But Not Too Much)
Duh, right? Well, it may be obvious that we should eat right and exercise to stay in shape, but did you know that what you eat and how much you exercise also significantly impacts your ability to fall asleep (and stay asleep)? To ensure a smooth trip to La La Land, avoid consuming caffeine, sugary foods, and alcohol in the evening (or better yet, altogether). And contrary to popular belief, alcohol actually hurts the quality of your sleep. Try caffeine-free hot tea instead of booze for your night cap.
We’ll discuss exercise more in a minute, but I want to briefly mention it here given its effect on sleep. If you’re having trouble falling asleep at night, one surefire solution is to engage in some short, high-intensitity exercise a few times a week such as sprints and weight training.
Don’t watch TV right before bed
I know, I know. Everyone likes to enjoy their favorite shows before turning in for the night. But beware that the blue light from your television, computer, mobile device or iPad actually tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime. Combine this with the emotional impact of the programming itself, and it can become difficult to doze off even after pushing the off button.
Most of us get a bad case of “the sleepies” in the mid afternoon. We usually write this off as a product of our heavy lunch (and food does definitely play a part in energy levels), but the afternoon yawn is actually caused by the temporary stalemate between “two armies” as John Medina puts it, the body’s “Process C” (the “circadian arousal system” which wakes us up and keeps us awake) and “Process S” (the “homeostatic sleep drive” which puts us to sleep and keeps us under). If you want to have peak performance throughout your day, don’t fight the urge for an afternoon siesta.
Eat What You’re Evolved to Eat
About the worst thing you can do for your brain performance and overall health is consume foods you are not evolved to eat. And in today’s world of ubiquitous sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, processed and packaged foods with ingredients we can’t pronounce, feedlot raised animals fed diets even worse than ours, mass-marketed “health” foods that are anything but healthy, and a propensity for eating all these wannabe foods while on the run, it can be quite a challenge to consistently put the right kind of fuels in your body.
With a little research, planning, and discipline, however, it is very possible to eat well day in and day out. But I warn you now: proper nutrition will require changing some common misconceptions about what is actually “healthy”. Here is a quick list of what to avoid:
Avoid Sugars, Starches & Alcohol
As a general rule of thumb, try to avoid all white-colored foods and food ingredients (white sugar, white flour, white tubers, etc.) as they spike your insulin and signal your body to store energy in fat cells instead of burning the fuel you eat or carry in your love handles.
In addition to weight gain, high blood glucose levels also negatively effect the performance of the hippocampus, the brain’s center for retention and recall. I love gummy worms as much as you, but they aren’t exactly brain food.
And speaking of brain food, you may have heard that we have to eat carbs because the brain burns glucose. It’s true that our gray matter can use glucose as fuel, but it actually runs better on ketones, which our bodies naturally produce on lower carb, higher fat diets (which, by the way, is what our ice-age evolved species has survived and thrived on for the vast majority of our history). Moreover, our livers can create all the glucose we need from protein through a nifty process called gluconeogenesis.
Although grains, especially the “whole grain” variety, have been touted for decades as “healthy”, they are anything but good for us. Not only are they high in insulin-spiking carbohydrates, but they they also contain heaps of harmful anti-nutrients like gluten, gliadin, lectins (a sugar-binding protein that wreaks havoc on the gastrointestinal tract), and phytates. If you are consuming grains for their fiber, you can easily get the same (if not greater) benefit from just eating leafy green vegetables, especially considering the damage grain fiber does to intestinal microvilli (the little hair-like structures in the intestines that allow healthy individuals to absorb nutrients). We have only been consuming grains for roughly 10,000 years (the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms) and are most of us are not evolved to process them efficiently as fuel. Read Mark Sisson’s article Why Grains Are Unhealthy for more on this highly under-appreciated topic.
So if these yummy ingredients are off the table, what should we eat? It’s pretty simple: eat the two things humans are evolved to eat: plants and animals. Or to call on Mark Sisson again:
“Plants (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and herbs and spices) and animals (meat, fish, fowl, and eggs) should represent the entire composition of your diet.”
For maximum health benefits and brain function, choose the following kinds of plants and animals whenever possible. They may cost more in the short-term but the long term health benefits will be well worth it!
Eat Organic, Local-Grown Fruits & Vegetables
Buying organic helps ensure that you will not be consuming toxins harmful to your body and brain. This is especially important for fruits and vegetables that are consumed whole, skin and all like berries, apples, lettuce, bell peppers, celery, broccoli, etc. Buying local minimizes the impact on the environment and actually creates healthier, more nutrient-dense foods since they ripen on the stem, not in air-conditioned, chemical laden trucks, ships, or airplanes.
Eat Wild-Caught Fish
We all know by now the importance of omega-3 fats, and that salmon and other fish are excellent sources of the stuff. But not all fish are created equal! Most fish you see in the grocery store have been farm raised, reducing the quantity of omega-3s and lowering the overall nutritional value of the fish. Add to this the many ways that farm fishing harms wild fish populations and the choice becomes clear.
Eat 100% Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished Beef
If you don’t eat meat for spiritual or moral reasons, then I won’t push the point any further. But if you are avoiding the stuff on health grounds, you need to update your knowledge. Beef can actually be a very healthy addition to your diet, but it needs to be the right kind of beef. Just as humans get fat when they eat the wrong things, so do cows. When fed a diet of corn and soy instead of the wild grasses they are evolved to eat, a cow’s omega-3 to omega-6 body fat ratio becomes skewed in the wrong direction, producing higher concentrations of omega-6s, exactly the kind of fat you want to avoid. Grass-fed beef on the other hand has much higher percentages of our hero, omega-3, giving you a similar health benefit to eating salmon!
Eat Pasture-Raised Poultry & Eggs
Our little feathered friends are evolved to eat insect-centric omnivorous diets, not the vegetarian diet of corn, soy, and grain they are usually fed today. Feeding them this way leads to the wrong ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in meat and eggs, not too mention the cruel living conditions that go with it. Whenever possible, try to find “pasture raised” chickens and turkeys that are free to eat worms, bugs, and other slimy creatures they are meant to eat. Their bodies, and by extension, your’s, will be all the healthier for it. And before you raise your hand in protest about the fat and cholesterol in eggs, here is Mark Sisson again to the rescue, quoting the Framingham Heart Study, the longest and most comprehensive epidemiological study of all time:
“There is no correlation between dietary cholesterol intake and blood cholesterol levels. Framingham residents who ate the most cholesterol, saturated fat, and total calories actually weighed the least and were the most physically active.”
Exercise = More Blood to Your Brain
Along with eating right and getting enough sleep, exercise completes the brain health trinity. Sadly, most modern humans fall into one of two extreme camps: zero exercise or chronic exercise. Neither of these are good for us, and both will negatively effect your brain health. I don’t think anyone needs much convincing that some exercise is good for us, but for those who don’t believe there is such a thing as “too much exercise”, I highly suggest reading Mark Sisson’s article Why You Shouldn’t Burn More Than 4,000 Calories a Week Through Exercise.
Here now are but a few of the many brain benefits reaped through regular physical activity:
Increased Blood Flow to and Within the Brain
More blood means more oxygen for hungry brain cells and reduced damage from “free radicals”. This all adds up to improved memory and overall cognitive function.
Increased Neuron Creation
Studies show that exercise, not just exposure to new information as you would expect, increases brain cell production.
Increased production of BDNF
In addition to being a freakishly long word, “Brain-derived neurotrophic factor”, is one of the key chemicals involved in the formation and preservation of brain cells.
Increased Brain Stem Cell Activity
Research at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine shows that exercise moderates the activity of bone-morphogenetic protein (BMP), which reduces stem cell responsiveness in the brain. Within a weeks’ time, BMP levels were halved in lab mice that ran on a wheel, and an opposing protein aptly called “noggin” increased. As a result, the mice displayed remarkable adeptness in cognitive tests.
Exercise increases the production of endorphins, helping you feel good no matter what may be happening around you, and improves the brain’s ability to produce and process dopamine, so you feel good longer.
Every time you exercise despite really not feelin’ like it, you strengthen your self-discipline, meaning you are more likely to spend time that day on working your foreign language muscles, and perhaps even physical muscles, too.
So there you have it. Sleep. Eat. Move. Three simple (though not necessarily easy) steps to improve your brain fitness and supercharge your foreign language learning endeavors. Vroom, vroom!