Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 21, 2012

WriterStrong: 5 Ways to Achieve a Healthier Writing Brain

We're delighted to welcome August McLaughlin as our inaugural guest for the WriterStrong series. She's our go-to person for healthy eating and mental balance, all of which help YOU be BrainStrong.

Please join us in welcoming August by heaping blog love on her in the comments section.


Imagine waking up one day to a blurry world. Faces and objects you normally see clearly are indecipherable fuzz, and when you open your mouth to speak, nothing happens. Desperate to communicate, you try to reach for a pad of paper, your computer—anything. But your hands fall limp.

This is what happened to Jean-Dominique Bauby—the former editor of Elle magazine and author of the novel turned award-winning film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. He wrote the entire book using the one action he could manage: blinking his left eye.

Yes, we writers will write our way through any storm. Take our hands, our feet, our ability to speak or see, or contaminate us with influenza and chances are, we’ll find some way. We cannot afford to lose, however, our minds.

What does the brain need? A few primary things, according to biologists, psychologists and neurologists and extensive research—exercise, glucose and sleep. For optimized function, we also require an nutritious diet.

Eating Your Way to a Healthier Brain
by August McLaughlin

Photo from August McLaughlin

1. Eat more fruits and vegetables. We hear this all the time, and for good reason.Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables—such as berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes and leafy greens—are associated with improved memory and overall brain function, and a reduced risk for cognitive decline.

TIP: Eat at least one serving of fruits or vegetables with breakfast and at least two servings at lunch and dinner. 1 serving = 1 cup fresh or 1/2 cup cooked

2. Swap refined grains for whole. Refined grains, like white flour and instant rice, have had up to 90 percent of their nutritional content stripped away, including nutrients the brain adores. Whole grains, such as brown rice, wild rice, whole wheat, barley, spelt and quinoa, are loaded with brain-boosting nutrients.

TIP: Each shopping trip, buy a new or different whole grain food. Prepare a batch of brown rice, quinoa or whole wheat pasta to enjoy for the next several days.

3. Don’t diet. Dieting doesn’t simply starve your body; it starves your brain. Brain cells require at least twice as much glucose as other cells in your body. Going below your calorie or carbohydrate needs can cause foggy thinking, confusion, headaches, depressive moods, anxiety and creative dullness—not to mention hungry and deprived.

TIP: Instead of fixating on weight loss, focus on eating more nutrient-dense foods (like the ones mentioned here). This boosts your nutritional and brain wellness, and makes healthy weight control a byproduct.

Photo from August McLaughlin

4. Go fish! Fish, particularly cold-water types, like salmon, halibut and sardines, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids—nutrients many Americans lack that play a vital role in brain function. Symptoms of an omega-3 deficiency include depression, mood swings, sleep problems, skin problems and poor memory. (Blech.) The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice per week.

TIP: If you don’t eat fish, incorporate ground flaxseeds, canola oil and/or walnuts into your diet routinely for similar benefits.

5. Caffein-ate with caution. Moderate amounts of caffeine boosts brain function temporarily in some people. Consuming too much, however, or more than 3 cups (8-ounce cups, not Starbucks cups ;)) can offset your blood sugar and hormonal levels, lead to dependency and wreak havoc on your sleep. Caffeine can stay in your system for up to 12 hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation, and the brain is the first thing to suffer from sleep deficits.

TIP: If you gotta have your java, drink it early in the day. Switch to caffeine-free herbal tea later in the day, which provides antioxidants without the insomnia risks.

What habits do you have that rejuvenate your writing brain? Are there particular foods or habits that make you feel sluggish? Do you have any nutrition questions for August? We'd love to hear about them in the comments!

About August

August McLaughlin is a Los Angeles-based writer and author with articles featured regularly by LIVESTRONG.com, EHow Foods, ULMagazine, Healthy Aging Magazine, IAmThatGirl and more.

Before completing her first novel, In Her Shadow, August worked in the fashion, entertainment and wellness industries, wearing hats ranging from Parisian runway model to culinary coach. Considering her longstanding passion for thrillers, she wasn’t surprised when her attempt at a memoir turned quickly into a fictional tale of suspense. She is represented by John Rudolph of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management and is in the midst of completing her second novel, Beauty Complex. 

August's Blog - Savor The Storm
August on Twitter and Facebook

0 comments on “WriterStrong: 5 Ways to Achieve a Healthier Writing Brain”

  1. August, thanks for starting us out STRONG!

    Note to self: more fish.

    I'm with you, right down to the coffee. I've given up my vices - all except swearing and coffee - and I have no intention of limiting either. I'm claiming Old Lady Privilege!

    Great blog!

  2. LOL! Laura, I must agree with you. I'll give up a lot, but my cup of joe. I, too, need to eat more fish as well as fruits and veggies. And, oh yes, exercise! This old lady really needs to get her act together. Thanks for the wake up call, August.

    1. A cup 'o joe won't hurt you, and may help. It's the excessive amounts and late day espresso ODs that cause damage. In fact, have your coffee pre-workout for an extra boost. 😉 Glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. I also like to add regular exercise into the mix...it gives me the endorphins I need to write the racy scenes. 🙂

  4. Great post, August! I'm actually going to send the link to my husband. He's not a writer, but he's working as an editor at the moment and so he needs a strong brain too 🙂

    My tip would be to get the right amount of sleep for you. I used to hear about people who could function on 5-6 hours of sleep and so I thought that was all I should need. It's not. I need the complete 7-8 hours or more to function at my best.

    1. Ooh, yes. Sleep is ultra-vital. That's been my work-in-progress for years, and some of the most worthy. Glad you've learned the same, Marcy. Lots of well wishes to you and your husband. 🙂

  5. Great post, August. (Apparently, I've missed it, if we had an explanation of your unusual, but cool first name. The only other August I've known of is August Strinberg, a playwrite from aeons ago--a little hyperbyle there.) As to health issues, I implore all of you younger folks out there to get a handle on your weight before you hit menopause. So much harder after that. My CP, a counselor, agrees to the Don't Diet mantra. (Of course, in my 30s after having two kids, I did crazy stuff like 500 calories a day. I was slim, but shot my matabolism all to heck. Not reccommended behavior.) I eat way more fish than back then, usually a couple of times a week, and lots more vegies--not enough fruit, but we do have it on our high fiber cereal every morning.
    You didn't say anything about water, August. I try, but don't get enough. Much prefer unsweetened iced tea with a hint of peach, appricot or mango. But trying is better than ignoring, right. I do Pilates twice a week--so good for my brain as I try to focus on all those different parts of my body at one time. Walking other days. Thanks for reminders to look after ourselves. Love this new series, WITS.

      1. Fluids are important, Marsha. Are your teas caffeine-free? If so, they count toward your water consumption. You could also add apple or cucumber slices to water pitchers for added flavor. Sounds like you have fantastic habits in line!

        Touched that you like my name. 🙂 August is a traditional Swedish name, and was my great-grandfather's.

        1. No the tea isn't caffiene free, August. I just returned from Margie Lawson's Immersion Class, and she had what she called "Cute" water. Sounds like what you're talking about. Slices of a variety of fruits floated in the large glass container, and we all guzzeled that. Maybe it was the name. Maybe it was the fruit. 🙂 I plan to try to make some to help cut down on the iced tea.
          Thanks for the good words about my habits. Honesty compels me to tell you I ate two, yes count'em, two chocolate ecclairs last week on the same day. It's a once or twice a year thing. Nice reminder of my mother who loved them.
          How cool you were named for your great-grandfather! My older daughter named her daughter for my mother. Huge surprise and incredibly moving when she told us just after having Lillian, who we call Lilly. Occassionally I slip into Lil which my mother mostly went by. 🙂 Nice tip of the hat to the generations.

  6. Oh, August, I love fish and almost all seafood, and I married a guy who won't eat it for anything. I miss my fish. I need to incorporate it back into my diet, perhaps at lunches when he isn't here. Thanks for the reminder!

    As for fruits and veggies, I need to learn more delicious ways to prepare them because I really struggle with finding fruits and vegetables I genuinely like. Must. Work. On. That.

    Thanks so much for the tips!

  7. Beware, once you start exercising, your body craves it. 🙂 Really. But I have to say it gives me more energy and that makes the effort worth it. August, I can't eat "any" grain or major straches like potatoes and starchy beans like chili beans and lima. I do eat lots of green veggies and fruit and sea food. I eat the other meats too of course. I have more energy than I did before I discovered the food group giving me digestive misery and joint pain but almost every diatician force feeds us info that includes whole grains. Any other ideas?

    1. Hmm... I'd need to know more regarding why you don't tolerate so many foods. Are you gluten-intolerant? Or is fiber (prevalent in starchy foods) the problem? (Can be the case for people with certain digestive diseases...) One important step for you regardless will be not only eating plentiful amounts of fruits and vegetables, but also other carbohydrate sources you tolerate. If you feel great and are physically well, there's a good chance you're on a healthy track.
      If I can support you further, drop me a note through my website anytime: http://www.augustmclaughlin.com Good luck!

  8. When my husband had some health issues, we totally changed the way we ate. However, every once in a while we slide. Recently I went on a month long binge eating ice cream bars and twizzlers. My brain function came to a screaming halt. I couldn't have squeezed a single idea out of my brain, even if someone had been holding a gun to my head. (that last part was for the thriller author inside of you, August 🙂 ) I'm cleaning up my act again but it would be nice to finally figure out a way to beat the sweet habit once and for all. I'm walking daily again and for years, haven't drank coffee after lunch, otherwise I don't sleep at night. I'm healthy, no weight issues, but if I could just get some tips on beating the sugar habit, I'd have it made. Thanks for the great tips, August!

  9. August, great post ... I grew up on more fish than meat. I still prefer all manner of fish to other protein. Use lots of high quality protein with vegies and fruit. The results are I have a higher energy level and I have lost weight 🙂

    About the java? I had to stop for several weeks last year. Since I love the flavor of coffees, I switched to decaf-espresso ... rich, dark and great flavor with none of the jitters 🙂 Do you also recommend lots of water to flush out the toxins?

    1. Great question. Staying well hydrated is definitely vital for overall health, and dehydration can cause foggy thinking. For years it was believed that we needed 8+ cups of water daily. Now we know that a hydrating diet, rich in fresh foods, play a key role.

      People's needs vary, but in general, we should drink enough so that our pee is clear or pale (assuming we haven'd OD-d on B-vitamins or other pills yellow-ify pee ;)). For detoxification, a fiber and vegetable-rich diet is the most important factor. It allows our digestive tract to do its job in cleansing out toxins. A low-fluid diet is the second leading cause of constipation, so yeah. Important, too!

  10. August rocks. Great list.

    I have found that eating something like trail mix throughout a writing session keeps me from being distracted by hunger and prevents energy swings or dives.

  11. Getting enough water, sleep and exercise are my challenges, and lately I'm craving more sugar. Just lately I'm also in hormonal hell (my estrogen level just tested almost double the norm) so I'm sure that has something to do with the sugar cravings...


    1. Aw... *HUGS* So sorry the craving monster's taken hold of you. Sugar cravings can stem from a bunch of factors. Though I don't know the specifics of your eating habits, the following can help:
      - Eat every 3 to 4 hours.
      - Consume enough complex carb sources. Since you're gluten intolerant, great options include brown and wild rice, quinoa, beans, lentils...
      - Have some quality protein with every meal and snack (nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, fish, lean meats, plain or natural/low-sugar yogurt...)
      - Limit caffeine and pair it with meals. Sipping coffee or tea throughout the day day can offset blood sugar control, increasing cravings and hormonal imbalances. Caffeine and hot drinks also trigger hot flashes.
      -Limit sweets and "white" carbs (such as white rice, ice cream and enriched GF pasta) When you do eat them, pair them with protein and/or fiber-rich foods

      1. Yes, it's recent - I can usually take or leave sugar. I do drink too much caffeine so ever since you left this comment I've drank less of that and more water. I *think* it's making a difference, but it's only been 2 days. 🙂

      2. Excellent post, August! Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. I find the sugar monster hardest to beat when I'm under a lot of stress. I'm gluten free as well, and have been trying to lose weight. Years of typical gf swaps (higher in calories, fat and sugar to make up for what they lack in flavor) were SO bad on my weight. I've been trying to keep gf swaps to a minimum and to think of them as treats.

        I have to agree that "diets" that limit things like essential fatty acids, egg yolks, organic yogurt (I use goat because neither can I have cow dairy), nuts and seeds, etc. are not beneficial. Though I did initially lose some weight, I was struggling with the brain fog issue and (ahem) a complete loss of libido--and I'm a 46 year old woman--so not OK, and a pretty good sign that things are not as they should be.

        The best luck I've had with a great metabolism boost first thing in the morning, is to stick with lean protein and LOTS of veggies. I make myself a scramble of onion, mushroom, lots of fresh spinach, 1 organic chicken link diced, 1 whole egg plus an egg white. If I eat that every day, and only eat pancakes and (a few) potatoes on Sunday morning when my hubby makes them for our 9 yr old son, then my belly begins to reduce and I have more energy. I cannot live without my coffee first thing in the am, but will have to try skipping the afternoon I.V. 🙂 Thank you again for a great post.

  12. Hi, August! I'm pretty good at beakfast, lunch, and dinner but am HUNGRY at four p.m., and a piece of fruit doesn't fill me up. Any tips on getting from four p.m. to dinner at seven? (Dinner can't be moved up, darn it.)

    1. Hi Pat! Late afternoon is a common time for hunger, especially if your lunch took place 3+ hours before. Pairing fruit with protein-rich foods can really help. Top Greek yogurt with fruit or apple and banana slices with peanut or almond butter. Nuts and seeds also make great afternoon snacks. They are primo at reducing blood sugar imbalances and excessive hunger.

  13. First, I LOVED your list of healthy desserts on your blog, August. I kept praying "please, please, please let there me Slow-churned Ice Cream and Cheesecake on the list." Now that I know they're good for me in moderation, I don't have to pull the "if I eat it all tonight, it won't be here to torture me tomorrow" routine. Bring on the Dreyer's (Edy's) Slow-Churned Caramel Delight Ice Cream.

    Question for you: I drink copious amounts of iced Tazo Zen Green Tea. It has low, low amounts of caffeine and I have no trouble sleeping at night. I've heard differing opinions on whether the tea fills my water consumption goals for the day. I DO drink water "straight up" when I work out. Blood work confirms healthy liver and kidney function.

    [There was one blood test when I over-hydrated to plump up my small and prone-to-roll veins. I wanted to avoid torturing the nurses. Needles don't bother me. Go figure. The doctor retested because I'd completely flushed my system with 80 ounces of water before the 10:00 a.m. appointment, and she couldn't get a read on Creatine. Yes. She lectured me. No. I don't do that anymore.]

    1. The liquids in teas, and even coffee, do promote hydration—just not as much as caffeine-free fluids, or if we consume them excessively. And studies have shown that green tea is less likely to cause dehydration than coffee in larger amounts.

      For most people, consuming up to 300 milligrams of caffeine per day isn't harmful. If your tea suits this and you have regular bowel movements (usually 1 per day) and consume other fluid sources (fruits, vegetables, soups, low-fat milk...), you're likely just fine—particularly since you also drink water. To be safe, you could switch to caffeine-free tea or half tea/half water partway through the day. Hope that helps!

      1. Thanks, August. That helps a lot. I'll switch to a regimen of one water/one green tea/one water, and on-we-go in the evenings.

        All systems are go (pun intended), so I guess I'm getting the fiber and carbs I need.

  14. My addiction is not very healthy I love Diet Coke. I drink a large glass (32oz) of water in the morning first thing. IF I don't I won't drink it at all. I make sure I drink the water before I turn to my Diet Coke. But I fill a mug with ice then add the Coke. I drink it all day long adding more as the ice melts and the coke flattens out. I'm a recent widow and find it hard sometimes to cook for just me. I think food might be the problem as concentration has been hell this week.

    1. I'm so sorry to hear of your loss, CK. Cooking for one, and healthfully, can pose many challenges. Starting with baby steps--gradually increasing your stock of healthy fare, etc., and simply doing your best can go a long way. I encourage people to focus on healthy foods they enjoy, rather than on their "downfalls." Doing so often boosts physical and emotional wellness.

  15. How wonderfully refreshing to see a different and timely post on a writing blog. All the social networking and self-publishing, and e- publishing and branding, etc. etc. etc. have gotten old. Kudos to you both!

  16. Some great advice, August! I was already on board with the 'cut down on caffeine' and increasing fruit and veg, but will add the fish to my list too! I find I forget to look after myself especially when I'm trying to fit writing into an already busy schedule, so it's great to get reminders like this. Keep up the good work!

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