Clare Daley, nutritional therapist at Cytoplan provides her six top tips to support brain function and prevent cognitive decline which can lead to dementia
Even if unintentional, we can all do things which may damage our brain. Many of us consume too much sugar and refined carbohydrates and neglect the consumption of essential fats. In addition, we get inadequate sleep, experience high levels of chronic stress trying to cope with 21st century living, and on top of that we frequently do not get sufficient amounts of daily physical activity. All of this can result in cognitive decline – brain fog, poor memory, anxiety, low mood, stress and poor concentration are all warning signs. What’s more, whilst diseases like dementia are often diagnosed in 70 and 80-year olds, the processes that eventually result in dementia occur much earlier –in our 30’s and 40’s. Here are some top tips for how to future proof your brain for later life.
Improve your nutrition
Nutrition is essential for cognitive health. When looking to support brain function, consider foods that are low in sugar and moderate in starchy carbohydrates (e.g. sweet potato, carrots and leafy greens), contain healthy fats (e.g. avocado, nuts) and make sure you have plenty of vegetables with each main meal. Eating foods that are low in sugar can prevent the development of insulin resistance. This refers to insulin not working properly in helping glucose enter the brain cells where it is needed. This has the dual effect of blood sugar levels remaining high in the brain (and causing damage to neurons) and the brain cells being starved of glucose (i.e. fuel) because glucose cannot get into cells in sufficient amounts.
Vegetables contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidant nutrients. The brain is very susceptible to damage by ‘free radicals’ and antioxidants provide protection from these. Finally, the brain is 60% fat. Having a diet with adequate healthy dietary fats including the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, is important.
Improve your gut health
Did you know there’s an intrinsic link between gut and brain health? Poor gut health increases inflammation and this is one of the features of many chronic health conditions including cognitive decline. To improve gut health, remove specific foods from your diet that may trigger gut symptoms. Add in nutrients and fibre to support gut health (e.g. green leafy vegetables, chicory, apples, olive oil and even 70% dark chocolate).
Reduce your stress levels
We are all familiar with the causes of stress – in short 21st century living! Persistently elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) can kill brain cells and negatively affect brain function. In order to effectively manage stress, it is important to focus on stress reduction activities that work for you. These could include yoga, meditation, mindfulness, massage, breathing techniques, gardening, reading, listening to music or keeping a happiness and gratitude journal. When we learn to effectively manage our stress, we see an improvement in our sleep, energy, patience, resilience, focus and memory.
Get a good night’s sleep
Sleep is vital for optimal brain health as during sleep our brain cells detoxify and cleanse. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for restful sleep, however as we age we produce less, and therefore older individuals often experience more trouble sleeping. Whilst eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is possibly a dream for many of us, it’s important to find sleep strategies that work for you. For example, you could look to stick to a regular sleep cycle or create a relaxing bedtime routine. In addition, research has shown a number of factors can lead to a good night’s sleep including eating well, getting regular exercise and avoiding screens before bedtime.
We all know the many health benefits of physical activity, however few of us are aware of the role it plays in optimising cognitive health. Aerobic exercise protects the brain from damage and stimulates the production of new brain cells responsible for memory and emotions. These cells commonly become damaged due to age and disease. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and thus the delivery of oxygen and nutrients that are essential for brain function including concentration. In addition, physical activity that challenges you mentally, for example table tennis and dancing, has been shown to create new connections within the brain. The Department of Health recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times per week for adults. It should involve a combination of cardiovascular exercise and strength training. This needs to be a lifestyle change not a quick fix so it’s important to find a type of exercise you enjoy.
Train your brain
Challenging and stretching the brain allows new connections to be created and maintained. The adult brain continuously adapts to relevant sensory stimuli. Activities which challenge all the senses will help maintain processing speed. The wider range of activities you use, the more you will stimulate your brain in different ways. For example, you can read, write, do a crossword or puzzle, play games, use your non-dominant hand for everyday activities like brushing your teeth, cook new recipes or take up a new hobby. Remember, as with physical activity, it’s important to choose activities you will enjoy ensuring you continue to do them regularly!