Article by Deborah Colson and Dr Emer MacSweeney
As millions of people around the world embark on New Year’s resolutions with diet and fitness primary goals, it’s important not to overlook the brain; one of the most fascinating yet complex organs. The brain really is the boss of the body; controlling all of the body’s functions, movements and emotions, so it’s important to keep it healthy and working to its best ability.
The experts at award-winning brain clinic Re:Cognition Health are passionate about optimising brain health and understand that modern lifestyle pressures can seriously compromise its performance. Factors such as chronic stress and depression can affect the way the brain works; reliance upon modern technology can cause a decrease in mental performance, attention span, learning ability and memory function. Nutrition is another factor that can affect cognitive performance. It is important, therefore, that when making health inspired New Year’s resolutions, the brain is taken into consideration.
Below, nutritionist Deborah Colson and Dr Emer MacSweeney Consultant Neuroradiologist and CEO of Re:Cognition Health share their tips on improving brain health and optimising performance.
The brain generates up to 25 watts of electricity which is enough to power a low wattage LED light. Due to the amount of energy consumed by the brain; nutrition is an important factor in brain health.
Keep processed foods to a minimum – these foods are nutritionally poor, lacking in the vital micronutrients (vitamins, minerals etc) which are needed for the brain to function at its best. Processed foods are also more likely to contain additives and preservatives which are foreign chemicals that require detoxification.
Fats are friends- The brain is a very fatty organ (over 60% of its dry weight is fat) and is the most cholesterol-rich organ in the body, so despite what you may believe about fat being bad for you, it is actually essential for your brain. Essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6 found in oily fish, nuts and seeds) are especially important and you should aim for 2-3 portions of oily fish (such as salmon, mackerel sardines) per week, with regular intake of nuts and seeds. Saturated fats from good quality meat, dairy, eggs, coconut oil are also an important part of a brain healthy diet.
Sweeten with caution- Sugar is very bad for your brain (and artificial sweeteners aren’t any better!). Sugar is found in sweet foods and is derived from refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, white pasta etc) so these should be very occasional rather than everyday foods. Excess sugar increases your risk of dementia, along with heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Add water- The brain consists of around 70% water, so it’s important to maintain good hydration levels, as dehydration can be detrimental to cognitive performance, memory and attention.
Mind the bottle- Alcohol is toxic to the brain so keep your intake to moderate and occasional. The jury is out on caffeine – it may have some cognitive benefits, but overuse negates those benefits by disrupting sleep quality. Choose quality sources of caffeine such as organic coffee and tea, rather than poorer sources such as cola and energy drinks where it is often combined with sugar and other chemicals. Herbal teas are an excellent way to keep hydrated and may provide other benefits – for example, chamomile is relaxing and can help to promote sleep.
Bacteria for the Brain- Many people are surprised to learn that the beneficial bacteria living in their gut can affect their brain. It is increasingly recognised that an abundant and diverse population of gut bacteria are essential for brain health due to the constant two-way communication going on between gut and brain.
Pack in the Protein- Serotonin, the mood boosting hormone, is made in the gut as well as the brain. It is manufactured from an amino acid (L-tryptophan) which is present in protein-rich foods, and requires micronutrients in the manufacturing process to convert the L-trytophan into serotonin.
Dr Emer MacSweeney, CEO and Medical Director of Re:Cognition Health shares her lifestyle advice for a 2018 Brain Detox:
Get a good night’s sleep – Sleep deprivation or sleep interruption can increase stress levels. Sleep helps our brains clear away toxins, plaques and proteins that build up throughout the day and also helps us to remember new things we have learnt, improves concentration, mood and metabolism. It is essential to get between 6-8 hours sleep each day for our brains to optimise brain performance.
Exercise helps to metabolise the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol and restores calm in the body. Physical exercise also helps promote sleep. Forty minutes of aerobic exercise, three times a week is recommended to promote good brain health.
Don’t internalise, talk about your stress triggers – a problem halved is a problem shared. Sometimes just talking through a problem can help rationalise it and release tension; independent advice and perspective can be very beneficial.
Don’t try to do everything yourself – enlist help where you need it. Don’t be afraid to ask others for assistance and don’t be afraid to say no, if you are overloaded.
Take a lunch break – Mental performance drops if we don’t take breaks; decision making becomes slower, attention levels wane and thinking can become more rigid. Taking a break can help clear the mind and provide clarity.
Make lists – outline the key focus of the day and week. Prioritise the work load and action from the most important. Delete any actions that are not essential.
Focus on one thing at a time – With so many distractions, from social media, newsfeeds, messages, phone calls and the barrage of emails, it can be hard to stay focussed and concentrate on one thing at a time. By having many things on the go, tasks don’t get completed thoroughly or with the optimum amount of attention. Put the phone on silent and check emails at specific times.
Get social – Socialising helps to reduce anxiety and depression and improves mental sharpness. It’s important to establish and maintain good social networks and support both in and outside of the work environment.
Unplug – Try to remember calendar dates, shopping lists, phone numbers, maps, directions or instructions rather than relying on your smart phone. It is important to learn how to remember things and it is possible that generations who have not had the discipline of having to learn and retain information, may be less adept at doing this in the future.