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Brain Health – Attention, Focus, Memory, Recall & Mood

Research is showing us that the way we live now, in a more stressful, high-tech world, can over time affect our health in many ways, including being toxic for the brain.

Pollution, household chemicals, pesticides, eating too much processed food, not taking enough exercise, a build-up of parasites, bacteria and the accumulated electro-magnetic stress, are just some of the factors that can alter our brain health.

How can we take active steps to maintain and optimise our chances of keeping our brain in good health hopefully long into our older years?

The good news is, neuroscience, the science of the mind, shows that brain cells can be grown at any stage of life and so we can take responsibility now to improve our neural circuits – even boost our brains!

Our brains consist of two hemispheres linked to each other through neural pathways via the corpus collosum, a nutrient-dense area of fatty tissue and also to all the neural pathways in the body via the spinal cord running the length of the spine.

There are exercises and techniques that we can do, foods we can include in our diet regularly, and regular health checks for our eyes, ears, teeth and spine, all to maintain and boost our brains.

Let’s Start with Some Actions You Can Take:

  1. Learn to Cross-Crawl – cross-crawl are exercises that use opposite sides of the body at the same time. For example, lifting your right arm and your left leg, touching your left knee, then reverse. A simple exercise that can be done standing or sitting down, is fun to do with music, and is easily done while waiting for the kettle to boil or something similar if you are time pressed. Exercises like this strengthen the communication signals between your brain and your body, boosting brain function. The movement fires up the neural pathways either side of your brain, boosting clarity of thought, focus and spatial awareness.
  2. Use your opposite hand – When you use your dominant hand all the time only one side of your brain is engaged. When you use the non-dominant side, both hemispheres light up. Try writing or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand.
  3. Exercise – Just 30 minutes daily exercise that elevates your heart rate, is one of the best ways to encourage neuro-plasticity and stimulates a protein that triggers new brain cell growth and boosts the mitochondria in your neurons.
  4. Drink more water – The brain is 73% water and even a loss of fluid equal to 2% of your body weight can affect decision making, focus and memory. Apparently 75% of us are regularly dehydrated, which can trigger depression, chronic fatigue and ADD. When we wake after a night’s sleep our brains are especially dehydrated – up to 30% I have read, and drinking pure water upon rising is most important. I have already written a blog on the topic of water to refer to.
  5. Sleep – There are many studies of sleep and I have written a separate blog on this subject too. The consensus is that too little or two much and our brains don’t work properly. Less than 6 hours or more than 8 hours resulted in a reduction of memory function and decision-making ability. It’s worth re-mentioning that the brain has it’s own lymph system that starts working when we are in deep sleep. This ‘flushing out’ is connected the removal of amyloid plaques that clog up the neural pathways and lead to many health concerns, including dementia.
  6. Get your ears checked – There is a connection between hearing loss and brain decline and the development of dementia. The University of Colorado found that when hearing loss occurred, although the brain re-wired itself, handing over to sections that process touch or vision, the hearing parts of the brain were weakened. Turn on the hearing aids and a neuroplastic redress happens and reverses the damage.
  7. Get your eyes checked – When your sight weakens, so does your brain processing power, which relies on the eyes to feed it precise information. If your eyes are not in top condition or you don’t have the correct spectacle lenses, your brain’s response will be slower than it should be.
  8. Stimulate your tongue – The tongue is where two important meridians in the body meet. Brain fog and memory issues can be treated by boosting energy flow with acupuncture, activating the neural network in the brain in charge of balance.
  9. Meditation – Meditating lights up your frontal lobes and develops areas of the brain related to attention and sensory processing.
  10. Pranayama breathing – From the Yogic tradition. Pranayama breathing will oxygenate the brain and clear the nasal passages. Breathing through your nose instead of your mouth enhances memory consolidation.
  11. Listen to binaural beats – Listening to a form of sound wave therapy called binaural beat, boosts the main hormones responsible for brain health in older age, DHEA and melatonin, by 50% – 100% and reduces the stress hormone, cortisol in half.
  12. Start running – A study from New Mexico Highlands University found that ‘foot impact’, the ‘striking your foot’ on the ground, increases blood flow to the brain. Walking and running can build grey matter volume and strengthen overall cognitive skills.
  13. Nootropics – Food & Supplements for Brain Health:

    Nootropics are a bit of a buzzword for the supplements that state they can dramatically improve the functions carried out by the brain such as attention, focus, memory, ability to recall information and general brain health.

    Nootropics, often referred to as smart drugs, are compounds scientists and drug manufacturers are increasingly working on.

    There are many traditional herbs and nutrients that are reported to improve memory, help cognitive function etc. Herbs such as Ginkgo Biloba, Turmeric and Bacopa Monieri, three herbs that have shown great promise for numerous years. Sage, CoQ10 and specific vitamins and minerals, but to benefit they have to be taken on an ongoing basis.

    Many foods or food derived ingredients such as fish oils, dark chocolate and coffee are often referred to as nootropics. We know that omega 3 essential fatty acids found in fish oils and the caffeine found in coffee appear to be good for the brain, but these foods would need to be ingested for long time periods of time in order to obtain benefits for the brain so if you enjoy these already you are already building a happy brain!

    A true nootropic must be able to:

    • Enhance one’s memory and the ability to assimilate and process information.
    • Protect the brain tissues from chemicals and toxins.
    • Help brain function, even at times of extreme stress such as exams or work deadlines.
    • Display no side effects.

    There are over 80 synthetic and natural nootropic substances on the market. Smart drugs are prescription only medicines used to treat sleep disorders, ADAD, and other concerns. Synthetic nootropics are synthesised in a laboratory and their safety might be questionable as there are no long term studies so far. Natural nootropics consist of compounds and herbs which have been proven to be safe and effective. They work by boosting neurotransmitters in the brain.

    Looking at the Victoria Health website there are a couple of supplements that they endorse if you are thinking of taking a natural nootropic. Noomato and Neumentix which have description ingredients and how they work.

    Looking After the Older Brain:

    According to leading neuroscientist Dr Daniel Levitin, you can drastically increase your healthy years by looking after your brain and the concept that your mind will inevitably decline with age is false. Good news for many of us of a ‘certain age’! Myself included. In fact, old age is a time of extraordinary – and beneficial – brain development.

    To start with, there are remarkable improvements in mood. Older adults become more emotionally stable and more compassionate and with life experience are able to see the bigger picture. The older brain tends to make people more tolerant of others and grateful.

    Dr Levitin says, ‘You don’t have the same neurochemistry at age 8, or 36, or 68’. Dopamine, a chemical associated with drive and pleasure, decreases with age, while norepinephrine and serotonin remain stable. There can be intellectual improvements to look forward to especially certain kinds of problem solving that require empathy and compassion.

    The wisdom of older people is real and could be explained by changes in the brain that allow the left and right sides to communicate more freely with each other, allowing us to combine analytical and creative thinking.

    It would seem that even worries about memory loss are overblown and can be explained by other factors. For example, in later life changes in the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain mean we get distracted more easily, which impacts on our short-term memory. It’s likely we are not forgetting and just distracted thinking about something else.

    Another study comparing memory test results has shown that older people with hearing loss performed just as well as younger adults when they were tested in a quiet place. Also, another test found that when tested in the morning both groups performed as well as each other, but the older participants performed worse mid-afternoon. This can be explained by changes in the orbitofrontal cortex which sits just behind the eyeballs happening after we are 60, and our body clock is likely to shift forwards a few hours. This may help explain why older people tend to wake a rise early but often feel tired earlier in the evening. Knowing this, planning the day when the brain is performing at its best is helpful.

    Dr Levitin believes that memory loss and dementia are not inevitable as we get older and there is plenty we can do to reduce our risk. I have already listed quite a few strategies, adding to these not smoking and drinking less alcohol will have a really beneficial impact. Here’s a few other pointers from Dr Levitin.

    10 Rules for Looking after an Older Brain:

    1. Don’t retire – Don’t stop being engaged with meaningful work. That doesn’t mean to stay in paid work, but do something meaningful and purposeful.
    2. Look forward, not back – Reminiscing doesn’t promote health. Focus on what you need to do in the present: socialising, working, staying healthy.
    3. Exercise – Get your heart rate going. Preferably in nature as it brings extra stimulation.
    4. Embrace a moderated lifestyle – Don’t drink too much alcohol and don’t smoke. Calorie restriction can be beneficial too. A hungry brain has to stay sharp to look for food.
    5. Spend time with people of all ages, open to others ideas.
    6. Don’t think of yourself as old! – Its not good to think yourself incapable of certain tasks. Stay independent as long as possible. Even having some small responsibly, like looking after house plants should you become frail, will have a positive effect on the brain.
    7. Appreciate your cognitive strengths – pattern recognition, wisdom, accumulated knowledge and experience to bring to younger people.
    8. Promote cognitive thinking – travel and visiting new places, new activities and situations, learning another language, playing an instrument, learning a new skill.

    Other Factors to be Mindful About:

    At the start of this blog I mentioned other factors that affect us more than ever in our busy, Hi-Tech world, that can play havoc with how our body systems work, and it is worth having an awareness to take precautions where possible.

    Pollution, household chemicals, pesticides and the cumulative effect of electro-magnetic stress from white goods, computers, phones and the Wi-Fi that surrounds us.

    We can mitigate these to a degree if we switch off tech appliances when not required, use eco friendly cleaning products and/or make our own from cheap and easy ingredients like bicarbonate of soda, vinegar, lemon juice, etc. A quick search will throw up plenty of cleaning gurus! Check the components of any upholstered furniture and mattresses as the ethyl content will emit fumes unbeknown to us. Likewise with vinyl flooring.

    Review body and hair products – shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, hand wash, toothpaste and deodorant etc, all contain chemicals that can accumulate over time with possible detrimental effect when absorbed into the blood stream via the skin.

    Should you live on a main road and have high pollution, then planting a hedge between the property and the road can block car pollution to an extent.

    When possible, buy organic fruit and vegetables which have not been grown with chemical fertilisers. Always scrub hard skinned vegetables and fruits before storing them or preparing them to eat, to remove any surface chemicals. Thoroughly rinse leafy vegetables to help remove pesticides. Fruit and vegetables can harbour parasites on their skins which upset the microbiome.

    The importance of having a healthy gut microbiome has also been given a blog spot so I won’t mention too much here, but just further endorse eating both prebiotic and probiotic foods on a daily basis not only improves a healthy digestive system but beneficially affects brain health. Processed foods greatly increase inflammation in the body with their high proportion of refined sugars and carbohydrates, in turn negatively affecting the brain. Food has an effect on mental health.

    Hopefully this blog will have given an overview of how to maintain and enrich your brain at any age – food for thought!

    My next blog will follow on from this one – Good Mood Food – The-Gut Brain Axis – Don’t be SAD.

    Two recently published books that I sourced for this blog if you want to know more about brain health are:

    • The Changing Mind by Daniel Levitkin
    • Reboot Your Brain by Sara Davenport