Mental health disorders are complex and can take many forms. Today there are around 50 million people worldwide living with dementia, two-thirds of which have Alzheimer’s. This number is expected to almost double every 20 years, reaching 75 million in 2030 and 131.5 million in 2050 (source). Around 268 million suffer from depression and 275 million from anxiety (source). It’s no surprise that mental health is a hot topic right now. And it’s also a topic that spans far beyond the scope of this post. There are multiple factors at play from genetics to lifestyle. Lifestyle encompasses a lot and while we can’t prevent everything, taking care of your brain is something you can control. And it starts with looking after your whole body. Here are 5 top brain fuel tips for what you can do starting today to improve your memory and nourish a healthy brain for many years to come.
Tip 1: Sleep
Globally, we are sleeping less and less. Today’s modern lifestyle is all about that work hard play hard vibe. When it comes to brain fuel, hours and quality of sleep both matters to keep both body and mind ticking over. Without sleep, we would die in a matter of days. So why do we give it so little attention? The World Health Organisation recommends between 7-9 hours of sleep per night although this is individually based on age, genetics, environment and daily differences in physical and mental strain.
Sleep & Memory
Duration and quality matter. In terms of quality, we go through certain stages of sleep every night and each has a specific role to play. Tossing and turning or waking up during the night affects the cycle of these stages. For example, REM sleep seems to have a role in the consolidation stage of memory. Motor learning seems to depend on the amount of lighter stages of sleep, while certain types of visual learning seem to depend on the amount and timing of both deep, slow-wave sleep (SWS) and REM sleep (source). Zoning in on just the brain, learning and memory are often broken down into three broad stages: acquisition of new information, consolidation and recall. The first two take place during wakefulness while the latter occurs during sleep. So lack of sleep will affect this in a number of ways. For example, concentration and ability to learn is dampened.
From a longevity and health standpoint, sleep is a time for the body to repair, detoxify and regenerate. While some think that perhaps they can catch up on sleep on the weekends, some research is showing this not to be the case. Instead, it’s about consistency over the long term.
Check out this blog post for more: 6 tips on how to get a better night’s sleep.
To Do: Spend a week tracking how much sleep you actually get right now. What can you change? Think about how you can get to bed a bit earlier. You’d be surprised how often you stay up late by choice, not a necessity. Use an app to notebook to help you stay accountable to this goal.
Tip 2: Get moving
Research to date has shown exercise helping brain health in a number of ways: having an ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors i.e. chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells (source). Exercise also increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain. All of this aids the bodily release of a plethora of hormones, all of which participate in aiding and providing a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells. Not only that, but the knock-on effect of feeling healthy gets you thinking about other means of wellness.
For brain health, the overall and cumulative effect of physical activity is what’s important. Research suggests that aerobic exercise as a great support for brain health and exercising in the morning before going to work not only spikes brain activity and prepares you for mental stresses for the rest of the day, but also produces increases retention of new information, and better reaction to complex situations (source).
To Do: Add 1-2 aerobic sessions to your day. Get out for a run, walk, cycle. Breathe in the fresh air and enjoy time away from technology.
Tip 3: Sunlight
It’s an easy idea, yet completely under-appreciated. Getting adequate sunlight and exposure to nature has a huge effect on our mental health. At the end of the day, living and working inside tall buildings with artificial light and air is not a natural environment for us humans. We’ve spent most of our existence on this earth roaming the land. Light/dark helps to regulate our circadian rhythm, giving us the energy to wake up and winding us down for sleep. Everything right down to the cell is regulated by this 24/7 rhythm of light to dark to light. Sunlight also provides us with vitamin D, closely associated with mood. It’s no surprise that the highest rates of depression are found in northern countries with very scarce amounts of yearly light.
While in an ideal world we’d get outside every day, the good news is that vitamin D is fat soluble, meaning you can build up a store of it in your fat cells. On a daily basis, even when it’s not directly sunny you will still find a certain level of sun’s rays present. However, any sort of glass barrier (i.e. windows) will dampen this light significantly, even if it doesn’t look like it to the naked eye. The takeaway is to try and get outside for at least 15 minutes per day in the direct light. You can supplement vitamin D but proceed with caution. Given you can build up a store of vitamin D, it’s good to have a blood test periodically to check your levels.
To Do: Take a walk at lunch and get out of the office.
Tip 4: Blood sugar balancing
With many now referring to Alzheimer’s as type 3 diabetes, sugar has a role to play in brain health decline. Insulin resistance is associated with oxidative damage, cognitive decline, and other types of neurodegeneration. Insulin resistance occurs from eating too many carbs and sugar causing a state of chronically elevated insulin, which triggers fat cells to store fat, leading to inflammation and chronic disease, like obesity and diabetes.
You can read more in this guide to blood sugar but some balancing tips include:
- Eat every 4 hours
- Add protein to every meal
- Avoid refined sugar
- Focus on whole food sources of carbohydrates
- Eat low GI fruits, vegetables and grains
Tip 5: Brain Fuel: nourish with food
Here are just a few brain fuel foods to consider including in your daily diet to recharge your brain batteries.
- Eggs: a source of choline which helps to support brain health and memory.
- Oily fish: The brain is composed of 60% fat. But it’s favourite fat is omega 3. Increased intake has been linked to helping with a wide range of mental health concerns from anxiety to depression. Specific for the brain, look for foods high in DHA, a type of omega 3 fatty acid. The rule of thumb is that smaller fish have more DHA relative to EPA but aim to get a wide variety of oily fish in your diet – mackerel, salmon, trout, sardines etc. Flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and algae are also good sources.
- Berries: rich in antioxidants to help fight free radicals in the body
- Nuts: packed full of different healthy fats and vitamins to support your concentration.
- The rainbow – eat a wide variety of as many vegetables as possible. Aim to get at least three colours on your plate daily.
- Avoid packaged food where possible
- Avoid hydrogenated oils
To do: Focus on colour and variety. Fill your shopping basket and plate with a wide range of colourful fruit and veg. Rotate your protein and make sure fish gets in there a few times a week. When making up your lunch/dinner, try to get 2-3 different coloured veg and 1 tbsp of oil/nuts/seeds alongside some protein.
Of course, there’s plenty more to add to this list but hopefully, it gives you some ideas to focus on. Dedicate time to nourish, rest and thrive. The good news is that you can control for many diseases in later years by simply taking care of your body and health. So don’t waste the opportunity! Get your brain fuel in daily.