What elements of our lifestyle are taking the biggest toll on brain health? What does the science say?

Brain health is a term that covers so much: from sleep to mood to mental wellbeing and cognitive function. We know from observational studies and intervention trials that there are several factors impacting our brains in a noticeable way in the past couple of years: stress and uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, continued increase in screen time and reduced time outdoors, changes in our diets and for some of us, loneliness and loss of social connections. 

The science says that loneliness, losing sleep and an increase in overall stress levels are likely to have the biggest impact on our brain health. The good news is that we can do something about it by eating the right foods and taking some time to look after our mental health every day.

How much of a toll on the brain does stress have? Are there certain types of stress that are more ‘stressful’ than others? What are the most powerful ways to reduce stress for a healthier brain?

Stress causes an increase in cortisol levels and if this is sustained over time, as opposed to in response to a momentary real threat, this causes what we know as chronic low-grade inflammation. Couple this heightened stress state with foods that are inflammatory for our bodies and you have a perfect storm of pro-inflammatory chemicals that can damage our brain and make it more difficult for us to focus. In the long term, this can lead to cognitive decline and is associated with an increased risk of dementia. 

Luckily for us, the science is clear that there are powerful ways to reduce stress and improve our brain health: exercise, time outdoors and eating polyphenol-rich plant foods. Evidence also shows that having meaningful, supportive relationships and friendships in a stable social context are crucial for our long-term health.

Stress Control

When it comes to diet, how can we eat for better brain health? What are some good foods to eat in the long-term, and what about if you need a quick boost or a day you know you need to be particularly focused?

If there was ever a diet to benefit brain health it would have to be the Rainbow Diet. Think of it as the Mediterranean Diet with plenty of pulses, beans, whole grains, vegetables, fruits and extra virgin olive oil but with a focus on eating lots of different colours of plants. The polyphenols which give plants their bright colours are the perfect building blocks for our gut microbes to make helpful postbiotics that help reduce inflammation. These polyphenols also reduce oxidative stress in the brain and improve blood circulation by helping look after our blood vessels. Investing in high flavanol cacao, such as the one found in Indi Mind, coupled with a source of caffeine like guarana is ideal for long-term health and an immediate boost. 

Do any popular diets supercharge brain health, e.g. keto, low carb, Mediterranean? What about intermittent fasting?

The Mediterranean Diet has proven beneficial effects on mental health outcomes such as decreasing anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as reducing the risk of dementia, stroke and cognitive decline. Intermittent fasting is great to give our biology time to rest and repair overnight, which is also when our brain undergoes a ‘deep clean’ thanks to the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid which literally washes away oxidative stress. The ketogenic diet in a clinical setting can be helpful for some children who suffer from very severe seizures, but it is not recommended in any other setting and we have to remember that carbohydrates fuel our brains – we just need to choose high quality, whole grains like barley and not their ultra-processed versions like supermarket white bread.

Mediteranian Diet

When it comes to supplements, what works? What does the science say?

This is an evolving science and there aren’t many supplements that have been clinically trialled for their impact but what we do know is that certain dietary patterns are helpful. We know that eating a wide and abundant variety of plant foods is helpful for brain function, we know that iodine is essential and that caffeine increases alertness. There’s also a lot of interest in nootropics and adaptogens such as reishi mushrooms and ashwagandha; the bottom line with supplements is that they should not be used in place of a varied and nutrient-dense diet. The right supplement may enhance our overall health and brain function, and I believe these should be whole-food-based supplements like indi or eating fermented foods like sauerkraut daily. Nuts have proven beneficial benefits on brain health too – so let’s start looking at nature for our supplements instead of pills. 

What are the signs that your brain could do with some TLC? What level of forgetting things/confusion/brain fog is normal, and what isn’t considered normal?

This is extremely individual and changes with age, stress levels, sleep, illness etc. However there are some red flags to look out for at any age, and these include apathy, which basically means feeling nothing – either sadness or joy, losing interest in daily tasks and social interactions, inability to relax for even a short period of time, chronic sleeplessness caused by intrusive thoughts and anxiety and feeling lost or confused in familiar settings on several occasions. If you are at all worried please contact your doctor or mental health specialist.

What about fitness – are some types better than others for improving focus and concentration, as well as protecting the brain in the long term?

Interestingly, yes! There are certain types of exercise that have proven benefits for mental acuity and long-term brain health and they are brilliant for mood too. Traditional yoga practices, tai chi and qigong have all been proven to improve mental well-being and brain health in all age groups. Another form of exercise that has a myriad of proven health benefits is simply walking in green spaces such as forests, woods, parks and meadows.

Meditation

There are lots of studies that show meditation can nourish certain areas of the brain – is there anything else that works/is just as effective as meditation?

 Meditation is really worthwhile. Its impacts are so well documented and it really is an elixir for good health, but it takes practice and some people find it quite difficult to establish a regular practice. There is some evidence that breathing exercises based on yogic and meditation practices can have a similar impact thanks to effects it has on the vagus nerve. Another activity that seems to be really helpful is actually singing, again thanks to its activation of the vagus nerve and use of various parts of the brain associated with learning. Learning to play a musical instrument is a brilliant example of an activity that helps retain cognitive function into older age. 

What are some simple swaps/changes guys can make for better brain health and improved focus?

Men are often marketed the very worst processed food ‘solutions’ for concentration and energy. A very simple swap to make for improved brain health and focus is ditching the energy drinks for a matcha green tea or a coffee, and boost or ‘energy’ bars for a mixed natural nut and dried fruit trail mix which you can make at home.

Making sure you drink enough water throughout the day is another simple but effective way to improve mental acuity – dehydration is terrible for concentration. 

Thirdly, avoiding highly processed and sweet foods as snacks will help avoid blood glucose crashes that can lead to feelings of tiredness and inability to focus. 

Is there anything we haven’t mentioned that you think is important when it comes to supercharging the brain?

Yes, the gut-brain connection! Looking after your gut microbiome is the best way to ensure you are looking after your brain too. Lots of the benefits we feel when we look after our microbiome are thanks to our guts producing chemicals that directly impact our brain health –  from serotonin to hormones and short-chain fatty acids. Using a program such as ZOE gives us the power of insight into our microbiome health and how to eat to improve it. And another thing is oxytocin, the original brain ‘fertiliser’ that is so crucial in newborns is still important in adults. Doing things that we love with the people we love and having close physical contact is part of the joys of being human so hug your best friend and get that massage you’ve been planning to book. Your brain will thank you for it.

Gut Diet

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