Six lifestyle choices to improve your brain health

Broken bones and faulty hearts can often be treated with ease in modern day medicine. Matters of brain health, however, are not so simple.

In November 2016, figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that dementia is now the overall leading cause of death in England and Wales. To date, simply prescribing medication for dementia has failed to make any real, lasting difference. But, research in the USA has in fact shown that changes to lifestyle can prevent (and even reverse) the onset of dementia.

Here we look at the signs of declining brain health and what lifestyle changes can be made to prevent cognitive decline.

Declining brain health

Whilst dementia is often diagnosed in 70 and 80-year olds, the processes that eventually result in dementia occur much earlier – from our 30s onwards. So, keeping the brain’s structure in good physical condition is key to improving mood, memory, cognition, focus and concentration.

Warning signs indicating a potential risk of cognitive decline include brain fog, poor memory, anxiety, low mood, stress, a reduction in your ability to concentrate or having a family member who has been diagnosed with dementia. The good news is, research shows dietary and lifestyle choices can be adapted to support brain health and maintain healthy cognitive function.

To demonstrate this, The Bredesen Protocol has been developed to provide a comprehensive programme designed to improve cognition and reverse cognitive decline. In research and testing, of 140 people with early-stage Alzheimer’s who were treated using lifestyle interventions, more than 90% showed improvement in their symptoms.

How can we prevent cognitive decline?

It’s important to remember that our brain is an organ which is in some way connected to everything else that is happening within our body. Many of us don’t connect how we feel with what we eat, how much we relax and sleep, how much we exercise, or how much time we make for friends and social activities.

But, once these connections are made, we can change our approach to these important factors and to the daily food and lifestyle choices we make. The brain is resilient and can recover and heal when given the right conditions.

With this in mind, here are our top tips to future-proof your brain.

1. Improve nutrition generally

The core elements of a diet to support brain function are:

  • Low in sugar and moderate in starchy carbohydrates. This prevents the development of insulin resistance which can have a number of detrimental effects on cognitive function.
  • Plenty of vegetables as they contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidant nutrients. The brain is very susceptible to oxidative stress by ‘free radicals’ and antioxidants provide protection from these.
  • Healthy fats. The brain is 60% fat so adequate healthy dietary fats such as omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA are important.

2. Improve gut health

There’s an intrinsic link between gut health 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 and provide the gut with good bacteria. Foods good for gut health include dark green leafy vegetables, chicory, apples, olive oil and even 70% dark chocolate!

3. Reduce stress

Persistently elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) can kill brain cells and negatively affect brain function. Find stress-reducing 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.

4. Improve sleep

Sleep is vital for optimal brain health as during sleep our brain cells detoxify and cleanse. Find sleep strategies that work for you. For example, keep a regular sleep cycle, create a relaxing bedtime routine, eat well and get regular exercise and avoid screens and fluorescent lighting before bedtime.

It’s important to give yourself an 8-hour sleep opportunity each night – so, for example, if you need to be up at 7am, switch the light off at 11pm.

5. Exercise

Aerobic exercise protects the brain from damage and helps to produce new cells within the part of the brain responsible for memory and emotions – which commonly becomes damaged due to age and disease. Exercise increases blood flow and delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the brain, which are essential for brain function including concentration and mental focus.

Do whatever feels good for you. If you like running, great, but if you prefer something that’s lower-impact, that’s fine too. You could try walking, cycling, swimming, water aerobics, tai chi, as well as many other types of exercise. To start with, aim to do something that gets your heart rate up for between 15 to 30 minutes at a time.

6. Train your brain

Challenging and stretching the brain allows new connections to be created and maintained. The bigger the range of activities you use to challenge your brain, 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, socialise with friends, go to the theatre or take up a new hobby.

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Written by Becky Banham
Becky is Brand and Social Strategist for Happiful and a writer for Nutritionist Resource.
Written by Becky Banham
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