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Mental matters

How to keep focused, improve memory and keep your mind sharp

Do you ever forget something you know you should have done? Difficulties with memory and mental focus can be caused by work pressures, money and family issues as well as everyday situations such as coping with traffic, approaching deadlines or receiving some bad news. Other causes are low energy intake, dehydration and inflammation.

“Customers ask increasingly about the brain health of relations when concerned about dementia, and about their offspring when it comes to exam times,” says Jill Bell from health store Well and Good in Midleton, Co Cork. “Often a discussion on mental health can be sparked by a chat about stress which leads on to forgetfulness, poor sleep patterns and feelings of low mood.”

“When you’re stressed your body can react in negative ways,” says Angela McGlanaghey from health store Simple Simon in Donegal town. “It can weaken the immune system over time and stress can deplete essential minerals such as magnesium out of the body.”

Food as brain fuel

Diet plays a role in giving the brain the nutrients it needs to function properly. The most important fuel for your brain is glucose, which comes from carbohydrates, so make sure you are eating enough wholefoods and slow burning carbohydrates such as porridge oats. Egg yolks are a rich source of choline, a substance linked to cognitive performance.

Antioxidants help to reduce inflammation caused by harmful free radicals formed when the body breaks down energy. Foods packed with antioxidants are brightly coloured fruit and vegetables and you should aim for seven servings per day.

Eating foods high in omega-3 like nuts and avocados and supplementing with fish oil, coconut oil and essential fatty acids is important for brain health.

Matcha tea is rich in l-theanine, an amino acid which relaxes the nervous system to help increase focus and concentration.

Foods to limit include sugar, processed foods and cutting down on tea and coffee will help brain function too. Try herbal or fruit teas and coffee alternatives instead.

“Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids are particularly beneficial for brain health,” says Olive Curran, nutritional therapist at PPC in Galway. “Fish is a particularly rich source of omega-3 DHA, especially cold water ‘fatty fish’ such as salmon, tuna, halibut, trout, mackerel, sardines and herring. DHA is a major building block of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain where higher level functioning occurs. If you’re not a fan of seafood, consider non-fish sources of omega-3s such as seaweed, walnuts, ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, winter squash, kidney and pinto beans, spinach, broccoli, pumpkin seeds and soybeans.”

Super supplements

“Magnesium and B vitamins can help in particular with insomnia as they are so important for nerve balance and helping calm both the body and mind in order to get a good night’s sleep,” says Angela McGlanaghey.

“L-Theanine is an amino acid which is present in green tea,” says Olive Curran. “It raises levels of several key neurotransmitters - serotonin, dopamine and GABA - to promote recall, learning, motivation and positive mood.”

“Most of our customers who supplement with fish oil or krill oil are aware of the benefits for brain health, and many of our customers, particularly in the older age range, use the oils for this reason as well as for aching joints,” says Jill Bell.

Other helpful supplements:

  • Vitamin B complex – supports the adrenal glands.
  • Vitamin D – for anyone suffering low mood or depression.
  • Folic acid, vitamins B12 and B6 – great brain simulators.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA found in krill oils.
  • Supplements containing passiflora, rhodiola, l-theanine, magnesium and B vitamins – can help with controlling your stress levels.
  • A liquid formulation containing superfoods such as wheat grass, barley grass and spirulina, B vitamins, minerals and some ginseng can give you an energy boost.

Lifestyle advice

“When we don’t get enough sleep it’s harder to function which in turn leads to more stress; so it’s a vicious circle,” says Angela McGlanaghey. “Trying to switch off in the evening along with eating a balanced diet and adding supplements such as magnesium to relax can help reduce stress.”

“In mindfulness meditation people are taught to focus on breath and body sensations and to non-judgmentally evaluate distracting thoughts and emotions,” says Olive Curran.

“Learning a new language seems to be the gold standard when it comes to waking up a dozy brain,” says Jill Bell, “but any puzzles such as crosswords or Sudoku can help.”

“The amount of concentration required to learn a new skill is far greater than if you sit down to complete a task in which you are comfortable,” says Olive Curran. “The activity needs to be something that’s unfamiliar and out of your comfort zone. To strengthen the brain, you need to keep learning and developing new skills.”

Other lifestyle advice includes:

  • Get enough sleep – if you have problems sleeping try a relaxing herbal tea. Matcha contains L-Theanine, an amino acid which relaxes the nervous system.
  • Do more exercise – being active is good for calming the mind. Go for a walk outside, take up yoga or whatever takes your fancy.
  • Meditate – to relax your busy brain and promote stillness.
  • Take a bath – before bed with lavender for relaxation of brain and body.
  • Have a massage – or reflexology session for a body-conscious treat.
  • Burn essential oils – rose, jasmine, lavender and geranium are all good for good mood. Bergamot, grapefruit and orange are uplifting oils.

Don’t try to remember everything!

Your brain will overload with information. Instead keep your glasses, purse and keys in the same place all the time. Make a list of what you want to achieve every day and other lists for longer term goals.

Choose a brain-boosting activity that is challenging, teaches you something news and is rewarding. And don’t forget to enjoy yourself! Board games, playing or singing music, learning another language are all good brain-boosting activities.

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