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Brain waves

Expert advice on keeping your brain healthy and reducing your risk of depression and dementia

The brain contains more than 100 billion cells working together to process information, form memories and recall,” says Olive Curran a Galway-based nutritional therapist who works with PPC. “Each cell has an outer membrane which is actually made up of fat. Believe it or not, the typical human brain is actually about 60% fat, so we obviously need to include fats in our diets if we want to keep ‘mission control’ up and running.

For minor cases of low mood and on-going stress food supplements can be a real help,” says Jill Bell of Well and Good in Midleton, Co Cork. “L-theanine, rhodiola, magnesium and B vitamins work effectively with no side-effects, as well as flower essences. Passiflora is an old favourite for helping you cope with stress and fish oil is essential for brain health.”

Other brain supporting supplements include:

  • Vitamin D – for anyone whose mood is affected by the lack of sunlight.
  • Vitamin B complex – to support the adrenal glands.
  • Vitamin formulations that contain magnesium - aid in calming the body.
  • Essential fatty acids (EFAs) – cannot be made in the body. Good sources include sardines, mackerel and salmon or take a supplement. Omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA - found in krill oil.
  • Folic acid, vitamins B12 and B6 – as great brain simulators.
  • A combination of rhodiola, chamomile, vitamins and magnesium combined with a multi B complex – for help if you’re really run down.
  • Liquid formulations that contain superfoods such as wheat grass, barley grass and spirulina, B vitamins, minerals and some ginseng for energy.

Lifestyle advice for a healthier brain

“Lifestyle changes can make a big impact,” says Jill Bell. “Cutting down on caffeine, alcohol and processed foods, grazing carefully to keep blood sugar levels balanced if this is an issue, counselling, and therapies such as yoga, acupuncture and even exercise are all frequent suggestions as well as tips on how to get adequate sleep. Crosswords and Sudoku keep the brain active, but nothing works as well as good friends and social outlets.”

  • Meditate – to relax your busy brain and promote stillness.
  • Burn essential oils – try rose, jasmine, lavender, geranium, bergamot, grapefruit or orange.
  • 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.
  • Look after your mood – if you are anxious, depressed or sleep-deprived this will affect your brain efficiency. Try to deal with these issues before they start to control you – see our article 'Keep calm and carry on' here.

Teens need Omega-3

“Teenagers require omega-3 and healthy omega-6 GLA to help boost brain power and regulate hormones and balance mood,” says Olive Curran. “Students require at least 250mg omega-3 DHA daily while studying for exams. Just as calcium is essential for building strong bones, DHA and EPA ensure that the cells in the brain, eyes, heart and other parts of the nervous system develop and function properly through all stages of life. Increasing your level of omega-3, either through diet or supplementation can lead to improved concentration, a sharper memory and less anxiety, making it easier to study.”

The best foods for your brain

General food advice for helping to keep your brain sharp includes eating a low sugar fresh and unprocessed diet, and cutting down on tea and coffee, as well as eating plenty of antioxidants in foods such as brightly coloured fruit and vegetables - aim for seven servings per day.

“Oily fish (sardines, anchovies, mackerel, salmon) is a direct source of omega-3 EPA and DHA, which support brain, eye, and heart health throughout life,” says Olive Curran. “Surprisingly, a massive 89% of Irish people are not consuming sufficient oily fish in their diet, so unless your child/teen is eating 2-3 portions of oily fish a week, an omega-3 supplement is a must.”

“What happens in the head is often reflected in the digestive tract since the two are linked by the vagus nerve,” says Jill Bell. “Often a customer comes in with digestive problems when the cause of the problem is stress, and treating the head can heal the gut. 60% of our brains comprise omega-3 fatty acids, most readily available in oily fish (even tinned sardines) and foods such as nuts and seeds, avocados and eggs are vital, as is an all-round healthy nutritious diet.

“Most of our natural serotonin, a neurotransmitter that prescribed antidepressants attempt to stimulate, is found in the gut, so minding gut health is vital for brain health," says Jill. "With dementia of any sort, we suggest trying organic raw coconut oil as there is some clinical evidence and more anecdotal evidence of the benefits of the medium chain triglycerides it contains for delaying the progression of Alzheimer-type conditions.”

Other excellent brain-supporting foods include:

  • Blueberries and other deeply coloured berries are packed with antioxidants and protect the brain against both inflammation and oxidative stress, conditions that can contribute to ageing of the brain.
  • Dark chocolate and cocoa powder are packed with brain-boosting flavonoids, caffeine and antioxidants.
  • Green tea is rich in polyphenols that may protect the brain from mental decline and it has been linked to improved memory and focus. It is rich in polyphenols and antioxidants that may protect the brain from mental decline.
  • Turmeric’s active ingredient curcumin is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound that has been linked to improved memory and helping new brain cells grow.

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