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Mind how you go

There are many ways we can support mind and brain health as we age. From food to exercise and supplements – read on for expert advice

Work pressures, money and family issues and frustrating everyday situations such as approaching deadlines, coping with traffic or receiving bad news can all put our minds under strain. Prolonged periods of strain can lead to a number of negative effects such as impaired memory and depression, frequent headaches or a general feeling of forgetfulness.

A complex structure

“Our brains are hugely complex structures with myriad functions fuelled by our blood supply,” says Martha Brennan of health store Harvest Fare in Blessington, Co Wicklow. “The brain needs a range of nutrients, oxygen and sufficient hydration if it is to work efficiently.”

“The brain uses around 20% of the body’s calories, so it needs a good level of fuel provided throughout the day to function properly,” says Jenny Logan, a nutritionist at Natures Aid. “Omega-3 fatty acids help to support healthy brain cell structure and healthy cognition; antioxidants – colourful fruit and vegetables and nutrients such as selenium and vitamin E – protect the cells of the brain against damage and inflammation; B vitamins and folic acid play a key role in controlling homocysteine levels. Raised homocysteine has been linked with brain shrinkage.”

“Your brain is a hungry organ that needs more than its share of fats,” agrees Olive Curran, Galway nutritional therapist with PPC. “We’ve been brainwashed into believing that just about all fat is bad for us when, in fact, fats are essential for good brain health. Fats make up 60% of the brain and the nerves that run every system in the body. When your brain doesn’t get the essential fats (omega-3 and omega-6), it’s hard to feel happy, mentally sharp and productive.”

An ideal diet

“Research has demonstrated that the brain’s ability to process information is driven by the generation of synaptic connections and that this process is fuelled by nutrition,” says Joanne Clancy at Revive Active. “The three most important nutritional factors for this are omega-3 fatty acid DHA, uridine and choline. DHA helps to make the synapses in the brain, choline promotes the production of the important brain signal acetylcholine, and uridine deficiency has been linked with deteriorating cognitive conditions.”

“We need the sustained energy release from complex carbohydrates like whole grains, pulses and root vegetables – rather than the short burst of energy from refined carbohydrates like flour products and white rice, pasta, sugar and refined food in general,” says Martha Brennan. “Quality protein provides amino acids which are the building blocks for our neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins which regulate mood, sleep, ability to concentrate and retain information. Healthy fats such as avocado, nuts/seeds, coconut and olive oil as well as oily fish are essential to keep mood, focus and memory optimal. Antioxidants help slow cellular ageing.”

“A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, low in saturated fat, full of the nutrients found in leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale), along with whole grains can help keep your brain healthy throughout your life,” says Olive Curran. “For many people, this means following the Mediterranean diet, which emphasises oily fish such as sardines and mackerel, fruits and vegetables, nuts, olive oil and avocados, while limiting red meat.”

“In order for the brain to work optimally we need to ensure we are eating quality nutritious dense foods,” says Angela McGlanaghey of Simple Simon in Donegal town. “Salmon, brazil nuts and leafy greens are all brilliant brain foods. It’s also especially important to have enough fluid intake. The average person should aim for at least two litres of water daily.”

Problem solvers

“If you start having problems with memory take omega oils for brain power and eat fruits that are rich in flavonoids like berries,” says Angela McGlanaghey. “Cutting down on alcohol intake will help. There are also mind exercises like Sudoku that have been shown to improve memory skills.”

“While there are several approaches we can take to help our brain stay healthy including mental exercises, a good sleep routine and nutrition, it is important that we begin supplementing and focusing on nutrition in the brain as early as possible, before symptoms of deteriorating cognitive conditions become present,” says Joanne Clancy. “An increased focus on nutrition and the brain should be considered once at the age of 40.”

What are nootropics?

“The brain’s job is to absorb, process, store and recall information for later use,” says Joanne Clancy. “Research has shown the brain’s ability to accomplish this is dependent on the capability to rewire itself, generating what is known as synapses or connections. Unfortunately, as we age this process becomes less efficient leading to deteriorating memory.

“Nootropic supplements like DHA, choline and uridine work to support brain function, memory generation and mental performance. Research shows when DHA, uridine and choline are taken together in the proper amounts, the brain becomes increasingly more efficient at building connections and memories within the brain. Absorbing, processing, storing and recalling information on request becomes more efficient and the brain is able to function to its optimum.”

Natural help

• Coenzyme Q10 – vitally important for optimal brain function

• Acetyl L-Carnitine (ALA) – helps to optimise brain function

• B vitamins in particular B6, B12 and folic acid – important for brain health

• Liquid formulation – containing superfoods such as wheat grass, barley grass and spirulina, B vitamins, minerals and some ginseng for energy

“The European Food Safety Authority states that you need 250mg DHA (essential fatty acid) daily to support brain and eye health,” says Olive Curran. “DHA helps to improve learning, mood, memory and concentration. To obtain omega-3, you can either eat two portions of oily fish per week (salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, fresh tuna) or take fish oil daily. Surprisingly, an IPSOS/MRBI survey found that 89 per cent of Irish people are not consuming sufficient oily fish in their diet, so there is often a need to supplement with a high quality fish oil.”

Lifestyle help

“Getting oxygen to the brain through regular exercise is really very important,” says Martha Brennan. “Even a total of 30 minutes brisk walking most days will be of benefit. But we also need challenges and exposure to the unfamiliar to keep our brains from ageing.”

“Try to improve sleep quality and quantity – poor sleep has been linked to poor brain function, increased stress and decreased physical health,” says Jenny Logan. “Engaging with relaxation techniques and controlled breathing can be helpful.”

“Taking up some new activity where you are meeting new people is a great way of keeping the brain young,” says Martha Brennan. “Human interaction and active relationships are being shown to be linked to decreased progression of dementia.”

Other lifestyle tips include:

• Meditate – to relax your busy brain and promote stillness.

• Burn essential oils – burn or use as massage. Good mood oils include rose, jasmine, lavender and geranium. Bergamot, grapefruit and orange are uplifting oils.

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