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Mind over matter

2020 is the year that put many of the certainties in our lives under enormous strain, and this can lead to problems like stress linked to memory and focus. Rude Health magazine looks at how we can all protect our minds during this challenging time

Is there any person of any age who hasn’t been affected by the pandemic?” asks Jill Bell, Well and Good, Midleton, Co Cork. “And the longer it lasts the more people are finding it difficult and challenging to maintain any kind of normality, even people who seemed to manage well at the start. In a sense we are all in this together, but differences are appearing in how we respond – age, living circumstances, financial circumstances, personality, relationships and much more all have a bearing.”

“People’s lives changed overnight, like never before in recent history,” says Elaine Joyce of health store Ylang Ylang in Westport, Co Mayo. “Fear, anxiety, uncertainty is still felt amongst some segments of the population. I feel that those who suffered most were the elderly, the sick and vulnerable, people on the frontline, young adults and teenagers, and some business owners, particularly hospitality. Life as they knew it for our young people was completely stripped from them (sports, music, education, exams, education, friends, meeting new friends, the list goes on) – some coped through self-motivation, but some didn’t. I worry about the mental health of this age profile a lot – the wearing of masks all day depletes their oxygen levels which leaves them energy-less and deflated.”

Coping with stress

“For many of us the stress of not knowing what lies ahead needs to be acknowledged and consciously managed,” says Jill Bell. “Moods can alter, and stress can affect appetite, sleep patterns, memory and accentuate any underlying problems such as skin conditions, mental issues and existing health problems. A useful trick for some people is to role play in their minds, to pretend another person was coming to them for advice on precisely the issues that they themselves have. Stepping back like this, objectifying the situation, can help to point a way forward.

“In any stressful situation a simple breathing technique is really useful, and indeed has been scientifically proven to signal the brain to relax the body. Breathe in for the count of four, filling the lower lungs so that your belly rises rather than your upper chest, hold this for the count of four, release for the count of four and relax for the count of four before taking in another belly breath. Or you can work four, four, six and two. Repeat as often as you wish. It works!”

The role of food

“I would recommend a balanced diet with an emphasis on fresh, organic fruit and vegetables, organic wholegrains, beans and pulses,” says Elaine Joyce. “Limit sugar as it is an anti-nutrient and will have an adverse effect on mood, energy levels and wellbeing, also limit processed meats and dairy.”

“Covid-19 has given some of us more time to think about preparing meals,” says Jill Bell. “This can be fun, a bit adventurous, experimenting with spices or reading up on the health benefits of adding fresh herbs to a favourite dish. A healthy diet is the basis of good health, so we need to reduce salt, sugar and processed foods, and to relish fruit and veggies high in vitamin C, egg, nuts and seeds majoring in zinc, broccoli, carrots and sweet potatoes for vitamin A.”

“If you want to fuel your brain well and reduce the risk of cognitive impairment, you might want to take a closer look at what is on your dinner plate,” says Joanne Clancy of Irish supplement company Revive Active. “Science suggests that what we eat can powerfully and positively impact brain health, safeguarding it as we age. Strong correlations have been observed between low intakes of fish (by country) and high levels of depression. A greater adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet is also associated with a significant improvement in overall health including the brain.

A combination of omega-3 fatty acids, choline and uridine seem to improve synaptic formation and function in the brain. Food sources with high levels of uridine include liver, oats, fish, baker’s yeast, mushroom, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, and parsley. Choline can be found in eggs, beef, fish, poultry, broccoli, rice, nuts and seeds.”

Brain-friendly supplements

“Health stores have seen a marked increase in sales of supplements which help to manage stress without causing any side effects,” says Jill Bell, “though customers on medication need to check out possible contraindications with staff who use the Health Stores Ireland Customer Care Protocol, and may also need to consult their health practitioner. L-theanine, an amino acid extracted from green tea, tops a lot of lists in working quickly to reduce anxiety. Magnesium in many guises – a liquid, spray, powder, tablets and capsules – both supports the muscular system and relaxes the mind. Passiflora, known by gardeners as passion flower, helps to stop a mind stuck on a turntable going round and round. These and other supplements such as B vitamins are found in a variety of really effective blends both to relax the mind and help with sleep.”

“We have a wide range of supplements to help protect immunity, which is very important,” says Elaine Joyce. “For improving mood and anxiety levels, I recommend rhodiola, a vitamin D supplement, ashwaganda, ltheanine/l-ornathine, and for sleep magnesium powder with avena sativa and cherry, and a range of delicious teas which are medicinal, calming and comforting. Essential oils such as rose, jasmine, lavender and geranium are lovely to have around you whether to burn, use in relaxing sprays or a bath with essential oils and Epsom salts. They are therapeutic, soothing and comforting.”

“If you have difficult consuming enough ingredients with omega-3s, choline and uridine,” says Joanne Clancy, “these nutrients can be found in super supplements that contain a combination of uridine, choline, DHA and B vitamins to support brain health.”

Be smart about fats

“The brain contains more than 100 billion cells working together to process information, form memories and recall,” says nutritional therapist Olive Curran who works with PPC in Galway. “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 need to include fats in our diets if we want to keep ‘mission control’ up and running.

“Omega-3 DHA is vital for healthy brain function and plays very important roles in the structural integrity of brain cells, membrane fluidity, cell signalling, memory function and neurotransmission. Our body cannot produce omega-3 so it must be obtained through diet (oily fish, seeds, nuts) or supplementation. Without these important fats, it can become difficult for children and teens to concentrate, learn new information and balance their moods properly.

“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. Surprisingly, a massive 89% of Irish people are not consuming sufficient oily fish in their diet, so unless you’re eating two to three portions of oily fish a week, an omega-3 supplement is a must.”

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