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How to look after your mind and memory during unprecedented times

It's no underestimation to say that the past two years have put many of us under strain, and changed what we know about life in ways we didn't expect.

Normal life pressures such as work, 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. But prolonged periods of strain can lead to impaired memory and depression, frequent headaches or a general feeling of forgetfulness. So how can we look after our mental as well as our physical health?

Exercise for your brain

"Exercise is key to health, both mental and physical," says Jill Bell of health store Well and Good in Midleton, Co Cork. "Physical exercise that keeps the heart in good shape is vital for the brain. Healthy heart and arteries ensure the brain gets a proper supply of blood, oxygen and all the nutrients needed to maintain mental clarity."

"Research shows that using your muscles also helps your mind," says Gerald Colfer from health store Only Natural in Wexford. "Exercise helps the development of new nerve cells and increases the connections between brain cells. This makes our brains more efficient, plastic and adaptive. Exercise also has the added benefit of lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol levels, helping blood sugar balance and reducing mental stress."

Good physical coping mechanisms include yoga, meditation, cherishing family relationships and contacts with friends and neighbours. It can be good to meditate to relax your busy brain and promote stillness. Burning essential oils such as rose, jasmine, lavender and geranium can be good for your mood. Bergamot, grapefruit and orange are uplifting oils.

Feed your brain

"Good nutrition can really help your mind as well as your body," says Peter Harney, nutritional therapist at The Natural Medicine Company. "Here are my recommendations for good mind health:

Vitamin B12 - essential for overall health but also plays a vital role in nerve and neurotransmitter health. Needed for the normal function of your nerve cells and red blood cell formation. Can be found naturally in fish, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy.

Vitamin C - a powerful antioxidant contributing to the protection of cells from oxidative stress. Supports the production of neurotransmitters.

Ashwagandha - an ancient medicinal herb used for centuries in India. Aswaghanda can help support and rebalance the body when managing mental or physical stress. Some studies also suggest that ashwagandha may help with memory, concentration and brain function.

Omega-3 fatty acids - found mainly in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines. Essential fatty acids are critical for normal brain function and development through all stages of life."

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

Sleep for your brain

"Research shows that during sleep, the brain clears out toxins called beta-amyloids that can lead to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Lying awake and fretting when sleep won't come night after night can be a form of mental torture, but there are steps to take which will help," says Jill Bell.

"Deep belly breathing through the nose is boring, but it pulls the brain in from worrying about tomorrow or what you forgot to do yesterday, and has been proved to have a physically positive effect on the part of the brain involved in stress and anxiety.

"Get rid of worries by making a list of what's on your mind, so these concerns are done and dusted for the night. Switch off all digital devices an hour before bedtime to reduce brain stimulation. Relaxing teas include chamomile, lavender, oat flowers and lime blossom. Herbal tinctures with hops, valerian, oat flower or passion flower help to switch off an over-active mind within 30-40 minutes too, and they can be taken before bed or kept at the bedside ready to use if you wake in the night."

"People who are anxious, stressed, sleep deprived or exhausted tend to score poorly in cognitive function tests," says Gerald Colfer. "While those poor scores don't necessarily predict an increased risk of cognitive decline in old age, good mental health and restful sleep are certainly important goals for all of us."

The best brain diet

"Top of my list of foods to nourish the brain is omega-3 fatty acids," says Jill Bell. "When the human race was evolving we ate fresh nuts and seeds and, living beside water sources, plenty of fish, especially migrating oily types. As a result our enlarging brains depended on fresh fats in our diets, classed as 'essential' since our bodies cannot make them. It's not surprising that two-thirds of our brains comprise fats, about one third omega-3, which we need in our diets for brain development in infancy and for brain function as we grow and mature, for memory, learning, mood and protection against cognitive decline."

"The last year has been difficult for everyone," says Paula Mee, a CORU registered dietitian and consultant to Revive Active. "Three important nutrients to focus on are omega-3 fatty acid DHA, uridine and choline. The maintenance of normal brain function and the quality of our brain cells depends on the availability of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. DHA is the most abundant fatty acid in the brain, making up to 40% of its mass. Food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include oily fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, walnuts, chia and flaxseeds or a supplement.

"Choline is an essential constituent of cell membranes and influences the production of some important neurotransmitters. Food sources include eggs, beef, fish, poultry, broccoli, potatoes, mushrooms, quinoa, rice, wheatgerm, nuts and seeds. Lastly, uridine plays a part in the formulation of neurotransmitters. Food sources include liver, oats, fish, baker's yeast, mushroom, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and parsley."

"Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is strongly anti-inflammatory and also antioxidant, and eggs deserve special mention as a source of choline and B vitamins, vital for mental health," says Jill Bell. "For drinks, recent research shows that coffee isn't bad! It provides antioxidants and can stimulate the brain's feelgood transmitters. Green tea also contains antioxidants and l-theanine which helps to both calm and relax while increasing focus."

"Eating a Mediterranean-style diet that emphasises fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts and seeds, unsaturated oils like olive oil and some plant sources of protein is less likely to lead to cognitive impairment and dementia," says Gerald Colfer. "Improving blood sugars and avoiding diabetes is important as diabetes is a risk factor for dementia."

Spices and herbs like turmeric, cinnamon, sage, rosemary, saffron and black pepper all have brain-boosting benefits.

Natural help - in your local health store

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

Coenzyme Q10 - vitally important for optimal brain function

DHA (essential fatty acid) - helps to improve learning, mood, memory and concentration. To obtain omega-3, you can either eat two portions of oily fish per week or take fish oil daily. An IPSOS/MRBI survey found that 89% 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.

L-theanine - an amino acid extracted from green tea, tops a lot of lists in working quickly to reduce anxiety.

Magnesium - in liquid, spray, powder, tablets and capsules. 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.

Nootropics - 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.

Magnesium powder - with avena sativa and cherry for sleep.

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