You’re never too young to start to take care of your brain! We rely on this most complex of organs to help us to learn, remember, make decisions and so much more. As we go into middle age, many of us find learning and remembering that little bit harder. But whether you’re wanting to boost your brain power or simply take steps to prevent future cognitive difficulties, there are a number of diet and lifestyle actions you can take right now.
Look at our 7-point strategy and see where you could make a difference:
1. Nourish your brain.
It’s hard for the brain to function optimally if it doesn’t have a good supply of nutrients.
Think about including the following in your diet:
- Protein – studies suggest that diets higher in protein may decrease the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. Protein is needed to build the neurotransmitters that carry signals from one nerve cell to another, keep the brain functioning, regulate body systems such as breathing and support our ability to concentrate and learn. Keep up your dietary protein intake by including a protein-rich food at every meal – for example, meat, fish, eggs, nuts, poultry, beans or tofu.
- Healthy fats – the human brain is 60% fat! Maintaining its structure and supporting optimal function requires dietary fatty acids that cannot be made in the body. Care for your brain by including Omega-3-rich oily fish in your diet or choosing an Omega-3 supplement from fish or algal sources.
- Vitamins and minerals – studies suggest that insufficient intake of vitamins and minerals in the diet can have considerable negative effects on cognitive function. Low vitamin D levels in particular are associated with cognitive decline and higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Conversely, increasing overall intake of vitamins and minerals can improve learning and memory. The B vitamins, along with vitamins A, C, D and E, complement minerals such as magnesium and selenium to support the efficient running of biochemical processes essential to brain function.
To maximise your intake of these important nutrients, make sure you are basing your diet on a variety of whole foods as close as possible to their natural state. This means steering clear of ready meals, fast food takeaways and factory-made snacks that are often depleted in nutrients! Look instead to include protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, eggs, nuts, beans and quinoa, teamed with green leafy vegetables such as cabbage and colourful vegetables such as red peppers, carrots and beetroot.
See also our article on the top nutrients that have specific brain-protecting qualities .
2. Reduce your sugar intake.
Diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates can lead to elevated levels of blood glucose and insulin that may directly cause inflammation in the brain and indirectly compromise brain function by impairing metabolic and cardiovascular health.
Consider these key facts:
- An impaired cardiovascular system (the heart and blood vessels) can interfere with the efficient transport of fuel, oxygen and nutrients to the brain. One type of dementia is called vascular dementia because of disturbances in this important supply system.
- The hormone insulin is tasked first with clearing glucose out of the bloodstream and, second, with clearing the brain of the kind of protein deposits – plaque – found in cognitive conditions such as Alzheimer’s. If too much insulin is used to clear glucose out of the bloodstream this can mean less insulin to carry out the clearing of protein deposits in the brain.
- Studies have found abnormally elevated blood glucose levels in people ten years before they develop signs of cognitive decline, suggesting that blood glucose dysregulation plays a key role in worsening brain function. Genetics plays a significant role in how well our bodies regulate blood glucose, but sugar-restricted diets are seen to support more controlled blood glucose levels.
Help your body to keep your blood glucose and insulin levels normal by limiting food high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, including white-flour products such as bread, pasta, pizza and pastries. Fill up instead on protein-rich foods and abundant vegetables like those described above.
3. Eliminate ultra-processed foods.
Factory-made foods with long lists of ingredients often contain a range of additives such as preservatives, colours, emulsifiers and flavour enhancers that can trigger an inflammatory response and interfere with good cognitive function.
- Ready meals and packaged snacks can be very low in the nutrients your brain needs. Factory processing reduces vitamins and minerals and a significant proportion of the ingredients may be nutrient-void fillers and thickeners.
- Processed foods can have high levels of hidden sugars that lead to spikes in blood glucose levels, impacting brain function through inflammation and disturbances in the provision of glucose (fuel!) to the brain.
- Fast foods and convenience foods often contain processed fats and oils that risk triggering or worsening inflammation in the body.
Plan ahead so that ready meals and takeaway foods are less tempting on busy days. By cooking your own food at home, you can be sure that you are getting the nutrients your body needs while avoiding the more artificial food products that can be harmful to health.
4. Reduce your toxin exposure.
Problems with cognition can be caused by excess quantities of inflammatory or neuro-toxic substances, such as heavy metals, that disrupt brain and nervous system function.
Doctors and nutrition practitioners can test for some of these, but you can support your brain by minimizing your exposure to unnecessary chemicals:
- Choose organic or home-grown food where possible to reduce your exposure to pesticides.
- Filter your drinking water – a simple filter jug can eliminate some common toxins such as lead, mercury, chlorine and pesticides.
- Switch strong cleaning products for eco-friendly versions with fewer harsh chemicals or use old-fashioned cleaning solutions based on simple substances such as vinegar, lemon juice or baking soda.
- Assess your environment for added chemicals, including air fresheners, body lotions, cosmetics, weedkillers or chemicals used in your work.
5. Care for your gut.
The gastro-intestinal tract can easily become a source of inflammation in the body that can result in inflammation in the brain. The gut lining provides a first line of protection against foreign objects getting into the bloodstream. If the lining becomes compromised, it may not only become inflamed itself but also allow unwanted particles to get through into the blood and cause an inflammatory reaction that can ultimately affect the brain.
Here are three challenges to gastro-intestinal health to look out for:
- Imbalances in the gut’s microbial environment – the gut microbiome – can mean the pro-inflammatory microbes overtake the beneficial bacteria. Help your beneficial gut bacteria to flourish by giving them a good supply of fibre. Cooked vegetables are ideal for this but you might also discuss a probiotic supplement with your nutrition practitioner.
- Food allergies and intolerances are another potential source of irritation and inflammation in the gastro-intestinal tract. Pay attention to how different foods make you feel – particularly the common allergens such as wheat and dairy – but also other foods that may cause a problem that is specific to you. Talk to your doctor or nutrition practitioner about potential food sensitivities.
- Stomach acid is an important part of the digestive system – it starts to dissolve food so that nutrients can be released. It also kills off pathogens in the gastro-intestinal tract that could cause infection. If levels of stomach acid are inadequate, pathogens may survive and food may not be broken down well enough for us to absorb important vitamins and minerals. Additionally, food particles that are too big may progress down the intestinal tract and cause irritation to the gut lining, triggering a food reaction. Stomach acid production can be negatively impacted by stress, so try to create a relaxed environment for your eating. Slow down and chew each mouthful so that your body has time to release acid and the food you swallow is already starting to be dissolved.
6. Do some health detective work.
Underlying infections, inflammation, nutrient deficiencies and hormonal imbalances are now known to be potential causes of cognitive difficulties. Identify and address these promptly with your health practitioner.
Consider the following:
- Oral and dental infections are associated with inflammation in other parts of the body, including the brain and the cardiovascular system that feeds the brain with oxygen and nutrients.
- Chronic infections such as Lyme disease can rumble on at a low level and keep the body’s immune response in inflammation-causing mode.
- Acute infections, particularly urinary tract infections, can cause mental confusion that is easily mistaken for dementia.
- Depression and anxiety can also trigger brain-fog symptoms that are mistaken for cognitive decline.
- Imbalances in thyroid hormones can result in brain fog – hypothyroidism (low levels of active thyroid hormone) in particular is associated with shrinkage in the right hippocampus area of the brain, directly affecting memory.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency impairs the function of the entire nervous system, including the brain and its signaling, and can be an underlying cause of cognitive problems.
7. Reassess your lifestyle.
As we get caught up in the busyness of modern life, it’s easy to forget the basics our great-grandparents knew were the key to health.
Ask yourself these key questions:
- Are you getting enough sleep? It’s easy to borrow time from our sleep hours but the brain needs both the right quality and quantity of sleep to carry out cleansing functions that keep it in top shape. Make sleep the top priority in your life!
- Are you letting stress affect your health? There are few body systems that do not suffer when stress overwhelms us. Our cognitive abilities are particularly sensitive to chronic stress as the adrenal system impacts the production of brain-critical hormones and neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Take some time to see which stresses you can reduce and which you need to counterbalance with some stress-reduction techniques such as meditation or breathing exercises.
- Are you getting enough exercise? Doctors and others caring for people with cognitive problems know that exercise is a key tool for helping brain function. Avoiding long periods of sitting is crucial for keeping our vascular system healthy so that the brain can be supplied with nutrients and oxygen. If you’re not engaging in any physical activity, choose something you enjoy doing and set yourself the goal of doing it in a formal manner once a week – it could be swimming, brisk walking, tennis, yoga, Pilates or dancing. Your brain will thank you for it!
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