How to keep your brain at its bestRuwan M
Reducing stress levels, eating well and learning to slow down are the keys to great grey matter health.
“When you stress out, you deplete your vitamin B and magnesium levels, so your body chemistry won’t be balanced and you’re not going to think straight,” says naturopath Jennifer Jefferies. Professor Jayashri Kulkarni, of the Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre, paints an even grimmer picture: “Stress causes deterioration to the brain’s hippocampus, an important area that relates to memory.” As prolonged stress can eventually alter brain architecture irreversibly, having an outlet is critical, she warns.
For starters, talking with friends or a loved one about pent-up problems has more benefits than many realise. It’s been reported that for women, discussing problems leads the brain to release oxytocins, chemicals with a calming effect on the brain; for men, this reaction also occurs, but is counteracted by higher testosterone levels, and therefore has less impact. Kulkarni agrees there’s some truth to the hypothesis: “When you put a worry into words and express it to somebody else, that in itself reduces the anxiety-provoking power of the worry.”
The art of meditating
Mental distress and clouded thinking can be eased by meditation. As specialist Ken Mellor, founder of the Biame Network explains, “What people find when they start meditating – whether it’s paying attention to their breath, what’s going on in their bodies, or what’s going in the world around them – is that they start to settle down.”
It’s as simple as being aware, he says. “If you’re doing something, and you add to that your awareness of doing it, then that’s a meditation. The effect is similar to stirring up apple juice – when it comes out of the juicer it’s opaque; but after it’s been motionless for a little while, the solution gradually becomes clear.” Even two minutes’ meditation can make a difference, so beginners should start small and gradually build up to 20 and 30 minute sessions. “Pretty quickly people will start to feel a sense of wellbeing and balance,” Mellor adds.
Food for your mind
Good ‘brain foods’ not only exist, they work – with glucose being the most important. After a fatty or high-sugar meal, you experience a ‘sugar rush’, followed by a crash, because our bodies need a steady supply of glucose to the brain. Opt for low-glycaemic index food sources, such as avocadoes, that release energy into your system slowly.
For their cell-protecting properties, pay attention to the antioxidant family: nuts, leafy, dark green vege-tables, blueberries, onions and fresh beetroot, to name just a few. “Have a couple of cups of green tea a day, put garlic in your food regularly, eat fish three or four times a week, and snack on a fistful of almonds a day – that’s a pretty healthy brain menu,” advises Jefferies.
And remember to drink up. “A lot of people can’t think straight and don’t look after their mind simply by not drinking enough water, which is the conductor for the electrical signals in the brain. Our brains become constricted without adequate water intake.”
The notion of nutrition
If filling your plate with fish two or three times a week is too much to stomach, consider a supplement. Rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, fish oil protects the brain cells by stabilising the membranes. “Rather than letting them disintegrate, it builds a layer of protection around the membrane, similar to the way oestrogen works,” says Kulkarni. For vegetarians, flaxseed oil may offer a more palatable, if slightly less effective, alternative. Other useful supplements include ginkgo and coenzyme Q10, memory boosters that work by increasing blood flow, and therefore oxygen, to the brain.