For Brain Health Awareness Week, Sharon Walker reveals the everyday habits that could be damaging that all-important grey matter health aka your brain health
Since it’s Brain Health Awareness Week you might be interested in hearing the many ways you can fire up the old grey matter and keep your mind sharp. But you also might be shocked to hear how your daily lifestyle habits, many of them seemingly harmless, could be chipping away at your intellect and memory.
You’re probably familiar with the advice that we should be eating more cancer-fighting anti-oxidants and increasing our intake of heart-healthy omega-3 fats, but few of us realise these nutrients are just as important for mental wellbeing and brain health as they are for our bodies.
One in four people will experience a mental health problem this year
Worryingly, research reveals many of us are eating a diet dangerously short on the essential brain building fats. For example, when it comes to oily fish – a valuable source of omega-3 – the average adult consumes 54g a week, less than half the recommended 140g weekly quota.
This is important because after our twenties we stop building new brain cells, so the emphasis should be on maintaining the ones we have. Adults lose on average 85,000 brain cells a day or around or around 35 million a year. Scary.
Mental health issues are on the increase, with one in four people experiencing mental health issues, according a recent NHS survey. And it’s not only our poor diet, that’s making us more vulnerable to stress, depression and anxiety.
So, what are these damaging brain health habits that are driving this brain health epidemic and what can we do to take of that precious grey matter?
#1 Your Deliveroo habit
Your fast food habit could be costing you dear and not just in your wallet. A study published by Physiology & Behaviour found that consuming saturated fats, like those found in fatty burgers and chips, or ghee-soaked Indian takeaways, correlates with the development of Alzheimer’s disease and decreased brain function. And since most takeaways are loaded with fried foods cooked in vegetable fats your Deliveroo fix could send your omega-6 quota sky high, which is bad news for brain health.
An imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 – the norm in our diet – is linked with an increased risk in a wide range of mental health issues from depression and poor concentration to memory problems, according to recent report by the Mental Health Foundation.
In fact, one meta-analysis looked at 13 different trials on omega-3s and depression and concluded that omega-3s were a potential treatment for depressive disorders.
What to do instead: Nutritional therapist Rick Hay recommends cutting back on fatty red meats and opting for salmon sashimi or tuna sushi from the Japanese food chain Umezushi, which is available on Deliveroo, or light phytonutrient-rich veggie options, like those on offer at the trendy Korean Jinjuu, another Deliveroo restaurant. If you’re diet still isn’t what it should be – most of us overestimate the amount of oily fish we’re eating – and no, your cod and chips Friday favourite doesn’t cut it, since white fish contains minimal omega-3 – Hay recommends offsetting the damage a supplement like BioCare’s Mega EPA.
#2 Tossing and turning at night
We don’t need a brain scientist to tell we’ll feel grouchy and find it harder to concentrate if we’re short on sleep, but long-term sleep deprivation has other more serious side-effects with some serious repercussions, with research showing a chronic lack of sleep can cause significant decreases in brain volume and memory. In fact, a long-term sleep debt has even been linked to an increased risk of developing dementia, according to a study published in the Journal of Neurology.
While another Italian study reported in the New Scientist last year found that chronic sleep deprivation causes parts of the brain to ‘eat’ itself, with the astrocyte cells whose job it is to clean up worn out cells and debris going into overdrive, destroying part of the brain’s synapses, a condition that’s also seen in Alzheimer’s.
What to do instead: To keep your brain going at full throttle, it’s best to turn in before 10pm, keep a regular bedtime and leave screens outside the bedroom. And try a good quality magnesium supplement, like BetterYou’s Magnesium Sleep lotion, which combines magnesium with lavender and chamomile and warm sleep-boosting drink before bed. “Herbal teas like camomile, lemon balm and ginger an hour before bedtime can help calm the nervous system, which will help you drop off,” says Hay.
#3 Your Netflix binges
When your brain feels frazzled from work at the end of the week it’s hardly surprising so many of us binge watch Netflix losing ourselves in the latest boxset. But this does our brain health no favours. Why? Because the brain is still on, busy processing the latest plot twist in Ozark, so it never gets a chance to drop into the relaxed beta phase of brain waves, when it’s free to wander and daydream. It’s only in this beta state that you can finally process – and shelve – all those work emails and making space for new sparks of creativity. (There’s good reason why you have all your best ideas in the shower, when you’re not actively thinking).
What to do instead: Cancel your Netflix subscription (I know drastic) or at least restrict yourself to a maximum of one or two episodes daily. No more bingeing, instead make a conscious decision about what to watch so that you can really enjoy it and then download a meditation app like Headspace, or do something physical, take a walk or ride your bike.
A large study led by Dr Mark Hamer from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, at University College London, confirmed that just 20 minutes of physical activity a day is associated with better mental health, and the more we do, the better we are likely to feel. If you want to go the extra brain-boosting mile, Dr Derbyshire suggests learning a new skill. “Doing something which is intellectually challenging, such as learning a new language, can actually alter the physical structure of your brain,” she notes.
#4 You blast your ears with headphones
Listening to music on headphones at full blast can cause hearing loss and alter the way the brain processes speech, says research at the University of Dallas Texas. Hearing loss in older adults has been linked to Alzheimer’s, possibly because the brain is working so hard to process what’s being said, it’s harder to store the information.
What to do instead: Turning down the volume to 60% of the maximum and limit your listening time to two hours or less a session. Or try out Aftershokz bone conduction headphones which bypass the eardrums. Fortunately, if you give your brain a break the myelin on the nerves that are damaged by loud noise will eventually regrow, say researchers.
#5 You spend too much time alone
Loneliness has been linked to concentration and memory problems in cancer survivors by a recent study at Ohio State University College of Medicine. While research at the University of Michigan found people of all ages who socialised performed better on cognitive tests than those who didn’t talk or share their feelings.
What to do instead: Talk to your neighbours, or phone your friends and family. Have a dinner party or go for a coffee – or herbal tea – with a friend. Or look for a group of like-minded people on meetups.com, where you can combine a hobby, or shared interest, with socialising. Make sure you meet friends face-to-face, not just on social media as real-life connections offer more complex interactions which stimulate our brains, reducing our likelihood of developing dementia.
#6 You reach for the salt…even before you’ve tasted your food
We all know that too much salt is bad for our cardiovascular health but too much salt could damage your brain too. “The latest research suggests a link between high salt diets and memory issues,” notes Hay.
Mice fed 8 or 16 times the normal amount of salt in their diet found it harder to negotiate a maze or recognise objects. And it’s not just the mice who can’t think straight when their sodium intake spikes, Canadian researchers found that older adults have more problems thinking when they have a high salt diet combined with little exercise. This could be down to increased blood pressure, which in turn has been shown to increase cognitive deficits, as shown by a study published in the journal of JAMA Neurology.
What to do instead: For added flavour Hay suggests using herbs and spices like rosemary, turmeric and basil, which also have added brain-boosting properties. Try seaweed seasoning for a full flavour boost. ‘Try sprinkling toasted nori over your salad or soup – it’s really tasty,’ says Hay.
#7 You Smoke
While a cigarette might help you unwind, heading off those nerve-jangling withdrawal symptoms supplying a feel-good dopamine hit, in the long run smoking increases tension and anxiety, will raise your stress levels, says research, with numerous studies linking smoking and anxiety disorders. While a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry earlier this year has linked smoking – and not just marijuana, but tobacco too – to increased levels of psychosis, in people who smoke cigarettes daily from age 15/16. While it’s impossible to draw a causal link between smoking and psychosis researchers concluded that reducing smoking in adolescents could have a long-term positive effect on mental health.
What to do instead: Try alternative ways of coping with stress, like meditation and mindfulness which has been shown to boost brain power and memory, helping to build dense grey matter associated with learning and memory in as little as eight weeks, as shown by MRI scans.
#8 That glass of wine – or 3
Heavy drinking has long been known to cause memory problems and dementia, but recent research in the British Medical Journal suggests that even moderate drinking could be bad for brain health. Researchers from Oxford University and University College London recorded alcohol intake and cognitive performance in 550 people over 30 years. At the end of the study MRI scans showed that 65% of people who drank 14-21 units a week had brain shrinkage in the hippocampus – the area of the brain associated with memory, emotions and motivation – compared to 35% of those who didn’t drink at all. The electrical ‘wiring’ in the white brain matter which carries nerve impulses was also poorer quality in people who drank moderately compared to non-drinkers.
What to do instead: While this research doesn’t show a causal link between alcohol and the reduced brain function, experts from the Alzheimer’s Association suggest sticking to the current recommended guidelines of no more than 14 units of alcohol a week for both men and women.
#9 Your medication
There is plenty of evidence linking B-vitamins to brain health in later life. A clinical trial by researchers at Oxford University confirmed that taking a combination of folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 halved the rate of age-related brain shrinkage, but certain types of medication like anti-convulsant drugs for epilepsy and oral contraceptives, can interfere with Vitamin B6 absorption.
While the list of medicines that can interfere with the body’s absorption or use of B12 include, antibiotics (e.g. tetracycline) – used to treat certain infections, Proton pump inhibiters (PPIs) – for peptic ulcer disease and acid reflux, H2 receptor antagonists (Tagamet and Zantac) – to treat stomach ulcers (peptic ulcer) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD), Metformin (Glucophage) – for diabetes.
What to do instead: While you can’t stop taking your medication you can up your B vitamin quota with a good quality supplement like Biocare’s Nutrisorb Liquid Methyl FolGuard (£22.60 for 15ml). Or try Or try Biocare Neuro Complex (£28.96 for 60) a high potency combination of sage, rosemary, saffron, alpha lipoic acid, carnitine, phosphatidylserine, with zinc and vitamin B5 to support nerve health and cognition. However, the benefits of B-vitamins depend on optimal levels of omega-3. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed B-group vitamins could slow atrophy by 40 per cent in over-70s — but only in those with high blood concentrations of omega.