Dr. Mike Dow
New York Times bestseller
Author of Chicken Soup for the Soul’s Think, Act & Be Happy
Dr. Mike Dow will be delivering his keynote speech, "Heal Your Drained Brain" at Wellness Weekend, November 9-11, 2018. See the full schedule here.
It’s a cruel scientific fact that our brains start to slow down past 40. Whether your first bit of brain fog appears as a ditsy episode of forgetfulness, or a few ‘senior moments’ when you can’t quite put a finger on a friend’s name, it can be frightening to accept that an element of mental decline is largely inevitable with age.
Research shows our brains start to noticeably slow by the time we reach 40, and up to 17 per cent of people over 65 will end up with some form of mild cognitive impairment, such as occasional difficulties concentrating, finding the correct word, focusing, or remembering where on earth we’ve put the car keys.
Episodes of feeling grumpy, miserable or anxious are extremely common in middle age, too, and the truth is that between 6 and 15 per cent of patients who meet the criteria for ‘mild cognitive impairment’ will go on to develop full dementia. But this doesn’t have to happen. New research suggests that brain fog – that huge grey area between normal functioning and the dreaded dementia or Alzheimer’s disease – may, in fact, be reversible.
As a psychotherapist, I have studied the complexities of the brain for years, and I am convinced the way we eat, sleep, work and live has a profound effect. The brain relies on a complex symphony of chemicals to keep mood in check and to function properly, but if you disturb that balance you can very swiftly become depressed, unable to sleep and too worked-up to concentrate properly.
If you are eating the wrong foods, getting insufficient exercise or sleep, overindulging in social media and TV, having too much stress and too little downtime, you will almost certainly be destabilizing the levels of three crucial brain chemicals. They are serotonin (which helps you feel calm, serene, optimistic and self-confident), dopamine (responsible for making you feel excited, motivated, and energized) and the stress hormone, cortisol (which revs you up into a high gear when you need it).
Also, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of omega-3s. They are the best fats for your brain because they prevent inflammation – the key, we now know, to cognitive function and warding off depression, stress and anxiety
But you really can reverse these trends and take charge of your brain health in as little as two weeks if you remove the blocks that keep you stuck and give your brain the materials it needs to operate effectively. Here’s how…
Boost Brain Fats
A good supply of healthy fats in your diet can help you feel, and think, better. Enjoy plenty of olive oil (packed with anti-inflammatory compounds, found in some studies to prevent Alzheimer’s and depression) and oily fish, and choose organic meat if you can.
- Choose organic: factory-farmed meats tend to be higher in omega-6 fats (which can feed the harmful brain-dulling inflammatory process in our bodies) whereas organic meat and dairy tends to be naturally higher in anti-inflammatory, brain-healthy omega-3s.
- Think of fish as prevention and treatment for your addled brain. Studies show just six months of fish-oil supplements is enough to improve verbal fluency.
- Pick extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings and plain olive oil for cooking – virgin olive oil isn’t stable at high temperatures.
- Avoid soybean oil – it’s packed with unhelpful omega-6 fats.
Artificial sweeteners might be saving you a few calories but they cannot give your brain the nutrients it needs for optimal performance. Your brain needs a readily available supply of blood sugar to keep it running, and sweeteners deprive it of this. Worse, sweeteners have been shown to disrupt the levels of good bacteria in the gut, disrupting production of the happy-hormone serotonin (much of which is manufactured in the gut).
Turn Off Your Phone
Scaling down social media use and electronics will boost your ability to focus and concentrate. Facebook likes, Twitter retweets, Snapchat pics and Instagram followers exert an addictive pull – all those lights, dings and ads scrolling across the screen give our brains a tiny hit of dopamine – just as it would for a compulsive gambler sitting in front of a slot machine.
- Turn off your phone or its ringer as often as possible and don’t leave it charging in your bedroom so it doesn’t disturb your sleep (even subconsciously). Aim to have one full day of the weekend completely phone free.
- Dump the Kindle at night and read books instead.
- Cut back on multi-tasking – focus on doing one thing at a time and give that all your attention. This can be a powerful antidote to the barrage of distractions of social media.
Switch Off The TV
Engaging in leisure activities helps stimulate the brain: studies show that reading, playing board games and musical instruments, dancing, travelling, knitting and gardening all reduce risk of cognitive decline and protect you against senior moments. But TV does the opposite – studies show watching TV increases your risk of cognitive impairment by 20 per cent (whereas reading reduces it by 5 per cent).
Drink A Glass of Champagne
One alcoholic drink per day (two for men) may help keep toxins out of the brain, reducing your risk of dementia by as much as 23 per cent. The benefits hold for all types of alcohol, but studies show wine, particularly red wine, works best. The red grape skin is rich in a potent antioxidant called resveratrol, and among red wines, pinot noir has very high levels. A glass of red wine with dinner may lessen blood-sugar spikes by preventing intestinal glucose absorption and reducing your liver’s production of glucose. Red wine appears to be more effective in this regard than white.
If you prefer a lighter drink, try champagne – research suggests the phenolic acid it contains may prove a powerful weapon to help you think better.
But don’t go crazy: heavy drinking (defined as more than three to four drinks per day) is associated with increased risk of dementia.
Spice It Up
Turmeric contains a plant compound called curcumin, which has major anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and increases levels of a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor) which has been dubbed ‘Miracle Gro’ for the brain. And in addition to making you think better, turmeric will make you feel better, too, possibly increasing serotonin in the brain. Studies show that for fighting Alzheimer’s disease, low doses of turmeric over a long period of time are more effective than very high doses.
So rather than relying on an occasional Indian takeaway for your turmeric fix, aim to eat one food containing turmeric with a grind of fresh black pepper (which makes the turmeric more easily absorbed by the body) every day. Just add a teaspoon of turmeric to soups, stews and salad dressings.
Saffron, another common ingredient in curry, can also inhibit Alzheimer’s disease and the carnosic acid in the common herb rosemary may also boost your brain health (the scent alone can improve memory) while sage has been shown to improve word recall.
Change Your Thinking
You may be slipping unconsciously into negative thought patterns. Spot which ones you engage in the most – simply identifying the pitfall is a step in the right direction – and aim to reduce the following mental blocks that could be dulling your brain:
- Personalization: Assuming that something is happening because of you. (‘I didn’t get that job because I’m not smart enough.’)
- Pervasiveness: Allowing a problem to invade all parts of your life. (‘I have a headache – might as well call in sick to work today.’)
- Paralysis-analysis: Getting stuck in your own thoughts. (‘Why couldn’t I remember where I put my keys last night? What does it mean? What will I do if this keeps happening?’)
- Pessimism: Always believing the worst about everything. (‘I felt foggy this morning – I must be getting dementia.’)
- Polarization: Seeing everything as either/or, black/white, yes/no. (‘My boss didn’t respond well to my presentation, I might as well quit.’)
- Psychic: Feeling sure you know what another person is thinking. (‘I know she’s never liked me anyway.’)
- Permanence: Using the past or present to judge the future. (‘I’m never going to get over this divorce.’)
Instead, aim to do something new each day that gives you a sense of pleasure, productivity, power, pride, passion, peace or purpose.
Share And Care
Studies suggest an ageing brain is more thoughtful and more social, and this offers a great opportunity to connect, empathize, and converse with others.
Go To Bed by 11PM
As well as boosting learning, mood and creativity, sleep acts as the brain’s ‘self-cleaning’ cycle to prevent brain fog and get rid of the plaques between nerve cells that cause Alzheimer’s. A good night’s sleep can improve alertness and strengthen the brain’s connections, helping you consolidate the memories you encoded during the day. Poor sleep leads to raised levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, and lowers dopamine levels, leaving you unhappy, unmotivated and unfocused.
Do whatever you can to get eight hours of restful sleep per night and keep it constant:
- Go to bed by 11pm and wake by 7am to maximise your natural light exposure.
- Aim to eat seafood as often as possible – the omega-3 fats it contains support the production of the hormone melatonin, which promotes restful sleep.
- Grab a nap mid-afternoon if you need to – set aside 40 minutes (as it may take 20 minutes to fall asleep).
- Re-set your natural rhythms by exposing your eyes to bright light as soon as you wake up. Draw the curtains, turn on the lights or go outside immediately.
Consider coffee (without sugar or milk) a health food that can help protect against cognitive decline and prevent dementia and depression. Try espresso macchiato (black coffee with a little foamed milk) or espresso over ice with a splash of soya milk. Both under 50 calories with no spike to blood-sugar levels. Enjoy three cups per day.
Eat to Feed Your Brain
The ideal brain-fog-clearing diet keeps junk food and carbohydrate intake low. Blood-sugar rushes and crashes can leave us feeling foggy, listless, anxious and depressed. Worse, a high-carb diet can lead to a condition called insulin resistance (where your cells don’t respond as they should to the metabolic demands of the hormone insulin) which has been linked to memory problems and dementia. So replace high-sugar, quick-release carbs with ‘complex’ slow-burn carbohydrates such as whole grains and vegetables that contain mood-boosting amino acids.
Here are some simple swaps...
- Opt for an ‘open sandwich’ with plenty of nutritious filling piled on just one slice of wholemeal bread, not two.
- At the sandwich shop, ask for your bread roll to be hollowed out to cut your carb intake in half.
- When ordering pizza, choose thin crust rather than carb-heavy deep dish, share one pizza with friends and fill-up on a large salad first.
- Eat veg raw or lightly cooked to maximise the fibre’s blood-sugar-blocking capabilities
- Enjoy wholemeal pasta (occasionally) but only undercooked – eaten ‘al dente’ it takes longer to digest and keeps your blood sugar levels stable.
- Drink black tea with your lunch (it reduces the amount of glucose that is absorbed into the gut).
- Use large crisp lettuce leaves in place of bread for sandwiches and wraps.
- Mash a tin of butter beans (packed with fibre and nutrients) instead of quick-release potato.
- Switch white bread, rolls, pitta and wraps for wholemeal which can provide more naturally occurring fibre.
- Swap spaghetti for courgetti (spiralised courgette – or just use a vegetable peeler to create thick ribbons), or change to no-carb noodles.
- Sprinkle cinnamon (which has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties) in your coffee instead of sugar.
Extracted by Louise Atkinson from The Brain Fog Fix, by Dr Mike Dow, published by Hay House.
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