Do you feel like your brain is firing on all cylinders? Can you pull up the facts that you’re looking for on demand? Have you ever correctly answered a question on Only Connect ? Personally, I find it massively frustrating when struggling to recall things that I know are lurking somewhere in my mind. Fortunately, there are many basic nutritional and lifestyle strategies that are known to support cognition, so if this is something that you’d like to do - read on!
Eat purple foods. The chemical compounds that give vegetables and fruits their purple colour are linked to support for the brain so try to get plenty of these into your diet. Swap white onions for red, add frozen blackberries to a morning smoothie or try steam-frying red cabbage with butter and a splash of red-wine vinegar as a side dish.
Eat walnuts. I love the idea of the ‘doctrine of signatures’ - that if a food strongly resembles a part of the body, then eating it will support the function of this body part. Whilst some examples seem a bit far-fetched (mushrooms and ears anyone ??), consuming brain-resembling walnuts has improved cognition and mood in various research projects. Do store them in the fridge to prevent the lovely fatty-acids that they contain from oxidising and turning rancid.
Steady your blood sugar. We all know that in the immediate term, low blood sugar can wreak havoc on our concentration - often in that 3pm, post-lunch slump - but studies have also shown that prolonged periods of excess glucose in the body can lead to chronic cognitive decline. In fact, Dr Dale Bredesen who has had incredible success in improving the symptoms of dementia patients, puts blood sugar management at the forefront of his program. To keep blood sugar patterns even, there are a few basic principles;
Avoid processed ‘white’ carbohydrates and sugar as much as possible.
Make sure that your first meal of the day contains a good amount of protein, e.g. 2 eggs, greek yoghurt with ground flaxseeds, smoked salmon on sourdough toast.
Think about your portions of carbohydrate foods - for a main meal a general rule-of-thumb is an amount that you could hold easily on the palm of your hand.
Work out your patterns - if you know that there’s a time in the day when you regularly have a ‘dip’, bump up the amount of protein and healthy fat at the mealtime before.
Intermittent fasting (IF). This just means eating all of your food within a specific window of time in the day. Dr Bredesen suggests a 12 hour eating window, e.g. 7am to 7pm with no foods or calorie-containing drinks (yes that includes wine…) to be taken outside this window, or during the 3 hours before bed. This type of eating pattern has been shown to improve the body’s processing of blood sugar and seems to decrease inflammation in the body - both of which can help our brains to work optimally. Avoiding food before bed is also thought to help with the next item on the list...
Sleep. Yes, it's obvious that feeling well rested helps our processing power, but WHY this is the case has been a bit of a mystery. Research published in 2019 however demonstrated that during sleep there are ‘waves’ of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that pulse through the brain and the theory is that these waves gently ‘wash’ brain tissues, removing waste products. There seems to be a close link between this process and the ability to process memories. For me, even just knowing that this action exists is an incentive to hit the hay and ensure that my grey matter gets its nightly bath.
Hydration. If you feel thirsty, your concentration is not only affected by the lack of water but also the distraction of feeling thirsty, so if you notice thirst - always drink some water. Around 80% of the brain is water, and this proportion needs to be maintained for it to function at its best possible capacity. There’s some dispute about the point where our thinking capabilities are affected by insufficient water. My thoughts are that if you pee a good amount every 2-3 hours through the day and evening you’re drinking enough water and your brain will have all of the H20 it needs.
Oily fish. There is of course old folk wisdom that fish helps people to be ‘brainy’, and as with walnuts, there is evidence that this is scientifically legit. Oily fish in particular contains a fatty-acid, DHA, that is one of the Omega 3 fats and crucial for good brain health. Whilst plant-based sources of Omega 3 fats exist, the body is very poor at converting these to the DHA that we need, so fish sources give much more bang for their buck. Oily fish isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I find that adding lots of lemon juice to tinned sardines makes them much nicer, smoked mackerel can also be easily turned into a lovely pate with some greek yoghurt and a little harissa paste or, for something really easy, just buy one of those boil-in-the-bag packs of mussels for a quick weekend lunch.
These are just some ideas to help boost your brainpower - if any are new to you, give them a try and let me know how you get on.