Brain Health 101 – How to improve Brain Health & Cognition

April 1, 2019

Brain Health 101 – How to improve Brain Health & Cognition

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This blog will focus on things we can do to improve our brain health.

I want to help you build healthy habits step-by-step. Often we know what we should be doing for our health, but doing it consistently is another matter.

It takes at least 21 days to form a new habit (but in reality probably a bit longer than this).

I am going to give you five habits which can improve your brain health and cognition:

1) 5-10 Minutes of Daily Brain Training

Try Brain HQ or Lumosity

Brain Training App

BrainHQ and Lumosity can provide you with a baseline score of your current cognitive function – they will calculate your percentile (that is, that you are above X percent of people your age) for multiple areas of function.

Your target for good cognitive function is to be above 50th percentile for age, and your scores should continue to improve with practise.

Hundreds of scientific papers have shown important cognitive effects of brain training. One of BrainHQ’s training games called Double Decision reduced the risk for dementia by nearly 50% ten years after the training!

 

2) Take Ashwagandha

One of Ayurveda’s most prized adaptogenic herbs. It has been used for centuries to moderate the body’s response to stress, bringing both energy and inner calm. Take 500mg, once or twice per day.

 

Ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 3000 years, and modern science validates it’s use.
 
If you want to know if the supplements you are taking or you hear about actually work, visit examine.com. They look at the scientific evidence in support of different supplements, and they grade the consistency of research results and the magnitude of the effects.
 

Here’s what they say about Ashwagandha:

  • DECREASES CORTISOL: The decrease in cortisol noted in humans has reached 14.5-27.9% in otherwise healthy but stressed humans, which is significantly larger than many other supplements.
  • DECREASES STRESS: Ashwagandha appears to significantly reduce the symptoms of stress and its comorbidities (fatigue, temporary cognitive impairment, etc.) as well as biomarkers such as cortisol.
  • DECREASES ANXIETY: Preliminary evidence suggests potent anti-anxiety effects in the context of chronic stress, with lesser potency in standard forms of anxiety not related to stress.
 
Ashwagandha has also been shown to reduce amyloid in the brains of people with cognitive decline.

3) 10 minutes of daily meditation 

As well as the well-documented stress reduction benefits of a daily meditation practice, studies are also showing that meditation has profound and measurable biological effects in the brain.
 
A 2018 randomized controlled trial in glaucoma patients found that meditation enhanced brain oxygenation, upregulated Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) and improved quality of life.
 
  • Sixty patients were randomized into intervention and control groups. The intervention group underwent 45 minutes of meditation daily for 6 weeks in addition to standard medical treatment while controls received only standard medical treatment.
  • Cortisol and interleukin-6 (a pro-inflammatory cytokine) DECREASED significantly in the intervention group, whilst β-endorphin levels and BDNF both INCREASED. Quality of life score also improved in the intervention group.
 
BDNF improves the function of neurons, encourages their growth, and strengthens/protects them against premature cell death. It also binds to receptors at the synapses, to improve signal strength between neurons.
 
Essentially, the more BDNF in the brain, the better the brain works.
 
Hope this convinces you to give meditation a try!
 
My current favourite app is Waking Up by Sam Harris but I also use Buddhify, Headspace and Calm.

Waking Up App Sam Harris

4) Eat More Fish – especially oily fish (Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines and Herring)

 
A large part of the brain is made up of omega-3 fats, making them vital for healthy brain function. In fact 60% of the fats in the brain are omega-3, with DHA, a type of omega-3 fat found in fish, being the main type.
 
Omega-3 fats are essential for healthy brain development both in the womb and in early childhood. About 75% of brain cells are in place before birth and the other 25% are in place by the age of 1 year – making omega-3 fats an essential nutrient both for pregnant mothers and young children.
 
Eating fish while pregnant may have benefits that go beyond early brain development. Studies have found that the children of mothers who eat fish while pregnant have better social and verbal skills at age eight compared to the children of mothers who never ate fish.
 
Several studies have shown long-term benefits to children whose mothers ate fish while pregnant – results which back up the current recommendations for eating fish regularly. But the benefits of eating fish go beyond the early years.
 
Researchers have found that many brain-related conditions may be prevented or even treated by good intakes of omega-3 fats, including problems like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and depression as well as dyslexia and ADHD in children.
 

Fish, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and ADHD

 
Children with low levels of omega-3 fats can have a decreased ability to focus attention – which can lead to problems in skilled movements, detecting facial and emotional expressions and sequencing letters and numbers.
 
Studies have shown that supplementing omega-3 fats such as EPA, found naturally in fish, may help improve the reading skills and attention span of children suffering from dyslexia and ADHD and may also improve motor skills and general co-ordination.
 
The benefits of omega-3 fats have been seen across many conditions affecting learning in children. This is still an area that needs more research but growing evidence suggests that children may benefit from regularly eating foods like fish, that are a rich source of omega-3 fats.
 

Fish, Alzheimer’s and Dementia

 
Several studies have shown that what we eat may have as big an impact on our brains as it does on our heart or waistline. Eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables seems to be vital in protecting the brain into old age but just as important is regularly eating fish.
 
In fact, much of the research into the role of fish in the brain has been carried out in people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Alzheimer’s disease affects an estimated 20-40% of people aged over 85, as well as many people at much younger ages and causes considerable distress both for the people affected and for their families. Although Alzheimer’s disease may have many causes, research suggests that diet in general, and fish in particular, may play an important role.
 
Researchers in Sweden found that people with the highest blood levels of the omega-3 fat DHA, had a 47% lower risk of developing dementia and a 39% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s compared to people with the lowest levels of DHA. This study suggests that eating fish 2-3 times a week may help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia as DHA is one of the major omega-3 fats found in fish, and fish is the major source of DHA in the diet.
 
Researchers looking at patients with Alzheimer’s disease have found that the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease have lower levels of DHA than people without Alzheimer’s.
 
Studies looking at the treatment of Alzheimer’s have found that supplements of DHA slowed down mental decline in patients with mild Alzheimer’s, although the effect was not as strong in those with advanced disease.
 
Studies have also found benefits for EPA, the other type of omega-3 fat found in fish, and dementia and Alzheimer’s. According to a study carried out in France, people with high levels of EPA have been shown to have a 31% lower risk of developing dementia compared to people with low levels of EPA.
 
Research looking specifically at the benefits of eating fish, rather than just omega-3 fats, found that those who ate fish regularly – at least once a week – showed a slower decline in mental function as they got older, compared to people who rarely or never ate fish.
 
The benefit was a difference of at least 10% less per year. They found that those who regularly ate fish had memory and brain function that was at least 4 years younger than their counterparts who never ate fish.
 
A Scottish study looking at fish and brain function also found that people who ate oil-rich fish like salmon, trout, mackerel or herring had an IQ level that was 13% higher than people who never ate fish. The study also found that people who ate fish were less likely to show early signs of Alzheimer’s. What is interesting about these studies, and others looking at fish and the brain, is that the benefits didn’t just come from the omega-3 fats but from the entire package of nutrients found in fish, suggesting that simply taking omega-3 supplements wouldn’t be enough to get the full benefit.
 

Omega-3 – Not all fats are equal

Did you know there are three different types of omega-3 fat?
 
  • EPA and DHA are the two main types found in oil rich fish.
  • ALA is the type that is found implants like linseed or flaxseed.
 
Research shows that both EPA and DHA are needed to help keep the brain healthy. In theory your body should be able to convert ALA into EPA and DHA but in real life, this only happens in very small amounts or not at all. For this reason it is useful to make sure you get some DHA and EPA regularly and eating oil-rich fish is one of the best ways to do this.
 

Fish and Depression

 
Depression is among the leading causes of disability worldwide, affecting an estimated 121 million people. There has been a great deal of research into potential nutritional causes and treatments for depression but the most promising results come from studies into fish and omega-3 fats.
 
There is now increasing evidence that omega-3 fatty acids, found in oil-rich fish, may be helpful in the treatment of depression. Although more research is needed before definite recommendations can be made, several studies have shown benefits in patients suffering from depression who took omega-3 supplements.
 
One study found that patients taking EPA, the type of omega-3 found in fish, reduced their ratings of depression by 50%, an effect that was similar to patients taking an anti-depressant drug. Another study found that people with the highest levels of EPA in their blood reported the lowest levels of depression. Fish is a major source of EPA and eating fish may be linked with reducing levels of depression.
 
Depression is less common among people who regularly eat fish such as the Iunuit population in Greenland. Although most of research into the benefits of fish in depression focus on omega-3 fats, researchers believe that other nutrients in fish such as vitamins B6 and folate as well as the amino acid tryptophan may be important.
 
While more research is needed into the role of fish and omega-3 fats in brain disorders, it is clear that there are many benefits to eating this ‘brain food’ from early brain development in the womb to keeping it up and running into old age.
 
Benefits are seen from eating fish as little as once a week and highlight the importance of following advice to eat fish at least twice a week and to include at least one oil-rich fish.

Fish Roe for Brain Health

Did you know that fish roe/caviar is a superfood for the brain?

For example, the roe from salmon contains approximately 38%-75% of the omega-3 fatty acids in phospholipid form, mostly present in phosphatidylcholine.

Compare that to salmon flesh which only contain approximately 1% of its omega-3 in phospholipid form. The brain prefers DHA in phospholipid form and it accumulates in the brain 10-times more than DHA in free fatty acid form.

You can buy salmon roe in Waitrose, and herring roe in Sainsburys.

S.M.A.S.H

There are so many options of fish to choose from, but these five options are some of the best when it comes to health benefits:

  1. Salmon
  2. Mackerel
  3. Anchovies
  4. Sardines
  5. Herring

To remember these use the acronym SMASH.

Let’s take a look a 5 good reasons why you should include them in your diet.

1. They are a great source of Omega 3’s

Omega 3’s found in fish are what is known as a long chain fatty acid, this refers to their structure. There are also short chain fatty acids found in nuts, seeds and plants, these are known as alpha-linoleic-acid (ALA). We can convert ALA to long chain fatty acids but the conversion is considered to be poor, particularly with a western style diet. We need Omega 3’s to support our cell membranes and maintain flexibility, permeability and the activity of enzymes.
These healthy fats are easily absorbed, high in anti-inflammatory properties, and can also help reduce cardiac issues and symptoms of auto-immune conditions like Rheumatoid Arthritis.

2. They are low in Mercury

Mercury is a concern when consuming fish, but the good news is that SMASH fish are low in mercury. The larger fish, that are higher in the food chain, are known to bioaccumilate mercury in adipose tissue (fat). This is primarily because the larger the fish, the more predatory the species and therefore the longer they live.

This explains why tuna would have more bioaccumulation of mercury than say anchovies.This process is known as biomagnification. Another positive about SMASH fish is that they are high in selenium, this has the added benefit of protection from mercury toxicity. Selenium stops the oxidation in the body that is caused by mercury. Selenium is often lacking in the diet and low levels can be linked to thyroid disease and cardiovascular disorders.

3. Fish a great source of Vitamin D

Vitamin D is an important nutrient for the body and it acts rather like a hormone. It is a fat soluble vitamin and oily fish, containing fat, naturally have high levels.

Fish and fish products are the best dietary sources of Vitamin D, with fatty fish such as salmon and herring containing the highest amounts. Vitamin D is important for a whole variety of functions in the human body such as immune function, protecting against cardiovascular disease, and supporting bone metabolism.

4. Fish is protective against many chronic diseases

The British Heart Foundations states that research into eating oily fish as part of a diet has shown a reduced risk of developing problems such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol, which are all risk factors for heart disease. In addition to this, people who follow a Mediterranean diet, that is traditionally high in SMASH fish, are more likely to live a longer life and also are less likely to become obese.

5. These 5 fish are sustainable

Sustainability of a species is of importance so as not to impact on the ecosystem. Over fishing a particular species can not only impact directly on the stocks but also as many of these smaller fish are part of the food chain for other larger fish, over fishing can adversely affect their existence too.

SMASH fish, are considered to be sustainable, (of course this can vary dependant upon where they are fished), but if you are in any doubt check the supplier carries the Marine Conservation Society label as they protect against over fishing to maintain sustainability.

5) Eat Brazil Nuts! 

Selenium for BRAIN HEALTH: Selenium works with our master antioxidant glutathione to mop up free radicals, the molecules with unpaired electrons that damage cell membranes, DNA, proteins, and overall cell structure and function.

In protecting and restoring cellular health this way, glutathione is itself being used up and so must be constantly regenerated, just as firefighters need a constant supply of water.

Low levels of glutathione can contribute to inflammation, toxicity, and loss of support for synapses.

Selenium plays a key role in regenerating glutathione when it is used up scavenging free radicals, so it is not surprising that reductions in selenium have been shown to be associated with cognitive decline.

The easiest way to get your selenium is to eat two organic Brazil nuts every day!

Organic Brazil Nuts Selenium

Micronutrient Deficiencies and Brain Health

The brain requires a constant supply of micronutrients for energy metabolism of neurons and glial cells, neurotransmitter synthesis and action, nerve impulse propagation, and homocysteine metabolism.

Deficiencies in various micronutrients, especially the B vitamins, have adverse effects on cognition.

It is not yet clear whether supplementation with B vitamins, antioxidants, or omega-3 fatty acids protects against age-related cognitive decline.

The best strategy is to get your micronutrients from food.

How do you know if you are getting enough micronutrients?

I like to track my micronutrients a couple of times a week in Cronometer. This will give you an idea if you are regularly deficient in any particular nutrients. You can then work to add in foods that are high in these particular nutrients.

The End of Alzheimer’s

If you are looking for information on Cognitive Decline and/or Alzheimer’s Disease, read our blog post: The End of Alzheimer’s. In this blog post we discuss the work of Dr Dale Bredesen who has developed a protocol for Alzheimer’s sufferers called the ReCODE Protocol.

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All information provided within this blog post is for informational purposes only, and is not to be construed as medical advice or instruction. Please consult your GP or a qualified health professional on any matters regarding your health and wellbeing or on any opinions expressed within this blog post. The information provided in this blog post is believed to be accurate based on the best judgment of the author. However, you as the reader must be responsible for consulting with your own GP or other health professional on matters raised within. Paleo Britain will not accept responsibility for the actions or consequential results of any action taken by any reader.

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