Women’s brain health: Practical steps to nourish and protect your brain.

It won’t be a surprise to many of you that mood disorders, menopausal symptoms and dementia are having more of an impact on woman’s health than ever before. As a woman approaching 40 myself, understandably I have a personal interest in how I can help protect my brain for the long term and support those around me at every age.

Medical research into the way the brain works as well as treatment for mood disorders and dementia has historically focussed on the male brain. Thankfully this is changing and recently there has been more research into the specific workings of the female brain and the role of hormones throughout our lives. In her book, The XX brain, Dr Lisa Mosconi wishes to empower women to understand how their brains work and explores the impact lifestyle choices can have on short term mood and long term brain health.

Diagnosed cases of dementia are increasing every year with an estimated two out of every three patients with Alzheimer’s being a woman. It is absolutely time we focus our attention on why this is and what we can do about it. First port of call for treatment if you are concerned about mood disorders, hormonal health or dementia should of course be a trusted doctor or GP. For those that are interested in preventative self care through day to day diet and lifestyle choices, Dr Mosconi has explored what has been proven in clinical studies to reduce the chances of mood disorders and the onset of dementia, hoping to support women live a more balanced and happier life.

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There is the common opinion that dementia is a genetic disease passed down from parents. This is only partly true and it is not inevitable that those with parents who get Alzheimer’s will get it themselves. It is true that there are some people that will carry certain genes that will put them at a higher risk. If family members, especially the mother, have had early onset Alzheimer’s, you may choose to speak with a doctor about your own health. Dementia itself will begin years, even decades, before symptoms appear. Whilst lifestyle changes from our 20s onwards would of course be most beneficial, making changes to look after our bodies and brains will help at any age.

Dr Moscino explains that because women have a different genetic make up to men, XX rather than XY, women posses over 1,000 more genes, many of which impact brain activity. Hormones are chemical messengers that are responsible for homeostasis, the self-regulating process by which our body systems maintain stability while adjusting to changing external conditions. Digestion, heat regulation, cellular growth and repair and all managed through hormones, as is brain function. The specific hormone that is largely responsible for the functioning of the female brain is oestrogen. As well as being the sex hormone that along with progesterone, testosterone and FSH, is responsible for menstruation and reproduction, oestrogen plays a crucial role in brain activity and keeping the brain cells healthy and active. Oestrogen has been shown to be active in the regions of the brain responsible for memory, attention and planning and will contribute to our emotions and mood.

From puberty onwards a woman’s monthly menstruation cycle will be determined by levels of hormones in the body. Many women feel emotional and physical effects of these shifts throughout the month. Some will suffer from PMT in the lead up to and around their period. There are many medical and complimentary treatments for severe symptoms and woman should always talk to a GP and alternative health professionals about options for this. Don’t suffer in silence! Many of the lifestyle suggestions to follow may also have a positive impact on PMT and monthly mood changes.

In mid-life there are a number of hormonal changes that take place during menopause. Decreasing oestrogen as well as progesterone and testosterone change the way our brain behaves. Forgetfulness, memory lapses, mood swings, anxiety and depression, as well as physical symptoms of hot flushes and insomnia are all common. Research suggests that unfortunately or some women, this will make them more likely to accumulate amyloid plaques. These plaques are are aggregates of misfolded proteins that form in the spaces between nerve cells in the brain which cause neurodegeneration (damage or death to brain neurones) and have been shown to be a hallmark of developing Alzheimer’s disease. That is not to say this will happen to everyone, but goes someway to explain the link between menopausal changes and later onset of dementia.

The physical and emotional impact of menopause has largely been suffered in silence for many years with a ‘hush hush’ approach socially. The good news is there is a much more open conversation happening between women and in the media in many parts of the world to educate everyone, in particular those that are going through these hormonal changes. A great conversation between Dr Shahzadi Harper and The Happy Pear is very informative and uplifting as to the way we should be considering mid and later life https://thehappypear.ie/podcast/episode-4-dr-shahzadi-harper/. In terms of support at this time, hormonal treatment is of course an option that will feel like a lifesaver for many women with severe symptoms. For those that want to try lifestyle adaptations, what is to follow can have a noticeable difference in menopausal symptoms and mood, whilst also helping to protect the brain into later life.

Here is an overview of the areas of our lifestyle that we can consider for general health, and in particular, brain health.

  • Balanced diet: managing carbohydrate intake avoiding blood sugar fluctuations, lots of fibre, a supply of healthy fats in particular omega- 3, reducing processed foods and in particular trans fats, lots of antioxidant rich plants.
  • Oestrogen rich foods: add some foods to your shopping list that are naturally rich in oestrogen.
  • Aim for low levels of alcohol and caffeine
  • Essential vitamins: from your diet or supplements including vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin B complex as well as gut health promoting pro-biotics
  • Portion size: Be mindful of what you put on your plate to promote healthy digestion and aim to eat to being about 80% full.
  • Movement: exercising in a fun, varied and motivating way to bring fresh blood to your brain
  • Stress: women in particular take on a lot with a daily juggle of work and family so consider making changes or adding in de stressing practices.
  • Mindfulness and meditation: consider practicing yoga and including daily mediation in your day
  • Sleep: investigate habits to promote quality, rejuvenating sleep if you struggle
  • Intellectual stimulation: challenging work or learning something new works the brain to stay active
  • Connection and community: finding joy in spending time in a supportive network of friends and family

Food and nourishment

How we eat affects our brain as much as it does the functioning of the rest of our body. Most neurons are irreplaceable so we need to nourish and take care of them with the right nutrients from what we eat. Symptoms of depression, anxiety and insomnia can all be helped to a degree with dietary changes. Of course no single change is likely to wave a magic wand and make you feel better overnight, but being mindful of what we eat day to day will start to bring changes in the body which translate into how we feel.

One thing to consider is the way we think of the concept of a ‘diet’. This word has often been thrown around in a restrictive way and we are constantly encouraged by society to restrict food in an attempt to lose weight and ‘look better’. Diet should be about nourishment. Outwardly we all have different body shapes and sizes, and whilst being very overweight carries health risks such as diabetes and heart disease, eating right and moving regularly to feel better inwardly should be the goal. It’s the people on the inside we should be connecting with, not how we look on the outside!

Here are some principles of nourishment to consider when planning your meals and food intake that will feed the brain what it needs, support hormonal balance and improve energy and mood. Dr Mosconi recommends the classic Mediterranean diet with some Asian foods like soy thrown in. For a more tailored approach or if there are particular health issues, consider working with a nutritionist or naturopath.

Carbohydrates and blood sugar

You may be familiar with the concept of a balanced plate and the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are critical for the energy needed by cells to perform their function. When we eat and subsequently digest and absorb food that has carbs in, there is an increase in blood sugar. This triggers the release of insulin to metabolise sugars for energy, or store as fat for future use. When we eat simple carbohydrates that are quick to digest, blood sugar spikes quickly. More insulin is released, sometimes more that is needed which may lead to a craving for sugary food shortly after a heavy carb meal. This often leads to a rollercoaster of high and low blood sugar throughout the day. Over time, this excessive insulin production may lead to ‘insulin resistance’ which is when cells in muscles and liver don’t respond well to insulin and can’t use glucose from your blood for energy. Left unchecked this could turn into diabetes, which is a risk factor for dementia.

How do we maintain a balanced blood sugar, and therefore keeping our energy levels consistant throughout the day ?

  • Choose foods that are digested slowly and therefore avoid a blood sugar spike. ‘Good’ carbs are complex and have a low glycemic load which means they are lower in sugar and higher in fibre and therefore are digested a lot slower than refined carbohydrates. Complex carbs include wholegrains, legumes, pulses and starchy vegetables like sweet potato.
  • Avoid simple, refined carbs and sugars such as white bread, white rice, white potatoes and all types of sugary confectionary. If craving a treat, a modest amount of high cacao dark chocolate could be a good choice as its low in sugar and rich in antioxidants. Small amounts of sweeteners like coconut sugar, honey and maple syrup where needed will be better that white sugar.
  • Vegetables should be half your plate for any meal. As well as excellent sources of ‘good’ carbohydrates, they contain essential vitamins and minerals as well as anti- inflammatory phytonutrients, which are shown in the bright coloured veg like capsicum, broccoli and tomatoes. Eat the rainbow!
  • Fruits have higher sugar levels than vegetables, however it is of course a natural sugar. Eat 2- 3 portions a day ideally along side some food with fats or protein, like nut butter or full fat yoghurt, to allow digestion. Berries such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, goji berries are lower in sugar and in particular have been shown in some studies to support brain health.
  • Juicing is a great way to include vitamins and minerals in your diet however the process removes fibre which makes the sugars quick to digest and may cause a blood sugar spike. If possible include vegetables that have a lower sugar content and drink a juice as part of a balanced meal.
  • Eat wholegraines, but don’t indulge. Those that have sensitivity to gluten should make sure that brown rice, buckwheat, millet and other alternatives are part of your diet.
  • Fibre is essential for women health. Fibrous food is digested more slowly keeping blood sugar levels stable. Fibre helps keep you regular, helps with managing cholesterol levels and for women have balancing effects on oestrogen levels. Foods high in fibre include beans, lentils, chickpeas, soya beans, fruits and vegetables.
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Fats

Dietary fats have had a mixed reception over the years. Low fat diets have been broadcast to be best for loosing body fat, and then high fat, low carb diets became trendy to lose weight. A balanced diet with fats and carbs will always be the healthiest option to ensure we get the nutrients we need, although depending on your own body you may need to vary the levels of both. We are all unique so listen to your body and how you feel after a meal. Fats are used for energy during movement and exercise which carb fuels are used up, they help absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, they form part of our cells and keeps us insulated and warm. Essential fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic acid that are used for brain development and to control inflammation cannot be made in the body by itself so should be consumed as part of your diet.

Some fats are healthier than others and we need to think about choosing ‘healthy fats’ and avoiding damaging ‘unhealthy fats’. Unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are the most supportive fats to have for women reducing risk of heat disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes and supporting long term brain function. Studies have constantly shown that those with higher PUFAs in their diet have the slowest rate of brain aging. PUFAs contain omega- 3 and omega- 6. Both are helpful for the brain although we need in ratio 2:1 in favour of omega- 3. In modern diets it is omega- 6 that is abundance and many people are deficient in omega- 3. As well as being an anti- imflammory, omega-3 is converted into DHA which is crucial for brain development and maintenance. It can keep mood balanced and so may be helpful in avoiding depression. PUFAs can be found in fish and shellfish in particular fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout and herring. Whilst fish is an excellent source of omega-3, you may have concerns over mercury levels which given our polluted seas are increasingly found in particular bigger fish so it may be best to avoid too much tuna, swordfish, shark etc. For non fish eaters, nuts, nut oil or butter, seeds and seed oil like sunflower, flax, chia and sesame, olives and olive oil, soya and avocado all contain ALA which can be converted into DHA. It could also be beneficial to supplement if you think omega-3 levels could be low either with fish oil or vegan alternative.

Monounsaturated fats also play a part in better cognitive functioning. They are liquids at room temperature and like PUFAs can be found in nuts, seeds, avocado and olives, as well as their oils. Monounsturated fat can also help lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol level. Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance that can cause clogged, or blocked, arteries (blood vessels). Keeping your LDL levels low reduces your risk of dementia as well as heart disease and stroke.

Whilst there are conflicting studies, the general nutritional opinion is that eating saturated fats from meat and dairy may be detrimental if eaten excessively. They have been shown to increase harmful LDL cholesterol. So, it’s advised to choose unsaturated fats as above instead. Coconut oil is a saturated fat, although behaves differently so may not have the same detrimental effects on health. Still though, limited use is wise. Milk may be controversial with many people turning away from cows milk in recent years. Based on Dr Mosconi’s findings, the oestrogen in organic, full fat milk is likely to help hormonal health. However, processed, skimmed milk with additives is likely to have the opposite effect.

And then we have to consider trans fatty acids, more commonly called trans fats, which are made by heating liquid vegetable oils in the presence of hydrogen gas and are found in most convince foods and margarine. Recent research have found these fats are very harmful for health and should be avoided entirely. A study that Dr Mosconi quotes suggests that those eating 2g of trans fat or more a day had twice the risk of dementia than those that did not. Trans fats have now been banned in the US since 2018 but whilst companies are urged to avoid, they are legal to use in food products in UK, Australia and elsewhere and may not necessarily appear on food labels. Even without trans fats, processed foods contain so many other chemicals that have not yet been sufficiently tested and are likely to be one of the main causes of many modern diseases so avoid where you can.

Oestrogen from food

As well as being made in our own bodies, we may be able to boost our levels of the hormone oestrogen from dietary sources. There are two main types of ‘phytoestrogens’- isoflavones found mainly in soy and lignins in seeds, wholegrains, legumes and also in many fruits and vegetables. Flaxseeds, sesame seeds, chickpeas, apricots, apples and olive oils are good sources of lignins as well as having plenty of fibre, nutrients and minerals as well.

In clinical trials, soy products have been shown to stabilise oestrogen levels and reduce menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes. In Japan, soy is a common in a woman’s diet and Japanese women, especially those living in Okinawa, have the longest life expectancy on the planet with fewer cases of heart disease, diabetes and dementia. As well as soy and tofu, they eat a lot of vegetables like sweet potato, legumes, wholegrain and fish.

There has been concern in the past couple of decades that soy may be leading to increase risk of cancer, in particular breast cancer. This has largely been dispelled now and Dr Moscino suggests that eating soy products as part of a healthy diet will have a positive impact on overall health. The issue however is how the soy is grown. Soy and tofu eaten in Japan is generally organically grown and fermented. Soy products in mass production globally are generally grown with pesticides, preservatives and additives that which could be leading to inflammation, allergies and impact hormonal balance. So, assuming you tolerate soy products OK, as part of a balanced diet and in moderation add some organically grown soya produce such as tofu, soy milk, edamame, tempeh miso soup to your daily diet.

Oestrogen rich food shopping list:

  • Soy products- soybeans, soy nuts, tofu, soy milk, tempeh, miso
  • Fruits- dried apricots, peaches, dates, variety of berries, prunes, oranges, watermelon
  • Vegetables- garlic, squash, green beans, olive oil, broccoli, olives, cabbage, onions
  • Legumes- chickpeas, hummus, mung beans, lentils
  • Nuts and seeds- all are beneficial, especially flaxseeds, sesame seeds, pistachios, almonds
  • Cereals and grains- flax bread, multigrain bread

Antioxidants and vitamins

Cells in our body can suffer from oxidative stress from free radicals that circulate, aging and damaging cells. Free radicals can come from a poor diet, drinking a lot of alcohol, smoking, exposure to environmental toxins and chemicals and even excessive exposure to the sun. Brain cells are particularly susceptible to damage.

You may have heard of anti-oxidants which are thought to prevent or delay cell damage from free radicals in the body, as well as being anti-inflammatory which helps to protect the brain. Vitamin C, E, beta cartons (that forms vitamin A), selenium and plant nutrients such as lycopene and anthocyanin are considered great antioxidants. Vitamin E is particularly important for the female brain which has shown in studies to reduce cognitive decline in the elderly. Vitamin E is also shown to reduce menopausal symptoms like hot flushes for some women. Plant based foods, especially colourful ones like berries, dark greens, tomatoes and artichokes are all excellent sources of anti oxidant vitamins. Extra virgin olive oil, flaxseed oil have high levels of vitamin E and Brazil nuts are high in selenium which is often tricky to obtain elsewhere. Herbs, spices, cacao, coffee and tea have lots of antioxidants. So add these to your weekly shopping list.

With modern farming relying on pesticides, depleted soil quality from over farming, long transport time and storage, it’s not always easy to obtain vitamin rich fruits and vegetables. Whilst it is not available or affordable for all, trying to buy organic, seasonal and local where possible will give you the most vitamin rich produce as well as supporting local farmers in more sustainable practices. Likewise, meat and dairy are often full of chemicals, antibiotics and hormones used in mass farming so if you can go for organic and grass fed. You may wish to take supplements for vitamins C and E as well as a good quality multi vitamin aimed at women of your age.

A note on chemicals. Modern life, unfortunately, is full of chemicals in our food and environment, it’s hard to lead a toxin free life. Our body has ways to ‘detox’ especially during sleep via our liver and kidneys. However, toxic load has been shown to cause health problems and so reducing exposure to toxins often found in packaging, beauty products and cleaning products can hopefully help reduce cellular damage and inflammation.

Gut health

There has been much discussion recently about the importance of our gut microbiome and the various impact it has on our health beyond our digestion and immune system. There are recent studies as to whether an imbalance in the gut microbiome may contribute to the development of amyloid plaques in the brain. The links may not be clinically proven but for those that want to know more about friendly bacteria could read Dr Megan Rossi excellent books, in references below, or listen to her conversation with Ella Mills which is a great introduction to gut health. https://deliciouslyella.com/podcast/the-gut-why-it-matters/

The general consensus though is that it is important to include foods that have beneficial ‘friendly’ bacteria in the diet. These are mostly found in fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, sourdough, live yoghurt, tempeh and miso. They thrive on fibrous foods that we have previously discussed, another reason to eat lots of great fibre.

Drinks

One of the most important things we can do is stay hydrated. That means drinking about 2l of water per day, adjusting depending on the climate and the amount of exercise we do. Tap water may not always be the best choice depending where you live as treating water can add metal and chemicals that may cause a toxin build up. Ideally mineral water will be the most hydrating, although be mindful of plastic bottles. Otherwise a good filter can help remove impurities and to help with hydration, adding a little pink salt and a squeeze of lemon, or some coconut water is more hydrating.

I think we all know that alcohol has a detrimental affect on our body in many ways and in particular, the brain. it interferes with sleep, hormone production and being hungover can make us feel more anxious and depressed. That said, life is about balance and the odd drink here or there won’t have a drastic impact on your overall health. A small (175ml) glass of red wine 2- 3 times a week may be beneficial for some people as the antioxidants in the grape skin will help with cellular repair as well as having a relaxation affect on the body and mind which could help with stress.

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Coffee and tea have antioxidants in which will be beneficial, in particular freshly ground coffee and green tea. However, we all metabolise caffeine in different ways. It may make some people anxious and jittery and drinking caffeine later in the day will likely impact sleep. So in theory, a single espresso or a couple of cups of tea earlier in the day are unlikely to have a huge impact, but check in with how you are feeling and adjust accordingly. Try to avoid tea and coffee which eating iron rich food as tannins in tea and coffee may interfere with iron absorption. And remember that coffee and tea drinking is often social- Fika time! So again, everything in balance.

Herbal tea either from a teabag or home brewed is a really nice way to keep your fluid up and teas such as ginger tea will have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Get creative with your brews! https://www.feastingathome.com/herbal-tea-recipes/

Be prepared

When we are hungry and haven’t thought out our daily meals we are most likely to grab something that we know isn’t the most healthy choice. Many live very busy lives and meal planning is tricky. Putting time aside to shop, cook and have healthy meals prepared of course will really help. If this is tricky, you could find a fresh, balanced meal delivery service if that’s available for you or just keep it simple with salads ad stir fry that are quick and easy for put together. Here is a typical day menu planning making sure meals are balanced, include healthy carbs, fibre, fats, antioxidant rich plants and oestrogen enhancing foods.

  • Waking- warm water with lemon or ginger.
  • Breakfast- full fat yoghurt with oats, mixed nuts, seeds and a few berries (fresh or dried) OR poached eggs with spinach and wholegrain toast
  • Lunch- salad with kale or spinach, any veggies you have available adding hummus, chickpeas, edamame or chicken with a flax seed or olive oil dressing OR baked sweet potato with salmon and green veg like broccoli or asparagus. Fruit like apple or banana as a dessert if you wish.
  • Afternoon snack- fresh berries, dried apricots or prunes with nut butter on wholegrain or rice crackers.
  • Dinner- baked salmon with green veggies, brown rice or sweet potato OR stir fried tofu marinated in soy sauce, garlic and ginger with veggies and buckwheat or rice noodles
  • Treat- stuffed dates with nut butter dipped in dark chocolate
  • Drinks- morning espresso or tea if you drink caffeine, approx 2 l mineral or filtered water, coconut water or herbal tea.

Movement and exercise

We were born to move! Whilst we are all built differently and exercise will look different to different people, it should be a key part of our day to day life in order to keep our body and mind healthy. Exercise is known to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, risk factors in dementia. Studies have shown that regular movement can help safeguard the brain against cognitive decline and actually during and post exercise there are physical changes that improve our immediate ability to think and remember. During exercise, blood is pumped around the body, bringing fresh oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Endorphins and serotonin are released which lift our mood helping us deal with stress and reduce impact of depression and anxiety. In a conversation with Ella Mills, Professor James Goodwin explains that exercise can help reduce inflammation in the brain and stimulates the production of growth hormones, brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This promotes new connections in the brain, can help repair damaged brain cells and improve memory. https://deliciouslyella.com/podcast/how-to-supercharge-your-brain/

Historically women move less than men as girls didn’t have access to physical education, and with expected roles looking after the family women would have less time to exercise. That has of course changed and is continuing to improve with more emphasis on fitness for all.

In terms of how much much of a workout will be beneficial, in our younger years and pre- menopause we will be able to work out with more energy so it is suggested doing a physical activity for 45- 60 minutes, 3 – 5 times a week which makes you sweat, increases you heart rate and gets the blood pumping will be enough. Combine what ever works for you across Cardio, strength and stretch and being part of group exercise is always fun. Around and after menopause it’s recommended to slow down to 30 minutes of low- moderate intensity 5 days a week, little and often, and again weaving in cardio strength and stretch. A brisk walk, swimming, some gentle yoga or hand weights session cover the bases. And listen to your joints and muscles which may not thank you for anything too rigorous.

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Stress

The brain is wired to protect ourselves when we perceive danger with the sympathetic nervous system triggering a ‘fight of flight’ physical reaction. This is useful if faced with a life or death situation that we need to run from or fight to protect ourselves. Hormones cortisol and adrenaline flood the body allowing us to respond quickly. The heart is pumping to circulate blood and oxygen, muscles tense or tremble to get ready to move, your breathing rate increases to bring in extra oxygen, pupils dilate to become aware of our surroundings, non essential functions such as digestion are halted.

The issue these days is that the brain often perceives day to day mental threats as dangerous and has the same physical reaction as it would have done in the same life or death situation. A difficult conversation at work, getting stuck in traffic, a job interview, trying to keep children to their school and activities schedule. Prolonged periods of this kind of stress response leads to heightened cortisol levels and adrenal fatigue which impact our hormonal balance in the body. It is likely that digestion and sleep will be disrupted and feelings of anger, fear, anxiety and depression will creep in. And there will subsequently be an increased risk for dementia.

On the whole, it is women who are impacted by modern day stress more than men. For those with children, it is usually the mother that takes on more of the child rearing and household actives and for those with elderly parents, it is the females of the family are more likely to take on their care. In recent years, opportunities that were once only available to men are now more open to women career wise. There is still of course a long way to go but the modern perception is that women can have it all. But for many that can come at a cost with a constant juggle between family commitments and working so finding a way to manage this stress is critical to avoid burn out.

So what do we do to combat the physical response to stress and bring balance back to our body? It would be impossible to eliminate all stresses in life, but we can alter how we respond to stress emotionally and physically. In her book, How to build a healthy brain, Dr Kimberly Wilson discusses the importance of monitoring our mental health and listening to our feelings. https://www.kimberleywilson.co/healthy-brain-book. The brain is an organ and will give us signs that it may not be functioning correctly from emotional and mood changes which may manifest in anxiety and depression. Whilst many individuals will benefit from working with a psychologist or councillor, sometimes its lifestyle changes than can make a huge difference.

It may help to step out of your day to day life and consider what is causing the most amount of unwanted stress and think about what changes can be made. Work is a very common source of stress. If you are finding work commitments too much, what are the options? Are there other jobs that could give more life balance? If not, can work be adapted to take the pressure off? For those with children that find it consuming, can there be more of a balance between parents, or are there additional child-care measures that can help? Those with elderly parents or relatives may be able to share caregiving with other relatives or professionals. I’m fully aware that many of these options come with a financial cost and changes aren’t available for everyone. So then we turn to stress management. Eating a balanced diet and regular exercise help keep hormones balanced and also putting some time aside for specific de-stressing activities.

If you are reading this you are likely to be receptive to the power of mind- body connection. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness have been shown to change the structure of the brain and can have a huge impact on cognitive functioning with improvements in the short term to attention, memory and mood and long term at reducing risk of cognitive decline. Meditation has been practiced for centuries in different ways by different cultures. Meditation does not need to be complicated, there are different techniques and you can start with a YouTube video or by subscribing to an app like Calm or Headspace for guidance. With practice over time, meditative techniques have the ability to effectively ‘rewire the brain’, changing our thoughts and therefore feelings, allowing our minds to be in a calmer and in a more positive state.

Dr Moscino suggests practicing Kirtin Kriya, a specific kundalini practice that has in recent studies proven to reduce inflammation in the brain with increased levels of blood flow, short term improving memory and sleep and long term reducing the occurrence and impact of dementia.

And of course, Yoga! I could talk for hours about the physical, mental and emotional benefits of yoga. There are many ways to practice and finding a supportive teacher will be a great start. For those looking for fitness, Vinyassa or power yoga is physically intense. And at the other end of the scale, yin or restorative yoga is a gentle process that focussing on switching on the para-sympathetic nervous system and de-stress. Hatha is a good place to start if you are fairly physically capable bringing together physical postures, breathing and mediation. If you have health concerns, find a yoga therapist who can suggest a practice that will work specifically for your needs. Start somewhere and explore what your body and mind respond to. If you have children, there are many excellent children yoga teachers who are able to connect with an install an appreciation for yoga from a young age encouraging resilience and the mental stability to face the many challenges life throws at us.

In recent years, and accelerated by Covid, we are spending less time physically connecting with friends. Women in particular historically thrive when connecting with other females. This isn’t for everyone, there are many introverts out there who find socialising exhausting, and that’s fine too. But be wary of isolating too much as being part of a supportive community and connecting with your social network enriches day to day life and means we can be there for each other when we most need to.

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Time spent in nature can have a huge impact on our state of mind. I love the concept of forest bathing, the Japanese call this shinrin-yoku, where we simply spend a couple of hours in a natural setting actively taking in the environment around us through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. We will generally feel calmer and in balance after a session of forest bathing, and studies are now showing the physiological effects, such as blood pressure reduction, improvement of autonomic and immune functions, as well as alleviating depression and improving mental health. Here is a conversation with science journalist Lucy Jones and Ella Mills about the benefits of reconnecting with nature for us as individuals and as a wider society. https://deliciouslyella.com/podcast/eco-anxiety-and-the-healing-power-of-nature/. Connecting with nature is increasingly important to combat the impact that technology has on our psyche. The use of tech has filtered into our day to day like never before and it’s really hard to de stress when you have a constant interruption. Whilst tech has opened up so many doors for us as a species, we are so reliant on our devices that it’s hard to separate from them. A lot of time using tech triggers stress response in the brain which biologically was not designed for this level of stimulation. This is especially true for children who spend more time indoors on screens than ever before. Time away from tech is so important for the brain to rest, especially in the evening before bed. Which brings us onto sleep.

Sleep

Proper sleep has consistently been proven to be important for a healthy immune system, vital in brain functioning and in reducing the risk of many diseases. As anyone who struggles to sleep will tell you, poor sleep has many debiliating short term effects such as difficulty remembering, low mood and brain fog. For menopausal and peri menopausal women insomnia can be a common issue.

You may know that we sleep in cycles. The first part is dozing off into light sleep where the brain prepares to shut off. During stage two the body becomes subdued and the brain slows right down. Then we enter slow wave sleep, stage 3 and it is during this stage that the brain processes information from the day, detoxes and crucially remove amyloid plaques.

So, how do we achieve a good nights sleep? For some, this will be easy as they may fall and stay asleep with little effort. For others, especially those with insomnia, it is a nightly struggle that in itself is a huge cause of anxiety. Ayurvedic lifestyle philosophy places a lot of importance on our daily routine and sufficient wind down time doing restful, calm activities in the evening and going to bed before 10pm, waking before 6am. Different people need different amount of sleep, with the average around 8 hours. You’ll know how much makes you feel properly rested. It will not always be possible to achieve this with family and work commitments but trying to set up your day to get as close to that as possible will make a huge difference.

Low light levels at night are important as in order to sleep the body produces the hormone melatonin which is in part triggered by lowered light, traditionally as the sun goes down. It is believed that the cycle of producing melatonin at night begins in the morning so it is recommended to get natural light outside as early as possible after waking. And then in the evening avoid bright lights, especially from electronics, so the brain can recognise nighttime.

Temperature can impact sleep. It’s better to have a cooler room and compensate with cosy bedding. The body drops in temperature just before sleeping which is hard to do in a warm room.

Aromatherapy, the use of scent, such as lavender oil, can help relax the body and make the association with sleep in the evening.

Meditation, especially a specific guided sleep meditation will help the mind slow down and unwind allowing it to ready itself for sleep. If we have things on our mind its very hard to switch off. Writing life worries down in a journal or talking to a friend or partner, or of course a councillor, about concerns may free up your brain for rest. Some gentle yoga stretches and deep breathing before bed will help to reduce tension that’s being stored physically in the body.

A balanced diet, as we have discussed, will make a difference. Avoiding high carb meal before bed means that blood sugar will have a chance to balance before sleeping. Eating a heavy meal late at night will be uncomfortable and won’t be digested properly during sleep disturbing your rest so eating around 6pm if going to bed at 10pm will give your meal time to digest. You could try eating foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan, which in turn makes calming serotonin and sleep inducing melatonin. Examples are chia sees, oats, soy, banana, prunes, pistachios, sesame and pumpkin seeds and for non vegans milk, yoghurt, fish, shellfish and chicken.

We have already considered caffeine and alcohol, both of which can drastically disrupt sleep patterns so drinking in moderation and avoiding caffeine after mid morning may help.

For more insight into the importance of sleep and how we can achieve a rejuvanating night rest, Neuroscientist and sleep researcher, Matthew Walker has written a really interested book, Why We Sleep which he discusses with Dr Rangan Chatterjee in this podcast https://drchatterjee.com/how-to-improve-your-sleep-and-why-you-should-with-professor-matthew-walker/

Photo by Burak Kebapci on Pexels.com

Intellectual stimulation

Many doctors advocate the benefits of intellectually exercising the brain to keep it active throughout life but in particular moving towards older age which can improve cognitive function and reducing the risk of dementia. Dr Mosconi cites a study amongst 400 seniors showing those that engaged in daily intellectual activities have a 54% reduced risk of cognitive decline compared with those that didn’t. Having an engaging and stimulating job can be one way to keep the brain active as well as continuing education and learning something new. Start or challenge yourself with a hobby, be it physical like a sport, dancing, pilates, yoga or learning a new language or something creative. So while thinking about your week it could be helpful to set time aside for something you enjoy that gets the brain cells firing.

There is no magic wand that will help your feel better immediately. However a combination of all these health practices regularly will help you feel better day to day and give your brain the best chance of staying healthy into the future. It may help to put some time aside once a week to put some thought into your weekly schedule, shopping list and booking in activities. Something like this.

Meals MovementYoga/ meditationLearningConnection
MondayB: Bircher museli
L: Salmon salad
D: Veg curry
30 mins evening walk30 mins morning yoga
& meditation.
20 mins French learning appEvening walk with friend
Tuesday
Wednesday
Thursday
Friday
Saturday
Sunday

However, try not to let brain health be another worry to add to your mental load. Connection with your friends and family is always the best medicine so look for joy and laughter wherever you can. Whilst popular media seems to be youth and image obsessed, society is forgetting the beauty of aging. Our years of knowledge and wisdom should be celebrated. By being supportive of each other with love, kindness and compassion we can all live a happier, healthier and longer life, together.

Sources

The XX Brain by Dr Lisa Moscini. Dr Moscini is the Director of the Women’s Brain Initiative and Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC)/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, where she serves as an Associate Professor of Neuroscience in Neurology and Radiology, Dr Mosconi is leading groundbreaking research into the female brain.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Kimberley Wilson, How to build a healthy brain

The Happy Pear with Dr Shahzadi Harper https://thehappypear.ie/podcast/episode-4-dr-shahzadi-harper/.

Ella Mills with Dr Meghan Rossi https://deliciouslyella.com/podcast/the-gut-why-it-matters/

Ella Mills with Professor James Goodwin https://deliciouslyella.com/podcast/how-to-supercharge-your-brain/

Ella Mills with Lucy Jones https://deliciouslyella.com/podcast/eco-anxiety-and-the-healing-power-of-nature/

Dr Rangan Chatterjee with Matthew Walker https://drchatterjee.com/how-to-improve-your-sleep-and-why-you-should-with-professor-matthew-walker/

I aim to share ideas from experts in their field, as well as adding snippets of what I’ve learnt from my Naturopathic Nutrition and Yoga study. Any advice on these pages should not substitute for medical advise from a doctor or GP.

Published by Homyumyoga

Writer, yoga teacher and with a background in book publishing I love the power of the written word to inspire us to think deeply about the world we live in.

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