Health & Wellness

The Big Brain Workout

Every brain changes with age, as do mental function. We look at how lifestyle and nutrition can minimise the effects of ageing.
BY HELEN CLEMSON

Did you know that the brain is a muscle and you can train it to assist you to create the life you desire?
Helen Hansen, a kinesiologist who specialises in holistic psychology, talks about exercising the brain to adopt constructive thought patterns. “Statements such as ‘I always forget these days’ or ‘Ever since the birth of my child, I can’t think straight anymore’, will help to accelerate ageing,” she says. “Be mindful of making positive, solution-based statements that will programme your brain to create the experiences you want. This may take some time but with practice, you will see the benefits.”
Diet is also a contributor to a long and healthy life. “Our brain is a machine. We are careful to put the correct fuel into our car so it makes sense that we have the same consideration for our brain and our body,” says Hansen. “Look at the nutrients you choose as currency for your brain. When you choose the high-converting currency you will empower your brain with balance, clarity of thought, improved processing abilities and the skill to respond rationally. The quality of your brain affects your emotional state and your physiological state. Invest wisely.”

SELECT SMART WHOLE FOODS
Where to start? Go for a variety of nourishing foods that include whole foods (those closest to their original form) such as fresh fruit and vegetables, and non-wheat whole grains. In particular, opt for almonds, avos, kale and sustainable fish options. Avoid eating processed food, refined flours and sugars regularly as these can contribute to depression, anxiety, insomnia and gut issues. Hansen’s advice is to check labels for chemical ingredients such as GMO, aspartame, corn syrup and sodium benzoate which trigger hyperactivity, anxiety and irritability.
Nutrigenomics and dietetics specialist Dr Christa North of Geneway, agrees that diet affects cognitive function. How a  healthy diet influences midlife cognitive functions are mediated by dietary components with antioxidant (e.g. fruits, vegetables) and anti-inflammatory (e.g. omega-3, polyphenols) properties. “A healthy diet also decreases the risks for Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, all of which have been associated with cognitive decline and dementia,” she says.
Also, be supplement smart: EPA and DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) are abundant in fish oil and imperative for healthy brain function and development. Popping a daily capsule of this brain booster means those with cognitive decline and even mild depression may see an improvement in their symptoms.

 

GET YOUR GENES TESTED
Dr North has another perspective. “Genetics, environment and lifestyle literally shape the brain. Ideally, you should have  your genes tested but diet quality is more important and can ‘override’ dysfunctional genes to a great extent.”
If you wish to know more about the makeup of your body, results from gene tests can be very specific as to which nutrients you do and don’t need to overcome genetic deficiencies. “For example, the APOE gene – well known for its link to Alzheimer’s disease – is very sensitive to saturated fats and alcohol and highly responsive to exercise. If you carry that gene mutation, you know exercise must form part of your routine and the Banting diet is not for you,” says Dr North.

 

 

 

STAY HYDRATED
In addition, B6, B12 and B9 (Folate) vitamins are required to make brain chemicals. Gene tests can determine the function of the genes required to convert B vitamins into the active forms necessary to make the brain chemicals. If you’re faced with having to reduce your alcohol or coffee intake, or both, and can’t decide which to cut, Dr North quotes a 2018 study that suggests that in addition to boosting alertness, caffeine may increase the brain’s capacity for processing information.
When it comes to liquid intake, drinking plenty of water for your body size, climate and environment are also vital. “Heat, air-conditioning and heaters dehydrate the body,” says Hansen. “The brain uses more than 70% of the water we consume. When one feels tired, anxious or has brain fog, reach for a glass of purified water before taking in food or other beverages.”
Anybody even vaguely health-conscious, would have heard a lot of this umpteen times before, but do we heed the advice? It’s clear that the sooner, the better for mind-body health.

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