I know it’s not officially winter quite yet but where I live in the UK it has certainly been feeling like winter.
When it is cold and wet, it can be really easy to slip into bad habits – maybe you give your morning walk a miss because it is wet or you enjoy a few more comforting puddings/desserts. It is easy to eat salad in the summer; not always so appealing in the winter!
Here are 5 things you can do to support your brain health over the next few months without sacrificing too much “comfort”.
1. Eat Nourishing Food
What we eat becomes even more important at this time of year. Our immune systems are working hard to fend off seasonal colds/flu etc so eat plenty of vegetables at every meal. Fill your plate with non-starchy vegetables.
Leafy greens are full of folate which when combined with vitamins B12 and B6 reduces homocysteine. Elevated homocysteine is a risk factor for cognitive decline. Dark leafy greens are a good source of dietary nitrates. Plant based nitrates convert to nitric oxide in the body and nitric oxide is a potent vasodilator providing a natural way to reduce blood pressure and improve blood flow, both of which are of particular benefit to the heart and brain.
Add in cruciferous veggies too – broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, kale, pak choi, rocket, broccoli/mustard seed sprouts etc because these sulphurous vegetables support detoxification, which in turn supports our brain health.
Think about the rainbow when you are planning meals so you get in all of the above plus colourful vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, garlic, and onions – they all add their powerful combination of vitamins and minerals into the mix to support better health and better brain health in particular. Herbs and spices also have recognised antiviral and antimicrobial properties and can easily worked into your meals.
Make soups, stews and casseroles. Start a soup with a base of onion, celery, some carrots and garlic, then add other veg, say cauliflower and leeks, some good stock (ideally a home made bone broth), some herbs like rosemary, basil, and parsley; add a tin of butter beans, season and blend according to taste. Play around with your ingredients – adds spices like turmeric, cumin and coriander along with lentils to your veg and make a spicy soup. Even meat based stews/casseroles can have lots of extra veg chucked in – you don’t have to follow the recipe! Soups and stews are real comfort food at this time of year.
When you plan you meals, ask yourself “How will this benefit my brain health?”.
2. Check your vitamin D status.
Covid brought the importance of vitamin D for immune health into the public’s focus. However, vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, has another important role. It is involved in the creation and maintenance of brain synapses. Reduced levels of vitamin D are associated with cognitive decline.
As well as the sun, you can get vitamin D from animal sources such as dairy and eggs and plant sources like mushrooms and fortified plant milks. However, most people also need to take a supplement especially in winter when there is no sunshine or it’s too cold to expose our bodies to the sun. Even during the summer many of us still need to supplement with vitamin D. I take a supplement but I am also just about to test my vitamin D status. If you supplement with more than 1000 IU of vitamin D each day, then you should also include vitamin K2. Better You have a vitamin D plus K2 spray available in pharmacies, Holland & Barrett, Amazon etc
Do you know what your vitamin D status is?
3. Eat oily fish
I know Christmas is around the corner and in the UK we don’t associate Christmas with fish, but I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to get lots of omega 3 fatty acids into our diet. A recent study into omega -3 status as a predictor of Alzheimer’s and dementia risk showed that low omega 3 status is a risk factor for cognitive decline. Other recent studies have shown that omega 3 and the B vitamins are co-dependent i.e. the one doesn’t work without other.
Vegans and vegetarians may be deficient because the vegan form of omega 3, ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which is found in foods such as nuts and seeds, has to be converted by the body into the more bioactive (i.e. useful to the body and brain) EPA and DHA in order to provide the benefits necessary for optimal brain health. Unfortunately, the conversion ratio is very low, so for those who don’t eat oily fish, then I suggest you get yourself tested and possibly start an algal oil supplement.
For those of us who like fish, winter is a good time to enjoy fish pies, a steaming bowl of mussels, sardines on toast and baked salmon or mackerel. Oily fish – sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring (SMASH fish) are the best sources of omega 3.
Ask yourself “where are the omega 3’s in my diet?”.
4. Prioritise your sleep
” Sleep is God. Go worship.” Jim Butcher
I don’t know who Jim Butcher is but he is right about sleep! Lack of sleep affects our overall health and leads to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, increased inflammation and a weakened immune system. All these conditions are bidirectional and they all impact brain health.
When I work with clients Sleep is a foundational pillar to be explored on and worked on. Not many people have optimal sleep. It is not just how long you sleep, but the quality of your sleep is important too. Alcohol, sugar and caffeine will impact the quality of your sleep as will late night technology, stress, and an irregular sleep schedule.
We all know what it feels like after a poor night of sleep. We feel groggy, unable to focus, slow, inclined to to make poor food choices, less inclined to move our bodies and more likely to be snappy with people. Sleep is when we consolidate our memories from the day before. Relatively recent research has shown that our brain engages in critical restoration work while we sleep. The recently discovered glymphatic system, comprised of glial cells that act as a waste disposal system for the brain, plays an essential role in beta-amyloid clearance.Research reveals that our glymphatic systems work most effectively during deep sleep. To facilitate lymphatic transport, it has been shown that sleeping on your side is preferable. I may be a rubbish sleeper but when I do sleep, I sleep on my side!!
Ask yourself “How well do I sleep?”. Do you actually know how restorative your sleep is? Wearable technology can be really helpful. I am a Firstbeat Life partner. My clients wear a Firstbeat Life device for just a few days at a time- it’s not intrusive at all. From the data it produces, we can track and learn about stress, sleep and activity and how they impact on each other and your overall health. Want to know more email me – email@example.com
5. Keep moving your body
When it is cold and wet, it can be really tempting to (i)pull the duvet over your head rather than get up and spend 20 minutes exercising before your day starts; (ii) instead of walking between appointments or to school/the shops etc you jump in the car; and (iii) in the evening you curl up on the sofa rather than go the gym. I’m sure you have plenty of other reasons not to exercise! I get it, but exercise really is food for the brain so please don’t stop moving.
Exercise is beneficial to health in so many ways. There is no disputing this. But not many people know that being active is the single most important strategy you can employ to prevent and remediate cognitive decline. Exercise benefits the brain in a number of ways. It was recently discovered that exercise powerfully stimulates glymphatic flow (see my point above on sleep).
Exercise also up regulates our mitochondria (our cell batteries!) and essentially “turns on” metabolic flexibility- the ability to metabolise either fat or glucose as fuel depending on its availability. A steady energy supply is vital for cognition. Our brains are just 2% of our body weight but they happily require 20% of our body’s overall energy supply.
Exercise in any form whether it’s gardening, walking or dancing increases brain volume. Not surprisingly, vigorous aerobic exercise supports blood flow to the brain and reduced levels of tau in the brain (a good thing) as well as increased brain volume. Aerobic exercise has been shown to upregulate brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), an important protein that stimulates the production of new brain cells and supports existing synaptic connections.
Whilst strength training hasn’t been as well studied as aerobic exercise in terms of the benefits for the brain, we know that strength training prevents sarcopenia and sarcopenia is correlated with cognitive decline. Strength training also prevents loss of bone (and osteoporosis) which reduces the risk of cognitive decline, slows ageing, and prevents brain atrophy. A meta analysis of 24 studies found that strength training yielded positive improvements in scores used for Alzheimer’s screening, with the greatest improvement in the area of executive functioning.
The implication of the various studies is that for optimal results we should do both aerobic and strength training and don’t forget to include some flexibility and balance work – our future selves will be very grateful.
Ask yourself ” Am I doing enough exercise and am I doing doing a mix of different types of exercise?”.
I have just shared just 5 ways you can support your brain health this winter. If you look after your brain you are looking after your heart, your immune system and metabolic health as well. It’s a win win!
If you are interested in exploring more ways to support your brain health, then send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org I will have space for some new clients in 2024.