Sarah’s Health Notes: Sharpen Up Your Brain!

Sarah’s Health Notes: Sharpen Up Your Brain!

Remember Spas? Those wonderful places that give mind, body and spirit a break and reboot. Of the many good ones, Chiva-Som Hua Hin in Thailand is right up the top. In the Before (January 2020), I met members of the team who were visiting London and was captivated and impressed by their commitment and passion to – quite simply – making people feel better.

So, as we see glimmers of hope that we may be able to travel again before too long, I’m happy to give you these tips from Dr Jason Culp, Research and Development Director at Chiva-Som, about how to promote brain health. Recent research shows that we can even ‘grow the brain’ – a process known as neurogenesis where new nerves and neural connections form in the brain. Keeping your brain healthy may help safeguard it against cognitive decline and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Here are Dr Culp’s recommendations:

Know your fats: Consume unsaturated fats, such as Omega 3, 6, and 9, can help promote the production of new neurons in the brain.  These ‘good’ fats can be found in salmon, tuna, raw walnuts, cold-pressed olive oil, and freshly ground flax seeds. Avoid trans fats – usually in processed and junk foods, also margarines and some vegetable oils – as they can significantly decrease neurogenesis in the brain’s memory storage centre, the hippocampus. On the ingredients labels, trans fats will be labelled ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ oil.

Eat blueberries: These small, deep blue berries, [which grow all around me in the west country], are rich in a variety of antioxidant compounds called ‘anthocyanins’, which gives them unique health benefits, including increased cognitive function. Blueberries have been shown to improve brain health by increasing BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor). BDNF helps to ensure the survival of existing brain cells and tissues, as well as to promote the growth and proliferation of new neurons. Studies have also shown that blueberries can increase the birth rate of brain cells in the hippocampus. Including blueberries in the diet has also been shown to significantly reduce the genetic and biochemical drivers behind depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.  

Exercise: Physical activity elevates mood and improves cognition. Research studies show that 30 minutes a day of sustained, aerobic activity has a positive impact on nerve growth and brain function. Non-aerobic forms of exercise have demonstrated protective effects again dementia onset.

Sleep well: Studies have shown that sleep is crucial for learning retention by promoting the growth of new nerve connections.  This process is called ‘neuroplasticity’ and takes place each time a new skill or habit is learnt.  Sleep deprivation is one of the most powerful inhibitors of new nerve growth and connection.  The suggested amount of adequate uninterrupted sleep is between six to eight hours a night.

Use your other hand: Using your non-dominant hand to do simple tasks like brushing teeth, drinking coffee or messaging on the phone can help form new nerve connections. Known as ‘neurobics’, these cognitive exercises strengthen the connection between the nerve cells in the brain.  Also, practising non-dominant hand exercises has been shown to improve emotional health and impulse control.

Take up a musical instrument: It’s been recognised for centuries that music has a positive impact on the brain.  But in recent times, neurologists have been able to map the effects of music using brain scans.  Studies have demonstrated greater connectivity between different brain regions in musicians.  The combination of movements with sounds and visual patterns leads to enhanced neuroplasticity (nerve connections) as well. As well as changing brain structure, it can improve long-term memory and, learnt at a younger age, lead to better brain development. [I would add here that singing has been shown to have a positive effect on the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease and those who have had a stroke.]