Beef up your brain power

If you remember to exercise your mind, your memory shouldn't fail you, says Harriet Griffey
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Memory is inextricably linked to the health of our brains, where memory is stored. Although the brain is not a muscle, so can't be exercised in the same way to improve it, it does respond to being used in a demanding way.

Memory is inextricably linked to the health of our brains, where memory is stored. Although the brain is not a muscle, so can't be exercised in the same way to improve it, it does respond to being used in a demanding way.

Psychologists refer to three different types of memory: sensory, working and long-term. Sensory memory is fleeting, and we will only remember something if it grabs our attention and activates our working memory. Even this will fade if it's not transferred to our long-term memory store, where it will remain - even if we sometimes have trouble recalling it.

When we are born, the surface of our brain is quite smooth, but over time as we grow and learn new things, from learning to walk to complex mathematical sequences, we create neurological pathways that are, in effect, the circuitry of the brain. After a certain age, we tend not to learn new things in the same way but - if we do - we again create new neurological pathways. This is why keeping the brain challenged, especially as we age, keeps it functioning well.

"Use it or lose it," says psychologist Robert Allen, who runs mind-training seminars and is the author of the book Improve your Memory, which contains a multitude of memory-boosting exercises. "Our memories are important because they are who we are, not just some cute trick we use to find the car keys. It's true that some things we remember automatically. But we need to stay in the habit of remembering, consciously committing something to memory because this works. And when we consciously want to remember something, we need to relax. Stress is detrimental to memory, which is why revising for exams is more difficult if you are anxious about it."

Dr Dharma Singh Khalsa, author of Brain Longevity: the Breakthrough Medical Program that Improves your Mind and Memory, is even more adamant about the detrimental affect of stress, depression and anxiety on the brain because of the release of the hormone cortisol in stressful times.

"In moderate amounts, cortisol is not harmful," says Dharma. "But when produced in excess, day after day - as a result of chronic stress - this hormone is so toxic to the brain that it kills brain cells by the billions. I am now certain that chronic exposure of the brain to toxic levels of cortisol is a primary cause of brain degeneration during the ageing process."

Fortunately, Dr Khalsa is also adamant that there is a range of measures we can all take to protect, preserve and enhance our brain's activities and our ability to remember. We can even reverse the damage causing poor memories. These measures range from eating well to getting enough sleep.

Nutrition

Like the rest of the body, the brain needs food to function well, but it needs quite specialised foods. Essential fatty acids are one example and, as these can't be manufactured by the body, need to come from our diet but - without a regular intake of oily fish - are often deficient. Omega-3 (linolenic acid), EFAs and especially DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are particularly important for the integrity of brain cell membranes. Ideally, if taken in supplement form, Omega-3 EFAs should be taken in balance with Omega-6 (linoleic acid) to a ratio of 2:1.

Our daily intake of fruit and vegetables is recommended to be "five a day" - with good reason, this is our biggest source of antioxidant vitamins A, C and E. Antixodants help counteract the effects of free radicals in the body, scavenging cells that need to use the energy source of other cells, causing damage. Magnesium is important and many people, particularly those with driven personalities, who are prone to stress, are deficient in magnesium. Other helpful substances are the minerals, zinc and selenium, and amino-acids L-methionine and L-taurine. Green tea is also high in antioxidants.

Finally, protein is important for brain function, not just as a facet of a balanced diet but because protein stabilises blood-glucose levels when eaten with carbohydrates. While the brain needs glucose, it doesn't need the fluctuating blood sugar that fast, processed food diets create. Starting the day with a boiled egg and wholemeal toast, the relatively high glycaemic index of which is offset by the protein of the egg, is perfect for a well-functioning brain!

Reduce stress

You can do this in a number of ways, including deleting stress factors from your life or learning how to prevent them stressing you. Trying to do too much, often in too little time, or attempting to do it perfectly rather than adequately, are common causes of stress worth reviewing. Simple breathing exercises, where the in and out breaths are controlled also help. If you can control your symptoms of stress - for example, over-breathing - it helps persuade your body that you are less stressed than you are, and this reduces the symptoms, feelings and consequently the effects of stress.

Exercise

Exercise is helpful because it increases levels of stress-reducing neuro-chemicals like endorphins, while also helping to disperse stress hormones like cortisol. In addition, physical activity tends to take to make you focus on what you are trying to do physically rather than mentally, while helping release the muscular tension that results from physical inactivity. Feeling physically tense increases your mental tension.

Meditation

One of the significant benefits of meditation - apart from its ability to reduce high blood pressure and enhance mental alertness - is that is helps to increase levels of the neuro-protective hormone, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone). DHEA declines with age, but a study of meditators showed that men aged over 45 had levels of 23 per cent more DHEA than non-meditators, while the women showed an average increase of 47 per cent more. More and more people are now benefiting from incorporating meditation into their daily lives.

Sleep

Sleep is the way the body rests and restores itself. While many notable people appear to survive on four hours a night, it tends to affect the rest of us negatively. The metabolic and endocrine changes caused by chronic sleep deprivation mimic the onset of ageing, including memory deficiency.

'Improve your Memory', by Robert Allen, is published by Collins & Brown priced £14.99

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