Q.: My memory is not as good as it used to be. I’m wondering if I just have a lot on my mind or am just overtired. What can I do to sharpen my mind? Fish oil supplements are proven to help children with ADHD but what about adults without attention or behaviour issues? Andrew
PATRICK HOLFORD REPLIES:
Your brain can be your greatest friend or your worst enemy. If it’s working properly, you’re able to think clearly, to imagine, to sense, to dream. If it’s not functioning optimally, you can feel flat, unhappy, confused and forgetful – life loses its clarity and becomes a foggy struggle.
The good news is that mental decline is not inevitable and you can boost your memory and mental alertness at any age. Research clearly shows that healthy, well-educated elderly people show no decline in mental function right up to death, and no increased rate of brain shrinkage even after 65 years of age. There is also plenty of evidence that keeping both your mind and body active will help to prevent decline in mental function. So, do puzzles and cross- words frequently. Learn a new language. Keep studying throughout your life.
ALCOHOL PICKLES THE BRAIN
Alcohol and stress affects the mind negatively. The brain is incapable of detoxifying alcohol, so once the liver’s detox capacity is exceeded, alcohol starts to disrupt normal brain communication signals, worsening memory. That’s one of the reasons we like it – to forget about our worries. With alcohol, moderation is the key word. To prevent its negative effects, drink infrequently, ideally wine or beer.
SAY NO TO SUGAR
Excessive amounts of sugar damage the brain because it forms toxic compounds called advanced glycation end products or AGEs. Eating refined sugar upsets blood sugar control. Peaks in blood sugar effectively sugar-coat proteins, and damage them, creating AGEs. Long-term sugar abuse and AGE creation lead to artery and brain damage. The more the arteries become damaged, the worse the circulation to the brain and the less reliable the supply of nutrients becomes. Researchers now believe AGEs may be a major player in Alzheimer’s disease. So say no to sugar and go for slow-releasing carbohydrates instead. Eat whole grains, wholemeal bread, pulses and fresh fruit; dilute fruit juices with water; and only eat dried fruit in small quantities, preferably with nuts or seeds.
STAMP OUT STRESS
Stress has an enormous impact on your memory, particularly chronic stress. On-going stress causes a non-stop output of the hormone cortisol, and research shows that this is a very bad thing for the brain. Raised cortisol levels have been linked to poorer memory and a shrinking of the brain’s sorting centre. Cortisol also makes the toxic protein beta-amyloid even more toxic.
Don’t underestimate the effects of stress and anxiety. Reacting in this way can become habit-forming so find a way to break the habit and give your brain time to recover. If something riles you, express it. It’s much better to let it out – as long as you do it responsibly. Physical exercise lowers cortisol so go for a run or a brisk walk, or buy a punching bag.
Other great ways of de-stressing are by practising yoga or meditation.
There are various combination state-of-the-art brain-boosting supplements on the market today.
EAT THE FATS THAT MAKE YOU THINK FASTER
Conclusive research clearly shows that the type of fat you eat has a profound effect on how you think and feel. This is down to the simple fact that the brain is totally dependent on certain fats. These include saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The first two types can be made in the body but the polyunsaturated omega fats, however, have to be topped up through your diet. Seeds and nuts are a good source of omega-6, while cold-water fish like herring, mackerel, wild salmon or fresh tuna are rich in omega-3.
Vegetarians can opt for cold-pressed flax seed oil to get their omega-3. While increasing the good fats, minimise your intake of harmful fats, such as saturated fat from meat and dairy products and fried food.
A trial carried out in New Zealand at Massey University, gave 176 adults between the ages of 18 and 45 either an omega-3 fish oil supplement providing 1.16g of DHA or a placebo for six months. They selected non-smokers, who didn’t take fish oil supplements and consumed less than 200 mg of DHA+EPA a week – in other words, didn’t eat fish often.
They measured various aspects of cognitive function including tests for memory, reaction time at the beginning and end of six months.
Those of the omega-3 DHA supplements had a highly significant improvement in two tests for memory (episodic and working memory) and a significant but small improvement in reaction time.
This is the first study to show that normal adults can benefit from a higher intake of DHA.
In another study,2 otherwise healthy older adults with the first stages of memory decline were given a similar amount of DHA (900 mg) for 24 weeks and again reported improvement in learning and memory.
However, a study3 where DHA was given to those with dementia/Alzheimer’s disease, didn’t show improvement, perhaps indicating that it is too late in the disease process.
DHA is one of the main essential fats in fish oil, the other being EPA. While EPA is a more effective anti-inflammatory – good for heart disease, arthritis and also mood – DHA is part of the brain’s structure and used to build new brain cells.
The amount given in the first study mentioned is quite high and equates to eating the equivalent of a serving of oily fish almost every day. While this might not appear practical, having three servings of oily fish a week, a serving of cod roe or taramasalata and supplementing 250 mg of DHA a day would give you about 1 000 mg a day.
The richest food source by a long way is caviar, giving 3 000 mg per 100g – but it’s also the most expensive. A 100g serving of mackerel gives you close to 1 000 mg.
Every day I take two Essential Omega capsules which provides 350 mg of EPA, 224 mg of DHA and 42 mg of DPA, which can convert into DHA as needed. So that’s the equivalent of about 260 mg of DHA.
Whether lower doses would produce the same effect will not be known until more studies are carried out.
LOWER YOUR HOMOCYSTEINE LEVELS
An accumulation of homocysteine in the blood can increase the risk for over 50 diseases, including memory decline and Alzheimer’s disease. To get a handle on your homocysteine, get your level tested. If your reading is above 6, then the quickest way to restore it is by supplementing with vitamins B2, B6, B12, folic acid, trimethylglycine (TMG) and zinc.
UP YOUR ANTIOXIDANT INTAKE
According to Professor Denham Harman from the University of Nebraska Medical School, there’s a 99% chance that free radicals are the basis of ageing. These oxidants, produced by the body, eventually kill us. If we take in more oxidants, by smoking or living in a polluted city, for example, and consume few antioxidants from fruit and vegetables, we age even more quickly.
The good news is that the right combination of antioxidants is an incredibly powerful memory protector. The best antioxidant vitamins for boosting your memory are vitamins A, C and E. These not only protect your brain from the insidious process of oxidation, but also improve the supply of oxygen, the brain’s most crucial nutrient.
Besides supplementing your diet with these vitamins, you can get all-round antioxidant protection from your diet. Top-scoring antioxidant foods include prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, kale, strawberries, spinach, raspberries, plums, alfalfa sprouts and broccoli.
BOOST YOUR B’S
B-vitamins do far more for the brain than simply reduce homocysteine levels. Oxygen depends on B-vitamins to be transported and used for the brain, for instance. A lack of these nutrients can cause defective memory, confusion and time distortion. For this reason, optimal amounts of all the B-vitamins are important and can be obtained from a vitamin B complex or a high strength multivitamin supplement.
- Stonehouse W., et al. DHA supplementation improved both memory and reaction time in healthy young adults: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 May; 97(5):1134-43.
- Yurko-Mauro K., et al. Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline. Alzheimers Dement. 2010 Nov; 6(6):456-64.
- Quinn JF., et al. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation and cognitive decline in Alzheimer disease: a randomized trial. JAMA. 2010 Nov 3; 304(1