It’s a cruel scientific fact that our brains start to slow down after we turn 40. And it can be downright frightening to accept that aging means an inevitable decline in brainpower. However, the way we take care of ourselves, including our stress level and lack of exercise, can affect our brain function, for the better or for the worse. Psychotherapist and neurotherapist Dr. Mike Dow explains how we can beat brain fog with these brain fog diet and lifestyle tips.
It may start as an episode of forgetfulness, or a few “senior moments” when you can’t recall a friend’s name. Your first bit of brain fog can be frightening to accept, but it’s an unfortunate reality that our brains begin to noticeably slow down by the time we reach 40. And up to 17 percent of people older than 65 will end up with some form of mild cognitive impairment! That mild impairment may be occasional difficulties concentrating, struggling to come up with the correct word, being unable to focus or simply forgetting where we could have “hidden” our car keys. Episodes of grumpiness, misery or anxiety are extremely common in middle age, too, and the truth is that between six and 15 percent of patients who meet the criteria for “mild cognitive impairment” will eventually develop full dementia.
But here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to happen. New research suggests that brain fog—that ambiguous area between normal functioning and the dreaded dementia or Alzheimer’s disease—may actually be reversible!
As a psychotherapist, I have studied the complexities of the brain for a long time, and I’m certain that our eating, sleeping and working habits have a profound effect on our body’s most complex organ. I also know this: we can beat brain fog with healthy brain fog diet and lifestyle modifications.
How To Beat Midlife Brain Fog
The brain relies on a complex combination of chemicals to keep it functioning and keep our mood in check.These three essential brain chemicals are: serotonin, which helps you feel calm, serene, optimistic and self-confident; dopamine, which is responsible for making you feel excited, motivated and energized; and cortisol, the “stress hormone,” which sends you into high gear when it’s necessary. But when we disturb the balance of these crucial brain chemicals by continually eating the wrong foods or not getting enough sleep, we can become depressed, forgetful and anxious.
However, by changing our diets to eat foods that are optimal for our brain health and which keep our brain chemicals in balance, we can reverse and beat brain fog naturally! Here are 10 dietary and lifestyle tips that you can do now that will give your brain what it needs to be in top form with as little “fog” as possible:
1. Boost Brain Fats
A good supply of healthy fats in your diet can help you feel and think better. Omega 3s are the best fats for your brain because they prevent inflammation, which is the key to cognitive function and warding off depression, stress and anxiety.
- Choose organic meat. Factory-farmed meats are often higher in omega-6 fats, which can add to the harmful brain-dulling inflammatory process in our bodies. On the other hand, organic meat and dairy tends to be naturally higher in anti-inflammatory and brain-healthy omega-3s.
- Think of fish as prevention and treatment for your struggling brain. Studies show that just six months of fish-oil supplements is enough to improve verbal fluency. Talk about an easy diet change as a brain-fog buster!
- Use plenty of olive oil (it’s packed with anti-inflammatory compounds that have been found in some studies to prevent Alzheimer’s and depression). Make sure to use extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings and plain olive oil for cooking—virgin olive oil isn’t stable at high temperatures.
- Avoid soybean oil—it’s packed with unhelpful omega-6 fats.
2. Avoid Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners might save you a few calories in the short term, but they can’t give your brain the nutrients it needs to keep ticking happily over the long haul. Your brain needs a readily-available supply of blood sugar to keep it running. Sweeteners don’t do it.
What’s even worse? Sweeteners have been shown to disrupt the levels of good bacteria in the gut, which in turn disrupts the production of the happy-hormone serotonin (much of which is manufactured in the gut).
3. Turn Off Your Phone
The less you use social media and electronics, the better you’ll be able to focus and concentrate. Facebook likes, Twitter retweets, Snapchat pics and Instagram followers are hard to resist because they’re addictive. All those lights, dings and pop-ups give our brains a tiny hit of dopamine—just as it would for a compulsive gambler sitting in front of a slot machine. But it’s not a healthy habit to reply on day in and day out.
- Turn off your phone or its ringer as often as possible, and don’t charge it in your bedroom to prevent it from disturbing your sleep (even subconsciously). Try to take a full day off from your phone each weekend as a cleanse from time to time. And try to find one hour three times a day when you put your phone on airplane mode and turn off the wifi. You’ll reduce the temptation to even look–and you’ll also be giving your brain 3 hours off from all those signals
- Dump the Kindle or Nook at night and read real books instead.
- Stop multitasking. Instead, try to complete one thing at a time and give that one thing all of your attention. Focusing on one task at a time can be a powerful antidote to the constant disruption of social media.
4. Switch Off The TV
Engaging in leisure activities helps stimulate the brain. In fact, studies show that reading, playing board games and musical instruments, dancing, travelling, knitting and gardening all reduce the risk of cognitive decline and protect you against senior moments.
Note that TV is not on the list! Actually, TV does the opposite of the activities listed above. Studies reveal that watching TV increases your risk of cognitive impairment by 20 percent. Reading? That has been shown to reduce it by 5 percent.
5. Drink A Glass Of Red Wine…or Champagne!
One alcoholic drink per day (or two for men) may actually help keep toxins out of the brain, reducing our risk of dementia by as much as 23 percent. This is true for all types of alcohol, but studies show that wine, and particularly red wine, works best. Red-skinned grapes contain a potent antioxidant called resveratrol. Among red wines, pinot noir has very high levels of resveratrol.
A glass of red wine with dinner may lessen blood-sugar spikes by preventing your gut from absorbing too much glucose, which in turn actually reduces your liver’s production of glucose. Red wine appears to do a better job in this regard than white. If you prefer a lighter drink, try champagne! Research suggests the phenolic acid it contains may prove a powerful weapon to help you think better.
Either way, don’t go crazy! Moderation is key because the scale can easily tip too far in the other direction. Heavy drinking, or more than three to four drinks per day, is associated with increased risk of dementia.
6. Spice Things Up!
Consider turmeric as an integral part of your anti-brain-fog diet. Turmeric contains a plant compound called curcumin, which has major anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and increases levels of a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF has been dubbed “Miracle Gro” for the brain.
In addition to improving your thinking, turmeric will likely make you feel better, too, by possibly increasing serotonin in the brain.
In fact, studies show that low repeated doses of turmeric are more effective than high doses for fighting Alzheimer’s disease. So, rather than relying on an occasional Indian dish for your turmeric fix, aim to eat one food containing turmeric every day. Add a dash of fresh black pepper, which makes the turmeric more easily absorbed by the body. Or, make it simple and add a teaspoon of turmeric to your soup, stew, salad dressing or tea!
Turmeric isn’t the only spice that can give your brain a boost. Saffron, another common ingredient in curry, can also inhibit Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, the carnosic acid in rosemary may also boost your brain health. In fact, the scent of rosemary alone can improve memory. And sage has been shown to improve word recall.
7. Change Your Thinking
Negative thinking can bring you and your brain down. Instead of harping on what’s not going right, try to spot the thought patterns you engage in most often and work to change them. Even just identifying the pitfall is a good first step. Aim to reduce the following mental blocks that could be adding fogginess to your brain:
- Personalisation: Assuming that something is happening because of you. (“I didn’t get that job because I’m not smart enough.”)
- Pervasiveness: Allowing a problem to invade all parts of your life. (“I have a headache; might as well call in sick to work today.”)
- Paralysis-analysis: Getting stuck in your own thoughts. (“Why couldn’t I remember where I put my keys last night? What does it mean? What will I do if this keeps happening?”)
- Pessimism: Always believing the worst about everything. (“I felt foggy this morning—I must be getting dementia.”)
- Polarisation: Seeing everything as either/or, black/white, yes/no. (“My boss didn’t respond well to my presentation. I might as well quit.”)
- Psychic: Feeling sure you know what another person is thinking. (“I know she’s never liked me anyway.”)
- Permanence: Using the past or present to judge the future. (“I’m never going to get over this divorce.”)
To fight these mental patterns, aim to do something new each day that gives you a sense of pleasure, productivity, power, pride, passion, peace or purpose.
8. Go To Bed By 11 p.m.
Sleep acts as the brain’s “self-cleaning” cycle to prevent brain fog and get rid of the plaques between nerve cells that cause Alzheimer’s. It also boosts our capacity for learning, our general mood and our creativity. A good night’s sleep can improve alertness and strengthen the brain’s connections, which will help consolidate the memories you encoded during the day.
Poor sleeping habits, however, lead to increased levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, and lowers dopamine levels. This will leave you glum, unmotivated and unfocused.
Do whatever you can to regularly get eight hours of restful sleep per night.
- Go to bed by 11 p.m. and wake by 7 a.m. to get as much natural light exposure as possible.
- Eat seafood as often as possible—the omega-3 fats support the production of the hormone melatonin, which helps with restful sleep.
- Grab a nap mid-afternoon if you need to—set aside at least 40 minutes because it may take 20 minutes to fall asleep.
- Reset your natural rhythms by exposing your eyes to bright light as soon as you wake up. Open the blinds, turn on the lights or go outside right away.
9. Have a Cup of Joe (Or Two!)
Consider coffee (without sugar or milk) as a food that can protect you against cognitive decline, dementia and depression.
Try an espresso macchiato (black coffee with a little foamed milk) or espresso over ice with a splash of soy milk. Both beverages are under 50 calories and won’t spike blood-sugar levels. Enjoy up to three cups per day.
10. Say No To Junk Food
The ideal brain fog diet keeps junk food and carbohydrate consumption low. Blood-sugar highs and lows can leave us feeling foggy, listless, anxious and depressed. Worse, a high-carb diet can lead to a condition called insulin resistance (meaning cells don’t respond as they should to the metabolic demands of insulin) which has been linked to memory problems and dementia.
Replace high-sugar, quick-release carbs with “complex,” slow-burning carbohydrates like whole grains and vegetables that are packed with mood-boosting amino acids.
Here are some simple swaps:
- Opt for a nutritious “open sandwich” on one slice of whole wheat bread instead of two. Better yet: One slice of flourless, sprouted bread.
- Cut your carb intake in half by hollowing out a bread roll before you eat it.
- Order thin crust pizza rather than carb-heavy deep dish or share the pizza and indulge in a salad first.
- Eat vegetables raw or lightly cooked to maximize their fiber and blood-sugar-blocking capabilities.
- Enjoy whole wheat pasta from time to time, but only eat it undercooked. If you eat it “al dente,” it takes longer to digest and will keep your blood sugar levels stable.
- Drink black tea with lunch because it limits the amount of glucose that is absorbed into the gut.
- Try large lettuce leaves in place of bread for sandwiches and wraps.
- Mash a tin of butter beans (packed with fiber and nutrients) instead of having mashed potatoes or chips.
- Switch white bread, rolls, pitas and wraps for whole wheat, which can add more naturally-occurring fiber to your diet.
- Swap spaghetti for courgetti! Or simply use no-carb noodles.
- Swap cinnamon for sugar in your coffee. Its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties will give you a hint of sweetness with an added brain boost.
You don’t have to accept forgetfulness and brain fog as a natural part of aging. You can take control and through a healthy brain fog diet and changes in lifestyle, you can improve your brain health, and your overall wellbeing.
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