Unwind the mind – supporting stress, cognition and focus

Unwind the mind – supporting stress, cognition and focus
Posted in: Articles

Do you find it difficult to remember things or find it challenging to focus or switch off your racing thoughts? Or perhaps you have some exams coming, and you want to support stress and concentration? Remembering what we want to remember can be tricky! Especially during busy periods such as exams, when we feel stressed, overwhelmed and under pressure. Teenagers and young adults are most often under academic pressure to perform well. Inevitably, there will be lifestyle factors that can affect cognitive ability, with stress being the biggest factor. With stress comes anxiety, which can affect our sleep, energy metabolism, immunity and, of course, memory and concentration. What can we do naturally to de-stress, improve concentration and keep our brains in top condition during challenging seasons?

 

The demands of modern life

 

Memory is our permanent record of experience and internal model of the external world. This includes storing information about events and concepts differentiated into short-term (working) and long-term memory. Modern life is very demanding of our brain function, with the constant need to multitask, remember, concentrate, and articulate. We are constantly exposed to TVs, computers, tablets, and smartphones, stimulating the brain from all directions. Whilst there are certain benefits of social media, excessive use can have an adverse effect on cognitive functioning1 due to information overload, reduced face to face interactions, multitasking and distraction. Constantly checking social media for updates may lead to an enhanced state of arousal, affecting concentration and memory.

 

Stress response in modern settings

 

Stress is a healthy, positive bodily response to a stimulus. This response, called “fight or flight”, is a physiological reaction that prepares the body to respond to a perceived threat or stressor. While acute stress response is essential for survival, the challenges faced by modern humans differ from those encountered by our ancestors. Modern society is characterised by a fast-paced lifestyle, high demands, and a constant influx of information and stimuli: technology, the demands of work/ school, social expectations, and lifestyle factors contribute to a significant level of stress for many individuals. Cortisol (our stress hormone) helps modulate and terminate the stress response once the threat has passed.2 However, prolonged activation of the stress response can contribute to cortisol dysregulation3 since our bodies are designed to deal with short-term stress, but not chronic. Chronic stress can lead to a variety of different symptoms, such as racing thoughts, anxiety, worry, muscle tension, and overthinking, making it difficult to switch off and relax.

 

The role of neurotransmitters

 

For our brains to work efficiently enough to deal with a constant influx of information from various sources, our neurotransmitters need to be working optimally, as any imbalances can contribute to memory disorders, cognitive dysfunction,4 and even ADHD.5 Although ADHD is a condition known to affect mainly children, many adults experience it. Statistics show that less than 20% of adults know they have it!6

The main neurotransmitters are acetylcholine, glutamate, dopamine, serotonin and Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA), which are required for memory, stimulation and motivation. Both acetylcholine and glutamate are involved in synaptic plasticity, which is essential for learning and memory processes.7 Dopamine is the key neurotransmitter involved in regulating attention and focus and is responsible for reward-driven learning, behaviour, motivation and punishment. It is strongly linked to memory, learning and emotion.8 When its levels are optimal, individuals may find it easier to concentrate on tasks and encode information into memory. Dopamine is also involved in the brain's response to stress and arousal. However, chronic stress and elevated dopamine levels may have detrimental effects on memory and cognitive function over time.9 In turn, low dopamine can be associated with ADHD.10 GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain and, similar to serotonin, is involved in mood regulation, learning and memory processes.11

 

Luckily there are plenty of nutrients, lifestyle changes and dietary approaches to nourish our brains and offer it better protection and support.

Nutrients that nourish our brains, support memory and cognition

 

  • Rosemary has a significant benefit on cognitive function, showing a reduction in cognitive decline.12
  • Sage improves performance and memory, reduces mental fatigue and increases alertness13 and recall.14
  • Saffron has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, neuro-endocrine and neuroprotective effects.15 It acts on GABA receptors, promoting dopamine and serotonin secretion.16 It has been shown it may improve memory.17
  • Phosphatidyl Serine is a major phospholipid in nerve cell membranes and can improve cognitive decline,18  increase memory recognition, memory recall, executive functions, mental flexibility19  and verbal recall.20 
  • Low levels of B vitamins can also affect cognitive functioning,21 particularly folate22 and vitamin B12.23 These help to support a process called methylation which is essential for making neurotransmitters. Vitamin B5 may be helpful as a precursor for the memory neurotransmitter acetylcholine.24
  • Magnesium is one of the co factors necessary for neurotransmitter synthesis and balance, which is supportive for calming down the nervous system.25 
  • Lemon balm and L-Theanine have similar properties and have been shown to reduce stress response,26 and anxiety symptoms.27,28 
  • Fish oil (in particular EPA and DHA), has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties,29 provides nourishment for the nerve cells,30 and supports the repair of damaged brain cells.31 
  • Rhodiola can reduce stress, anxiety,32 increase mental performance, concentration and reduce cortisol response to awakening stress in those experiencing stress-based fatigue.33 Rhodiola appears to stimulate serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine.34

 

Lifestyle changes to relax your mind

 

  • Practice Mindfulness! Breathing techniques have a direct impact on our parasympathetic nervous system. Spend 5-10 minutes focusing on breathing deeply every day. Meditation can decrease cortisol and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (known as “Rest and Digest”, thus promoting relaxation and reducing stress.35
  • Choose a relaxation technique that is enjoyable and sustainable for you. Music has been shown to reduce cortisol in certain situations,36  as well as dancing36 and laughing.37 Interestingly, sounds of a certain frequency can be a powerful tool used to activate the state of alertness in the brain. For example, Theta (4–8 Hz) can be used for drowsiness/low-level alertness, meditation, and Alpha (8–13 Hz) for awake resting state, making us feel more relaxed and improving concentration. In turn, Delta (1–4 Hz) can help with deep sleep.
  • Increase daylight exposure by going for a gentle walk or even just sitting in the garden for a while. Low levels of vitamin D increases risk of cognitive issues by up to 60%. 38 Stepping away from a task to engage in a refreshing walk provides an invaluable opportunity to rejuvenate both the mind and body. Walking and daily exercise enhances blood circulation, promoting oxygen flow to the brain and contributing to improved cognitive function and long-term memory,39 along with improving mental state and mood by releasing endorphins and relieving tension.
  • Have a healthy sleep wake cycle with a regular sleeping pattern (e.g. 10pm-7am per night) and no late-night snacks! Keep the bedroom as dark as possible and at the right temperature (about 18 degrees) and reduce exposure to blue light in the evening (TV, phone, laptop etc.).
  • Consider social media detox. Constant exposure to social media can lead to information overload or even anxiety.41 Consider setting specific time limits or designating tech-free zones.
  • Establish work-life balance, allowing time for self-care and social interactions such as meeting a friend for lunch to break up the day and relax. These moments of relaxation serve as valuable intervals to recharge and can significantly contribute to enhanced concentration and productivity later in the day. You can also increase your productivity by using certain techniques such as Pomodoro Technique. How does it work? You pick up a task, set a 25 minutes timer to work on your task until the time is up, then you can take a 5 minutes break. Every 4-5 pomodoros take a longer 15-20 minutes break. You can, of course, adjust it to your individual needs. The idea is to have a focused time without distractions and set up regular breaks while working or studying.

Diet for brain and cognition

Our nervous system and cognition rely on a variety of nutrients to function optimally. A healthy balanced diet is essential for a nourished nervous system. By prioritising a nutrient-rich diet, we can improve cognitive clarity and emotional well-being.

 

Top up your gut bacteria! Our gut microbiome has a profound impact on the nervous system as there is a strong correlation between dysbiosis and anxiety or depression.42  You can top up your levels by eating probiotic rich foods such as kefir, sauerkraut and miso.

  • Increase your intake of B vitamins through leafy greens (spinach, kale, chard, broccoli) and meat, (or supplement with B12 if vegan).
  • Balance blood sugar and reduce inflammatory foods such as refined sugars found in cereals, biscuits, chocolate and cakes. Excess sugar can affect serotonin and dopamine and increase inflammation in the body and brain.43,44 Other inflammatory foods include processed foods, gluten containing grains, dairy, sugar and artificial sweeteners.
  • Avoid or significantly reduce stimulants and depressants such as caffeine and alcohol. Instead, opt for herbal teas like chamomile, lemon balm and green tea due to their positive effect on concentration and relaxation. Have coffee before lunch if you need to.
  • Increase your intake of omega-3 through oily fish (salmon, sardines, kippers) to support healthy cell membranes and decrease inflammation.45
  • Reduce the toxic load of foods and drinks by filtering water, buy organic where possible and use glass or stainless steel to store food. Exposure to toxins can have a detrimental effect on cognitive function.46
  • Maintain proper hydration which is essential for the efficient transmission of nerve impulses.
  • Make sure you have enough protein in the diet. Proteins are composed of amino acids, which are the building blocks of neurotransmitters. Protein-rich meals help regulate blood sugar levels.

In the demands of modern life, where multitasking and constant exposure to technology are the norm, the challenges posed to our cognitive function and memory are significant. This is particularly important during stressful periods such as exams, where teenagers and young adults often find themselves under academic pressure. Stress, especially chronic, can lead to anxiety, affecting sleep, energy metabolism, immunity, and, critically, memory and concentration. Fortunately, there are various strategies to support brain health naturally. Including nutrient-rich foods and certain lifestyle changes, addressing stressors, and adopting a holistic approach to well-being can nourish our nervous system and improve cognitive clarity, leading to better outcomes during exams.

 

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March 22, 2024
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