Covid-19 brings many challenges which we may need to adjust to. One of the most prominent is our mental health. This does not only affect adults. Young people have also struggled with mental health issues on a daily basis though the pandemic. Although there are numerous root causes to these imbalances, some of them may be difficult to identify. It is therefore important that we do what we can to support our cognitive health and support our brain function with physical exercise and nutrient dense foods.
A recent discovery shows that regular swimming in cold water can stimulate the production of ‘cold-shock’ protein and prevent neurodegeneration, reduce cognitive deficit and slow the onset of dementia.
In a slightly older study, scientists discovered that by exposing injured rats to a light temperature shock (such as a cold swim) their neurocognitive function was improved. Scientists observed the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, increased blood flow, and enhancement of the cerebral synaptic release of neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline. It has also been observed that synthesis of vascular endothelial growth factor and neurotropic factor in the brain promotes neural repair of injured tissue1.
Therapeutic hypothermia is believed to have a protective effect on brain cells, stimulate their repair and has been medically used in new born babies and adults with brain trauma and injury2.
The first discovery of the ‘Cold – shock’ protein (RBM3) was published in 2015 by K Dementia Research Institute’s Centre at the University of Cambridge for Nature3. The RBM3 protein that cools the body has also been associated with the prevention from losing brain cells and symptoms of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The first studies were concluded on mice, however in recent years a group of swimmers voluntarily made themselves hypothermic on a regular basis which was shown to present elevated levels of the RBM3 protein4. Further research is needed to develop sufficient treatment based on this discovery.
If you are not keen to dip your toes in cold water there are other ways to keep your cognitive health in check.
Researchers discovered that saturated fat found in red meat, butter and processed foods such as biscuits, cured meats, sausages and bacon may negatively affect your brain health. A study involving 6,000 older women concluded that woman whose diet consisted predominantly of saturated fat performed worst in cognitive function tests and women with the most monounsaturated fat (from avocados, nuts, olive oil and olives) in their diet performed the best5.
Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, help build and repair our brain cells, and antioxidants reduce cellular stress and inflammation, which can induce brain ageing and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. A good source of Omega 3 fatty acids can improve the structure of neutrons and help to maintain the cells membrane. A study published in 2017 identified that people who consumed more Omega 3 in their diet had increased blood flow in the brain. This in result has been associated with better cognition and focus.
Oily fish rich in Omega 3 may not be to everyone’s liking. Nuts and seeds (sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds) are a great way to top up our daily Omega 3 consumption. They contain vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant which protects the cells from oxidative damage caused by free radicals.
Pumpkin seeds are rich in Omega 3 and Omega 6. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, while many omega-6 fatty acids can contribute to inflammation. A healthy diet should consist of approximately 2 to 4 times fewer omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids6. EFAs (essential fatty acids) are believed to make cell membranes more flexible, making nutrients more readily available and nerve transmission more efficient.
Unsaturated (poly and monounsaturated) fats found in avocado, walnuts, cashews, soya beans, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed and chia seeds help reduce blood pressure which is linked to reducing the risk of cognitive decline.
Whether coconut fat should be considered a good fat causes many controversies. Although extra virgin coconut oil contains about 90% of saturated fat it is also rich in MCTs (medium chain triglycerides) which are metabolised differently to other fats (these fatty acids are shorter than other fats). MCTs is metabolised in the liver and is readily available as an energy source. It is converted into ketones which provide back up fuel and optimal energy for the brain when the blood glucose is low. They readily cross the blood-brain barrier to deliver immediate energy to the brain.