Food & drink

A nutritionist shares five tips to boost brain health and stave off cognitive decline

15 Jan 2021 | Written by Valentina Cartago

The Italian Nutritionist, Valentina Cartago

Valentina Cartago is a Registered Nutritional Therapist with five years of experience, who is also a speaker for both the Action Against Alzheimer’s Programme and The Brain Health Programme.

Her passion is supporting clients looking for nutrition and lifestyle guidance for cognition, stress and anxiety, and we invited her to share her advice on how to support brain health through diet and lifestyle…

It was an honour to be asked to create a blog for The Joy Club as part of its mission to facilitate healthy ageing.

This is a mission very close to my heart as I lost a grandmother to dementia and I believe her last few years could have been much more enjoyable and maybe extended if only she had known what I am about to write here when she was younger.

I decided to get a licence from Cytoplan in their Action Against Alzheimer’s programme, now called The Brain Health Programme. This allows me to educate as many people as possible on what diet and lifestyle changes they can implement in their lives to help decrease the risk of cognitive decline later on in life.

While my seminars go into much more depth for each suggestion, I wanted to share my top five quick tips for you to get started:

  1. Start now – Many people tend to ignore all the ways they can support their brain health until they start experiencing symptoms of memory loss, brain fog etc… But remember that a disease like Alzheimer’s disease can start up to 20-30 years in advance, so it’s never too early to start adopting a healthier lifestyle and giving your brain some love.
  2. Don’t forget your Omega-3 – These are essential fatty acids that your body does not produce and you need to take in from your diet. Our brain is nearly 60% fat, so making sure you get healthy sources of it in your diet is a great place to start. If you eat fish, during your next trip to the supermarket think about the acronym SMASH: Sardines, Mackerel, Anchovies, Salmon, and Herring. And yes, tinned counts as well and is a cheaper option. Aim for three portions per week if possible. If you are following a vegan or vegetarian diet, you can opt instead for: linseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, seaweed, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds (all of these are great topping options for a morning porridge, as an example).
  3. Leave three hours from your last meal to bedtime, and 12 hours between dinner and breakfast – Not eating close to bedtime allows your body to fully digest your food and then concentrate on melatonin production (your sleep hormone) for a restful night. Lack of sleep has also been linked to poor cognition. Leaving 12 hours between dinner and breakfast has been shown to help get rid of beta amyloid deposits in the brain (beta amyloid is the protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease).
  4. Minimise refined sugar – Did you know that the connection between Alzheimer’s and sugar consumption is so strong that this disease is also called type 3 diabetes? It is thought that this may be related to the way diabetes affects the ability of the brain to utilise glucose and the way it also affects the body’s response to insulin (a hormone involved in blood sugar balance). So, think less pastries, sweets, fizzy drinks and white bread, and more wholegrains, legumes, colourful vegetables (the more colour, the more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants), fruits and nuts: this is what we call nutrient-dense food.
  5. Exercise your body and your mind – Did you know that physical exercise can support your cognitive function by decreasing inflammation and promoting production of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), a compound that supports growth and maintenance of neurons in your brain? Aim for 20-30 minutes a day of your favourite exercise: dancing, gardening, yoga, Pilates… Just make sure you enjoy doing it as this will help you keep this new habit in the long term. Exercising your brain is just as important! There are many different ways to do it, from reading, playing Sudoku or crosswords, learning a new language, or using free apps that stimulate different parts of your brain through fun games, such as Lumosity or Brain HQ.

I would suggest implementing just one of these tips at a time, giving it a week or two, and then implementing the next tip and so on. Allow your body and mind to adjust and enjoy it before making a new change. Doing everything together may just make you feel overwhelmed and will leave you wanting to give up, whereas working slowly will help you make these changes permanent and enjoy the results in the long term.

You can read more of Valentina’s diet and lifestyle advice on her website, The Italian Nutritionist. If you’re not already a member of The Joy Club, why not sign up for your one-month free trial to access our amazing deals today, including a nutrition diploma from New Skills Academy?