So, this is a different type of blog that you wouldn’t typically find on my site but I love connecting with my audience and having discussed this on my Instagram page, I have realised it might be valuable for me to share my experience around this and how I strengthened my brain health.
As you can tell by the title, this is my personal experience. I do not consider myself an expert in brain health. I have done further training in regards to nutrition and its effect on our mentality and mood but I am not a qualified psychologist. As mentioned, these practices have benefited me personally, and this is not me providing advice in regards to what others should or shouldn’t do, I am simply just sharing my journey.
When I had my first son, I was evidentially not ready for the overnight change that came with being a Mum. Along with all these changes, my son Romeo did not sleep. Like, really didn’t sleep. In-between constant breastfeeding he would mostly just scream at me through the night and I don’t think I ever got more than 40 minutes of sleep at one time in the first 8-9 months of his life. I felt like an absolute failure of a Mum. I connected with him instantly and I loved him from the moment we met but I gave my absolute everything to him and gave up looking after myself – both psychically and mentally. I worked so hard to feel like ‘me’ again and from 9 months on I started to feel happier and happier (which coincidently was when he started sleeping through the night!). When I fell pregnant with my second son, I was of course so grateful but at the same time petrified of losing myself again. So I spent my second pregnancy dedicated to strengthening my mind and body, to help prepare me for everything that haunted me the first time round.
I knew I needed to prepare. With a background in Psychology and a slight obsession with brain health, I knew what I needed to explore. I started looking for books, podcasts and professionals that excelled in this area of research and found a Psychiatrist Dr Daniel Amen. I am still obsessed with his work. As a psychiatrist he is baffled by the fact that it is the only medical profession that fails to get to know and analyse the area of the body causing problems… Doctors scan every area of our body when it comes to treating something – except the brain. We go to our doctor about our mental health and based on guess work and listening to symptoms described are prescribed meds. But what about the root cause… What about the possibility that the function of our brain is not being optimised by simple lifestyle factors. Meds have their place but they can also mask a problem instead of fixing it. So Dr Daniel Amen starting scanning brains – I am desperate to get one! But anyway, I won’t speak for Dr Amen but I first listened to him on Steven Bartlett’s podcast and was hooked. I have now listened to 4 of his books on audible as well as every single podcast I could find him on. Some were repetitive but I wanted his knowledge to stick in my brain! I wanted to adopt his advice so that it was automatic practice. Almost as if I were to be tested on all his information.
What ‘brain health practices’ did I start doing?
Along with constantly learning and educating myself on supporting healthy brain function, I of course needed to put this information into practice and apply it to my life. According to research, when we build and support our brain reserve, we are more equipped to deal with life in a better and more successful way, thus supporting a healthier and happier lifestyle. 2 people could be in the same accident and one could recover a lot better than the other one both physically and mentally, based on the fact that they have better brain reserves. Things that could affect brain reserves include diet, sleep, exercise, trauma etc.
As a Nutritionist, a healthy diet is of course a priority of mine but I paid even more attention to my eating habits, what I was eating and if and how it was serving me. I have a sweet tooth and am often guilty of reaching for more snack foods throughout the day and not focusing enough on wholesome meals. I would never eliminate chocolate from my diet as I enjoy it too much and it genuinely makes me happy but I was mindful of opting for a higher percentage of cocoa more often as it contains more antioxidants associated with good brain health. I also stocked up on the frozen berries, particularly blueberries and added them to snacks and meals where I could. I eat nuts daily and aim to eat a variety of plant foods, not just choosing my ‘go-to’s’ all the time as diversity is so important. I also started cooking with more herbs and spices as these again have been associated with supporting the function of the brain. Simple things that we are not in the habit of doing can have big impact.
I love a cup of coffee and it is something that plays a central role in my morning routine. It’s my moment of calm before the day starts. Although we have an abundance of research suggesting that coffee can have positive impacts on the brain, Dr Amen suggests that too much caffeine can actually decrease blood flow to brain (which is not what we want) so I am incredibly mindful of the strength of my coffee (I have been either pregnant or breastfeeding so limit my caffeine anyway).
Alcohol is something I had a very unhealthy relationship with as a teenager and when I started to learn just how toxic of a substance it is when I studied my Masters Degree, age 24, I massively cut down on it. I would say since then, I have decreased its appearance in my life even more. Yes, I have enjoyed the odd glass of rose, but the effects of alcohol don’t serve me at all. Of course being pregnant and now breastfeeding I would not be drinking anyway but the last time I had an alcoholic beverage was on my honeymoon in August 2022 and at the moment I really do question if I will ever drink again. It decreases blood flow to the brain and personally has me feeling hazy the next day, even just 1 glass! I like myself better without it in my life.
Exercise is my therapy. Over the last 10 years or so, it has taken some time to really tune in and identify what type of movement my mind and body responds well to. Low impact works for me. I am very flexible and hypermobile so focusing on slower exercises that prioritise stability, I feel are best. I switch between Pilates, barre, low impact cardio and weighted workouts as well as stretching at the end. My exercise routine proves to have a hugely positive impact on my physical and mental health and it’s something I prioritise everyday. Of course being a Mum of 2 now means that it doesn’t always go to plan but even if I can only squeeze 10 minutes in I always do my best because of how much it seems to improve my mood and resilience for the day. First thing in the morning is my time. Before anyone else wakes up I feel like I have achieved so much already and when I have prioritised my own health before the day has really started, I feel so much more willing to give myself to my family. They need me – I have two young children who need me, and I want to be my best for them, and moving first thing in the morning helps me do that. I also make sure that come rain or shine I always get outside for a walk. Having a dog helps but fresh air plus walking (I think) is the recipe for a better mood. In fact, brain scans have shown that the brain is in a more ‘lit up’ state after walking for just 12 minutes.
I have never been into meditation. If I am being completely honest, I think it’s a waste of my time. I like being busy and I hate sitting still for too long I found whenever I have attempted to sit and meditate, I end up thinking of better ways I could be utilising my time. That being said, the research supporting the positive outcomes of it are undeniable so I have found my own versions of meditating by focusing on my breath whether that be on a walk or stretching post workout. My breath was what dictated my incredible second birth (birth story linked here). If we can control our breath, we can control so many things. It can reduce anxiety and put you in a calmer head space. But it is something that needs to be practiced in order to really reap the benefits. But the best part is, it doesn’t take long to do! A technique I picked up along my journey of research is breathing in from your nose for 6 seconds (expanding your stomach) then taking in a quick extra breath, pausing then exhaling for 8 seconds through your mouth. It almost acts as a ‘reset’ and brings you back to a neutral ground.
Sleep is arguably the most important foundation to supporting good health. It supports the overall functioning of the body and lack of sleep affects just about every part of your health in a negative way. Research suggests that less than 6 hours of sleep can lead to unhealthier food choices, low energy, poor brain function, impact our immune system and has been associated with a higher rate of mortality. Serious stuff! Of course there are differences in individuals and one person may thrive on 6 hours sleep, others 9, but studies have suggested that round 7-9 hours of consistent sleep each night is the sweet spot for the majority of people. Whilst pregnant, I put myself on a 9pm-5am sleep schedule. It worked for me. I loved being up early and getting a few hours to myself before my son and husband woke up, I was able to move my body, shower, get ready and enjoy my coffee in peace. I would also make sure I exposed myself to sunlight in this time (through a window doesn’t count). Natural light exposure first thing in the morning helps to set your circadian rhythm and regulate hormones that are needed to help you sleep well that night. The light basically triggers your body to release hormones around 8-12 hours later to naturally prepare the body for a good nights sleep.
Things that harm the brain…
On my mission to strengthen my brain and implement practices to support optimal function, I of course came across practices that should be avoided or at least limited. Now, everyone is different and we have different brains that have been affected by our genetics, experiences and lifestyle factors etc. So you may find it interesting to use Dr Amen’s test to identify which type of brain you have. But here are some general things that research seems pretty certain about when it comes to the impact on brain health. I learnt of these (some of which are surprising) impacts when making my way through a few of Dr Amen books which I will link in the resources section at the end:
- Head injuries (even very minor ones like falling off a bicycle)
- Playing contact sports that include using your head (ie football)
- Exposure to carbon monoxide
- Binge drinking
- Smoking (cigarettes, vape, marijuana)
- Drugs of any kind
- Lack of nutrients in your diet
- Using toxic cleaning products
- Living in a heavily polluted area
- Irregular sleeping patterns
- Sleep apnea
- High blood pressure
- Being unhealthily overweight
- Too much added sugar
- Untreated mental health disorders such as depression
- Being isolated
- Not learning anything new
- Believing negative thoughts
- Too much screen time
Building a resilient brain to enhance my brain reserves…
I mentioned brain reserves at the beginning, and this really got me thinking about how the work I started to put in however many months ago, could really help see me through any challenging days post pregnancy and of course later in life.
I am currently 4 weeks postpartum and I have never felt more strong and capable. This is a journey and one that needs to be consistently worked on but start today and I am confident you’ll see positive impact over the next few months.
Things I prioritise daily are:
Moving my body – ideally I like to do a workout and a walk but if days don’t go to plan I always make sure I get outside for at least a 10 minute walk over anything else
Eating a variety of plant foods: I am mindful of how many plants I am eating over the course of the day and add in nutrient dense foods where I can
Drink lots of water: Hydration is essential for optimal function
Entertain positive thoughts not negative ones: Our brains are so automatically hard on ourselves and I make an effort to fight off automatic negative thoughts. We grow what we feed and I make a conscious effort to feed the positive thoughts not the negative ones.
Practice gratitude: When I am having moments of helplessness, gratitude brings me back to the surface. Research also suggests that people that practice it are happier.
Absorb information: It is important that we keep our brain engaged and I love learning. So I try to put time aside each day to read, research or listen to resources in which I can learn from.
Check in with friends and family: Social interaction and feeling connected to people plays a key role in our mental health. People who feel lonely are at greater risk of so many negative outcomes.
Like I said, this blog is based on research that I have been doing over the last almost year and based off of what I have learnt, I have formed and prioritised practices that are serving me well. This is not advice, just my experience, but I hope it has inspired you to work on your own health, because you deserve it.
What’s your brain type? https://brainhealthassessment.com
Feel better fast and make it last https://www.amazon.co.uk/Feel-Better-Fast-Make-Last/dp/B07KB4Q5S4/ref=sr_1_3?crid=275JSJ8OIO0AO&keywords=feel+better+fast+book&qid=1694527531&s=books&sprefix=feel+better+fast+book%2Cstripbooks%2C70&sr=1-3
Happy Sexy Millionaire
Effects of alcohol on health https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/huberman-lab/id1545953110?i=1000576901433
Importance of sleep
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