By Dr. Shirley, City Osteopathy & Physiotherapy
The pressure on young to middle aged adults to perform and excel in this day and age has increased almost 20-fold in the last 40 years. The amount of work and expectations that have been put on our shoulders has resulted in more adults in their 30’s developing conditions such as heart disease and high cholesterol than at any time in the past. People as young as 16 are having symptoms of stress- fatigue, sleep disturbances, and poor memory and focus! I personally see many adults in their 30’s come to me for alternate solutions to improve cognitive functioning.
There are many reasons why people develop symptoms of poor memory and concentration, but a few of the main reasons for this include stress, sleep deprivation, diet, and a multi-tasking lifestyle. It is commonly known that as we age, our cognitive functioning tends to slowly decline, but it is the contribution of the previously mentioned lifestyle factors that can accelerate this deterioration.
So how can we take charge of our cognitive health and help improve our memory and cognitive functioning? Mentioned below are some important nutritional and lifestyle factors that are commonly known to impact cognitive performance and memory.
Did you know that your digestive system is considered the ‘second brain’ of your body? Did you also know that you have over 100 trillion microbes living in your gut? Modifications in the microbial population in your gut greatly impact your health both physically and mentally. There are studies that demonstrate the connection between the gut and brain showing how microbes in your gut greatly influence this connection. Simply put, the composition of the bacteria in your digestive system can greatly affect mood, cognition and behavior. Makes you wonder who really is controlling your body, doesn’t it?
I have patients come to me for concerns of ‘brain fog’- which is a lack of focus, concentration and mental clarity, poor memory and fatigue. More often than not, they have symptoms of poor digestive health as well and once we create a healthier digestive foundation and cultivate a healthier microbial population in their gut, they see an immediate improvement in their cognitive performance.
There are many important micronutrients that are essential for healthy cognitive performance and learning. Nutrient deficiencies are unfortunately on the rise due to unhealthy diet habits and consumption of more processed and refined foods that have poor nutritious content. In Naturopathy, we conduct tests that help identify any nutritional deficiencies. Once this has been assessed, we are able to more accurately correct for them. Sometimes taking a multivitamin is not enough and we often find people need higher doses of certain vitamins and/or minerals.
B vitamins are commonly deficient in several patients with stress and cognitive performance concerns. A deficiency of either vitamins B9, B12, and B6 have shown to impact memory, cognition, and information-processing speed. Low levels of minerals also greatly impact cognitive capabilities. With regards to minerals, some of the most common mineral deficiencies we see are magnesium, iron, and zinc. Correcting for these deficiencies in vitamins and minerals is crucial to providing the right nutrients for your brain to function optimally.
Another cause of ‘brain fog’ could be an imbalance in your sex, thyroid and/or stress hormones. Sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone), thyroid hormones and your stress hormones (cortisol) have an impact on your energy and cognitive functioning. Testing these hormones and ensuring they are balanced is key to building a healthier you.
To maintain a healthy gut, improve sleep quality and balance your hormones, making the right diet and lifestyle choices are key. Ensuring a healthy diet devoid of alcohol, high sugar foods, caffeine, and processed foods can greatly benefit your overall well-being. There are also certain foods that our body is more sensitive and reacts poorly to, so identifying and eliminating those foods will help maintain a healthy digestive tract. Common symptoms we experience if we are sensitive to certain foods are the occurrence of headaches, digestive disturbances, fatigue, insomnia, and brain fog. Creating a daily food log and symptom checker can help further identify some foods that you could be sensitive to.
It is already quite well known (and I’m sure experienced firsthand by many of us) just how tough it is to function when you are sleep deprived. Sleep is essential for consolidating new memories and retaining prior learned information, thereby helping you learn and remember new material. Lack of proper sleep can affect our decision-making, learning, memory, attention and reasoning skills.
Studies have shown that prolonged sleep deprivation results in decreased brain activity in the regions responsible for attention and higher cognitive processes. It is important to understand that it is not just about the hours of sleep that you get but the quality of sleep that matters. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep and you find yourself still tired upon waking up no matter how many hours of sleep you get, that is a sign of poor quality sleep. According to the National sleep foundation, good quality sleep is defined as:
Antioxidant nutrients such as vitamin E, selenium, alpha lipoid acid, and vitamin C play an important role in combating oxidative stress. Oxidants are highly reactive chemicals that are produced in the body as a normal byproduct of respiration and need to be neutralized by antioxidants. A build up of oxidants can add stress to the body by causing damage to our cells. Our body naturally produces antioxidants that help to neutralize and reduce oxidative stress. The biggest external sources of antioxidants are fruits and vegetables, but realistically speaking, how many of us are having about 10 servings of this per day? The demand for antioxidants in our body is much greater today than it was even a few decades ago. It is due to oxidative stress that we see the rise in various conditions such as cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases. Ensuring adequate levels of antioxidants is essential to maintaining a healthier brain and body.
In summary, there are various factors that can impact our body and lead to issues of poor memory and mental clarity, fatigue, and a lack of concentration. The main reason for some of these symptoms is a stressful lifestyle that creates a myriad of physiological symptoms in your body. With that, your nutritional demand also increases which leads to deficiencies that are at times not completely met by our diet. It is our job as naturopathic doctors to work with people to get to the root causes of their concerns and to provide the body what it needs to function optimally.
Dr. Shirley is a licensed Naturopathic doctor, regulated by the College of Naturopaths of Ontario, Canada. She has been practicing in Singapore since 2015, providing people with alternative solutions to health and healing. As a Naturopathic doctor, she uses therapeutic methods such as clinical nutrition, botanical medicine and homeopathy to manage detoxification and both acute and chronic conditions by addressing the root causes of illness.
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