How to Strengthen Against Alzheimer’s and Depression, and Improve Memory – Go Mediterranean

How to Strengthen Against Alzheimer's and Depression, and Improve Memory - Go Mediterranean

The importance of diet to mental health is profound. A healthy diet is one of the best ways to protect your brain from the changes that happen as a normal part of living. 

With our brains tucked away safely and soundly in the walls of our skull, it’s easy to forget that like the rest of our bodies, there are certain things it needs from us to keep giving us the best it has to give. Our brain drives everything we do, so it’s important to understand what we can do to keep it functioning well.

We have a stone-age brainOur world has changed remarkably and our lifestyles have changed along with it, but our brains have hardly changed at all. They continue to thrive on the same things they thrived on thousands of years ago – sleep, unprocessed food, exercise and social connection. 

We know the brain can be affected by all sorts of things that are a normal part of day to day living including stress, toxins, lack of sleep and pollution. Even though we will all experience brain changes over time, there are vast individual differences in the extent of those changes. These individual differences seem to be connected to our overall health.

We can’t change that our brain will be exposed to various sources of stress, but we have enormous potential to strengthen it against those stressors. Stress, exercise and diet have been proven to all have a positive influence on brain health. When it comes to diet, research has found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet can protect against some of the known risk factors for cognitive decline.

The research. Let’s talk.

In an extensive analysis of 18 research articles, it was revealed that a Mediterranean diet can improve memory, attention, and language skills, and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. According to the authors of the study,

‘There is a wealth of literature … indicating that diet can exert profound effects on biological ageing. Diet can also affect other risk factors, such as inflammation and oxidation [which has recently been linked to depression] Diets that are low in energy and that act to reduce oxidative stress may be protective against cognitive decline. Conversely, a diet that is high in energy and acts to increase oxidative stress may be considered a risk factor for impaired cognitive functioning.’

The diet had particularly significant effects on memory. The benefits of a Mediterranean diet on brain health were not confined to older people. Two of the studies that were analysed found that Mediterranean diet has a positive effect on cognitive function in young people.

A Mediterranean Diet? Sooo pizza?

Nope. Not pizza. And not tiramisu either. ‘Mediterranean diet’ consists of a high intake of leafy greens, fresh fruit and vegetables, cereals, beans, seeds, nuts and legumes. It is also high in fish, low in dairy, red meats and sugars and uses olive oil as its major fat source.

 ‘The most surprising result was that the positive effects were found in countries around the whole world. So regardless of being located outside of what is considered the Mediterranean region, the positive cognitive effects of a higher adherence to a Med Diet [Mediterranean diet] were similar in all evaluated papers.’ – Roy Hardman, lead author of the study, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.

And just in case you’re not convinced, here’s what previous research has to say …

If turning up the volume on your memory and warding off Alzheimer’s isn’t reason enough to Mediterranean-ise your fridge, research has found that a Mediterranean diet has plenty of other benefits for mental health. 

  1. Prevents the onset of depression

    In a study of 15,093 people, published in the journal BMC Medicine, a Mediterranean diet was associated with preventing the onset of depression. All participants were free of depression at the beginning of the study. After 10 years, 1550 participants reported having a diagnosis of clinical depression or previous antidepressant use. A Mediterranean diet was associated with the greatest reduction in the risk of depression. 

    In another study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, it was found that people who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely had a 30% less risk of depression than those who followed it least. This result was the same even when other indications of a healthy life were taken into account, such as marital status and seatbelt usage. 

  2. Improved quality of life.

    A study published in European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, followed more than 11,000 university students over a period of four years. Those who adhered more to the Mediterranean diet reported a higher quality of life in terms of physical and mental well-being. 

  3. Protects the brain from damage that can cause cognitive problems.

    A study, presented at the American Academy of Neurology, found that people who adhered most to a Mediterranean diet were 36% less likely to have damage to small areas of the brain that leads to thinking problems. The damage the researchers were interested in were small areas of dead tissue known as brain infarcts. Those who followed the diet moderately were 21% less likely to have the damage. According to the study’s author, ‘In this study, not eating a Mediterranean-like diet had about the same effect on the brain as having high blood pressure.’ – Nicolaos Scarmeas, MD, MSc, Columbia University Medical Center in New York and member of American Academy of Neurology. Previous research by the authors has found that a Mediterranean-like diet is associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s, and may lengthen survival in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Those findings may be explained by fewer brain infarcts.

And finally …

The impact of diet on mental health is profound. Study after study has found that a Mediterranean diet is one way we can push against some of the brain changes that are an unavoidable part of modern life and being human. Brain health is vital to healthy, happy living. We can’t change that the brain will be exposed to certain factors that will compromise brain health, but by following a Mediterranean diet, we can protect and strengthen our brain against those influences.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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