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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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