Fitness & Healthy Lifestyle

An Introduction to Cognitive Wellness

Our mood & neurology are very individual, & like all aspects of biology, multifaceted! There are however some valuable foundations to work from to boost focus, reduce stress, & consequently improve cognition overall.As is our way we shall start from the beginning, Neurotransmitters 101 here we go!

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers within the nervous system responsible for carrying signals between the brain & body. There are quite a few so we’ve stuck to the biggest hitters for mood, memory & learning.

SEROTONINSerotonin is often referred to as the ‘happy hormone’ because it causes feelings of happiness & contributes to mood stabilisation. It also plays an absolutely key role in optimising sleep, as melatonin is synthesised from serotonin.MELATONINMelatonin is released in the evening when the sun goes down (which is why it is so important to avoid excessive blue light exposure from technology at night, this prevents effective melatonin synthesis). It is often confused as being solely responsible for the rejuvenating nature of our night’s rest, this isn’t actually true however, it is merely the trigger for making us feel sleepy.

Melatonin forms part of a cycle along with the hormone cortisol known as the circadian rhythm, they mirror each other morning & evening. Which is why it’s really important to address the whole day when looking at sleep support & nervous system optimisation.

DOPAMINEDopamine is released when we anticipate something pleasurable and plays a key role in experiencing enjoyment. It is also partly responsible for focus, drive & incentivising behaviour. Dopamine insensitivity is linked to thrill seeking behaviour & addictive tendencies because that individual would need more to stimulate their dopamine receptors.EATING FOR COGNITIVE HEALTHPROTEIN & B VITAMINSThese are your absolute basics when it comes to brain food as proteins are broken down in the body into different amino acids, these then form your raw materials/building blocks for making neurotransmitters in the body, a selection of processes that B vitamins then support as cofactors to bring the whole process to fruition.For example the amino acid Tyrosine is needed to create Dopamine, whilst Tryptophan is needed to create Serotonin & then Melatonin.Good sources of Tyrosine and Tryptophan include meat, fish, dairy & eggs, & some veggie sources including beans, legumes & soy (stick to organic, naturally occurring options like edamame, tofu & tempeh which is also fermented & thus extra supportive). B-vitamins can be found in abundance in red meat, shellfish, fish, dark green leafy vegetables, liver, & some beans & pulses too.To easily pack these into your diet, try ensuring each meal & snack contains protein.

  • Add beans & greens to a salad at lunch
  • Blend into a soup or stew
  • Make dips with a variety of veggies, herbs & tahini
  • Choose well-sourced fish paired with veggies for dinner.

Eggs are also a great choice & excellent for neurological function as they also contain choline - an essential nutrient for the brain & memory consolidation. Boiled eggs make a great snack & will last in the fridge for 5 days so we often suggest boiling up 4-6 at the start of the week & having them ready to grab & go as needed, edamame similarly make a great convenient option too.If you're in a rush at breakfast, rather than skip it, perhaps try a protein powder(I love Motion Nutrition's vegan peanut butter product, or if you have dairy try their whey products which are great too. Use Phoebe10 on everything Motion Nutrition for 10% off). Interestingly whey actually increases the amount of serotonin taken to the brain so can be useful for mood stability & settling to sleep if you struggle with this. That aside we love to blend a serving with a big handful of greens (spinach, kale, parsley, mint or a mix), a handful of berries & a spoon of hulled hemp seeds + raw cacao powder & some cashew milk to boost our brainpower.OMEGA 3This is a nutrient that we often hear of for brain function, but why?

Well much of the brain is made from EPA & DHA omega-three fatty acids. They are essential for cell communication & neurological function, & the research to support this is robust & well cemented. Much of the data suggests that optimum levels of omega-three are associated with a lower incidence of depression & increased memory consolidation. We can also see a strong correlation between speed of recovery from traumatic brain injury (for example stroke & TIA) with therapeutic levels of DHA particularly.

Omega-3 is also an important nutrient to highlight during pregnancy to support foetal brain development, & this is 1 of the key life stages where more DHA is required than EPA. Plant based sources such as chia & hulled hemp seeds are brilliant to include here (ground flaxseed in small amounts are fine during pregnancy but whole seeds should be avoided as they can cause intestinal & consequently uterine contractions) as they are naturally higher in DHA than animal sources which contain more EPA.You’ll see pregnancy omega 3 supplements such as Mums & Bumps from Bare Biology(use NATNOURISH for 20% off your first order)& the Viridian Pregnancy & Lactation product are higher in DHA, but other vegan options like Bare Biology’s Vim & Vigour, as well as Krill/Algae based supplements are also good choices.SLEEP OPTIMISATIONEasier said than done I know, but if we can improve the quality of our sleep, we can improve mood, memory, & protect our brains by allowing repair & replenishment to occur overnight. Better sleep is strongly correlated with a lower incidence of cognitive disease.

Sleep is also the time when we transport short term memory to long term memory by moving it from the hippocampus to the neocortex - which is one of the reasons why our memory is compromised when we are tired. Studies have shown that a lack of or poor quality sleep can add to feelings of loneliness & isolation, which are two primary contributing factors to unhappiness.

Our circadian rhythm comes into play here; & as quickly mentioned above a very simple way of optimising your sleep/wake rhythm is to see sunlight as you wake up & reduce artificial light in the evening to allow for melatonin release. This is one of the simplest ways of improving energy & mood in the day & rejuvenating sleep at night. I love to squeeze in a morning walk if I can, & failing this at least a good stretch in front of a bright window!EXERCISEThis is an easy win when it comes to mood. Both cardiovascular & weighted exercises release those lovely feel-good endorphins. Optimum effects seem to come at the 20-minute mark, but at the same point even a 10 minute nip round the block will blast away brain fog. Always consider something done, however short, better than nothing done at all.Interestingly enough, exercise also promotes brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDNF), which helps in the maintenance & growth of neurons, aiding learning, memory, & preventing cognitive decline. Yoga is another great way to increase BDNF levels; research shows 1 hour of daily yoga practice for three months increases serotonin, dopamine, & BDNF. What an overwhelming win for mind & body!Like all things health-related, it is the whole picture that counts, & I’ve just given you a lot of information to digest! Keep things simple to start, get those basics of eating whole foods as well balanced meals, moving your body daily & prioritising sleep in first, & then add the bells & whistles in increments over time.Written by Rose Dalrymple Associate Nutritional Therapist