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Stable Mood, Clear Mind, and Sharp Memory: A Woman’s Guide to Optimal Brain Health

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When you think of women’s health you might think of menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause. Or maybe you think heart health, bone health, or cancer prevention. But do you think about the brain? Even though the brain controls and monitors nearly all physiological functions and is the seat of our thoughts, beliefs, and memories, its function seems to be low on most women’s health priority lists. We might write-off memory, concentration, or mood issues as PMS brain fog, baby brain, or menopause-related shifts (menopause attention deficiency, or MAD, as my mother likes to call it). But while hormonal shifts certainly can affect women’s brains, they are only one of many issues to consider for optimizing brain function. Addressing the underlying issues that may be hindering brain function is critical to a stable mood, clear thought and focus, and a sharp memory. After all, what would we be without our brains? Or perhaps a better question, what could we be with optimally functioning brains?

No matter what other issues are going on, it’s a good idea to start with the basics:

  • Eat a balanced diet. Yep, eating well really is important for the brain. Not only is our brain dependent on the diet to supply all the nutrients it needs to function, but the brain is also highly susceptible to blood sugar ups and downs caused by a poor diet.
  • Get regular appropriate exercise. You know exercise is good for your body, but it is also good for your brain, improving learning, memory, and even supporting healthy mood.[i]
  • Sleep. I know that sometimes this is easier said than done, but attention, cognition, and short-term memory are all compromised after inadequate sleep (less than six hours a night).[ii] So take steps to ensure you are getting enough quality sleep.
  • Brain health basic supplements include the omega-3s and a B-complex. Anyone concerned about their brain health should consider adding both to their routine.

Using the basics as a starting point, pick your brain-drain culprits from below and tackle them head on with a targeted brain health supplement routine.

The Hormone-Addled Brain

There is no doubt that hormonal fluctuations, both during the menstrual cycle and throughout the course of a lifetime, can affect our brains. Estrogen receptors are widely distributed in the brain and help to regulate cognition and mood. But other hormones such as testosterone and progesterone are also involved. While some shifts may be unavoidable, major brain changes such as severe mood swings, brain fog, or memory issues may be a sign that your hormones are out of balance. Some of my favorite hormone-balancing options are:

  • Diindolylmethane (DIM), which works by regulating some of the enzymes that control estrogen, helping to increase the “good” estrogens, while decreasing the “bad” forms.
  • GLA (gamma-linolenic acid), an omega-6 fat derived from borage or evening primrose, is a real ally for women in all stages of hormonal disarray. Not only does it help to improve uncomfortable physical symptoms, but it also supports a positive outlook, all possibly due to its ability to modulate inflammation.[iii]
  • Hormone-balancing herbs such as vitex and black cohosh have long histories in women’s health. Vitex (a.k.a. chaste berry) is a great option for women of child-bearing years, while black cohosh is more popular for women transitioning through menopause.

It’s easy to get caught up in the reproductive hormones when talking about women’s brain health but thyroid hormones can also play a role. When thyroid function slows, blood to the brain is slowed, which means oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain is also slowed, resulting in a brain that tends to think and move slowly. For more information on thyroid health, including how to find out if it’s contributing to your slowed brain function, check out this article by Jack Challem.

The Stressed-Out Brain

While you’d be hard pressed to find an American adult (or child for that matter) that doesn’t feel stressed sometimes, a recent survey found that when compared to men, women were not only more likely to report that their stress levels had increased in the past five years, but were also more likely to report being under a great deal of stress and having physical and emotional symptoms from stress.[iv] Stress can lead to memory problems, increased emotionality, fear, and anxiety.[v] And chronic stress actually alters the structure of the brain and decreases the amount of stem cells that mature into nerve cells.[vi] The bottom line, chronic stress is no good for brain function. In addition to lifestyle and diet changes that combat stress I like the following supplements for extra support—especially when I’m too stressed out to deal with my stress in other ways!

  • Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a phospholipid that is abundant in the brain where it is critical for maintaining healthy brain cell membranes; healthy brain cells mean better functioning brain cells. It is also involved in energy production in the brain, can help to restore healthy function to the pathway responsible for initiating the stress response, and can improve the emotional response to stress.
  • Adaptogens, herbs that enhance the body’s ability to adapt to stress, can be just the balance you need. The Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha is a favorite. The benefits of ashwagandha include supporting relaxation and recovery, as well as sleep and calm. It is traditionally used as a rejuvenator and tonic. Other good choices include rhodiola, eleuthero, holy basil (a.k.a. tulsi) and reishi.
  • Magnolia bark and Relora® (a patented blend of magnolia and phellondendron barks) is especially helpful if stress is keeping you up at night. It supports healthy cortisol levels so you can catch some zzz’s.[vii]

The Inflamed Brain

Believe it or not, your brain is also subject to the ravages of chronic inflammation, just like other part of the body. Inflammation has been associated with depression-like symptoms, anxiety, and even an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.[viii] [ix] Don’t overlook the importance of a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and stress reduction when it comes to brain inflammation, but also consider a few known modulators of brain inflammation.

  • Turmeric, and its active constituent curcumin, benefit the brain directly by modulating inflammation and acting as a free radical scavenger.
  • Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid that deserves a special shout out. It is essential to the health of the brain, where it is highly concentrated and actively competes with arachidonic acid (AA), a pro-inflammatory fat. By competitively lowering AA in the brain, DHA modulates inflammation.[x]
  • Acetyl L-carnitine boosts energy production in the brain and helps support optimal brain function at every age. When combined with alpha lipoic acid it is especially beneficial in supporting cognitive function by modulating inflammation.[xi]

Your brain is important—really important—so when you think women’s health, optimizing your brain health should be top of mind. With a simple supplement routine to support a full-powered brain, who knows what sort of greatness you might unleash!

 References

[i] Cotman CW, VBerchtold NC, Christie LA. Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. Trends in Neuroscience 2007;30(9):464-472. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166223607001786

[ii] http://blog.dansplan.com/the-freakonomics-of-sleep/

[iii] Vanderhaeghe L & Pettle A. Sexy Hormones. Brighton, MA: Fitzhenry & Whiteside; 2007.

[iv] http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2010/gender-stress.aspx

[v] Alban D. 12 Effects of chronic stress on your brain. Be Brain Fit website.https://bebrainfit.com/effects-chronic-stress-brain/

[vi] http://news.berkeley.edu/2014/02/11/chronic-stress-predisposes-brain-to-mental-illness/

[vii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3750820/

[viii] http://kellybroganmd.com/from-gut-to-brain-the-inflammation-connection/

[ix] https://www.naturalgrocers.com/nutrition-and-health/nutrition-library/nutrition-article/maintain-your-brain-take-a-multifaceted-approach-to-protect-your-brain-from-degenerative-diseases-like-alzheimers/

[x] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2838628/

[xi] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18491985