Did you know that how you live and what you eat today has a direct impact on your cognitive health in the future? Maintaining cognitive health is essential to overall well being, including our ability to learn, remember, communicate, and process information. All of our cognitive abilities decline naturally as we age, however the risk and rate of decline is often greater in communities of color. The National Institutes of Health estimates that melanated people are up to twice as likely to develop dementia, Alzheimers and other diseases that cause cognitive decline. This disparity is likely due to a combination of factors, including differences in genetics, access to healthcare, lifestyle factors, and higher levels of stress.
Why Cognitive Health Matters
Our mood, our ability to focus and our memory have a huge impact on our day to day lives. That’s why it is important to take steps now to improve our cognitive health and help reduce the risk of disease like dementia. There are many things that can impact our cognitive health, including genetics, age, and lifestyle factors such as smoking, poor nutrition, and lack of physical activity. While some of these risk factors are unavoidable, there are things that we can do that have a significant positive impact. From getting enough sleep to incorporating supplements, let’s dig deeper into ways we can improve mental focus and mood now, and how we can help protect against cognitive decline in the future.
Stress Impacts Everything
Stress is a part of our daily lives, and we experience it at even higher levels in our communities of color. In fact, the American Psychological Association found that 84% of melanated adults in the US experience chronic stress from dealing with racism, discrimination and other inequalities. While it is normal to experience occasional stress, these high levels of stress we often experience can lead to detrimental effects on our cognitive health, memory, and mood. Prolonged stress is also linked to an increased risk of developing dementia and cognitive decline.
When we experience stress, our body releases cortisol, which is our stress hormone. Cortisol has many beneficial aspects, including helping us respond to dangerous or emergency situations. However, high levels of cortisol over prolonged periods can cause damage to the brain cells responsible for memory and cognitive function. High levels of cortisol also increase inflammation in the body, which can lead to health problems like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Common symptoms of people with high cortisol include anxiety and depression, gastrointestinal issues, headache, fatigue, problems with memory, sleep difficulties, weight gain and more. While we cannot remove all stressors from our lives, there are a few things we can do to help our bodies better manage and regulate our stress levels.
- Exercise Regularly - Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood-boosters that can reduce stress and anxiety. This doesn’t mean we all have to be track stars - pick an activity that is fun and that you can be consistent with. Walking is a great option!
- Get Enough Sleep - Lack of sleep can increase stress levels, impact our mood and memory and can throw our metabolism and digestive system out of balance. As adults, we should aim for seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
- Practice Mindfulness - Mindfulness, meditation and restorative workouts like yoga have all been shown to reduce stress levels and improve cognitive function. You can start slow with a goal of 5 minutes a day, and really focus on bringing your attention to the present moment.
- Eat Healthy - A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats can reduce inflammation in the body and reduce stress levels. A healthy diet can also help us address other diseases that can impact cognitive health, like maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels. This doesn’t mean we have to stop eating our favorite foods, but it's all about balance and moderation.
- Build a Community - Social connections are important for our mental health and our overall wellbeing. Spending time with friends and family or joining groups can all help reduce stress levels. Another great way to build community is to establish accountability partners or work with a health coach to help you build and maintain healthy habits.
Sleep Impacts More Than Beauty
Our sleep habits have a huge impact on our mental and physical health. Our bodies need adequate sleep to support a healthy brain function, support our immune system and maintain our physical health. Without enough sleep, our bodies can’t maintain the pathways in our brain that help us learn and create new memories, and it makes it more difficult to concentrate and communicate effectively. Chronic sleep deprivation also increases our risk of chronic health problems, such as heart disease and stroke. A recent Harvard Medical School study found that individuals who slept fewer than five hours per night were twice as likely to develop dementia. The good news is that researchers also determined that you can help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's or dementia by getting consistent, adequate sleep. Here are a few tips for maintaining healthy amounts of sleep.
- Be Consistent - Create and stick to a consistent sleep schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
- Create a Relaxing Environment - Keep the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet to make it easier to fall and stay asleep. Playing relaxing sounds can also help you feel relaxed and slow your thoughts. If possible, it is worth investing in comfortable pillows and a supportive mattress that are made from nontoxic materials.
- Avoid Electronics Before Bed - Try to avoid electronic devices at least one hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted by smartphones, tablets, and computers can interfere with the body's natural sleep-wake cycle. If this can’t be avoided, there are affordable glasses that block blue light to help minimize this impact.
- Be Mindful of Consumption - Try to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and heavy meals before bedtime as they can all make it harder to fall asleep, or disrupt your sleep by preventing your body from entering the deep, restorative stages of sleep. If you are looking for something relaxing to drink before bed, try an herbal tea like Lemon Balm, Chamomile or a drink with magnesium.
Know Your Levels
It is so important to know your key vital health measures, including blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Having either high blood pressure (also called hypertension) or high cholesterol can damage blood vessels in the brain, increasing your risk of everything from stroke and heart disease to dementia. This is something that is unfortunately very prevalent in our communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 50% of the melanated people in the US have high blood pressure and almost 45% of us have high cholesterol. The good news is that these conditions can often be prevented or managed with lifestyle changes.
- Get Checked Regularly - Schedule yearly preventative care appointments with your healthcare provider, get blood work done and ask for copies of your health measures such as blood pressure and cholesterol. You can also purchase an at-home blood pressure monitor or mail-in cholesterol tests. There are also many community centers and pharmacies that offer free blood pressure testing to help you track your numbers on a more regular basis. If any of your numbers are outside of the normal range, speak with your healthcare provider and create a plan on how to better manage your levels.
- Eat a Heart Healthy Diet - Focus on eating a healthy, balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. Beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, and avocado are potassium-rich foods that may help lower blood pressure naturally. Oats, eggplant, okra, nuts and citrus fruit can also support you in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.
- Quit Smoking and Reduce Drinking - Smoking has many negative health impacts, and can harm blood vessels, which increases the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and diseases like dementia. Drinking can also have an impact on cognitive health, heart health and more. Studies have shown that eliminating or reducing alcohol consumption can lower blood pressure, improve sleep and lower cholesterol levels.
- Stay Active - Physical activity can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week, and try to spend less time sitting and more time standing or walking.
- Maintain a Healthy Weight - A healthy weight looks different on everyone, and should be discussed with your healthcare provider. However, being overweight or obese can increase the risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Work with your healthcare provider or a health coach to develop a plan for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
Add Supplements To Your Routine
Lifestyle choices and our daily habits have a huge impact on our cognitive health, memory, mood and so much more. We try our best to eat healthy, get enough sleep and workout - but sometimes we need a little extra help! There are several supplements that can help support your cognitive health, and help address some of the underlying factors impacting our mental focus, memory and stress.
- Lion’s Mane - Lion's Mane is an adaptogenic mushroom that has been shown to help reduce stress and inflammation, while also improving memory and cognitive function. It contains compounds that help stimulate the growth of brain cells and some studies also suggest that Lion’s Mane may help protect you from dementia and cognitive decline. If you suffer with brain fog, Lion’s Mane can also help improve mental focus and boost your mood.
- Vitamin D - This vitamin plays a crucial role in maintaining bone health, but it is also important for cognitive function. Studies have shown that low levels of vitamin D are associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment, dementia and stroke. It is estimated that 76-90% of melanated people are Vitamin D deficient, largely because the melanin in our skin interferes with our body’s ability to absorb Vitamin D from the sun. So adding a Vitamin D supplement to your routine can help address this deficiency and support cognitive health.
- Vitamin B6 - This vitamin is essential for the production of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are important for regulating mood, and a deficiency in vitamin B6 can lead to depression and other mood disorders. Vitamin B6 may also help improve brain function and lower the risk of cognitive decline.
- Folate - Folate is the natural form of synthetic folic acid. Folate is important for DNA synthesis and cell division, and also supports the production of neurotransmitters associated with regulating mood, stress, motivation and cognitive performance.
- Vitamin B12 - Vitamin B12 supports the health of the brain and nervous system, including maintaining nerve function and the production of red blood cells. Low levels of vitamin B12 have been linked to cognitive decline, depression and mood disorders.
- Ceylon Cinnamon - Ceylon Cinnamon is an adaptogenic herb known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Studies have shown that Ceylon Cinnamon can help support healthy blood sugar levels, and is linked to improved memory and mood. When it comes to choosing a cinnamon supplement for cognitive health, it is important that the supplement contain Ceylon Cinnamon instead of Cassia Cinnamon. Ceylon Cinnamon is considered to be safer and more effective for these purposes than Cassia Cinnamon, which is typically found in grocery stores. Cassia Cinnamon includes higher levels of coumarin, a compound that can be toxic in large amounts and can cause liver damage.
- Magnesium - Magnesium is a mineral that is essential for many processes in the body, including nerve function and the regulation of mood. Low levels of magnesium have been linked to an increased risk of depression and other mood disorders. Magnesium supplements can also support improved and higher-quality sleep. Magnesium glycinate is the most popular form of magnesium for treating sleep disorders and addressing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Magnesium malate is the form of magnesium that is most used for mood regulation, blood sugar control and cognitive health.
- Probiotics - The health of our gut is closely linked to the health of our brain. The gut and brain communicate with each other through a complex system of neurons, hormones, and chemicals that influence your overall health and well-being. In fact, Harvard Health has well documented studies that have shown that the health of your gut can affect your mood, emotions, and cognitive function and that taking a probiotic can support overall cognitive health.
The Mela Difference
Let’s take the first step towards supporting our cognitive health by making small changes in our routines, staying consistent with healthy eating and working out, and incorporating the right vitamins and supplements. If you’re looking for a supplement that supports cognitive health, check out our Daily Essentials multivitamin for melanated women. We provide your daily dose of nutrients, high-dose Vitamin D and B12, Lion’s Mane, Ceylon Cinnamon and five strains of probiotics in only two vegan capsules a day. We use the natural forms of vitamins, and we always avoid harmful fillers and additives. Our Daily Essentials are also certified vegan, non-GMO, and gluten-free.
Amariglio RE, Buckley RF, Rabin JS, Papp KV, Quiroz YT, Mormino EC, Sparks KP, Johnson KA, Rentz DM, Sperling RA. Examining Cognitive Decline Across Black and White Participants in the Harvard Aging Brain Study. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32417775/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 11). African Americans and High Blood Pressure. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/aa_sourcebook.htm
American Heart Association. (2017, October 20). High blood pressure and cognitive decline. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/JAHA.117.007988
Harvard Health Publishing. (2021, May 3). Sleep well and reduce your risk of dementia and death. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/sleep-well-and-reduce-your-risk-of-dementia-and-death-2021050322508