Cognition is defined as the mental process of knowing, and to that end the ability to perceive, reason, and make judgments. Some of us are predisposed to conditions that make us more susceptible to cognitive decline, such as gender, age, and genetics that make us prone to mental illness. Here, we explore the factors we can control, namely the number of unhealthy mental days, and cutting out bad lifestyle habits.
Mental health refers to the psychological and emotional ability to make decisions, contributing to overall behavioural and social wellbeing. We are fortunate to be living in a time where we are slowly dismantling the stigma surrounding mental illness and bad mental health. While there is still much to be done in that department, we’ve certainly made progress in demanding more recognition of mental wellbeing, particularly in the workplace. The link between mental health and physical health has been brought to the fore in recent years through a greater acknowledgement of the importance of mental wellbeing in general, especially during these unprecedented times.
Anxiety disorder is one the most common mental disorders affecting the global population. Anxiety is part of the fight or flight response, which is beneficial in alerting us from harm. Left unmanaged, however, this has deleterious effects on cognitive functioning. Prolonged stress and anxiety cause a shrink in the hippocampus over time and impairs the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. This could lead to an increased chance of developing depression and dementia down the line.
Anxiety is also linked to memory loss: repeated exposure to anxiety and stress releases excessive levels of cortisol, impairing memory retrieval. Research also shows that anxiety is an early predictor of impaired cognitive function in the future. For example,a study done by UC Irvine demonstrated how even short-term stress lasting a few hours can impair the process behind collecting and retaining information.
What are some of the common physical behaviours of bad mental health and what are its toll on cognitive health?
Lack of sleep and insomnia
Chronic sleep deprivation caused by stress and anxiety leads to overworked neurons, which consequently lead to impaired cognitive function. In a study done by Michigan State University that involves a single night of sleep deprivation, participants who were deprived of sleep had a 30% error rate on a cognitive test done on them, a 15% increase from the previous evening. Further, the number of lapses in attention also tripled. By contrast, the rested group performed consistently. The current study showed that over a longer term, sleep deprivation can lead to cognitive decline and dementia.
Calorie intake and dietary composition have a significant and lasting impact on cognitive functioning and emotion. Some of us may have heard of the term “comfort food”. Numerous studies have demonstrated that physical or emotional distress leads to an increased consumption of high fat and sugar foods. Once consumed, the feedback effect that results is one that reduces stress-related emotions. Studies have shown that low glycemic index foods correlate with improved attention, memory, and functional capacity, while foods high in sugars cause concentration difficulties and low attention span. Amino acids and catecholamines are necessary for the synthesis of neurotransmitters- decreased levels of serotonin are associated with difficulties in memorizing, learning, and reasoning.
Some people develop an unhealthy relationship with alcohol to quell chronic emotional distress, to self-medicate. Studies have shown that those with specific mental health disorders, such as generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and social anxiety disorder are more likely to abuse alcohol consumption. Alcohol depresses the Central Nervous System (CNS), offering temporary relief from anxiety. However, unbridled consumption, over time, is detrimental to memory, leading to cognitive decline and increased chances of developing dementia. The good news is that abstinence from overconsumption of alcohol can repair cognitive impairment.
It should also be reassuring to know that beyond that, cognitive impairment caused by poor mental health is somewhat reversible due to our brain’s neuroplasticity.
How can nutraceuticals and supplements improve cognition?&
A bad diet negatively impacts cognitive functioning, so it stands to reason that a healthy diet and nutraceuticals have been proven effective in improving it. The research area related to food supplement and brain physiopathology is attracting a constantly growing interest. AJT Wellity Asia has formed a partnership with non-profit scientific organisation ReGenera R&D International for Aging Intervention and Asia affiliates, which have done extensive research on how nutraceuticals, supplements, and vitamins are instrumental in maintaining cognitive function. The founder, Prof. Francesco Marotta, MD, PhD (JP) MACG (USA) illustrates that on an experimental basis it has been shown that docosahexaenoic acid, eicosopentanoic acid, uridine monophosphate, choline, iodine, zinc, and vitamin B12 are proven to be effective in a mouse animal-model of perinatal hypoxia-ischemia. Further, in a clinical setting, there is wide evidence that n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (n-3 PUFAs) are highly correlated to cognition and depression. More recent data have also pointed out the potential interactions among diet, gastrointestinal microbiota and epigenetic alterations on brain methylation and on cytosine methylation dynamics in the adult brain. For instance, non-digestible oligosaccharides seem to act as beneficial prebiotics while some probiotics, and “bioengineered” probiotics, have shown a significant pro-longevity and neural protection in experimental models of ageing or neurodegeneration.
Many people are struggling with the emotional long-haul of the pandemic in some way or another whether it is anxiety, depression, stress, burnout, or languishing. Importantly, there are things we can do to manage our mental health sustainably - after all, prevention from the root cause is far more effective than tackling each issue as they come.
Following from the properties of neuroplasticity and its capacity in reversing poor mental health, engaging in mindfulness practices can fundamentally change our brain structure. A meta-analysis of 47 studies have shown that anxiety and depression can be treated through meditation programs such as Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy and Stress Reduction (MBCT and MBSR, respectively). Interestingly, the reduction of mental stress post mindfulness practice is comparable to the effectiveness of an antidepressant. An equally important finding from a randomised trial looking at the Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy in Prevention of Depressive Relapse, published by Jama Psychiatry, is that when compared to antidepressants and other forms of treatment, mindfulness therapy reduces relapse rated by up to 60 weeks— this is an uniform result across all genders, age, or education.
In fact, just 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation (MBSR) has been shown to reduce stress, depression, and emotional exhaustion caused by burnout, a key problem facing society in the 2020s. The mindfulness meditation coaches at iRETREAT wellness retreats advise consumers to start out with short 5 to 10 minute daily mindfulness meditation sessions, and gradually increase the duration— what is emphasised during these sessions is not the duration of the meditation, but instead the consistency of practicing every day in order to clear the mind, and achieve better mental wellbeing.
Mindfulness meditation is also associated with improved cognition. Meta-awareness and cognitive flexibility resulting from MBCT helps with acknowledging negative thought patterns and developing a new perspective to respond to these experiences. Additionally, mindfulness practices can prevent the aforementioned common physical problems and vices stemming from bad mental health. A meta-analysis of 34 randomised controlled trials on mindfulness-based treatment of addiction found that mindfulness significantly reduced cravings, increased nonreactivity to emotional distress, and heightened executive functioning. Mindfulness meditation also helps with chronic insomnia: in a study, 54 adults suffering from chronic insomnia, followed a specifically tailored mindfulness program, Mindfulness-Based Therapy for Insomnia (MBTI). The results showed significant reduction in sleep disturbances.
Developing positive habits as opposed to chasing vague concepts can ensure sustainability and consistency of achieving optimal mental wellness. This is a path I personally walked down, after having struggled with my own mental health as an entrepreneur and business owner when COVID-19 hit the world in 2020. I found solace in meditation and took a step further to live a simple life as a monk for a month last year to improve my own mental health. My daily mindfulness meditation practice is coupled with regular exercise, a balanced diet, and vitamin supplements which aid my cognitive and immune health.
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