Sunday, November 26, 2006

Improve Memory and Prevent Brain Deterioration

Human memory is a truly amazing phenomenon. It is always a source of wonder that seemingly insignificant occurrences may create lasting memories for one person while other people cannot even recall details of major events in their life. There are many factors that influence this apparent disparity.

It is sometimes said that a healthy brain never forgets anything. Unless affected by injury or disease the brain never loses anything. Forgetting something is actually a result of:

1. Not storing the facts properly in the first place.

2. Failure to store the facts in a manner in which they can be recalled.

3. Inability to recall facts at the time although they are still safely recorded in the brain. Who among us has not had the experience of "forgetting" something only to have it pop into consciousness at the most unlikely time?

Problem 1 can be overcome by concentration. If one is distracted and does not store facts to start with then there is very little chance of recalling them later. Memory has two phases - Short Term and Long Term Memory. It is believed that up to 50 percent of information we receive is lost almost immediately and a further 20 percent vanishes within 24 hours. An example would be a telephone number or other ten digit number. Unless a special effort is made its gone almost instantly. Some of these short term memories go on to become long term memories. For instance your best friend's phone number would have started out as a short term memory but has now become part of long term memory and can be readily recalled several years later. Scientists are still uncertain as to the exact reasons why some facts are lost while others go on to create lasting memories. However, it is safe to assume that some special importance is attached to that information for one reason or another. In the world of information overload we live in there are constant distractions and information competing for attention. Chances of recalling facts are significantly improved by paying attention to those that we need to remember later.

There are several techniques that can be used to ensure sufficient attention to important facts. The most common among them would be repetition. Most of us would probably recall having learnt our multiplication tables in this way. Writing notes and personalizing the facts ie. writing ideas in one's own words also helps. However, it is important not to fall into the trap of relying on notes as a substitute for remembering. Notes should be used to reinforce a memory not as an alternative to it. Writing down facts surrounding and supporting an idea as well as the theory and methodology leading up to certain facts also help in recall. Complex mathematical formulae would be an example. Formulae comprised of abstract symbols and numbers can usually be quite hard to recall on their own. However, if one commits to memory the principles from which the formula is derived the symbols often become a lot easier to recall. Understanding the concepts behind the final outcome makes things less fuzzy. The fuzzier things are the harder they are to remember. Breaking down facts into manageable chunks to concentrate on helps immensely as well as there is a limit on how much information can be assimilated at a given time. Avoiding distractions is another important consideration in ensuring that the facts are stored right - it is a lot harder replace incorrect information than it is to store it right in the first place.

Problems 2 and 3 are closely connected to how we recall information. Memories are made by creating connections - connections with experiences through all our senses. Perhaps you have had the experience of a smell or sound triggering a memory of long ago. The more connections we create the better the chances of recall. This is why mnemonics are commonly used as an aid to memory. The more ridiculous or unusual the association the more likely it is to be recalled rather than fade into insignificance among the millions of other connections. Using mental pegs is another technique that works very well. Associate facts with unusual images or rhymes. For instance to remember names and faces one may look at a prominent facial feature, create an exaggerated version of it and connect it with the name. Say Leon with rather long hair may become a mental image of a Lion with a mane. Lion then quickly converts to Leon making it a lot easier than simply trying to recall the name of the guy with long hair!

Unfortunately as we age our brains begin to degenerate and memory deteriorates along with it. There are 4 main reasons for this degeneration.

1. Reduction in Neurotransmitters, especially acetylcholine causes decline in brain function.

2. Reduced blood circulation. The brain uses a significant proportion of all blood. Any impediment to blood flow therefore has a huge impact on brain function.

3. Effects of Cortisol. As a response to stresses cortisol is produced in the brain which damages the cells in the Hippocampus. The Hippocampus is instrumental in converting short term memories to long term ones. The damage in the hippocampus also triggers further production of cortisol setting off a ever increasing cycle of cell damage.

4. Free radical damage. Free radicals are atoms that have an electron imbalance and are constantly seeking to steal an electron to make itself whole. This process of stealing electrons from cells causes cell damage. Brain cells are no exception and brain cell damage also occurs due to free radical activity.

There are many common sense approaches to limiting and preventing brain degeneration:

* Proper diet - limit intake of salt cholesterol and fat while eating plenty of fresh fruits and foods high in antioxidants.
* Regular Exercise - avoid becoming overweight.

* Control Blood pressure

* Control and limit stress

* Limiting alcohol intake and not smoking helps reduce free radical damage.

* Increase intake of Omega 3 fatty acids - found in large quantities in fish -helps combat free radical damage.

* Avoid even minor head trauma - When engaging in activities which could result in jarring of the brain use adequate protection. Regular jarring, even minor levels has been connected with higher incidence of dementia.

There are also several not so obvious strategies that have emerged from recent studies into the brain.

Depression can affect the way the brain processes information and retrieves it. Therefore avoiding or minimizing depression can positively impact on brain function in later years. Socializing and involvement with family and community activities is recommended.

Mental exercise. "Use it or lose it". Stimulating your brain with mental exercises such as crossword puzzles, board games or even taking up a new hobby or learning a musical instrument has been shown to increase the number of brain cells and connections between brain cells. These activities improve what is known as "Brain Plasticity".

Herbal supplements such as Gingko Biloba which is credited with improving blood circulation may help to deter the onset of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.

While aging and its consequences cannot be halted it is clear that there is much that can be done to improve brain health and memory.

The Importance of Phytochemicals

As time goes by the typical western diet seems to increasingly contain more fatty processed foods and less natural plant based foods than ever before. The results of this disturbing trend can be seen in the alarming statistics on cancer, heart disease, stroke and many other degenerative diseases.

Aside from the obvious dietary problems of high fat, protein and simple carbohydrate intake is the considerably inadequate intake of plant based foods and all the health giving benefits they bring with them.

Enter Phytochemicals

Many people are aware that eating plant based foods add much needed fiber, vitamins and minerals to the diet but what is less well known is the many benefits of the phytochemicals that these plants contain.

Phytochemicals come in a variety of forms and different vegetables have higher concentrations of a particular phytochemical than others. Some of the main phytochemicals include:

Carotenoids - Found in broccoli, carrots, pumpkin, spinach, squash, sweet potato and yams.

Flavonoids - Found in cabbage, cucumber, parsley, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, soybeans and berries.

Isoflavones - Found in peas, beans and legumes.

Indioles - Found in brussels sprouts, cauliflower, turnips, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage and kale.

Lignans - Found in walnuts, flaxseeds and many other nuts and seeds.

Omega 3, Omega 6 Fatty Acids - Found in walnuts and flaxseeds.

Plant Sterols - Found in eggplant, soybeans, peppers, tomatoes, squash, cucumber, cabbage and broccoli.

The list above is only a small segment of the entire phytochemical family which encompasses a very large and extensive range of nutrients.

Benefits of Phytochemicals

Phytochemicals act in numerous ways to assist your body in combating disease and health problems such as:

1) Help to protect the cells by blocking carcinogens that try to enter the cell walls.

2) Helps to fight the malignant changes within cells that have already been penetrated by carcinogens.

3) Appear to boost enzyme activity to increase the benefits of the various protective enzymes consumed within the diet.

4) Combines with numerous vitamins to boost antioxidants activity to scavenge free radicals before they can cause damage within the body.

Although it is not important to know the names and benefits of the large range of phytochemicals that exist, what is important is to understand that maintaining a diet that contains a variety of fruits and vegetables will combine the benefits of the phytochemicals and vitamins to help you achieve optimal health.

By reducing your high fat/processed food intake and increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables you will greatly reduce your chances of falling victim to the ever-growing list of degenerative diseases which plague the general population today as a result of following a typical western diet.

It is not only the damaging effects of high fat, high sugar foods in the western diet that allow cancer, heart disease etc. to develop, but the absence of the protective phytochemicals that are only found in plant foods as well.

By adding plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet you will bring a host of phytochemicals to fight the damaging effects of free radicals and carcinogens and give you a level of health that most people will envy.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Dumped on Saturday Night...

Just a couple of days ago I came across a site named BlogDumps. Although virtually anyone can submit their blog there, it seems to me kind of a blog community. Today I received an email from them asking me to participate in the Saturday Night Blog Dumping. It wasn't easy to decide whose blog to dump today, but I had to quickly chose or else I would be reading blogs until Monday morning, lol.
So I chose to dump Nafcom. I found great info about Skype on his blog, and as I'm an avid Skype user it was like finding treasure. I'm off to download the RSS feed reader to Skype!

Get the Code and Get Listed!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Tips for Gym Newbies

Beginning a workout regime at the gym can be overwhelming in many different ways. If you haven't been before (or haven't been for a long time) it can seem as though everyone knows what they're doing but you. You worry about looking stupid, or about what people will think about your body, or about whether you'll remember everything you've been told.

The first day is usually okay (because most gyms provide an introductory session on how to operate the machines) - but the second day can be confusing and even embarrassing, unless you've signed up with a personal trainer. You're quite likely to find that you can't remember which machines you're supposed to use, or even how they work.

Relax. Everyone goes through it. You'll find it easier on the third day, and by the fourth you'll be feeling quite confident. Within weeks you'll be powering through your exercises as though you were born in the gym!

Here are a few tips that might ease the way in the first few weeks:

1. If you're a complete beginner, it might be worth your while to sign up with a personal trainer for at least a couple of sessions, until you're feeling more confident. Otherwise, go with a friend. If you're both new, you can muddle through together. If your friend is experienced, he/she will help you out.

2. Take a notepad and pen with you for your introductory session. Write down the name of the machine and its position in the gym as well as a few words that will remind you what you're supposed to do on it. (Some machines can be used in several different ways.)

3. Don't hesitate to ask a staff member for help if you can't adjust the machine for your weight and height, or if you can't remember exactly how it works. They won't mind showing you again. They want their customers to keep coming back!

4. Don't push yourself too hard to begin with. If you work out so hard that you can barely walk, you'll be tempted to miss a day while you recover. One day doesn't matter much, but if you continually skip days because you're too sore, you're likely to drop out altogether. What's the hurry? After a few weeks, when your body is getting used to the extra exercise, you can increase the intensity.

5. If your knees and ankles react badly to increasing the speed on the treadmill, try increasing the grade instead. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that a slower speed, with the treadmill on an incline, burns more calories than jogging.

6. Smile and nod to the other gym users, but don't hold up their workout programs by chatting. As you become recognized as a regular, you will find that you gravitate to your own little group - probably people who have the same goals and needs as you do.

7. Wear comfortable clothing - either loose or with plenty of stretch. Avoid the temptation to buy workout gear that's two sizes too small in the hope that you'll lose weight quickly. (You might well shed those pounds fast - but if it takes longer that you'd anticipated, you'll always be conscious of those too-tight clothes.)

8. Don't worry about being overweight. In a way, it's good to start off with quite a few excess pounds to lose - your success is much more noticeable than it is on slimmer gym users, and you'll find the positive comments really motivating. Make sure you get a 'before' photo of yourself at the gym when you start out. After a few months, you'll be amazed at the difference.

9. If you're considerably overweight, you are likely to find that your stomach gets in the way on some machines. Just do what you can. You might feel better just increasing your fitness and losing some weight on the treadmill for the first month or so, then moving on to the machines when moving and stretching is more comfortable. Consider doing a few laps in the pool (either walking or swimming) as well as your other gym work. The water will help to support your weight and provide variety.

10. Try to find a happy medium between challenging yourself and resting on your laurels. If you can easily manage three sets at the current weight, try increasing it for the first set. If you can do twenty minutes on the treadmill without sweating, then increase either the speed or the grade (or both!) Remember... "if nothing changes, then nothing changes!"

One final tip: once you have decided on your regular gym days, resolve that nothing but an emergency will stop you going. Make your gym attendance a habit - and before too long, the exciting results will have you trying to convert all your friends to becoming exercise lovers too!