Author Archives: Christian Elliott

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Six Ways to Boost Mental Health and Immune Function

As the world experiences a wave of mandatory social distancing measures, we thought it would be useful to list a few ways to boost both your immune system and mental health:

1. Eat Healthy Foods

Eating a healthy diet is common sense for overall well-being. While no single food will magically fend off illness, certain nutrients can help protect your body from billions of bacteria, viruses, and other germs. Some nutrients and foods that support healthy immunity include:

  • Garlic, turmeric root, ginger root
  • Mushrooms – shiitake, maitake, reishi, lion’s mane
  • Active omega-3 fatty acids (EPA + DHA), found in salmon, tuna, and other cold-water fish
  • Zinc-rich foods, like oysters, crab, grass-fed lean meats and poultry, and chickpeas
  • Selenium-rich foods, such as broccoli, sardines, tuna, Brazil nuts, and barley
  • Vitamin C-rich foods, like guavas, kiwis, bell peppers, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, oranges, papaya, broccoli, pineapple, cantaloupe, mango, tomato, kale, and snow peas
  • Vitamin E-rich foods, including sunflower seeds, almonds, avocados, hazelnuts, spinach, Swiss chard, butternut squash, kiwis, broccoli, and rainbow trout

2. Get Quality Sleep

Quality sleep stimulates the immune system, while sleep deprivation can raise the stress hormone cortisol. Required levels of sleep do vary among people, but most studies indicate adults should try to get an average of 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Those with a compromised immune system should get even more sleep.

3. Increase Vitamin D

Vitamin D is crucial for healthy immune regulation and inflammatory response. Failure to get enough vitamin D can lead to health problems and other mental and physical difficulties. If you aren’t getting 10 to 30 minutes of direct sunlight each day, supplementing with at least 2000 IU of vitamin D3 is a good idea.

4. Be Physically Active Each Day

Getting at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity daily will increase your blood circulation and can help strengthen your immune system. The increase in circulation improves delivery of nutrients to your bone marrow, spleen and other organs of immunity. Better circulation also helps clear waste products from the body and transport hormones that keep the immune system alert and active.

5. Stay Hydrated

Hydration is key to the functioning of all our organs including those of the immune system. Every organ system in the body needs adequate hydration to function properly. Water helps cleanse the body and remove toxins. By keeping your body systems well-hydrated, you allow them to work optimally so they can maintain healthy immunity.

6. Practice Stress Reduction Daily

Take a 5 minute break when you can.  This short guided videos can help:

Guard your self-care time. It keeps you healthy.

Privacy and Monitoring Your Brain

Facebook recently announced its intention to acquire CTRL-Labs, a neural interface startup developing a wristband that can control computers and other devices. The wristband works by decoding electrical signals travelling through muscles in the forearm. CTRL-Labs will now be part of Facebook’s Reality Labs group.

The CTRL-Labs acquisition (between $500 Million – $1 Billion) kicks off the next phase of brain-computer interface (BCI) applications moving into the consumer marketplace.

There are and will be many life improving aspects of BCI devices, especially for people with disabilities, and importantly, the rapidly growing senior population in the U.S. and other countries. The U.S. in particular faces a caregiver availability crisis, and BCIs hold the promise of keeping many people with special needs safe at home.

There are also some interesting questions regarding BCI devices and personal privacy.

Who Owns Your Brainwaves?

As we’ve seen in the past with other technologies, BCI applications will race ahead of several important (and critical) personal privacy and public policy issues.

Consumer EEG devices like the Muse headband can accurately read brain waves with only four sensors. Elon Musk’s Neuralink has a more ambitious goal of implanting thousands of tiny electrodes on the surface of the brain, which can then transmit to a nearby wireless device. Research labs are investigating whether a person’s unique brainwaves could be used as a highly secure authentication method for access to computers, databases, command & control systems, homes, workplaces and more.

This rapid progress on BCI devices brings a multitude of situations to ponder:

  • Your EEG signature is unique, meaning you could be identified through your brainwaves. Who owns your EEG signature, and how will this data be used by governments and corporations?
  • Could your unique EEG signature be copied & impersonated by another person, organization, or AI program?
  • While ‘reading your thoughts’ stays in the realm of science fiction, BCI devices could be used to identify deception (aka lie detectors). How accurate would this tool be, and could there be ways to game the lie detector algorithm?
  • Can companies require employees to wear a brainwave headband at work, to monitor alertness and attention?

This last point is happening now in a several Chinese schools. Students are required to wear a EEG headband during class, and when a student’s attention begins to wander, an alert is sent to the teacher’s monitoring system (and the parent’s mobile phone). Privacy, personal freedom, mixing with government and corporate policies will play out in different countries, with likely different results. A brave new world ahead.

Rocking Promotes Restorative Sleep

Rocking yourself to sleep at night might be as good for you as it is for babies, based on recent research out of the University of Geneva. In the study, volunteers slept overnight on gently rocking beds. The volunteers were also hooked up to EEG monitors to record their brain-wave activity during the night.

Sleep is a vital restorative period for the body and brain. Deep sleep (NREM Stage 3) in particular is important for consolidating new memories – aka learning! Deep sleep also clears metabolic debris from the brain, including amyloid and tau proteins, the biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

Night Rocking Improves Deep Sleep

Nocturnal rocking measurably improved sleep quality for the study volunteers. The volunteers moved faster from NREM stage 1 to stage 2 sleep, then spent more time in the deepest stage 3 sleep. They also experienced 60 percent fewer EEG arousals in this deep-sleep stage. Arousals are sudden shifts in EEG frequency that last at least three seconds. These arousals are often followed by a return to deep sleep, but can also lead a person to wake up.

Volunteers completed memory tests before and after the rocking bed nights, and the results showed large improvements in memory recall after the rocking nights. This study points to a possible large scale solution for insomnia without habitual medication.

For a good night’s sleep, also practice these principles:

  • Associate your bed and bedroom with sleep. It’s not a good idea to use your bed to watch TV, listen to the radio, or read.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime. (Alcohol metabolizes into glucose, which is a stimulant to the body.)
  • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light during waking hours – use a lamp that simulates sunlight if necessary.
  • Daytime exercise can promote good sleep. A relaxing exercise, like yoga or meditation, can also be done before bed to help initiate a restful night’s sleep.

Technology for Caregivers

A new focus on technology for caregivers is generating a wide range of interesting tools and services for this long-neglected market.

The inaugural HLTH conference in Las Vegas included several discussions on the aging-in-place trend, and how (for the most part) family caregivers will continue to shoulder the bulk of elder caregiving roles.

A panel at HLTH discussed new approaches to caring for the aging population in the U.S., which is the largest and fastest-growing segment of the country’s population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of individuals age 65 and older is expected to nearly double from 2012 to 2050, and those older than age 85 will more than triple during that same period.

The Growing Caregiver Burden

More than 34 million Americans are caregivers to older adults according to AARP, and more than 16 million are caregivers to people living with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia, based on a recent report from the Alzheimer’s Association.

With the escalating care service costs described below, options for assisted living, full time home health aides, and memory care facilities will be financially out of reach for many.

A typical family caregiver to a senior is an adult child (median age ~50), who works close to full time, and is also raising a family of her/his own. Time limitations and financial constraints are a constant worry for this caregiver demographic.

Assisted Living Becomes Unaffordable

Genworth provides a cost of care prediction tool that highlights the escalating cost of senior care services. This snapshot of care costs in the year 2037 includes a very optimistic assumption that senior care costs will increase by only 3% each year:

Assisted living facilities can vary widely in the type of medical care provided. Many residents in assisted living also require home health assistance, which will bring the cost in 2037 to at least $160,000 per year.

With increasing longevity and decreasing catastrophic illness, assisted living can stretch into a decade or more, which will require $1.5 million or more for a studio or one bedroom apartment that includes light housekeeping and three meals a day.

We’re facing a reality that assisted living and related 24×7 senior care services will quickly become out of reach for most of the middle class in the U.S. and other countries.

Worried about the memory health of a loved one? Try the memory loss checklist and receive a free report.

A Smarter Idea: Combining Mental & Physical Exercise

Walking for one hour a few times a week can increase the size of brain regions responsible for attention and memory. There’s also a strong correlation between high lifetime amounts of physical activity and better cognitive skills later in life.

Giving New Brain Cells Something to Do

It’s generally accepted that a limited number of new brain cells can be produced in adult mammal brains. A study of exercise in animals found that after 2 weeks of daily, voluntary aerobic exercise there was a 50% increase in new neurons generated in the hippocampus (memory center of the brain), and even a single day of exercise increased the number of new brain cells produced.

There’s a catch, however. Regardless of how many new neurons are created from aerobic exercise, many will die within 1 to 2 weeks if they aren’t integrated into the brain’s network. A way to rescue and preserve these new cells is through combining physical exercise with intensive cognitive training.

Work Your Brain and Body At The Same Time

Research recently conducted in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences has pushed the envelope on how to increase cognitive performance through combining physical and mental exercises.

Dr. Sarah McEwen was the lead investigator on a study in older adults who reported having memory problems. Research participants were randomized to either 4 weeks of supervised strategy-based memory training done simultaneously while stationary cycling (the SIM group), or memory training only *after* the stationary cycling exercise was completed (the SEQ group).

The SIM group, but not the SEQ group, had a significant improvement on composite memory following the intervention and transfer to non-trained reasoning abilities and complex attention.

In other words, the people who underwent memory training *while pedaling on a bike* had better brain function measures than the group that didn’t do any cognitive exercises while on the bike.

Exercise and Cognitive Performance

The reasons for this extra kick in cognitive performance from the group that trained their brain and body at the same time:

  • Aerobic exercise releases a cascade of neurochemicals (including Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor – BDNF) that support brain health and provides greater amounts of oxygen to the brain getting the brain in an optimal state for learning,
  • Focused cognitive training, such as practicing real-life memory strategies, will be encoded better in the brain and have a broader reach to impact daily life functioning,
  • Parallel-tasking of two easy or moderately difficulty tasks actually benefits performance on those two tasks due to increased engagement and focus.

Continued new skill acquisition in life is the key to supporting a healthy brain, so switch up your physical and mental training program every 3 months.

Ideas? Combine your aerobic activity (5 minute exercise intervals on a treadmill) with learning a new motor skill, such as an activity that engages complex and coordinated movements (such as table tennis, juggling, playing the piano).

New gym idea: add a piano on the workout floor!

Contributing Author: Dr. Sarah McEwen is a Cognitive Psychologist at UCLA and UCSD, Associate Editor at NeuroReport and the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and a leading expert in the field of exercise and brain plasticity. She is an NSCA-certified personal trainer and the Owner of Genius Gyms, a fitness and technology company in San Diego, CA offering personal and group training of simultaneously training of the body and brain to improve both mental and physical performance for all ages.