Have you managed to keep your New Year resolutions?
Chances are your willpower might be starting to flag, as it’s tough making big life changes in one fell swoop.
After all, it’s likely to have taken a lifetime for your bad habits to stick.
But as the Mail’s resident psychiatrist, Dr Max Pemberton, revealed on Saturday, the secret is making tiny tweaks that, when combined, will make a big difference to your health and wellbeing.
He set out his 20 top tips to launch this week’s unique series, in which experts suggest 100 ‘micro-changes’ you can introduce.
Today, some of Britain’s leading brain doctors pool their 20 top ideas to improve your brain health, ward off dementia, beat headaches and even free yourself from a phone addiction…
Some migraine sufferers find long periods of fasting, or missing meals, can trigger a full-blown attack that can leave them out of action for days. One way around this is to eat breakfast before going to bed, says Dr Andy Dowson [File photo]
Boost brain health
1) Scrap your shopping list
It sounds counter-intuitive. But the best way to remember what you need is not to write it down at all, says Dame Til Wykes, professor of clinical psychology and rehabilitation at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London.
‘Attention and memory are maintained or improved through practice,’ she says.
‘The old adage “use it or lose it” is definitely true, but you don’t need to do anything fancy. Just try remembering a shopping list and break it down into categories, such as vegetables, meat, and cleaning products, to make it easier.’
2) Turn off the radio to focus
Older people find it much harder to concentrate on tasks if there is a background disturbance, says Nilli Lavie, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London.
‘That’s because the frontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in focusing on tasks, is the last part to develop and the first to deteriorate as we age. It’s much harder for older people to ignore visual or audio distractions,’ she says.
‘So, when you are talking on the phone, for example, switch the radio off — don’t just turn the volume down — so you can concentrate properly on what’s being said.’
Cutting down on sugar is one simple way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, adds Dr Duncan Banks, a biomedical sciences lecturer at The Open University. A 2018 study of 5,189 UK adults found those who consumed the most sugar had the highest risk of developing Alzheimer’s in the following ten years [File photo]
3) Eat walnuts every day
‘Nuts, especially walnuts, are packed with essential fatty acids and omega-3s, which protect cells, limit free-radical damage from environmental factors such as pollution, and reduce inflammation in the body which can otherwise contribute to cancer, heart disease and dementia,’ says dietitian Jane Clarke.
She runs a specialist cancer and dementia nutrition clinic in London and the website nourishbyjaneclarke.com.
‘This is a subject particularly close to my heart, as my dad has a rare form of dementia, called frontotemporal lobe dementia,’ she says.
She recommends eating a handful of walnuts every day.
‘I like them as fresh as possible. I ideally crack them out of their shells just before eating, or ensure they have a long eat-by date if they’re ready-hulled,’ she adds.
‘Nuts can easily go rancid if they’re kept for too long or stored in a warm place, due to their high fat content.
‘That doesn’t just make them taste bad; rancid fat is bad for our hearts, immune system and gut, aggravating IBS symptoms.’
‘Nuts, especially walnuts, are packed with essential fatty acids and omega-3s, which protect cells, limit free-radical damage from environmental factors such as pollution’, says dietitian Jane Clarke
4) Get your ears tested
Mounting evidence suggests gradual, undiagnosed hearing problems play a big role in the onset of dementia.
Sufferers are more likely to avoid social gatherings if they struggle to hear what’s being said, and regular social interaction is a proven way of preserving cognitive function.
So get your hearing checked sooner rather than later.
‘Do this in middle age — your 40s and early 50s — in case you need a hearing aid,’ says Gill Livingston, professor of psychiatry of older people at UCL.
‘Partial deafness is the biggest threat to brain health — worse than high blood pressure — because you become socially isolated and your brain starts to shrink.’
5) Drink coffee with milk
‘Not only do I love coffee and couldn’t start the day without it, there’s also interesting research on coffee reducing dementia risk,’ says dietitian Jane Clarke.
‘Caffeine gets the circulation going and transports oxygen and other nutrients to your little grey cells.
‘Antioxidants in coffee beans also help protect blood vessels, and they are anti-inflammatory.
‘I keep my coffee habit to just one or two cups made with warm full-cream milk.
‘The fat and protein in the milk holds the coffee in my stomach for longer, and therefore slows down absorption of the caffeine, so that it doesn’t make me jittery or inhibit my ability to sleep.’
6)…But quit sugar in tea
Try to reframe your thinking around tea so you view it as a savoury drink, says the Mail’s columnist and NHS psychiatrist Dr Max Pemberton.
‘It’s full of flavour, so there’s no reason to make it sweet.’
Cutting down on sugar is one simple way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, adds Dr Duncan Banks, a biomedical sciences lecturer at The Open University.
A 2018 study of 5,189 UK adults found those who consumed the most sugar had the highest risk of developing Alzheimer’s in the following ten years.
Mounting evidence suggests gradual, undiagnosed hearing problems play a big role in the onset of dementia. Sufferers are more likely to avoid social gatherings if they struggle to hear what’s being said, and regular social interaction is a proven way of preserving cognitive function [File photo]
7) Recite your times tables up to 20
Reciting multiplication tables — something many of us only did at school — could help to maintain a healthy working memory, says Professor Nicholas Barnes, director of the neuropharmacology research group at Birmingham University.
‘Learn them again if you have forgotten them,’ he says. ‘Try to practise up to your 20 times tables two to three times a week to improve the effects.’
Working memory is a part of the brain’s cognitive system that stores information temporarily. It is vital to keep it healthy, as it plays a key role in reasoning, guiding the decisions that we take and controlling our behaviour.
8) Take frequent culture trips
‘There is evidence that cognitive stimulation from going to museums, for example, can be protective against dementia,’ explains Dr Naaheed Mukadam, clinical research fellow at UCL’s Faculty of Brain Sciences.
Museums and art exhibitions require a level of mental engagement that you don’t get from, say, going to the cinema.
Enjoying pieces on display often requires a degree of interpretation, which needs active brain involvement, unlike the more passive experience of watching a film.
Research published last month in the British Medical Journal found that those over 50 who often enjoyed trips to museums, art exhibitions or the theatre live longer than those who rarely or never go.
Dr Mukadam says that the neural pathways — connections that allow neurons (the main type of brain cells) to communicate with each other — are maintained when you stimulate the brain in this way.
Tips to treat headaches
9) Pop a painkiller straight away
Painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are usually very effective at combating headaches, but don’t wait until the pain is unbearable before taking them, advises Dr Andy Dowson, a headache specialist at King’s College London.
‘Take a tablet at the very first sign of a headache. You’ll suffer less pain, and the headache will be less severe because taking it quickly improves your body’s response to the drug.’
Dr Dowson says it’s thought this happens because taking medication promptly boosts the response to it from the receptors in the brain and spine — found on the surface of the cells — that painkilling drug molecules lock on to, disrupting the pain signals to the brain.
In other words, the receptors become more sensitive to the drugs’ effects.
10. Dose up on Vitamin B2
‘If you are getting headaches at least once or twice a week, try a daily riboflavin (B2) supplement,’ says Dr Andy Dowson, a headache specialist.
Research has shown that in people with chronic headaches and migraines, brain cells may have a defect in the mitochondria— the ‘battery’ which powers each cell.
There is some evidence that riboflavin can overcome this defect and restores brain cells to a healthy status.
A study found taking 400mg a day for three months halved the number of migraines.
Dr Dowson says magnesium and coenzyme Q10 supplements may also help.
11) Eat breakfast before bed
Some migraine sufferers find long periods of fasting, or missing meals, can trigger a full-blown attack that can leave them out of action for days.
One way around this is to eat breakfast before going to bed, says Dr Andy Dowson.
‘If you have dinner at 8pm and then nothing until breakfast at 7am, that’s quite a long fast.
‘It might be an idea for people who suffer from regular migraines to have a bowl of cereal or some toast before they go to sleep to break the long fast. It could mean they are less likely to wake up in pain.’
12) Abandon box sets
Binge-watching TV box sets might be your ideal way to spend the weekend.
But if you are a migraine sufferer, it’s best to avoid them, says Dr Andy Dowson.
‘Staying up late to watch a movie, or catch up on a box set, can often be a trigger for migraines because, in some people, even the slightest change in normal sleeping patterns can spark an attack.
‘And it’s important to remember that it’s the change in sleep pattern that matters, not necessarily how much sleep you get.
‘Even if you go to bed late but still get a full eight hours’ rest, the disruption to your normal bedtime routine could still be a migraine trigger.’
Staring at screens for hours on end can also lead to migraines in sufferers who have photophobia — a sensitivity to light.
Binge-watching TV box sets might be your ideal way to spend the weekend. But if you are a migraine sufferer, it’s best to avoid them, says Dr Andy Dowson [File photo]
Beat online addiction
Social media and smartphones have revolutionised the way we communicate with each other.
But research suggests that using them too much can have detrimental effects on our mental health.
A 2019 study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, involving 6,000 people in their early teens, found those spending more than three hours a day on social media, mostly on their phones, were nearly three times more likely to experience anxiety, depression and loneliness as those spending little or no time on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
So what do the experts recommend to help you break your social media and smartphone habit?
13) Resist for 15 minutes
Social media addicts can find it very difficult to go completely cold turkey when they are trying to wean themselves off these sites, instant messaging services such as WhatsApp, emails or texts.
So do it in bite-sized chunks to start with, says Mark Griffiths, a professor of social sciences and an expert in social media dependency at Nottingham Trent University.
‘Begin by proving to yourself that you can go 15 minutes without technology,’ he says.
‘Over a few days or weeks, gradually increase the length of time you go without checking social media, messages, emails or texts to 30 minutes, then 60 minutes, and then a couple of hours.
‘Try to get to the stage where you can comfortably spend a few hours without experiencing the need to be online.
‘This will gradually reduce any feelings of anxiety you might have when you are separated from your phone, and banish the constant desire to check for updates.’
14. Buy an alarm clock
Many smartphone users rely on the gadgets to keep them informed of the time as well as connected to social media.
This constant interaction simply reinforces their reliance on the device and makes it more likely that they will log on to social media every time they check the phone’s clock.
‘If checking the time also leads individuals to notice they have a text, email or tweet notification, they will end up reading what has been sent,’ says Professor Griffiths.
‘Use an oldfashioned wristwatch — not a new smart device such as an Apple Watch — and the urge to reply to messages will fade.’
An alarm clock by the bed will also help to break the dependence on the phone’s alarm.
And leave your phone in another room at night to reduce the temptation to check it.
15) Don’t charge your mobile
Another simple trick, says Professor Griffiths, is to only keep mobile devices such as smartphones partially charged.
This means you have to use them sparingly as you can’t afford to waste valuable battery time, and are therefore less likely to spend hours checking for social media updates.
Professor Griffiths gave up his own mobile phone in 2016, but still uses email and the internet on a desktop computer.
16) Ban them at the pub…
A growing number of British pubs and restaurants now offer discounts on food orders if customers hand in their smartphones at the door.
At the Casa Italia restaurant in Liverpool city centre, customers deposit their devices in a lockable box, and if they get through the whole meal without asking for it back, they qualify for a 5 per cent discount.
‘These kinds of strategies may well be the way forward when it comes to trying to decrease time spent checking social media and increase time spent engaging in real life,’ says Professor Griffiths.
Museums and art exhibitions require a level of mental engagement that you don’t get from, say, going to the cinema. Enjoying pieces on display often requires a degree of interpretation, which needs active brain involvement, unlike the more passive experience of watching a film [File photo]
17…And at dinner time
Smartphones should be banned from the family dinner table, too, recommends Professor Griffiths.
Not only do they disrupt communication, studies have also linked the overuse of smartphones and social media with eating disorders.
A study published last month in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found the more social media accounts teenagers have — on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat — the more likely they were to be showing signs of disordered eating.
‘My three children are in their teens and 20s now, but we still enforce the no-phone rule at the dinner table,’ says Professor Griffiths.
‘And whenever I book a family holiday, I try to find places with little or no access to wi-fi.
‘The children hated it at first. But after a few days they got used to it, and after two weeks without access to social media, they realised it was entirely possible to survive without it.’
Our expert panel
They’re some of the world’s leading experts on sex, sleep, mood and physical health from across the NHS and private practice — and all this week they’ll be giving you unexpected, but effective, lifestyle advice.
Today you’ll find tips on beating phone dependence from the leading researcher in this relatively new field, Professor Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University.
We also have advice for better brain performance from King’s College London clinical psychiatrist Dame Til Wykes, and Professor Nicholas Barnes, director of the neuropharmacology research group at Birmingham University.
As the week goes on, you’ll find out how to boost your sleep routine, from Sleep & Circadian Neuroscience Institute professors at Oxford University, and sex life, with advice from Imperial College London’s lead sexual health consultant Dr David Goldmeier.
From diet and exercise to your social circle and love life, more than 50 experts will offer tips that really can transform your life.
18) Put the phone on silent
Audible alerts don’t just disrupt sleep at night, they can also be very distracting in the day.
And it’s these notifications that can break your concentration when you are focused on a work task, reinforcing the addictive-esque relationship with email, texts or social media.
‘Audible notifications are the main reason why people keep looking at their smartphones,’ says Professor Griffiths. ‘They make you focus your attention on the messages coming through, and this quickly becomes a habit which can be difficult to break.
‘Without them, you are a lot less likely to be distracted from what you are doing.’
19) Ditch online ‘friends’
The more virtual friends you accumulate on social media, the more posts you will receive and the worse your social media addiction will become.
Try reducing the number of contacts you have on networking sites, or slash the number of blogs that you follow.
There will be fewer notifications, and you will become less focused on your smartphone.
‘You should also delete unused apps, especially the game apps that can be very time-consuming,’ says Professor Griffiths.
‘And unsubscribe from any online groups that have few real benefits for you.’
20) Say you are on a detox
If you still need a New Year resolution, why not try a digital detox?
But here’s the important bit — tell everyone you know that you are doing it and give them licence to tick you off if they suspect you are spending too much time on social media.
‘By telling everyone you know that you will not be online for a few hours, they will be less likely to contact you in the first place and you will then be less likely to check for online messages,’ says Professor Griffiths.
A study published last month in Cyberpsychology, Behaviour And Social Networking found that those who quit using Instagram for just one week reported significantly higher levels of life satisfaction than those who carried on using it, especially women.
Here’s the important bit — tell everyone you know that you are doing it and give them licence to tick you off if they suspect you are spending too much time on social media [File photo]