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What Is Your Favourite Simple or Guilty Pleasure?

Some people call it their guilty pleasure whilst for others it’s a simple pleasure – or perhaps you’ve a penchant for both? If so, well done!

I’ve always been an advocate of celebrating the simple pleasures in life and how they can impact your brain health and there’s a science backed research paper to prove its positive benefits.

Using a unique real-time survey method, researchers from the University of Melbourne  have for the first time, found that experiencing more simple pleasures during the day is related to making better progress on personal goals. 

They also found that having a bad day full of annoyances derails people from their goals, but that the negative effect of such annoyances can be completely cancelled out if people experience a counter-balancing high number of simple pleasures.

The study’s lead author, Associate Professor Nicole Mead says the results have implications for life both at home and at workplace and with so many of us currently in WFH mode is really is crucial to take time out. 

Why are simple pleasures vital for goal progress? Modern day life, even without the stress of Covid-19, is full of struggles and challenges, which erode the very psychological resources we need to make progress on our goals. 

This study suggests that simple pleasures have the power to restore those feelings of positivity and happiness, giving you the energy and perspective you need to pursue the difficult but important things in life.

“Our results suggest that the real power of simple pleasures that make us feel good seems to come from when things aren’t going well. A simple pleasure seems to restore people’s psychological reserves to do well,” says Associate Professor Mead

Taking time to indulge in a simple pleasure like leafing throw a magazine, going window shopping or enjoying a take-away coffee in your local green space may actually help to fortify us psychologically to make progress on our goals. 

When it comes to TV my guilty pleasure is Modern Family (Cam makes me laugh every single time), First Dates or re-runs of Come Dine With Me. On the simple pleasure front it’s going for a walk on the beach, anything to do with new stationary, browsing bookshops and ordering a takeaway to enjoy with my family.

In fact the book I am currently reading is from The School of Life and its title is ‘Simple Pleasures’. It’s dedicated to the little things that can charm, enrapture or entertain us.

The mission of the book is to build a philosophy of appreciation that encourages us to explore more deeply and get more out of it – the many sources of happiness that are currently a bit neglected.

So please don’t be neglecting your happiness, it’s so important in these every changing times. 

Keep Well,

Dr Clara Russell

How binge drinking can affect your brain health

Binge-drinkers’ brains have to work harder to feel empathy for other people in pain, study shows

We know binge drinking is bad for our health but did you know it also impacts your brain health.

Are you a binge drinker? A new study from the University of Sussex  shows that people who are classed as binge-drinkers’ brains have to put more effort into trying to feel empathy for other people in pain.

What was the study? The study involved 71 participants (from France and the UK) whose brain activity was observed using fMRI scanners while undertaking a pain perception task.  Half of these people were classified as binge-drinkers and half were not. The binge-drinkers were sober whilst they were being observed.

What is binge drinking? Binge drinking is defined as consuming more than 60 g of pure alcohol — (equivalent to about three quarters of one bottle of wine, or 2½ pints of lager) on at least one occasion in the past 30 days. 

Binge-drinking has a specific definition – it isn’t going out for one big heavy session. About 30 per cent of all people over 15 years of age who drink alcohol in UK and France met the criteria for ‘binge-drinker’, study authors claim. According to the NHS  binge-drinking is drinking more than: 

• 8 units of alcohol in a single session for men 

• 6 units of alcohol in a single session for women 

How was this measured? In the task participants were shown an image of a limb being injured, and asked to imagine either that the body part was theirs, or that of another person, and to state how much pain was associated with the image. 

The findings: The binge-drinking participants struggled more than their non-binge-drinking counterparts when trying to adopt the perspective of another person experiencing the pain: they took more time to respond and the scans revealed that their brains had to work harder — to use more neural resources — to appreciate how intensely another person would feel pain.The study also revealed a more widespread dysfunction than previously realised; a visual area of the brain, which is involved in recognising body parts, showed unusually high levels of activation in the binge-drinkers. This was not true in the non-binge drinkers who looked at the same images.

When the binge-drinkers were asked to imagine the injured body part in the picture as their own, their pain estimate was not different from that of their non-binge drinking counterparts.

What the experts said: Professor Theodora Duka from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex said: “I have been studying the effects of drinking excessive alcohol for many years. In that time I have built up a strong body of evidence about the widespread way in which binge-drinking is associated with brain dysfunction in areas supporting self-control and attention. Our aim with the present study was to examine whether binge drinkers show less empathy and their brains show different responses to non-binge drinkers, when they imagine another person in pain. Reduced empathy in binge drinkers may facilitate drinking as it can blunt the perception of suffering of self or others during a drinking session. We have shown with this study that dysfunction associated with binge drinking is even more extensive than previously known. A region of the brain called the Fusiform Body Area associated with recognition of body parts showed hyperactivity in binge-drinkers in a situation in which feelings of empathy are experienced.

Dr Charlotte Rae from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex said: “Our results are quite surprising. Our data show that binge-drinkers need to work harder to feel empathy for other people in pain. They need to use more resources in terms of higher brain activity than non-binge drinkers. What this means in everyday life is that people who binge-drink might struggle to perceive the pain of others as easily as non-binge drinkers do. It’s not that binge drinkers feel less empathy — it’s just that they have to put more brain resource into being able to do so. However, under certain circumstances when resources become limited, binge drinkers may struggle to engage in an empathic response to others.”

If you’re worried about your drinking of if someone close to you may have a problem with alcohol visit the NHS website for advice and information.

Keep Well

Dr Clara Russell

Decision Time

We’re facing a lot of choices and things to consider amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Cut yourself slack: it’s called decision fatigue.

Is it safe to go for a cuppa and cake with your friend ? Can the kids have a play date? What to say if a friend refuses to wear a mask? Are the schools safe? Should we be taking chances eating in a restaurant?

Should I be going out for a drink in a bar? Is public transport safe?  What if there are no gloves at the petrol station? When my boss asks me to come back to the office, should I?

I’m sure at some point or another we are lying awake at night racking our brain for the answers to all of the questions which continue to arise and preparing for another day of unprecedented choices. 

Decision fatigue is the term for what you might be experiencing and this coined by American social psychologist Roy Baumeister.

Decision fatigue is specifically defined:  decision fatigue is the emotional and mental strain resulting from a burden of choices.

When humans are overstressed, we can become hasty, irritable or shut down, and that stress plays a huge role in our behaviours, including our decision making.

“It’s a state of low willpower that results from having invested effort into making choices,” said Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University who coined the term in 2010. “It leads to putting less effort into making further choices, so either choices are avoided or they are made in a very superficial way.” 

You can view some of the professor’s lectures on this subject here.

The human brain has a limited capacity of energy, and as you make decisions throughout the day, you deplete that resource. As you become fatigued, you may be inclined to avoid additional decisions, stick to the status quo or base a decision on a single criteria, Baumeister said. 

When we’re able to maintain daily routines, the brain can automate decisions and rely on mental shortcuts to avoid fatigue, but Covid has disrupted many of our routines, forcing us to allocate more mental energy to decision-making. Researchers  have found that people making decisions in high pressured scenarios or when making moral and ethical decisions, are also prone to buckle under decision fatigue.

Tips for avoiding decision fatigue

There are some simple strategies for avoiding decision fatigue:

  • First of all, try to be mindful and concentrate on exactly what you’re doing in that moment
  • When shopping, limit the number of stores you visit
  • Keep a mask in your bag, in your car and by your front door
  • Be prepared as much as you can – this applies to pretty much everything – fuel in your car, money in your wallet, an umbrella in your bag, etc
  • Focus on timing your decisions and developing routines to cut out unnecessary choices, this might include meal plans for the week and sticking to a routine for sleep and exercise
  • Willpower diminishes and decision fatigue increases over the course of the day, so when you have important decisions to make, try to make them in the morning after a full night’s sleep and a good breakfast
  • Plan out tomorrow’s schedule the day before
  • Lay out your clothes in the evening, or – like Steve Jobs – develop a uniform
  • Pack your bag for school or work or exercising the night before
  • Prioritise your decisions, and try to focus on one at a time
  • Stick to apps or websites you know, trust and love

Keep Well, Dr Clara Russell

7 everyday ways your may be sabotaging your brain health

Too Little Sleep

Sleep deprivation can have a huge effect on how your brain functions throughout the day.

One study, for example, limited the sleep of test subjects to 4.5 hours a night and the result was that these people experienced significantly more stress, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion.

Not exactly the best things for a well-running brain. Lack of focus and forgetting things like your face mask, car keys or phone can also be an effect of prolonged sleep deprivation.

Too Busy

It’s important to take time out do do nothing or relax or do whatever helps you unwind.

Whether it’s reading, walking, cooking, watching Come Dine With Me or exercising, make sure you have a sure fire way to switch off from work, the news and your responsibilities.

Too much busyness is unhealthy, in so many ways. Try to mindfully switch off from being busy in your brain and your body.

Too Little Stimulation

Much like your body needs exercise to stay in shape, your brain needs to be exercised as well. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Research suggests that the more you think, learn, and engage in mentally stimulating activities, the better your cognitive abilities get. 

Mentally stimulating activities also decreases the risk of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Too Much Sugar and Food

High-sugar diets can result in dental issues, diabetes, acne, weight gain and some evidence even suggests it promotes the growth of cancer .

Sugar can also cripple the function of your brain and research has also found that a high sugar diet can negatively affect your memory and ability to learn new things.

Overeating, especially unhealthy foods, is another factor that can negatively affect your brain and body. Studies show that an obese person’s brain ages faster compared to that of a person who is more lean.

Too Much Doomscrolling

Spending extended time periods on social media, checking the news and generally being in a vortex of reading the news is not good for your mood or your brain health.

This type of activity can upsets your cortisol levels and keep you awake at night. Try to get off devices at least an hour before you start your wind down routine before bed.

Too Much Alcohol

Moderation is the key here. Too much alcohol can damage your gut health, liver, and impair the function of your brain.

Researchers have found that heavy or chronic drinkers have a smaller brain, diminished memory, an inability to think abstractly and reduced ability to focus.

If you think you have a problem with alcohol, please contact your GP.

Too Much Stress

Too much of this and if reaches extreme levels, stress can cause significant harm to your health, weaken your immune system, cause insomnia, depression, and even increase the risk of heart disease.

Chronic stress can damage or kill off brain cells, this is because stress causes a surplus of the neurotransmitter called glutamate, which creates free radicals in the brain.

These free radicals can cause damage to healthy brain cells. Make sure you have stress busting skills you can turn to when you need to.

Keep well, Dr Clara Russell

Gut Health and How It Impacts Brain Health, General Wellbeing and Weight Loss

A quick Q + A on why gut health is so incredibly important, not just for our brain health but also general wellbeing.


How Does Gut Health Affect Brain Health?
The gut-brain connection goes both ways as a troubled digestive system also sends signals to the brain. So for example, distress in a person’s digestive system can lead to stress, depression, or anxiety.


How Does Gut Health Affect Mental Health?

The gastrointestinal tract can be fairly sensitive to our emotions, so feelings like anxiety, anger, excitement, and sadness can all trigger symptoms in our digestive tract.
The brain can also directly affect our intestines and our stomach, even just thinking about eating can make the brain release stomach juices before we take in food.

Can Your Gut Affect Your Mood?
Absolutely, this is because the gut and the brain interact very closely, which is why we can feel quite sick when we’re nervous, or we feel intestinal pain when we’re stressed.Our moods and emotions can combine with physical factors to cause digestive pain and other bowel symptoms. Psychological stressors can also influence the symptoms and the actual physiology of the gut.

What Does Your Skin Tell You About Your Gut Health?
Digestive problems and indigestion can affect the way your body retains the nutrients in your diet which in turn can affect our skin.Poor gut health leads to poor absorption of antioxidants, minerals, and the vitamins we need to keep skin healthy and this issue might also potentially worsen any existing skin conditions.

Can Your Gut Bacteria Help You Lose Weight?

Gut bacteria can affect your weight by influencing how your body digests different types of food and certain species of digestive bacteria can digest dietary fibres, which can also support weight loss.
A healthy gut microbiome can digest flavonoids, antioxidants found in plants, which can help prevent weight gain. It may also influence how the intestines absorb and store dietary fats.

How Does Gut Health Affect the Immune System?

A healthy gut microbiome keeps bad bacteria from outnumbering and overpowering the good bacteria in our system. It also stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies that prevent intestinal inflammation caused by bad bacteria, fungi and viruses.

This really exciting area is being updated all the time-there is still SO much we are learning about gut health, the microbiome and its role in general health and and our brain health.

Keep Well

Dr Clara Russell

Feeling a bit blah?

Anyone else feeling a bit blah, meh or feeling their ‘get up and go’ has ‘got up and gone’?


I write this as I too, as well as a friend I spoke with just the other day, are both feeling all of the above.
These feelings can manifest in a number of ways.
It may be the time of year with the seasons changing, the wet weather or worry as we navigate Covid, the uncertainty it brings.
It could be taking longer than you anticipated to adopt new regimes when it comes to working, education and day to day living. Or it could just be for any reason.


These feelings can manifest themselves in a number of ways:
– what is the point
– wondering what the world is coming to
– finding a million ways to procrastinate and avoid doing the job or task you should be doing
– not wanting to get off the couch
– wanting to eat copious amounts of food, the more unhealthy the better- drinking wine as a consolation reward
– not feeling inspired. At all.
– beating yourself up about not feeling like doing anything that day or the day before or the day tomorrow
– not really seeing the point (you know there is a point but right now you just can’t be bothered!) 
– wanting to stay in bed
– feeling guilty for feeling ‘blah’
– unsure whether to just indulge in the ‘blah’ or fight it
Everyone has these days but these feelings can be especially heightened right now if you’ve been made redundant, are unwell, lost your business, are furloughed and worried about job security or your health.


It’s also a very difficult and unstable time if you’re self employed, freelance or a business owner and your livelihood depends on you not feeling very ‘blah’.
Here are some steps to tackle the ‘blah’ factor. If however you are worried about your own mental health or of that of a family member, please speak with your GP.
There are also a number of mental health charities and services online you can check out, the NHS has a full list here.


Acceptance  It’s ok to not be ok and we all have those days. Accept it and sit with it, don’t fight it. You won’t win.


Distraction 
Do something, anything, but don’t go on social media as this may make you prone to fo the comparison thing which is never good but especially when you don’t feel like you’re firing on all cylinders. Trust me, I’m a Doctor.

Inspiration
Watch Gone With The Wind or another worldly movie, take a virtual tour – visit these amazing museums from around the world from the comfort of your own home or listen to an educational and inspiring podcast. Shake it up a bit when it comes to media and what you tend to watch or read.


Exercise
A 20 min walk works wonders for your mood. Even though the weather of late has been distinctly un-summery if you can get out, you will feel the benefits.Though do make sure you’re wearing adequate clothing. Nothing adds more to the ‘blah’ vibe than getting soaked to the skin in the wind and rain.

Phone A Friend
Texts and WhatsApp messages are all well and good but somethings need to be said and also heating someone else’s voice can lift our mood. Don’t be hiding away, phone a friend if you can, even a quick 5mins can lift your mood and theirs. So win, win. 


Manage Pressure

Do you have to do all the things you think you have to do, today? Will doing it today rather than tomorrow have a negative or positive impact on the outcomes? When feeling ‘blah’ I only concentrate on exactly what needs to be done, so prioritise because your health and wellbeing is SUPER important.


Think Like Scarlett O’Hara
Have faith that all will be well and remember that famous line from that wonderful movie, Gone With The Wind “After all, tomorrow is another day!” 

Keep Well, Dr Clara Russell

New habits, new neural pathways

New habits, new neural pathways – 8 hobbies great for your brain health


Research from Harvard Medical School and neurologists tell us that learning a new skill has a variety of effects on the physical structures of the brain itself. 
New information introduced to our mind connects new neural pathways, which makes our thinking more agile and more efficient and crucially, maintains good brain health.
It also makes our brain matter denser, speeding up our thinking even more and this has even been shown to help the elderly avoid the effects of dementia and slow our cognitive ageing. 


With this in mind, here are some new skills you can learn from the comfort of your home.


Join an Online Choir Music charity Nordoff Robbins invites you to sing together from the comfort of your own home using video platform Zoom. Find out more here.


Learn a new language Whether it’s just a few conversational basics or if you want to learn in-depth, apps like Babbel and Duo Lingo mean you can learn some new lingo. You could try Polish to Danish, Norwegian to Turkish and a few more besides.


Cook up a storm Google celebrity chefs on You Tube or look up your favourite chef on Instagram or Facebook and you’ll find chefs sharing their best how-to recipes for simple suppers or midweek meals. One of our favourites is Tom Kerridge on Facebook.


Embrace Mindfulness The Headspace or Calm apps on Google play come highly recommended. This online course from Be Mindful is also excellent. 


Learn Flamenco If dancing floats your boat and you’d like to learn, this website has lots of videos, tips and blog and lessons online.


Learn CalligraphyExplore your creativity and learn a new art form. Skillshare has lots of courses on creativity.


Make a Macaron or two There are lots of online forums dedicated to these French custardy little cakes. Apparently they’re quick tricky to make though this website makes it look quite easy!

Get into Quilting If you’ve ever fancied learning how to do this, you can do it on this website which is dedicated to Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit.

Keep Well

Dr Clara Russell

Can A Nap Boost Your Brain Health?

Yes! Research has shown that catching a few Zzzzz during the day can be good for your brain.

A number of famous names are notable for their love of napping.

Sir Winston Churchill managed on just four hours sleep a night during World War Two — but insisted on a two hour nap in the afternoon.

Albert Einstein reportedly slept for 10 hours a night, plus daytime naps.

The Kardashians also manage to nap with their young family, though that might have been pre-Kanye’s erratic behaviour in the media.

There’s also scientific from Harvard Medical School supporting the belief that having a nap can give our brains some much needed downtime.

When Greece started phasing out its siesta in the 1990s, and keeping stores open longer during the day, researchers from Harvard University’s School of Public Health attempted to quantify the impacts of this cultural change. Though none of the participants had a history of heart disease or stroke when the study began, by the end of the six-year period, those who had stopped taking their regular siesta suffered a 37% increased risk of death from heart disease compared to those who didn’t.

A growing number of businesses are recognising what research has long conveyed: daytime napping may come with big advantages — both psychological and professional.

In recent years in the US, Google, Uber, Nike NASA and Zappos all offer some form of napping benefits.

Napping Types

Planned napping (also called preparatory napping) involves taking a nap before you actually get sleepy. 

You may use this technique when you know that you will be up later than your normal bed time or as a mechanism to ward off getting tired earlier.

Emergency napping occurs when you are suddenly very tired and cannot continue with the activity you were originally engaged in. 

This type of nap can be used to combat drowsy driving or fatigue while using heavy and dangerous machinery.

Habitual napping is practiced when a person takes a nap at the same time each day. 

Young children may fall into the land of nod  about the same time each afternoon or an adult might take a short siesta after lunch each day.

Benefits

A little nap can help restore energy, alertness, enhance performance, and reduce mistakes and accidents. 

A study at NASA on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness 100%.

Naps can increase alertness in the period directly following the nap and may extend alertness a few hours later in the day.

Napping has psychological benefits – a nap can be a little luxury, a break from the routine and it can provide an easy way to get some relaxation and help you feel rejuvenated.

Timing is Key

One of the keys to “power napping”, or “cat napping”  or  taking a “disco nap” is to keep them short. If you benefit from napping there is almost no length of nap that is too short. However, an extended nap can leave you feeling groggy and ‘jetlagged’ as well as possibly upsetting your night time sleep.

Many experts say 10 to 20 minutes is the ideal duration to bolster energy and heighten alertness. Setting an alarm for this length of time is recommended to get the best benefit from your daytime downtime.

Another idea is using the Calm App which has specially selected Nap settings to help you gently fall asleep and stir from slumber naturally.https://www.calm.com/breathe

Keep Well,

Dr Clara Russell

Podcasts to boost Brain Power

Downtime and taking a break is so important as we continue to navigate the challenges around day to day living as we adapt to the new normal.

Many of us are suffering from stress and anxiety and you can check out my tips on how to de-stress here.

Whether it’s reading a book, cooking, swimming or gardening, time to switch off is an absolute must.

Taking a break has also been found to increase productivity and creativity.

Here are some recommendations from Team Noggin on some stimulating and relaxing podcasts.

The Travel Diaries

Since travelling abroad could potentially be stressful right now due to Covid, why not plug into some escapism via The Travel Diaries podcast.

Host Holly Rubenstein interviews a plethora of people including Rick Stein, Jo Malone, Sir Michael Palin, Nadiya Hussain and Tom Kerridge about their travel experiences.

Postcards From Midlife

Editing powerhouses Lorraine Candy and Trish Halpin have been working in magazine publishing for 20 years and are long term friends. 

Their conversations cover everything from handling mansplainers, the menopause and managing a mid-life crisis, parenting kids and providing care to elderly parents. 

If you’re of a certain age you will relate.

Revisionist History

New York Times best-selling author and public speaker Malcolm Gladwell talks with Virginia Heffernan about notorious and intriguing

events from the past and re-examones them. This is an intelligent and educational series, over10 episodes.

Feel Better, Live More

Dr Ranjan Chatterjee speaks to fellow experts about topics like mental health, relationships, sleep, productivity, meditation, mindfulness and more. 

Stuff You Should Know

Perfect fodder for pub/ zoom chat or to keep up your sleeve for when we can all socialise more freely. 

If you’ve ever wondered how miniature golf works, or the story of champagne, LSD, El Nino and Rosa Parks, then you’ve come to the right place.

Keep Well

Dr Clara Russell

Why getting Creative is good for your Brain Health

Creativity Boosts Brain Health

When it comes to boosting your brain health, one of the easiest ways of doing this is by getting creative. This needn’t be design led work or immersing yourself in meditation, it can be as simple as drawing, crocheting, playing music or cooking.

Creativity – in whatever form –  is powerful, it goes beyond just making you happy and connected to a new experience, it’s also great for brain health, today and for tomorrow. Writing helps people manage their negative emotions in a productive way, and painting or drawing helps people express trauma or experiences that they find too difficult to put in to words. A number of studies have shown positive results.

It’s also an effective treatment for patients with dementia and creativity reduces anxiety, depression and stress. Studies have shown that creative engagement can reduce depression and isolation and can also help people with dementia to tap back in to their personalities and sharpen their senses.

For the music lovers amongst us, did you know that studies show that people who play instruments have better connectivity between their left and right brains? The left brain is responsible for our motor functions, while the right brain focuses on melodies. And when the two hemispheres of your brain communicate with each other, your cognitive function improves.

The average person has about 60,000 thoughts in a day and a simple creative act like gardening or cooking can help focus the mind and keep us centred.It has even been compared to meditation due to its calming effects on the brain and body. Getting creative releases dopamine which is as we know, is a natural anti-depressant.

We’ve been reading a new book by author Susie Pearl. In ’The Art of Creativity’ Susie shares insight into how to boost your creativity. A small and mighty read, there are tips on boosting your brain wave states and tips, tools and life hacks to help boost your creativity. You’ll begin to find that creativity is at the heart of all that we do – whether you recognise it or not. Everything starts with an idea, whether you’re launching a new product, decorating your bathroom or planning a little holiday, it all begins with our thoughts.

Grab a pencil and start writing or sketching, get your green fingers on in your garden or with a window box, book tickets to that art exhibition or plan that weekend break.

Listen to some music, learn a new cooking skill or pick up an instrument. Whatever you decide to do, it’s time to start getting creative.

Keep Well

Dr Clara Russell