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4 reasons having a pet is good for your brain health

4 reasons having a pet is good for your brain 

Pets are good for your health. A 12 year study looking at nearly 3.5 million people  showed that owning a dog was related to a lower risk for heart disease, stroke and heart attack.

Why do pets ( dogs particularly from this study) help our brain health?

Exercise- Having to walk your dog encourages regular physical activity. This is important for blood flow to our brains, reducing blood pressure and helping with stress and sleep. A study of more than 2000 adults showed that people who walked their dogs regularly were more likely to be more physical activity and less likely to be obese. 

Helping with stress- who can resist those puppy eyes? Petting a dog can lower blood pressure and increase level of feel good brain chemicals (neuro- transmitters) dopamine and serotonin. This helps with feelings of calm and helps us feel happy and relaxed. 

Having company- social relationships and networks are a key part of helping your brain and are one of our Noggin building blocks to better brain health. Having a dog has been shown to help with depression – the feeling of connection with your pet is key, as well as an increased social interaction that happens when you are out walking your dog or taking them to the park 

Gut health- having a dog also means you are more likely to be spending time outside as well as cleaning up after then and washing their fur. This can increase our exposure to different types of bacteria and other bugs that are helpful for supporting our immune system. It’s great for kids too – even as a baby exposure to a pet can help with our natural gut bacteria which is important for overall health.

https://www.nhs.uk/news/medication/growing-up-with-a-pet-may-boost-a-babys-bacterial-health/

Dr Clara Russell 

Does regular exercise help us improve our eating habits?

Eat better, manage stress, exercise, spend time outside, less time on screens- there are so many small changes we can make to help us feel better and look after our brains.

But what happens when we have lots of options and things we could do? Sometimes we feel even more overwhelmed and as a result, do nothing. So it’s key to think about a starting point, find something that suits you and most importantly, that you are going to enjoy.

Research published recently fond that the best starting point may be exercise- for more reasons that your think. What they discovered  was that those who started a regular  exercise programme also went on to make changes in their diet as a matter of choice rather than seeing at as ‘ a diet to follow’. 

So what do they actually do? 

Researchers looked at 2500 college students in the US who didn’t follow any particular diet ( like many of us!)  and did little exercise ( less than 30 minutes per week)

The volunteers followed a 15 week cardio exercise plan for 30-60 minutes, 3 times a week (a big increase from less than 30 minutes right!) They also had to complete questions about their diet before and after the 15 week study time . They were told NOT to change their eating habits, yes that’s right- eat what you always have. 

The results? 2000 students stuck with the exercise plan – which is great in itself. But the follow up diet questionnaires showed that many of the students started eating ‘better’ without being told to during the period of regular exercise. What do they mean by eating ‘better’? More fruit, more veg and more fish or lean meat, LESS fried food, snacks and fizzy drinks. 

Exercising for longer and / or at higher intensity showed a change in preference for foods by the participants. 

Why? There are no clear answers to this- there is the point that if your start to show signs of weight loss that you are more likely to do what you can to maintain this. However they also believe that exercise in this way can change brain function and alter the way our brain cells work together to stimulate the desire to eat more healthily. 

Another example of our amazing brains in action!

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41366-018-0299-3

 Dr Clara Russell 

Can you dance away the years?

Can being active really make a difference in later life to the health of your brain? How much of a difference and HOW active do your really need to be to see the benefits?

Latest, hot off the press research, helps us with a few more answers to these questions.

First things first- Yes being active at any age is vital for the health of our brains, including our mental health. 

A new piece of research puts the benefits of exercise in perspective. The researchers looked at over 1500 people with an average age of 75. Brain scans were used as a measuring tool as well as tests for memory and thinking. The images from the scans were used to look at brain size and the amounts of brain tissue known as white and grey matter.

Participants were divided into groups depending on levels of activity ( somewhat active, most active, inactive)

What they found was that the brain scans of those who were most active showed impressive results. The adults who had been in the highest activity group had an improvement in the volume of their brain compared to the brains of those in the inactive group- this was equivalent of slowing brain ageing by approximately 4 years according to researchers. 

Why is that important ? Our brain shrinks as a natural consequence of ageing, usually around the age of 60- 70 years. This can have an effect on our brains and many aspects of how they function.  Anything we can do to slow down the shrinkage of our brains and therefore maintain the health of our brain is important

(In case you were wondering:

Somewhat active- roughly 2.5 hours of low intensity physical activity, one and a half hours of moderate physical activity to one hour of high intensity physical activity

Most active- 7 hours of low intensity physical activity, 4 hours of moderate physical activity or 2 hours of high intensity physical activity)

Dr Clara Russell 

https://neurosciencenews.com/exercise-brain-aging-15868/

10 things to try for a better nights sleep

My top ten tips for a better nights sleep. 

I ask all my patients about sleep. It’s so important for general health and well being

Taking into account research and my own experience here are my top 10 tips for a better nights sleep

  1. Keep your bedroom, duvet and night wear cool. Overheating affects quality of sleep and ability to fall asleep. I’m a fan of the white company catalogue & dream of the perfect bedroom but sometimes flannel and a matching bed throw are not your friend. 
  2. Wear a sleep mask- essential. This is especially if you sleep with someone who comes to bed after you
  3. Keep a note book by your bed for any last minute thoughts before you put the light off. If you wake thinking of something, write it down
  4. Don’t keep your phone beside your bed – it’s too easy to scroll and flick onto amazon, the weather or even worse twitter
  5. Set a proper alarm for waking up- not your phone, see above
  6. Eat in the early part of your evening ideally 6-7pm, when you eat late expect that your digestion will still be working later and this will affect how well you sleep.
  7. Keep a glass of water by the bed but don’t drink too much before you put light out or you will end up like my 6year-old who I can hear running for a wee at 5am. And no one likes that getting up that early (unless you absolutely have to!)
  8. Find your pre-bed activity. Whether it’s a bath, reading, or watching reality TV, find what works for you and make it part of your routine. Remember too much TV at bedtime can postpone sleep so put the remote out of hands reach.
  9. If you are tired in the day and you have the ability to- have a nap- just make sure you set your alarm and relax into a 20-30 minute sleep. Too long and you feel worse than you did when you fall asleep
  10. If you have broken or poor sleep over a number of nights, take stock and think about what might be the cause. Stress? That mid-afternoon latte? An unresolved dilemma? Once you’ve have the ideas then you can work on the solution and that in itself can help you sleep better even if the problem isn’t an easily fixed one.

Dr Clara Russell

Tai Chi for Two?

Exercise is about more than just movement regardless of age 

Having medical problems, being on medication, a lack of access to facilities or a lack of interest in exercise can all have an impact on people’s ability to exercise in later life.

Living with a diagnosis of dementia can bring further challenges with regards to exercise and being physically active. But the good news is that exercise takes many forms and some research into the exercise Tai Chi showed the benefits for patients with dementia went further than just getting active

People with a diagnosis of dementia have double the risk of having a fall and then are increasingly likely to sustain an injury from having that fall. So looking at ways to minimise falls risk is a constant challenge for carers and those with dementia or similar conditions

A study based in Bournemouth looked at a group of patients with dementia who were enrolled in a Tai Chi exercise programme for 6 months and compared outcomes of both quality of life and balance with a similar group who were not taking part in Tai Chi.

They found confidently that the quality of life measurements were better in the group who had participated in Tai Chi compared to those that hadn’t. 

Why? “ Those who did Tai Chi really enjoyed the classes and meeting up with others who have dementia and their family carers” 

Whilst the numbers in a small study didn’t show as clearly the benefit for balance and a reduction in falls, the social benefits were clear. 

A larger study is expected to focus on the physical benefits of Tai Chi further, specifically falls risk in those withe Dementia 

Exercise is about more than just movement – Having a sense of purpose and a supportive social network are 2 further building blocks of brain health that are key to supporting our noggins and the noggins of those we care about most  

Dr Clara Russell 

“Randomised Controlled Trial Of The Effect Of Tai Chi On Postural Balance Of People With Dementia”. Samuel Nyman et al.

Why looking after your heart in your 20’s helps your brain as you get older

Healthy Heart Happy Brain?

Researchers have confirmed over recent years that looking after our heart health is important for our brain health. Avoiding high blood pressure, exercising and reducing stress are all factors that are important to reduce the risks of heart disease and it seems helps our brains too.

But this week we saw some emerging research on this that suggests we are never too young to start looking after our brains

A study looking at 189 people with the average age of 24 were followed for 30 years as part of a large research project 

What they found that those people studied with better measurements for heart health at the beginning of the study ( such as non smokers, having a healthy weight and blood pressure ) were more likely to have better results on their tests of memory and thinking skills 30 years on. 

This is a starting point for yet more research but what it does suggest that what we do and how we live in our younger years may make a difference to our brain health in later years. 

Small changes do make a difference to how we feel and the health of our brains. And it seems the earlier we start making these small changes the more we we may benefit in later life. 

What are some of the things that matter for heart and brain health- even in our 20’s? 

Keeping active, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and finding ways to manage our stress- small changes really do make a difference to how we feel and our brain health, at any and every age. 

https://home.bt.com/news/science-news/heart-problems-in-your-20s-may-affect-brain-health-decades-later-11364433719196

Dr Clara Russell 

Can just 2 minutes of fast walking help your brain?

Walk faster for a healthier brain. 

Movement and exercise are 2 of our key building blocks to Brain Health at Noggin the Brain People. Keeping active is an essential part of looking after our brains and studies have shown time and time again how exercise can help reduce our risk of heart disease and dementia. But how much exercise? And what type do we need to be doing to get the most benefits? 

We were really excited to read a study this week that looked at 1200 healthy volunteers and the effect that 2 minutes ( Yes JUST TWO MINUTES) of walking had on their brains. Those taking part were asked to walk as quickly as they could for this short amount of time 

The participants had MRI scans done, as well as tests looking at memory and thinking exercises before and after this short burst of exercise

The researchers studied the results of these scans and memory and thinking tests ( called cognition tests) and were surprised with the results. 

What they found was this: people who had walked further in the 2 minutes had better scores on their memory, judgement and mental sharpness tasks AND a change in the appearance of their brains on scanning after this burst of exercise.

Why? “Fit people have better blood circulation and a better regulated immune system, leading to less inflammation in the brain” the researchers reported. 

The conclusion? “A basic level of fitness seems to be a preventable risk for brain health”

Small changes make a difference to how we feel and how we look after our brains.

5 reasons why its good to look after your gut


We’re learning more about how important it is to look after our gut. More than just feeling the odd tummy pain, or a bit bloated, this long tube that winds from our mouth all the way though our bodies is more than just about what happens when the food goes in and the food comes out. Here’s why;

  1. 70% of our immune system is in our gut. It has been referred to our 2nd brain. That means when we feel stressed, emotional, angry or tired our gut is involved, even if we don’t notice any specific symptoms there.
  2. Infections or being run down may also impact our gut function even if we aren’t really aware of any changes. We are all familiar with what havoc a tummy bug can cause, but just because we aren’t having horrible diarrhoea or vomiting doesn’t mean that being laid low with a viral illness doesn’t have an affect on how our gut functions. When you are feeling better from your sore throat or cough it often takes the gut longer to restore itself too so this can be part of the reason we pick up other bugs so quickly when we are just getting over the first one 
  3. Microbiome- our gut contains more bacteria and virus cells than it does human ones. These types of bugs are usually helpful for our gut but can be affected by illnesses or things like taking antibiotics. Needless to say we want to support the good guys (bacteria) as much as possible.
  4. Eating lots of different colours of vegetables, drinking more water, avoiding drinks with artificial sweeteners, increasing the amount of fibre you eat are day to day ways to help the healthy bacteria in our gut as well as it several function. 

Dr Clara Russell co-founder, Noggin The Brain People  

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41392-019-0074-5#Abs1
https://www.immunology.org/public-information/bitesized-immunology/organs-and-tissues/immunity-in-the-gut
https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179
https://time.com/5556071/gut-health-diet/

What happens when you close your eyes at night?


I always used to judge how well I’d slept initially by how well I remembered my dreams and what type of dream it was. It seems that dreams are only one part of a four stage puzzle. 

This is how it happens 

  1. Nodding off. Closing your eyes and falling into a light sleep is known as stage 1 – this is the stage when you are not really sure if you are awake or asleep, you can be easily woken by noises or a bright light– If someone wakes from this stage they will often claim they weren’t asleep at all 
  2. Memory Storer Phase 2. This is when your brain starts to properly slow down but you are still not in a deep sleep and can be awoken relatively easily. If you have a daytime nap (more on that later) you tend enter this phase of sleep. This is the stage where we consolidate memories and accounts for 40-60% of the time we are asleep
  3. Out for the Count -Phase 3 is deep sleep- people do not wake easily from this stage. This is the restorative phase of sleep and although is shorter in duration of overall sleep time, it is really important for our immune system and also for the release of human growth hormone. 
  4. Let the games begin- Phase 4 is REM sleep when the dreams occur. Waking before this is completed or mid REM can leave a strange feeling of tiredness on initial waking. This phase the stage we are all probably most familiar with- studies show we actually dream 4-5 times per night during REM sleep. Thankfully our muscles are in a stage of paralysis during this part of sleep to stop us being able to renact our dreams – phew!

These 4 phases are known as a sleep cycle with the first 3 phases making up what is called Non-REM sleep (non-rapid eye movement). Each cycle will take around 90-120 minutes and we will all go through 4-5 sleep cycles a night. The length of time it takes to move through stages can change with age and depending on what we have done during the day. For example, children and teens spend much longer in the 3rd stage of sleep than adults. 

Dr Clara Russell co-founder, Noggin The Brain People  

7 things I’ve learned about sleep and health


  1. Sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our overall health and sense of wellbeing. How well we sleep plays a role in how we feel on a day to day basis as well as having an impact on our immune system & our ability to fight simple illnesses and how we make choices especially in relation to our food choices (and it isn’t always positive).
  2. Sleep is directly linked to our risks of diseases that can affect us into old age. One of the most talked about of these is the risk of dementia as we get older and how this is increasing evidence to link with poor sleep patterns in middle age. 
  3. It’s never too late to make a difference – whilst sleep habits are exactly that, habits we have become used to over time can be changed – it just takes effort. 
  4. What we do during the day affects how we sleep at night. Somethings are obvious such as too many lattes & getting stressed out about something in the evening. Good sleep habits start from early on in the day – exposure to natural light, reducing exposure to blue light from screens as the day goes on and being active are all ways to help you get a good nights sleep.
  5. Our eyes may be closed but our brains are still working when we sleep – we are learning more about this but basically when we sleep our brain works it’s way through all the sleep stages (more on that later) while giving itself a good deep clean. important memories are also ‘filed away’ while we sleep.  
  6. It is almost impossible to have good mental health if your sleep pattern is poor. A major symptom of many mental illnesses is changes to sleep patterns.
  7. Whilst we all differ in how much actual sleep we need, ‘the I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ way of thinking is outdated.  The more we learn about this seemingly simple activity that we all take for granted the more it seems it’s a key part of a healthy and fulfilling life.

Dr Clara Russell co-founder, Noggin The Brain People