Chemo Brain

Most cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy reportedly complain of neurological side effects long after the therapy is over. The main effect on your brain after chemo is short-term loss of memory. In some extreme cases, seizures, dementia and vision loss have also been reported. Breast cancer survivors were the first to report ‘chemo brain’, also called chemo fog. The purported condition affected an individual’s concentration, memory, ability to multitask, along with several other declines in function.

 

Memory loss is one of many complaints for women who experience ‘chemo brain’

 

Some women with the problem reported they were not able to follow conversations like before and they got more easily confused and fatigued. Other ‘chemo brain’ symptoms and signs include mental fogginess, being unusually disorganized, difficulty learning new things, taking longer than normal to finish regular tasks, issues with verbal memory (unable to remember a conversation), and visual memory problems (difficult recalling a list or image of words).

Before research material relating to ‘chemo brain’ or the impact of chemotherapy on your brain after chemo surfaced, these side effects were usually dismissed as by-products of depression, anxiety, and fatigue relating to cancer-related diagnosis and treatment. Although the scientific community is increasingly acknowledging that primary chemotherapy agents could have a negative effect on neurological function in some cancer patients, the actual mechanisms underlying the dysfunction is yet to be clearly identified.

 

How Long Will ‘Chemo Brain’ Last?

Although research studies have established chemo fog as a real chemotherapy consequence, several questions remain to be answered. One among them being how long the condition lasts. Or, in other words, do patients experience cognitive impairments even after having completely recovered from the acute chemotherapy assault, after several months or years?

[Read More about how Chemo Brain can impact your quality of life.]

Pretty much all cancer survivors go through temporary memory loss and problems focusing during and right after treatment. While such cognitive impairment tends to wear off with time, some patients, especially those who were on high chemotherapy doses, start to feel these cognitive effects months or even years after the treatment concluded and the medicines exited their systems.

A study estimated that anywhere between 15 and 20 percent of the 2.4 million American breast cancer survivors (females) have lingering cognitive issues years post treatment. One more study exhibited 50 percent of females hadn’t recovered from their cognitive function issue even a year post treatment.

Some Chemotherapy Drugs Are The Culprit

A few common chemotherapy drugs used for treating an array of cancers were more injurious to healthy cells in the brain compared to the tumorous cells they were designed to treat. Several series of experiments were carried out to expose the hazardous drugs.

Fluorouracil (5-FU, FU) cancer chemotherapy drug molecule.

Fluorouracil (5-FU, FU) cancer chemotherapy drug, chemical structure. Atoms are represented as spheres with conventional color coding: hydrogen (white), carbon (grey), nitrogen (blue), oxygen (red), fluorine (gold).

5-FU belongs to a drug class called antimetabolites that hinder cell division. This drug has been used to treat cancer for more than four decades. The drug, which usually gets administered in combination with other drugs for chemotherapy, is used to treat ovarian, breast, colon, pancreatic, stomach, and other types of cancer.

The research study carried out discovered that specific cell populations – oligodendrocytes – within the central nervous system underwent significant damage several months after exposure. Oligodendrocytes produce myelin, a fatty substance that coats the nerve cells and facilitates signal transmission between cells efficiently and rapidly. The myelin membranes turn over constantly. But these membranes will not renew and break down eventually if there isn’t a healthy oligodendrocytes population. This disrupts the routine impulse transmission that happens between nerve cells.

These findings sync with the observations from studies that were carried out on cancer survivors having cognitive issues. Their brains’ MRI scans revealed a condition akin to leukoencephalopathy. This white matter loss, or demyelination, could relate to several neurological issues.

In some patients, it’s clear that chemotherapy triggers a degenerative state within the central nervous system. As these treatments would most likely stay the standard for several years to come, understanding their precise influence on the nervous system is critical, and later incorporate the knowledge to discover ways to prevent such side effects.

Not all patients undergoing chemotherapy for their condition experience such cognitive issues. Finding out why some are more vulnerable could significantly help develop fresh ways to mitigate these side effects.

[READ: Tips for Managing Chemo Brain…]

Future ‘Chemo Brain’ Treatments

Although it could be possible to make drugs to decrease chemotherapy’s cognitive effects, those drugs would usher in the possibility of extra chemical constituents interacting with the cancer treatment itself, leading to other uncalled-for effects or causing a hindrance to the treatment itself.

According to a study from 2011, it concluded that neurotherapy was effective in helping to reduce and possibly even reverse some of the brain impairment symptoms caused by chemotherapy. Patients that participated in the study showed very significant improvements.

Woman Wearing Brainwave Scanning Headset Sits in a Chair In the Modern Brain Study Laboratory/ Neurological Research Center. Monitors Show EEG Reading and Brain Model.

Neurotherapy shows some promise for relief, but more tests are needed.

Researchers are also more positive about natural interventions getting uncovered to ward off damages resulting from ‘chemo brain’. For that reason, researchers studied whether an omega-3 fatty acids-rich diet would help decrease chemotherapy’s cognitive impacts on mice. This intervention unfortunately didn’t yield any significant outcome.

Such a study is first to create an animal model that demonstrates chemotherapy’s long-term effects on the brain. Going forward, the research team is hopeful of the model being utilized to study other nutritional components and graph their bearing on ‘chemo brain’.

 

CBD Oil and the Effects on the Brain

As we get older we learn more about what our bodies need and how to heal our aching bones. Now many are turning to Cannabidoil, or CBD. It’s becoming so popular The New York Times even called it a “magical elixir, a cure-all now available in bath bombs, dog treats, and even pharmaceuticals.” And for those who have never tried and want to learn more, you’re not alone!

What is CBD oil?

There are many questions about CBD oil: What is CBD? What is THC? Is it legal? Is it the same as marijuana?

molecular structure of CBD

In a recent interview with Dr. Russell Zwanka, a Siena College Food Marketing Researcher and a published author on CBD oil, he broke down exactly what CBD is and what you need to know. According to Dr. Zwanka, inside the cannabis plant is more than a hundred of what are called “cannabinoids.” CBD is a one of the cannabinoids inside the plant with less than 0.3 percent THC. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is another cannabinoid inside the cannabis plant.

Both CBD and THC have effects on the body and especially the brain receptors associated with thinking, memory, pleasure, coordination, and time perception, but in very different ways. THC is a psychoactive substance and causes the “high” feeling whereas CBD is not a psychoactive cannabinoid.

What are the effects of CBD oil on your brain?

CBD has been known to provide relief for ailments such as inflammation, arthritis, help with sleep, bone growth, bone disease, seizures, anxiety, and certain types of cancer. With millions of these claims, it begs the question, what is it doing to our brains and our bodies?

According to Leafly, when a substance reaches the brain after hitting the bloodstream, it will “influence brain activity by interacting with receptors and neurons.”

Neaurons Comminicating with Neurotransmitters

When it reacts with a receptor such as dopamine, it can help the body produce more cannabinoids and regulate behavior and cognition. One of the main reasons CBD has gained notoriety is its ability to target the serotonin receptors, which can help with disorders involving pain, depression, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, schizophrenia, and more.

Dr. Zwanka says your body already naturally produces cannabinoids, but taking CBD can help to restore the body and brain to maintain “normalcy.”

On top of that, when CBD reacts with opioid receptors, it can immensely reduce drug cravings or withdraw symptoms, which can be an organic way to heal your body rather than prescribing opioids. But the question comes into play of whether or not this is approved by the FDA and “legal.” That answer depends on what form the CBD oil comes in.

What form does CBD oil come in?

CBD oil comes in a number of forms from tinctures to salve, capsules, gummies and vaping. When using a tincture, you put it under the tongue and avoid the digestive system so it’s a quick reaction, going straight into the bloodstream. Meanwhile CVS and Walgreens will offer a salve over the counter.

The form with the most controversy is CBD oil vaping. Dr. Zwanka says while there may be a stigma on pulling from a pen, the smoke form has an almost immediate effect that lasts longer. It’s one of the most controlled ways to take CBD oil.

Is CBD oil legal?

The answer is yes and no. Different forms of CBD oil are different in legality.

If it’s hemp derived, Dr. Zwanka says it is a federally legal product as long as it has 0.3. That remains true unless the state wants to enforce its own rules. Anything derived from the marijuana plant and has more than 0.3 THC, then has to follow the state CBD regulations.

According to the Federal Drug Administration, companies cannot claim CBD oil as a treatment for many ailments people say they use it for, but you can say it has shown “relief” for or helps with symptoms from these ailments. The FDA has not allowed sales of CBD infused foods at this time since they believe more research needs to be done. A hearing is expected to take place in May regarding these regulations.

How much CBD oil should you take and how often?

Most experts say it’s difficult to truly give a dosage. Each body and brain is different when it comes to chemical balances, sizes, and needs. As always, when it comes to taking a new substance to help your body, speak with your doctor or physician if you have any questions.

May National Stroke Awareness Month

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds about 795,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke every year. You have better odds of surviving if you get emergency treatment right away.

Ischemic strokes are caused when a blood clot blocks a vessel in the brain and stops blood flow. Doctors need to quickly restore that blood flow because your brain cells are dying. You can get a clot busting drug in the Emergency Room to reduce complications and improve survival odds. Researchers at Harvard Medical School say high blood pressure can quadruple your stroke risk. Try to relieve stress, lose weight and exercise to get it under control. Your heart health is also important. Atrial fibrillation can cause blood clots that travel to the brain.

May is National Stroke Awareness Month. For stroke signs, the CDC says remember the acronym, F.A.S.T. for face drooping, a numb or weak arm, slurred speech and time to call 911. Other symptoms can be trouble seeing, dizziness and sudden severe headache. So what happens to your brain during a stroke? White matter changes in the brain show up in 44 percent of stroke patients, which can lead to higher risk of death, another stroke, brain bleed, heart attack or dementia. White matter is a pathway that connects one region of the brain to another. Research in the National Institutes of Health has shown as long as neuron cell bodies stay healthy, axons can regrow and slowly repair themselves, restoring neural networks. Neurofeedback has been utilized in studies as a form of cognitive rehabilitation therapy with patients following a stroke.

In fact, a five-year UCLA study tested animals and found their brains can be repaired and brain function recovered after a stroke. Researchers found the brain sent replacement cells to the damaged site but then the process stalled. They identified a molecular receptor believed responsible for stalling the repair. When they blocked that receptor, the animals began to recover from the stroke. According to Dr. Thomas Carmichael, this finding could lead to new therapies to prevent more brain damage and improve recovery from a white matter stroke, which is a major factor in dementia. Damage happens in tiny blood vessels deep in the brain, where they’re blocked and oxygen can’t get through. They can go unseen with damage increasing over time.

Doctors say diet and how often you eat affects brain cell regeneration. A sedentary lifestyle can add to brain blood flow problems. If you’re sitting at your desk all day without the right posture, it can restrict blood flow to the brain. Even coffee and caffeine can further decrease blood flow.

Many stroke patients have long-term neurological problems and trouble with speech, confusion, visual field loss and balance. Recovery is like a roller coaster. They can experience a wide range of emotions and may need psychological counseling. They can be triggered, talking to friends and family, who remind them of their life before, when they felt normal. They may also cry easily. Stroke victims can have brain fog as the day progresses, and by night, they can’t carry on conversations or do tasks.

Writing and reading can also be difficult. Some stroke patients describe it feeling like they’re blocked, struggling to remember words and make their point. They may have to read the same sentence over and over to comprehend it. Speech therapy is crucial along with physical therapy to gain more muscle control. Occupational therapy can help with daily tasks like getting dressed and cooking. A stroke victim may wonder will it ever get better? It will. It just might be a long road to recovery.

A Fox News Radio contributor, Richardson has spent her educational and professional career learning human behavior. She holds a Master of Science in Counseling from the University of North Texas and is working to integrate cognitive behavioral therapy into the treatment programs for many clients. In April 2009, Richardson opened The Brain Performance Center.

The Brain Heart Connection

When you think about your brain, you probably think of it as a command center, having control over all functions of the body. During embryo development, the heart starts forming on day 18, while the brain starts forming on day 30. After that, the brain and heart work together for the duration of a lifetime.

We all know that eating a healthy diet and exercising contribute to our heart health. In turn, those health benefits are passed along to the brain too. Keeping your heart and brain in sync comes down to managing cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure and maintaining a healthy weight. Your brain signals your heart to pump oxygenated blood to your heart. In response, the heart delivers the blood to your body.

However, your heart is not just a muscle pumping blood, it truly has a mind of its own. Your heart contains more than 40,000 neurons and neurotransmitters. This is literally an extension of the same network that’s inside your brain. Your heart is responsible for producing Atrial Natriuretic Peptide (ANP), a hormone that triggers the brain to release Oxytocin. Experts have referred to this hormone as the “love” hormone because it triggers feelings of empathy, trust and relationship-building according to Medical News Today.

Love and compassion are complex emotions. They require your heart and brain to work together. Seeing a lost and emotional child in a crowded store would probably pull on your heartstrings. You might feel a tightening in your chest or a rush of adrenaline to want to help. This is your brain and your heart working together — sympathetically and parasympathetically. When your heart receives signals from the brain via the sympathetic nerves, it pumps faster. The sympathetic nerves cause you to rush to the child to protect them, and try to help find their parents. The parasympathetic nerves will encourage you to take deep breaths, to calm down and lower your heart rate.

Often times this adrenaline can be a good thing, helping you to act when you might have otherwise frozen. But sometimes, adrenaline can cause those nerves to stand on edge. Sometimes, the brain-heart connection and bundle of nerves can get so out of hand that they can cause panic attacks or people can feel like they’re having a heart attack. One way to keep your emotions in check is to focus on your breathing.

Deep breathing is an excellent coping skill for anxiety. Everyone’s optimum breath rate is between four to seven breaths a minute. When we are talking, we are taking 12 to 14 breaths a minute while trying to spit it all out. Shallow breathing means you’re not getting the oxygen pushed all the way down into the diaphragm. It stays in your chest. Trying to be mindful of your emotions and your breathing will help lower your heart rate. When you slow your heart rate down, it creates what’s called, your Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

Monitoring your HRV can be an excellent tool for tracking and accountability. It will make you more aware of your diet, exercise, sleeping and other behaviors that affect your heart and brain. This awareness can be very helpful in managing stress, which is great for your heart and brain. Modern technology is even getting involved. You can find free apps on smartphones like Welltory or CardioMood that give you real time insight. So the next time you’re experiencing heightened nerves and your anxiety is kicking in, take a moment to breath, think about your heart-brain connection and know there are always options to help you push past your anxiety.

A Fox News Radio contributor, Richardson has spent her educational and professional career learning human behavior. She holds a Master of Science in Counseling from the University of North Texas and is working to integrate cognitive behavioral therapy into the treatment programs for many clients. In April 2009, Richardson opened The Brain Performance Center.

This article was written by Leigh Richardson and originally appeared in Katy Trail Weekly. You can read the article here.

Brain Injury Prevention

As we get older, our bodies and especially our brains, start to change in ways we may not expect. We become a little more forgetful, a little slower, and unfortunately, a little less steady on our feet. Believe it or not, the imbalance can actually put you at risk for a brain injury. It’s as simple as losing your balance, falling to the ground, and not bracing yourself quickly enough. It’s so prevalent in women as we get older, that The Mayo Clinic recommends doing simple things like reducing clutter in your home, wearing non-slip shoes, doing light exercise, removing hazards from high traffic areas, using a shower seat and adding night lights in halls and bathrooms to help you find your way. Additionally, the National Institute of Aging has some tips for making your home as fall-proof as possible.

 

People of all ages getting brain injuries are more common than you might think. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 1.5 million people in the U.S. who suffer from a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) each year.  50,000 people die from TBI each year and 85,000 people suffer long term disabilities.  In the U.S., more than 5.3 million people live with disabilities caused by traumatic brain injuries.

 

And unfortunately, it’s not only ourselves that we need to worry about. As women, we are often the nurturers in our family and often end up caring for our elderly parents, which can be a challenge. A UT southwestern study shows falls cause more than 80 percent of the traumatic brain injuries seen in adults age 65 and older. Doctors say educating yourself on how to keep our loved ones from falling is very important. We need to realize that it can be hard for an elderly parent to let go of control, especially when they might need help with something as routine as taking a bath or getting dressed.

 

On top of that, many women in their fifties are still working and might not be able to see everything a parent is doing at home during the day if they don’t have a 24/7 caregiver. If you suspect your relative has fallen and received a brain injury, some symptoms to look out for are headache, confusion, lethargic, mood swings, changes in sleeping routine, slurred speech, vomiting or convulsions. Some ways to prevent a fall and serious brain injuries could include low-impact activities like water aerobics or tai chi to help keep their bodies strong while improving their balance.

 

It’s also important to keep in mind that when you’re trying to help your loved one, you’re often going to find pushback. It’s best to have an open dialogue about their health and explain that you’re taking the necessary steps to keep them safe. You should also consider that your relative could be dealing with some fear regarding their mobility, including the fear of falling as failing eyesight, hearing/balance issues, dizziness, confusion, changes in medication, changes in sleeping patterns and delayed reflexes all become part of the problem.

Whether it’s for you or your aging loved one, preventing falls and especially severe head injuries comes down to awareness and realizing that we can’t control everything. If a fall does occur, the National Institute of Health recommends a few tips; take a few moments to calm down, stabilize yourself after the shock of falling, then crawl to a stable chair and pull yourself up. Regardless of if you’re a caregiver or not, keeping yourself safe has to be the number one priority, because if we can’t care for ourselves, we can’t care for others.

GRATITUDE IS GOOD FOR YOU

With Thanksgiving this week, I thought it’d be appropriate to dive into thankfulness and gratitude a little more than usual. You see, there is a brain health aspect to practicing gratitude, as suggested by research, which links gratitude to personal well being. It’s also understandable that in actual practice gratitude can be hard to come by — or rather, hard to force. But perhaps knowing what little moments of thankfulness can do for you and your health will allow you to tap into that part of you, even in the toughest of times, without having to force it.

“Gratitude” and “Well Being”

Grateful CoupleAlthough gratitude is defined in several ways it is overall defined as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Well being is defined as “the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.” Surely, it’s no surprise that feeling gratitude would cultivate positive feelings, which then would naturally contribute to feelings of contentment and happiness. Thus, a heightened well being.

But what if gratitude is hard to practice? How can we try to practice gratitude for our own good?

Try Out Some Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to moments of experience with an accepting and friendly attitude so as to observe with all the senses what is happening in each moment.” A lot easier said than done, practicing mindfulness can be very beneficial to one’s mental health and makes it a little easier to feel gratitude in that particular moment (with no pressure) and others going forward. Take a few minutes to nurture and nourish your mind, as it can help free up space for whatever life may throw at you.

Write It Down

Woman JournalingFor years, writing down one’s thoughts and feelings has been used in all types of therapy. Whether it’s writing a letter to someone and not sending it, keeping a dream journal, or perhaps just writing in a journal for contemplation, writing has long been a medium for healthy expression. In this way, it can also be used to practice gratitude. Even if it’s just a sentence, “I’m thankful for the blue birds outside my window this morning,” it’s the small moments that make up the big positive picture.

Say It Out Loud

Sometimes, it’s nice to be able to say how we feel, especially when we’re unhappy or going through something. How about when things are good? Or even when things are not good, what if we take a moment to think of something positive and express it out loud as we normally would, had it been something negative? Hearing that positive thing out loud could very well plant a positive seed in others’ minds as well as yours — a reminder that there are good small moments that, again, make up that bigger picture.

Spin the Negative

Again, easier said than done. And some things may be so difficult or so painful that you simply can’t “spin” it into “good,” or even find something good in it. That’s understandable. But for those moments when something feels like it’s just not going right, like maybe a family member unable to make it to Thanksgiving, try looking at it like this: “At least [insert other family member] will be able to make it this year,” or “at least they’re able to see their other family members this year,” or “this just means they will likely be with us next year.”

Helping Others Increases Gratitude

It’s true. Over the years, research has shown many documented examples of when volunteering or performing acts of kindness can be good for your mental health, increasing one’s sense of well being and lowering symptoms of depression. Even if it’s a small act, like making it a point to tell someone something positive about themselves, or holding the door, or even thanking them for helping you in a particular way in the past — it’s all good ways to practice gratitude.

Thanksgiving Resolution

I want to encourage you this Thanksgiving to start your resolutions a little early, and add to the list “Practice Gratitude,” as it can only be good for you and good for others. In hard times, seeing any little bit of good will help you stay afloat and will encourage others to try similar practices.

ALONE TIME WITHOUT THE GUILT

Women have come a long way in the workforce and family life, but Pew Research shows that women are still more likely to adjust their careers and work schedule to meet the needs of family and children. While men’s involvement at home has gone up significantly since the 60s, research reports that women are still giving more time to housework and childcare on average. As a result, it’s no surprise that women appear to receive less leisure time.

Leisure Isn’t A Luxury

Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. When the To Do List grows longer, our downtime gets shorter. In fact, it’s the first thing to go, as if it’s not a priority, but rather a luxury. What really is leisure? It’s freedom from “coerced” or obligatory tasks. It’s time to enjoy something for yourself.

Leisure, also known as “Me Time,” is necessary to one’s emotional and physical well-being. Lack of time to rest and relax directly affects one’s ability to cope and thrive in life. It’s the whole, “take care of yourself in order to take care of others” thing. Chronic stress eventually becomes a symptom of no downtime, as do other conditions, such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, digestive disorders, and sleep problems. Think about it. Someone who is sleep deprived, depressed, anxious, and stressed isn’t going to function optimally for their family, boss, friends, or spouse, are they?

Nope. But we’re expected to.

As women, we are much less likely to take time to nurture ourselves or partake in hobbies. In fact, some of us lose sight of what we even love to do, between helping others do what they love to do and helping them survive. Putting family first is great, but what happens when we over-function for them? As a result, we start to under-function for ourselves, which will eventually affect our quality of life, relationships, and the very ones we love.

Socializing is Great But…

…It doesn’t have to mean “Me Time.” Sure, you may not see your friends very often, and when you get a minute, it could be the best opportunity for it. After all, socializing with friends and family is one key to a happy and healthy life. All I ask is that you look inward at these rare moments. When was the last time you did nothing? When was the last time you painted or watched a movie just on your own? If there’s a craving in you for an emotional and social breather, do it. Don’t feel obligated to fill every minute of your time with an action, like finally getting to the gym or running that errand. You’ll drain yourself emotionally, mentally, and physically.

Alone Time Feels Guilty

Feeling selfish about taking some alone time for yourself results from unearned guilt. Many of us believe that, if we have any free time, it should be spent doing things for others. It’s important at these times to remind ourselves that simply taking a moment to ourselves isn’t narcissistic; it’s necessary. Cherilynn Veland, MSW, author of Stop Giving It Away: How to Stop Self-Sacrificing and Start Claiming Your Space, Power and Happiness suggests that we tell ourselves this phrase: “Life isn’t all about me, but it is about me too.”

Make Time for Alone Time

Alone time allows personal reflection, an opportunity to unwind, increases productivity, allows self-discovery, encourages deep thinking, and improves relationships. There are a lot of ways you can spend your “Me Time,” whether it’s watching a movie, buying something nice you wouldn’t otherwise buy, reading a book, or just taking a nap. It’s easier said than done, though.
To help you prioritize time for yourself, make a list of things you love (or used to love) to do and use it next time you have a free hour. In fact, schedule your free time before setting any other appointments or events for the week. Then, set alarms for the Day Of to remind you to stop, unwind, and reboot. Try for twice a week, at least. Ultimately, shift your view of your downtime from being “disposable” to being “valuable,” and make sure to keep whatever activity you choose positive. That way, you’re more likely to associate healthy feelings with your “Me Time,” instead of guilt or restlessness.
It’s high time we start making alone time, even if it’s in small amounts, to heal ourselves and maintain our personal health and happiness. It doesn’t mean we don’t love others; it just means we love ourselves too.

Grief Happens in the Brain: Healing After Loss

The human condition is complicated and sometimes painful. In times of loss, in particular, it is especially hard to cope and work one’s way through the stages of what we know as grief. In technical terms, grief is “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.”

In essence, grief is your brain trying to recover from the shock and disorientation that comes with loss and extreme change; in other words, your brain is trying to look out for you. Your body begins to experience deep biological responses to the painful circumstances, physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Just as chemicals and hormones are released in times of joy and excitement, so are chemicals and hormones released and bodily systems shifted in times of sorrow.

These responses begin in the brain.

Emotional Pain in the Brain

When the brain is going through grief, it experiences increased activity in the regions responsible for processing physical pain and emotions: the insula, anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala, posterior cingulate cortex, and prefrontal cortex. In the case of prolonged grief, pain actually accompanies the brain’s reward-process centers, meaning it reinforces (in a sense) the yearning for the lost loved one, almost creating an “addiction.” This is seen when grief persists and even disrupts everyday life.

The effects of grief can also be seen in increased cortisol levels, a hormone mainly released in times of stress–a major part of the grief response as a whole. As a result of excessive cortisol, the prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotions and memories, appears to shrink. This typically affects one’s ability to concentrate, recall things, and articulate or express feelings. Instead, expressing one’s feelings or desires in times of mourning can actually become difficult or even exhausting. Maintaining a normal level of this hormone is essential to human health, but if it remains high, it can take grief to a more prolonged or serious condition, like depression or anxiety.

That’s why it’s very important to be aware of all of the above as it relates to grief’s impact on the human body and mental state. It’s even more important that we treat ourselves kindly through the grieving process.

Appetite and Exercise in Mourning

While grief has its place in the brain, it also has its place in the body and mind. It all comes down to stress. Stress responses require attention in order to aid in healthy healing. Through the grieving process, make your physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual healths top priorities.

During the grieving process, it’s common to lose one’s appetite, overeat in pursuit of comfort, or even experience gastrointestinal issues as a result of grief’s major stressors. In this time, it’s very important to help yourself eat healthy foods that will not only comfort you but also keep your energy up, strengthening communication between brain cells.

Accompanied with eating right (occasional pizza and ice cream are acceptable, of course), exercise (even if mild) is a major help in healing from grief. Being active in some way, especially out in nature, can release neurotransmitters such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and more, which are central to mood control and may help you fight feelings of depression. Meanwhile, it also helps relieve other symptoms of grief, such as anxiety, pain, lack of sleep, fatigue, and more. This can come in the form of a brief 10-minute walk, if that’s all a person can manage–any bit of movement helps.

Grief: The Sleep Thief

Sleep disorders may crop up in certain stages of grief. Try to take measures that will make you adequately restful by bedtime. That might mean setting some daytime or bedtime practices for yourself, such as no napping in the late afternoon or evening; developing a bedtime routine, in which you read a book or wind down with a bath; keep your bedroom at the right temperature, not too hot or cold; try to avoid electronic devices right before bed; use low lighting in the evenings; exercise at regular times each day (again, even if it’s a 15-minute stroll); stay away from caffeine late in the day; and try to avoid alcohol, for it may actually make it more difficult to stay asleep and can also destroy brain cells (you really need those).

Social Support As You Grieve

Because we are emotionally exhausted during this time, it’s difficult to express our needs. This is when social interaction and support crucially comes in to play. Having those around you who know you best and love you will encourage your healing and provide you the support you need to take it one step at a time. This doesn’t mean forcing yourself to be social; it means simply having loved ones nearby who understand and are there for you.

Be Patient. Healing Takes Time.

Ultimately, take it easy on yourself. Healing from loss takes time, and that’s all you can do: wait and treat yourself kindly. Remember that those around you should also understand that this grieving process takes time; that way, you don’t feel needy or rushed in the stages, which can lead to unearned guilt. Allow yourself to move through all of this organically.

Never feel selfish for grieving. As mentioned, grief is your body and brain’s natural approach to healing from something incredibly painful; let them do their job for you. Then, do your job in aiding your body and brain to heal by loving yourself, getting the sleep you need, eating as well as you can, and seeking support from others around you to combat any feelings of loneliness or ruminating thoughts.

In the end, you are not alone. Everyone in the world experiences grief at some point; let us all support each other through it and let ourselves grow from it.

This article was originally authored by Leigh Richardson and posted on Prime Women. Read the article here.

Women and Migraines: Causes, Coping and Cures

There’s nothing worse than having to force yourself to function in everyday life while dealing with something as hindering as a migraine or headache. There you are, sitting at your desk, staring at your screen, when you wonder, “hmm…what’s that?” as you notice a strange visual disturbance in your peripheral eyesight. Ah, yes. That’s called “aura,” and you know this because it has often led to a migraine or headache. If this is true for you, you are part of the one-third of affected individuals who experience “aura.”

Headaches and migraines come in all shapes and forms (unfortunately). First, there’s migraine with aura, which is a classic migraine, and second, migraine without aura, which is a common migraine. As for headaches, there are many more types: tension, cluster, allergy or sinus, hormone, caffeine, exertion, hypertension, rebound, and post-traumatic. The most common among these are tension headaches, which stem from physical and emotional stress, lack of rest, stressful work or other factors such as skipping meals, bad posture, and more.

Migraines Give Me the Feels—Not the Good Kind

Migraines and some headaches in general can be described as “intense pulsing or throbbing pain” in an area of the head. Migraines, however, can take it further toward nausea and/or vomiting, or severe sensitivity to light and sound. It can also last between 4 and 72 hours if untreated. While “aura” may sound as if it’s a nice warning of an incoming headache, it’s actually very unpleasant and sometimes frightening. Many describe “aura” as “zigzagging lines,” flashing lights, or seeing stars. It causes temporary blind spots, colored spots, or blurred vision—or even tunnel vision, where you’re only able to see close to the center of the field of view.

Just know, ladies, you’re not alone. It’s happening to other people too—other women.

Women, Stress and Migraines

Let’s go back to stress because it’s is a huge contributor to health issues, and it’s a major women’s health issue. Not only can it lead to depression, anxiety, heart problems, stomach problems, and obesity, but it also increases the likelihood of headaches and migraines. After all, when under stress, muscles tense up, and when this tension lasts a while, it leads to a migraine or headache or body aches.

Stress, however, seems to affect women on a greater scale, as women are more likely than men to report symptoms of stress, including headaches. It should not come as a surprise then that migraine is three times more common in women than in men, affecting 10 percent of people worldwide. Women also get tension headaches more often than men, typically beginning in the teen years and peaking in their 30s. Reasons are thought to relate to genetics, hormone changes in women during menstrual cycle, and are linked to the dilation and constriction of blood vessels in the head.

Other common triggers of a migraine or headache attack include: caffeine withdrawal, drinking alcohol, changes in sleep patterns, loud noises, bright lights, diet changes, odors or perfumes, smoking or exposure to smoke, and others. Some food triggers include all the things we love most (life isn’t fair): chocolate, dairy (especially certain cheeses), foods with tyramine (red wine, aged cheese, smoked meat, and certain beans), fruits (avocado, banana, citrus), peanuts and other nuts and seeds.

Luckily, it’s Not Forever

Research shows that older people tend to have fewer headaches and migraines than younger people. At age 70, only 10 percent of women and 5 percent of men experience them. So while we struggle now, these issues should fade with age. Regardless, always tell your doctor what you’re going through.

Coping and Curing Migraine

A healthy diet, regular exercise, and plenty of sleep are all great ways to avoid a migraine or headache. If you think about it, they’re great ways to manage stress, so naturally they’ll help with headaches. Other healthy habits like meditation, relaxation training, or yoga are also effective approaches. In my field, we do a combination of things to help prevent recurring tension headaches: meditation, relaxation training, EMG biofeedback, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Research also supports that cortical hyperarousal of fast wave activity is found in many people with migraines and supports neurofeedback as an effective treatment for the symptoms of a migraine.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Headaches or Migraines

Many people misunderstand the struggles behind migraines and headaches. It causes people to miss out on social activities and sometimes even work. Migraines are the 3rd most prevalent illness in the world; it’s serious business. The most we can do for ourselves is to rest and recover, and when others are dealing with the same, go easy on them too. It’s not always preventable, so we must react healthily both emotionally and physically.

This article was originally authored by Leigh Richardson and posted on Prime Women. Read the article here.

Keep Your Brain Forever Young

As we age physically, we also age mentally. Many things can expedite that process, like chemotherapy, emotional trauma, injury, medications, or other treatments. The one we all deal with, though, is time. At a certain point, we have to be a little more intentional about “working out” the brain as if it were a muscle in the body.

What Happens in the Brain, Changes the Brain

There are a lot of factors at play in the brain as we age. While we develop new neurons throughout our lives and reach our peak brain size in our 20s, the brain eventually experiences a decline in volume and decrease in blood flow. The miraculous thing about the brain, though, is that studies have shown it can regrow and is capable of learning and retaining new information. In other words, it is capable of neural reorganization.

When the brain changes, we tend to change. Mental tasks become a little more difficult, as do forming new long-term memories and performing certain mental operations. Our cognitive function becomes more of a challenge. Other parts of who we are, like our confidence, social life, or work life may also suffer.

That’s why, to help maintain the brain’s plasticity—its ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections—we have to put in more effort by creating our own mental stimulation and treatment. There are several ways you can do this.

Active Body, Active Brain

Woman CyclingWhen you work out your body, you work out your brain. While I don’t recommend going crazy and starting P90X or other high-intensity training, I do recommend some physical activity. Studies have shown that physical activity is a promising strategy that influences the brain to enhance cognitive function and emotional function, particularly in late adulthood. Exercising regularly is great for refreshing the immune system, which can improve cognitive function and information processing by increasing volume of the hippocampus(the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system). So, go for a “fast walk” or purchase a stationary exercise bike so you can “Netflix and cycle.”

Eat, Sleep, Think

By eating right, you’re doing your brain a favor. For years, scientists have suspected that the intake of specific nutrients can impact cognitive processes and emotions. A primary nutrient? Omega-3 fatty acids, which can be obtained from dietary fish. This nutrient can improve synaptic and cognitive functioning “by providing plasma membrane fluidity at synaptic regions.”

Also, give yourself a rest. Circulation and the brain is imperative to the proper nutrients and oxygen reaching the brain cells. To maintain that proper circulation and brain energy metabolism, we must receive the right amount of sleep. Think of it like this: it’s a great excuse to sleep in. But really, make your sleep a priority. Your brain will thank you 5 to 10 years from now. (And when the alarm goes off.)

Multi-Task

Autumn CandlesOkay, that’s a little misleading. Rather, let your senses multi-task. Some studies over time have shown that, if you can’t give your full attention to both activities, you’ll experience a deficit in cognitive function. But, if you allow your senses to multitask, you could be doing some wonders for your brain. (It’s fun, too.) Perform two sensory tasks at the same time, such as watching the rain and listening to jazz. Or, listening to jazz and smelling the Fresh Autumn candle you just lit. Stimulate to form new connections.

Get Artsy

Tap into the passionate part of you that has a soft spot for the arts. That could be music, visual art, drawing, painting, playing an instrument, reading. There are so many options, and they all stimulate the mind in unique, creative ways that help with abstract thinking. One in particular that has become incredibly popular in the last 5 years: coloring books for grown-ups.

Music, whether listening or learning to play it, is always a great choice, as it is complex and multisensory and has a positive influence on neuroplasticity in several regions of the brain. It’s the integration of audiovisual information as well as appreciation of abstract rules that has been shown to improve cognitive skills of attention, control, motor function, visual scanning, and executive functioning.

Change is Good

Making small adjustments or changes to your regular routine can stimulate your brain to create some new thinking pathways, new connections. That could mean just taking a new route to work, eating something new for lunch, changing your computer background, anything simple like that.

Stay Positive

Don’t let the ageist stereotypes about memory decline keep you from being hopeful about your brain’s future functioning. Confidence is hard to craft, but treat yourself kindly, take the measures needed to be healthy all around, and understand that the more positive you are about your memory, the more likely you are to improve it.

Lastly, Use Science

To scientifically assess and improve neuroplasticity and performance, you can always involve professionals and utilize neuromodulation, which can come in the form of neurofeedback, Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (pEMF), Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), and Transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (tACS). These stimulating neuro techniques use technology in a non-invasive way to increase blood flow and functional connectivity in the brain. In other words, our brains have taught us how to improve our brains.

This blog was previously posted in Prime Women magazine here.