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.

Brain Health: The Things You Can Do to Make it Stronger

Getting older is something we all struggle with, from the thought of our increased age to the aging of our bodies. Some feel it in their joints and bones, while others notice their minds starting to slow. Aging causes many differences in not just our bodies but also in our brain. Fear not, there are some exercises that can help you stay sharp for many years to come.

As we get older, our cognitive abilities gradually deteriorate. A certain amount of cognitive decline is a normal part of ageing. When getting into your 50’s you can start to see your reasoning skills slow. According to research in the British Medical Journal, middle aged patients saw a 3.6 percent decline in reasoning skills over the past 10 years.

Woman Playing SudokuThere are things you can do to strengthen your cognitive abilities. Playing games that require logic, process of elimination, and reasoning skills such as Clue and Sudoku, can help strengthen those abilities by using parts of your brain that you may not use as much on a daily basis. Challenge your brain in your daily life. Try brushing your teeth with your non dominant hand. By doing this, you’ll be using the other side of your brain to perform the task which expands the part of the cortex that controls tactile information from the hand.

Though everyone is different, in a normal healthy brain, the major thing that happens as we get older is our neurons slow down a bit. According to the Journal of Nutritional Science, people whose diets consisted of fried foods didn’t score well on tests that measured brain function, memory, and learning. Researchers believed that having a poor diet of fried foods contributed to inflammation and a small brain size. Switching out battered and fried foods for grilled and baked items can help reduce this risk.

Other items bad for your brain’s health are high amounts of sugars and trans fats. Research has found that a high intake of trans fats, found in processed foods, like cakes and cookies, can increase your risk of cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s. This is due to the possible cause of plaque build up in your brain. To prevent this, ditch the processed sweets for dark chocolate and/or fruit. Brain health, just like your overall health, is greatly affected by sugar!

As you age, your brain will shrink. It’s unavoidable. According to researchers at the University of California, Davis, there are four factors that can speed up the decline in brain volume.

      • high blood pressure
      • diabetes
      • cigarette smoking
      • being overweight or obese

 

Maintaining a healthy diet and exercising on a regular basis can help to avoid this. Quitting smoking can always help with a healthier lifestyle and a healthier brain.

Though we have talked a lot about the effects of an aging brain, you might be confused where the line is between normal aging and a need for serious concern. Here are a few examples to ease your mind. Finding yourself searching for words is likely normal compared to using the wrong words, for example using the word stove when referring to your table. Driving a little slower than your used to is a normal thing among aging drivers, but if you start to react very slowly behind the wheel, or often miss stop signs and red lights, these could be signs of a bigger problem.

No matter how you age, the most important thing is to continue to live your best life. Here are a few things that can not only keep you active, but keep your brain active as well. Keep Learning! Instead of doing the same old thing, think outside the box and try something new. New experiences will build new pathways in your brain, keeping your mind healthy as you get older. You can also spend more time with friends and family. Being social can help keep your mind sharp as you age. The key to an active happy life and brain health is an active happy brain.

This blog was previously posted in Prime Women magazine here.

Cell Phone Addiction is Changing Our Brains

We may not even notice we’re doing it, but it has become a primary form of entertainment, information, and now addiction: the mobile device. The word “addiction” is derived from the Latin word, “addico,” which means “to devote or surrender to” or “enslaved by.” Today, it’s seen as a chronic disease that can actually change our brains’ functioning and structure. Without much awareness, we depend on our smart devices and act on that dependency compulsively.

For adolescents, it’s even more of an issue, with 94% of teens going online using a mobile device daily, and 24% of them going online “almost constantly.” According to 2015 Pew Research, 46% of smartphone owners said “they couldn’t live without” their devices. With the usage prevalence, some researchers even consider it to be one of the greatest addictions of the current century.

A team of South Korean researchers have found that kids who used the internet or messed with their phones compulsively experienced an increase in the neurotransmitter, dopamine, to the part of the brain involved in addiction. In other words, dopamine is part of the reward system of the brain, and rewarding behavior can lead to addiction. Dopamine also plays a role in learning and memory, so repeated exposure causes nerve cells to communicate in a way that associates liking something with wanting it, driving us to pursue it.

Behaviors of Cell Phone Addiction

Cell phone addiction can manifest itself in many behaviors, but it’s mostly a combination of some of these.

  • Checking phone in the middle of the night
  • Anxiety at not having the device with you–even if it’s not lost. Or, feeling a drug-like withdrawal
  • Checking phone as many as 900 times a day (addicted)–while the average person checks their phone 110 times a day
  • Sleep deprivation can be a symptom that affects school performance and increases irritability (61% of teens say cell phone use has negative impact on schoolwork)
  • Usage creates family arguments
  • Have less face-to-face interactions/conversations
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Cell phone usage becomes a way to escape stress and reality
  • Constant use, even while doing other things, such as driving and walking (11 teens die every day texting while driving)
  • Experience something called “text neck,” which is chronic strain from looking down
  • Eye strain/blurred vision from focusing on blue light and small screen
  • Decreased neural connectivity, affecting emotional control
  • Experience phantom vibrations, which is when we feel a non-existent cell phone alert
  • There are co-occurring disorders, such as deepening depression with lack of human interaction and increase in anxiety when cell phone is not available
  • Sleeping with phone under pillow (90% of 18-29 year olds sleep with their smartphones)

Setting Smartphone Boundaries

In the end, if it interferes with quality of life, relationships, and career, it’s time to set some restrictions for your teens and/or re-evaluate your own dependence. First, create self-awareness about how much data you’re actually using and then restrict yourself or your children’s data usage. For your kids (and you), designate a time without cell phones or devices. We all need to be brought back down to earth; otherwise, we (especially younger ones) are only going to become dependent upon the dopamine released when using an electronic device. Our brains need fresh air and physical/motor activity for good mental health.

Reward this “tech time-out” with positive reinforcement, and ultimately, be a role model. Show your kids–and even your adult family and friends–that life is good when you put down the phone. Connecting with your surroundings and those around you is just as important as (if not more than) connecting with your friends across the country or reading up on the royal wedding.

Is this easy to do? No.

Is it doable? Yes.

Is it necessary? Absolutely.

SOURCES:

Healthy Gut = Healthy Brain

Your gut is the new frontier of neuroscience. That’s right: What’s taking place in your intestines affects not only your brain’s daily functions, but also determines your risk for a number of neurological conditions.  Scientists now understand that bacteria in your gut affects your overall physiology, and they have recently uncovered a connection between that bacteria and your brain. This gut­–brain axis has led to a new concept called psychobiotics — probiotics and prebiotics that can influence your mental well-being.

Our intestinal organisms, or microbiome, participate in a wide variety of bodily systems, including immunity, detoxification, inflammation, neurotransmitter and vitamin production, nutrient absorption, whether you feel hungry or full, and how you utilize carbohydrates and fat. All of these processes factor into whether you experience chronic health problems like allergies, asthma, ADHD, cancer, type 2 diabetes, or dementia.  What you might not know is that your microbiome also affects your mood, your libido, and even your perceptions of the world and the clarity of your thoughts. A dysfunctional microbiome could be at the root of your headaches, anxiety, inability to concentrate, or even negative outlook on life.

Put simply, nearly everything about our health — how we feel both physically and emotionally —  can hinge on the state of our microbiome. No other system in the body is more sensitive to changes in gut bacteria than the central nervous system. What’s more, researchers have found dramatic turnarounds in brain-related conditions with simple dietary modifications.

How closely are the gut and brain related?

Just as your brain can send butterflies to your stomach, your gut can relay its state of calm or alarm to the brain. Our vagus nerve is the primary channel between millions of nerve cells in our intestinal nervous system and our central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. Bacteria in the gut directly affect the function of the cells along the vagus nerve.  The neurons in the gut are so innumerable that many scientists are now calling them the “second brain.” This second brain not only regulates muscle function, immune cells, and hormones, but also manufactures an estimated 80 to 90 percent of serotonin (the “feel-good” neurotransmitter).

This means the gut’s brain makes more serotonin — the master happiness molecule — than the brain in your head! Many neurologists and psychiatrists are now realizing that dietary changes may be a more effective treatment for depression than antidepressants are. Two other chemicals manufactured in the gut also critical to the nervous system are GABA  and Glutamate. GABA, an amino acid produced by gut bacteria, calms nerve activity by inhibiting transmissions and normalizing brain waves, to a steadier state after it’s been excited by stress.

Glutamate, a neurotransmitter also produced by gut bacteria, is involved in cognition, learning, and memory. It is abundant in a healthy brain. A slew of neurological challenges — including anxiety, behavioral issues, depression, and Alzheimer’s — have been attributed to a lack of GABA and glutamate.

You may have heard about the perils of a leaky gut, where the intestinal lining become compromised. This can be caused by a variety of factors, including pathogenic bacteria,  medications, stress, environmental toxins, elevated blood sugar, and potentially gut-irritating food ingredients like gluten.  Once the intestinal barrier is compromised, undigested food particles leak into the bloodstream, where they elicit an immune response. This can create systemwide inflammation. When your intestinal barrier is compromised, you become susceptible — due to that increased inflammation — to a spectrum of health challenges, including arthritis, eczema, allergies, and even autism, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

The problems of a leaky gut become even more monumental in light of new science that proves the brain/gut connection. Can a leaky gut lead to a leaky brain?

We’ve long assumed that the brain was insulated from what goes on in the rest of the body. The problems of a leaky gut become even more monumental in light of new science that shows how loss of gut integrity can lead to a “leaky” brain.

It’s now clear that many substances can threaten the brain’s integrity. And once the brain’s barrier is compromised, various molecules that may spell trouble — including proteins, viruses, and bacteria — can get inside it.

So – what can we do about this?   The most significant factor related to the health of the microbiome — and thus, the brain — is the food we eat.  Food matters enormously, trumping other factors in our lives that we may not be entirely able to control. The idea that food is the most important variable in human health is not news. But our new understanding of the connection between what you eat and how it affects your microbiome, and your brain, is exciting.  You can change the state of your microbiome — and the fate of your health — through dietary changes, opening the door for better health in general, and improved brain function.

Something to think about…..

 

 

 

 

A Different Look at the Brain Body Connection….

It’s a common belief that our brain is the center of our consciousness, where your free will and your soul lives. We also think that the brain is a closed system when it comes to our thought process.  It feels like our brain is a special little organ that works in isolation, producing thoughts, mulling them over and then turning them into bodily action.

That may not be the case.

Think of your brain as a computer.  What kind of results would you get from your laptop if the user interface responded only to random inputs from the environment, such as wind, temperature, and other unplanned events?  Your computer would be useless.  The inputs would be random and the outputs wouldn’t make sense.  That’s why we consider the user interface to be an integral part of the computer.

One interesting hypothesis likens humans to robots that respond to programming.  If you aren’t intentionally programming yourself, the environment and other people are doing it for you. Luckily you have a user interface to your brain.  And that interface is your body.  Your body is collecting inputs from all over and feeding them to your brain to reprogram it.  The theory is- give your body the right inputs and you can reprogram your brain.

This concept is both obvious and radical at the same time.  On one hand, we know from experience that our thoughts are directly influenced by what your body is experiencing.  But because we also believe our brain is the special vessel of our free will, consciousness, and soul, we might believe the brain can also make its own independent decisions.  It can’t.  It is a computer that responds to inputs. Give it the right inputs and you’ll get the right outputs.  And your body is the user interface.

This hypothesis suggests another framework for viewing your brain. This framework gives you the means to program your brain with intention instead of letting the environment do it randomly. All you need to do is reframe your body to be part of your brain.

In the old worldview, where the brain is its own user interface, you may find yourself feeling sad, grumpy, tired, angry, and other negative emotions.  And you probably feel a bit helpless to stop it.  Your brain is determining your mood – seemingly on its own – and the rest of your body simply responds to it like a puppet on a string.  This is the most common worldview, and it can be debilitating to many people. They go through life in continuous mental anguish, feeling helpless to do anything about it.

Use hunger as an example.  You know from experience that being hungry can make you cranky.  But if you’re not aware of that mind-body connection – and often we are not-  it is easy to assume the brain is operating on its own to make you cranky.  All you needed was some food to reprogram your brain to more positive thoughts. In this case your digestive system was the user interface to your brain.

If you think of your body as the user interface to your brain, you can manipulate your environment until your thoughts change.  This process can help stop your  brain from thinking whatever it randomly wants to think.  When you do something to stop negative inputs into your brain via your body (the user interface) your brain responds by not producing negative thoughts.

Take an inventory of the people in your life who are unhappy. Ask some questions about what they are doing about their unhappiness. Rarely will the person say they are working on their body to fix their minds.

Now take an inventory of your more well-adjusted friends. Watch the degree to which they manipulate their bodies to manage their minds. Once you see the pattern, you will start to see it everywhere.

The brain likes to focus on one thing at a time. So make sure it is focusing where you want it.

It’s possible that the source of your thoughts just might be your body, and by giving your body the right inputs, it may help to reprogram your brain.