Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Your Thoughts Can Literally Change Your Brain

Our brains are consistently changing throughout our lives. Making new connections between nerve cells here, disconnecting certain nerve cells there. Our environment, including our relationships with others, games we play (crossword puzzles, Suduko, poker), TV shows, movies, video games, books we read, exercises we perform, treatments we receive (chiropractic/massage) and the thoughts that bubble up inside our heads throughout the day actually physically change the structure of our brains by rewiring connections between nerve cells. The term coined to describe this change our brain undergoes as a result of our world experiences is called plasticity.

One analogy that’s often used to visualize brain plasticity is a footpath in the grass. If you started walking on the grass through your yard in the same path every day for a year, you would eventually wear out a pathway that would be there for a long time. The key is that the pathway is used consistently. In The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Norman Doidge describes how the brain can be rewired and strengthened much like a muscle.

This is what our brains do, even with the thoughts we think: it creates new pathways. It used to be a common notion that our thought life is as a result of our brains, but scientific evidence has shown otherwise. The advents of functional MRI and PET scans that can record areas of the brain that light up demonstrate that our thoughts can send blood and activity to certain areas of the brain.

So how does one change a thought? It’s very simple. Just by being aware of your thoughts, or practicing mindfulness, you’re altering how the brain functions. If you’re having fear thoughts, stopping and saying to yourself “why am I having these thoughts?” is using a different part of the brain. In the book The Mind and The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey Schwartz, the author describes how people suffering with debilitating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can change the pathways in their brains that activate the disorder by being aware of their thinking and learning how to redirect their thinking to something besides the obsession that has a hold of them. MRI and other brain scans showed that the pathways were altered, that the brain rewired. In most of the cases, just being aware of the brain going on a loop (experienced with massive anxiety) that tells them that they should wash their hands, count tiles, check all the locks in the house, etc. was altered because a different part of the brain was used to contemplate contemplation. Sounds weird, but it works if it’s performed consistently.

If you started today and monitored your thoughts everyday for a year, you would profoundly change your brain. The first thing to do is to be aware of your thoughts. Sort of like thinking of your thoughts in the third person, much like many celebrities and professional athletes describe themselves in the press. “John is thinking negatively about Sue.” If your thoughts are predominately negative, hateful, or fearful/worried, you reinforce the pathways in your brain that maintain these thoughts. We all know by now the deleterious effects of these thoughts. They’re often described as stress. If you think pleasant, loving, positive thoughts, those pathways become more efficient.

Another strategy is to be present. Presence means to be focused on whatever you’re doing in the moment and not think about the past or the future. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is a great book on how to do this. Not to say that you never make plans, but try not to worry about those plans and how it’s going to work out. For example: “Joan is worrying about the upcoming conference.” Just focus on what’s in front of you. This strategy uses the frontal lobe of the brain. The frontal lobe has powerful inhibitory effects on our fear centers of our brains. Research has shown that a positive attitude can improve our overall health.

Another very powerful frontal lobe thought activity is compassion. Compassion and understanding lights up our frontal lobes very powerfully and is good for our communities. Imagine the world if there was even just a little more compassion. If the brain controls every function in the body then the entire body can benefit. What kind of brain do you want? You can start a new footpath right now. “______ is starting a new thought process right now.”

~ Dr. W. Brent Reynolds

Monday, March 14, 2011

Massage Therapy Is Good For Your Brain!

“Everything you have ever experienced felt or conducted in life is due to brain function. The ability to enjoy, perceive, sense, and experience life is dictated by the firing rate and health of your brain. It is impossible for a person to become healthy mentally or physiologically without a healthy brain.” ~ Datis Kharrazian, D.C., D.H.Sc., M.S.

Once considered a luxury, massage therapy has proven to be a beneficial modality for proper brain function and long- term overall health. Therapeutic massage has far reaching benefits, from bolstering sleep, mood and the immune system, to improving serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. Studies show that:

Massage therapy, specifically back massage, promotes social and psychological behavior as well as bolsters the immune system: “Massage therapy promotes psychosocial relaxation, reduces stress and has been reported to improve the immune function. As such, massage therapy is currently used in palliative care for the relief of anxiety and pain.” ~J. Anesth. 2010 Dec;24(6):955-8. Epub 2010 Aug 5.

Massage therapy can help you sleep:
“It's necessary to give foot reflexology massage as a successful nursing intervention to elderly who undergo a change in sleep, and suffer from a depression disorder due to deterioration in sleep.” Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 2006 Feb;36(1):15-24.

Massage therapy can improve your brain chemistry: Decreased levels of cortisol and increased levels of serotonin and dopamine were reported in a study by Touch Research Institute on massage therapy and biochemistry

According to an abstract from the International Journal of Neuroscience, the Institute’s studies included those on depression, including sex abuse and eating disorder studies, pain syndrome studies, research on auto-immune conditions including asthma and chronic fatigue, immune studies (including HIV and breast cancer), and studies on the reduction of stress on the job, during pregnancy, and aging.

In those studies in which cortisol was assayed either in saliva or in urine, significant decreases, averaging 31%, were noted in cortisol levels. This is beneficial to overall health as high and prolonged levels of cortisol have been shown to have negative health effects, including thyroid dysfunction, and higher blood pressure and LDL cholesterol levels.

In studies in which serotonin and dopamine, the activating neurotransmitters responsible for emotional control, were assayed in urine, an average increase of 28% and 31% was noted respectively. “These studies combined suggest the stress-alleviating effects (decreased cortisol) and the activating effects (increased serotonin and dopamine) of massage therapy on a variety of medical conditions and stressful experiences.” Int J Neurosci. 2005 Oct;115(10):1397-413.

Massage therapy can make you happier: The frontal lobes are where we experience happy, empathetic, joyous, and compassionate emotions. They help to regulate or gate the emotional, aggressive parts of our limbic system or “emotional brain.”

According to a 2002 study by the Touch Research Institute, “The increasing incidence of violence among children and adolescents highlights the importance of identifying at-risk profiles as well as assessing interventions for preventing violence. Empirical research has suggested behavioral, central nervous system, and neurotransmitter/neurohormone dysregulation in violent individuals, including (1) an underaroused central nervous system characterized by right frontal electroencephalogram (EEG) hypoactivation, and (2) a neurotransmitter/neurohormone profile of lower norepinephrine, serotonin, and cortisol, and elevated dopamine and testosterone. The literature also suggests a disproportionate incidence of physical abuse and neglect or the lack of positive physical contact in violent individuals.”

“In the studies we have conducted to date, there has been a relatively high incidence of anger and aggression in high school samples, even those that were relatively advantaged, as well as high levels of depression (one standard deviation above the mean), suggesting significant disturbance in these youth. Adolescents with these profiles also had less optimal relationships with their families, used illicit drugs more frequently, had inferior academic performance, and had higher depression scores. In our cross-cultural comparisons, preschoolers and adolescents were less physically affectionate and more aggressive in the United States versus France. Further, the U.S. youth received less physical affection as preschoolers, and as adolescents they engaged in more self-stimulating behaviors, perhaps to compensate for receiving less physical affection from their parents and peers. This supports the notion that less physical affection (or more physical neglect) can contribute to greater aggression.”

“Massage therapy has been effective with violent adolescents, perhaps because the physical stimulation reduced their dopamine levels and increased their serotonin levels. Their aggressive behavior decreased and their empathetic behavior increased. These preliminary data need to be replicated in a larger sample with a more comprehensive set of measures in the context of identifying a diagnostic profile.” Adolescence. 2002 Winter;37(148):735-49.

Massage is a wonderful therapeutic modality that should no longer be viewed as an indulgence, but essential for proper brain function and overall wellness. Call us at 631.265.1223 to learn more about how massage therapy can help optimize your health.

Friday, March 4, 2011

For Your Brain’s Sake, Be Aware of Your Blood Sugar Levels!

There are two factors which make our brains function normally: Fuel and Activation. Fuel for the brain is oxygen and glucose, more commonly known as your blood sugar. The brain can’t store glucose for a rainy day; it needs a steady supply and will break down other tissues to get it if it’s not available at the moment. This makes sense for survival because life cannot be sustained without proper brain function. Your quality of life can suffer also without proper brain function. Activation is the “use it or lose it” concept that we hear about often like exercise, meditation, chiropractic adjustments and brain activities such as learning a new language.

When we look at fasting blood glucose (blood sugar levels) in a patient’s blood chemistry, we’re looking at a window into their brain function. Normal functional ranges for blood glucose are anywhere from (85-100 mg/dL) in the fasting adult. If the fasting glucose levels are lower than this, a person can be considered hypoglycemic. Hypoglycemia can cause symptoms of fatigue, irritability, confusion, and headaches. In essence, the brain begins to suffer.

The cause of hypoglycemia can be several factors. One factor can be too much insulin is being released. Insulin is a protein that is released by the pancreas. It stimulates the uptake of glucose into the cells which is eventually converted into the energy needed to power the brain and thereby the rest of the body. Some people suffer with hypoglycemia as a result of too much insulin being released due to poor dietary choices. A diet high in sugar is one of the most common causes of hypoglycemia. Other factors for hypoglycemia include nutritional deficiencies and hormonal problems, just to name a few.

Hypoglycemics usually have a burst of energy after eating and then “crash” hours later. The insulin is dumped out in a large amount, absorbs the glucose, leaving the blood levels of glucose depleted. The brain then alters its output to save energy -- the equivalent to your car running out of gas. The symptoms one may experience are the same ones mentioned above. Chronic, long-term hypoglycemia can have serious consequences for the brain and can even lead to brain degeneration.

If hypoglycemia is not corrected, it can lead to a condition known as insulin resistance. This is when the pancreas no longer effectively produces insulin and the blood sugar becomes elevated. The fasting blood glucose will creep up towards the 100 mg/dL level. This can cause a whole host of problems for the brain such as inflammation, fatigue and alterations in hormone levels. It can also lead to cardiovascular problems, small blood vessel changes in the brain, and ultimately brain degeneration. The end result of insulin resistance if not corrected is Type II Diabetes. Once Diabetes sets in, it can be very difficult to correct. Diabetes can lead to stroke, depression, and recent evidence suggests that diabetics are at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. (1)

A very important blood marker for insulin resistance is Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c). HbA1c is a chemical component in the blood that reveals the blood glucose levels over a long period of time, not just as a result of the last meal. HbA1c is a useful indicator of how well the blood glucose level has been controlled in the recent past (6-8 weeks). Normal ranges should be around 4-6%. When HbA1c begins creeping up around 6, it indicates possible insulin resistance.

Blood sugar is of utmost importance to your brain’s performance. Whenever we attend a patient with a chronic health issue, especially chronic neurological issues, whether it be traumatic brain injury, Autism, Vertigo, chronic pain, etc., the first thing we want to look at is the fasting blood glucose. These levels give us a picture of the functioning of the entire brain. It is equivalent to a mechanic checking the oil levels in your car -- it’s the first thing they do to determine how the engine is performing. Often times, the blood sugar level (either too high or too low) is the cause of many common, chronic problems that people present with to healthcare professionals. In many cases, simply stabilizing a patient’s blood sugar through dietary changes and supplementation can eradicate many chronic symptoms and prevent future diseases and healthcare costs down the road.

-- Dr. Brent Reynolds

(1)Cerebral complications of diabetes mellitus. Ory Hetil. 2007 Dec 16;148(50):2371-6.