December 22, 2014

Keeping Your Brain Razor Sharp

The brain and gut are intrinsically related.  A happy mind is a happy gut and a happy gut is a happy mind.

The brain and gut are intrinsically related. A happy mind is a happy gut and a happy gut is a happy mind.

My great aunt grew up on a diet of fatty meat, dumplings and potatoes. Vegetables were usually cucumbers doused in bacon grease. She smoked for 80 years and loved her scotch. When she was in her mid-90’s, she collapsed at a casino and was admitted to the hospital. After a few tests, she insisted that she be taken home or else she would call a cab. She had a dinner party on Friday night. She was released. On Friday, she went to the party, enjoyed herself as always, and died Saturday morning in her bed in the house she had lived in for decades.

Except for the exercise she got enjoying herself, she defied all the laws of what we now know as the standard guidelines of health:  Exercise, no smoking, moderate alcohol, and a diet of fruits, veggies, and lean meats. This aunt of mine was lucky and she probably had resilient genes. Maybe she also had less overall stress than the typical person has today.

Current research shows that small but measurable declines in brain function begin in our 20’s.  In the age 85+ population, 40% show signs of Alzheimer’s disease.   Anxiety is common in developed in countries and the lifetime risk for significant depression is 20%, whereas 100 years ago, it was 1%. It’s been suggested that stress, lack of sleep, obesity, lack of exercise contribute to declining brain health.

How do we keep our brain razor sharp?

Here are 5 tips:

1.  Exercise.  Regular exercise improves circulation, increases pulmonary capacity and lessens anxiety and depression.  What’s more, exercise produces BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) which creates new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, which is  critical to memory functions and spatial navigation.

2. Keep inflammation in check.  Inflammation can come from infections, injuries and poor dental health.  What has emerged lately is the role of excess weight, poor lifestyle, and lack of sleep in the onset of the inflammatory process.

3.  Reduce or eliminate sugar.  There is an emerging evidence that sugar is a significant cause of chronic inflammation. Seventy percent of our immune cells are in the digestive system.  Anything that irritates these cells, irritates the immune cells including those in the brain.

4.  Watch for food sensitivities such as gluten intolerance. They also disrupt the intestinal immune system, ultimately affecting inflammation in the brain.  If your digestive tract feels unwell after eating something, your brain probably isn’t happy about it either.

5. Supplement with omega 3 capsules or eat food rich in omega 3 such as salmon and flax.  Not only will they insulate the nerve cells with high quality fat, they also reduce inflammation.

The brain and belly are intrinsically connected.  Not only are they connected by immune cells, the vagus nerve directly connects the two organs.  Therefore, an additional benefit for eating well is that your “gut feelings” are likely to be more clearly interpreted by brain.  A happy brain is a happy belly and a happy belly is a happy brain. More on that next time!



Lessons from the Neuroskeptic


Dr. Robert A. Burton urges us to use the findings of neuroscience wisely.

Dr. Robert A. Burton urges us to use the findings of neuroscience wisely.

A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert A Burton is currently capturing my attention.   While one of the cornerstones of my coaching business is brain science, 25 years working in the field of brain injury has taught me to be cautious about jumping to conclusions about the current findings in neuroscience and what they can definitely tell us about the mind.

Let me share this perspective.   In the years that I worked as a speech pathologist, we often worked as a team with physical therapy and occupational therapy.   When setting goals, I was envious that it seemed easier for occupational therapy and physical therapy to set measurable goals for the client.   Especially in physical therapy, the goals were concrete, such as “the client will walk 100 yards unassisted.”  You could not only observe this phenomenon and check it off, but deciding on the next step was fairly clear.  Add distance.  Do it with less assistance.  Change the terrain.   The goals were directly connected to the measurable outcomes.

In my field, speech pathology, it was a little different.   These goals could be concrete such as “The client will answer Y-N questions with 70% accuracy” or “The client will name items with 90% accuracy.”   However these goals didn’t seem to translate necessarily to functional outcomes. What did communication look like when the client could use multiple strategies like pointing, changing intonation in speech despite a limited vocabulary, or communicating with many modalities at once: gesture, writing, and speech? Or with cognition,  having a client remember 5 digits in sequence is one thing but demonstrating adaptability by writing those numbers down to complete the task showed something else about the client’s mind.   Trying to define the client’s cognitive-linguistic capability in terms of simple parameters of behavior seemed to fall short most of the time.  Trying to reduce complexity to simplicity can be like capturing air.

However, it is true that certain principles of neuroscience can be very useful, especially if applied with flexibility and the notion that these principles might be relevant for an individual. I am truly energized and excited about the explosion of neuroscience and it’s implications for maximizing human potential,  Still, I am well-aware of it’s limitations too. That’s why I am eager to read what Dr. Burton has to offer as a counterbalance to the neurohype that is definitely out there.   In the next few blogs, I will blend what I read from this book with my “25 years in trenches” to expound on the  brain principles that I believe are largely true and that have implications for uncovering your potential.



Uncover Your Potential: Sleep. Sleep Well.


As coaching professionals, we are always looking for ways to enhance the process of helping others uncover their personal potential.   We strive to expand the possibilities through visual coaching, body-connected coaching and mindfulness among other methodologies    And yet, we may be overlooking a powerful way to increase the capacity to think clearly and consider multiple perspectives.   It’s sleep.

How well are you sleeping?  How well is the client sleeping?  Recently, I attended a seminar called The Ever-Changing Brain.  I was struck by the impact of sleep deprivation on every aspect of our lives.   The presenter, John Preston, Psy.D. wasn’t talking about just doing time in our bed.  He was talking about the deeply restorative type of sleep that affects our ability to regulate our emotions, solve problems, and go through our day with energy.  What happens to willpower when fatigue is present?

It isn’t the number of hours spent in our bed either.  Researchers say we need 7-9 hours but the quality of sleep is critical. Apparently, slow wave sleep is the type of sleep that we need.   If we don’t get quality sleep,  we experience an increase in irritability and lack of focus.  Cognition and problem solving is reduced.  Pain thresholds decrease.  Extended sleep deprivation can result in depression.

Here are some factors that adversely affect deep, restorative sleep:   Caffeine, alcohol, late nights with a bright computer screen, tranquilizers and some sleeping pills.   A hot room can also interfere with slow wave sleep.  Sleep apnea, which is another topic altogether, is probably the biggest enemy of restorative sleep.

So what can you do to enhance sleep?   Dr. Preston had these suggestions:

1.  Get regular exercise (but not before bed!)

2. Avoid computer screens and other bright sources of light at least an hour before bed.

3. Sleep cool.

4. Calm evenings.

5. Avoid substances that interfere with slow wave sleep (as above).

So next time you have a client who feels frustrated, stuck or overwhelmed, you might just inquire how they are sleeping.  It might be one of the single most powerful ways you can enhance the coaching outcome.

Ann C. Holm

Written for my column, “Mind Matters” in The Catalyst at MN-ICF.


7 Interesting Facts About Memory

The professor’s hippocampus (a critical memory structure) based off of his MRI

Yesterday, I attended a day long seminar on memory.  Professor Craig E. L. Stark, an engaging and immensely knowledgeable presenter, packed in an incredible amount of information into that time period. It is regrettable that it was only 6 hours long!

Here are some of my favorite take-away concepts from the seminar:

1. Memory is the imaginative reconstruction of our attitudes and past reactions with bits of actual fact added to the mix.   Most of us are quite certain that our memories are crystal clear from a factual standpoint when in fact, they are quite susceptible to our own mental filters.

2. Lack of sleep impairs memory function. What’s more, positive memories are more likely to be lost than negative ones.   Depression is a frequent symptom of sleep deprivation.   Could our affected memory be part of this?

3. The risk of Alzheimer’s disease is 50% after the age of 85.  No foods or supplements appear to stave this off.  What appears to be effective is this:

  • Optimal cardio-vascular health.
  • Cognitive stimulation
  • Social stimulation
  • Physical exercise

3. The adult brain develops to age 25 or later.  Time and dynamic challenge refine the brain.  As a young adult, what you do now as far as cognitive challenge shapes the brain you will have in the future.  Memory is also affected by focus and concentration which are executive prefrontal cortex skills. With better focus comes better memory skills.

4.  There are several strategies to improve memory including:

  • Depth of processing.  The more actively you process information, the more likely you are to remember it.  Work with the information beyond the surface level.
  • Develop expertise.  Expertise in any area will help “hook” information into memory.
  • Spaced practice.  Practicing something several times with a break in between rather than all at once enhances memory.  Cramming information into memory generally does not work. It’s even true at the level of the sea slug!
  • Emotion, stress and arousal will enhance memory.  If you are trying to teach something, make it interesting!
  • Repetition does work
5.  Our memories are easily swayed by misinformation and how a question is posed to us.   
6. Caffeine doesn’t help maintain memory performance only alertness.
7.  Dori from the movie Finding Nemo is a pretty accurate depiction of an individual with amnesia!
There was much more information from this fabulous seminar than I am listing here, but these were some of my favorite points!


Three Ways to Use Psychological Type to Increase Willpower

Much has been learned about the nature of sefl-control and it’s role in addictions, procrastination, impulsivity, and unmet goals. There are many new books on the market on this topic.  Less than a year ago, I attended an all day workshop on willpower. Trying to understand the nature of underdeveloped willpower is a hot topic as it contributes to so many frustrating outcomes. According to the American Psychological Association, Americans name lack of willpower as the number one reason they struggle to meet their objectives.  There are many factors that contribute to the presence or absence of willpower including hunger, fatigue, and even goals that lack personal incentive.

Knowledge of your personality or psychological type can also be helpful in managing willpower in at least 3 ways:

1. Building awareness around typical willpower issues based on psychological type can help you understand why you might falter.  For example, an ENFP type who has poor follow-through would benefit from knowing that ENFPs tend to be attracted to new opportunities and projects, especially after they get the basic gist of it and only details remain.

2.  Knowing your type can inform your goals and even solicit  assistance  to help you attain your goal.    For example, an ENFP is often challenged by details and follow-through.   Setting goals that specify increased attention to details rather than “just finish it”  helps to clarify where the energy needs to be directed.  Having someone whose strength is follow-through and details or an external device or system to address these needs can help as an external source of willpower support (remind and encourage you).

3. It is well-known that tasks that tap into the 3rd and 4th functions of a personality type require additional energy.  Therefore you will have more success if you are well-rested and have extra energy.    Shifting from easily accessed functions such as extraverted intuition in the case of ENFP types (Ideas! Possibilities!) to 3rd and 4th function behaviors (logic, sensing and details) can be a challenge.   A critical structure in willpower is a well-developed prefrontal cortex.  This is the most sophisticated structure in the brain and the one that uses the most energy and glucose. The prefrontal cortex inhibits impulses,, and it serves to initiate behaviors. It is the seat of judgment and holds the capacity to evaluate choices.   It is the CEO of your brain that says “do this” and “do that”.    Therefore be mindful of energy resources when you need to operate out of preference.




Meditation: An Adult “Time-out”

Meditation is often associated with Buddhist monks or beautifully peaceful women on fluffy cushions. Individuals may be uninterested in exploring the benefits of meditation because they cannot relate to the meditative archetype, a transcendent and serene being. Recently, a client inquired about learning how to meditate but was skeptical  about whether she would be a good candidate.

Meditation isn’t about expections, I started to explain. It’s like, like a …maybe think of it as an adult time out! At the time, I blurted it out in jest but when I started thinking about it, it isn’t a bad comparison.

Many of us who have had children know about the all-powerful time-out when a child is behaving badly. It’s a actually too bad that time-outs are often used as a punishment rather than an important time to settle down before returning to the scene with a clearer mind.  In our house, it was called “The Thinking Chair” but it was almost always used when I had had enough of their antics.   If I known then what I knew now, I could have expanded the Thinking Chair into an opportunity to teach early self-regulation.   The Thinking Chair would be a wholly positive experience.  Oh well.. lost opportunity. They are all grown up now.

Anyway, one of the many benefits of meditation is to train your mind to notice when you are off track, or when you are relying on unhelpful cognitive patterns of the past to respond to the present.  Certainly it always helps to step away from a stressful situation to gather your thoughts in the moment.  However, most of us don’t notice when we are in that chaotic or rigid state of mind in the first place so we just keep going.  Meditation prepares the brain to notice those situations unfolding so we can take a step back and achieve clarity.  Another good analogy to describe meditation is that it is like going to the gym to lift weights so you can lift something for real later.

I meditate but do not I head into the woods to contemplate the sound of one clapping hand.  I use that phrase as a caricature to describe what meditation is not, especially for the average participant who might feel that they aren’t “the meditating type.”   There are enormous benefits to the regular practice of meditation and one should not judge themselves to be a poor candidate to do it due to misconceptions about what it actually is.




Play Hard but Play Smart

Few were surprised when the analysis of former NHL player Derek Boogaard revealed extensive brain damage and degeneration associated with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.  The brain is not designed to take multiple traumatic hits and be unaffected by the damage.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a 300 pound football player, an elite hockey player, or a housewife.  The brain remains among the most vulnerable areas of the body, and no amount of physical training and conditioning will alter that fact.

Certain occupations in life involve an element of physical risk.  Policemen get shot. Roofers fall off of roofs. Those in the military face risks constantly. Apparently, commercial fishing is  quite dangerous too. The people who do these jobs know what the risk is and they decide to do the job anyway.   It makes no sense to try to cover up the potential risks associated with any occupation, including athletics.   Jobs that have a higher incidence of concussions and blows to the head put an individual at risk for CTE.  CTE is the equivalent of environmentally caused dementia.

Apparently, the NHL is not convinced that there is a link between CTE and hockey. I am not sure what they are looking for as far as proof.  Would they go as far as to agree that concussions happen relatively often in contact sports?  Would they accept the fact that CTE is caused  by repeated blows to the head? Give these athletes the facts and let them decide if they want to take on the risk of playing the sport.   So many times an organization will try to underplay what might damage their immediate interests, and it results in a  worse problem down the line!

It’s never easy to take a proactive stance on anything. This isn’t the first time I have struggled with trying to make peace with the idea that I love to watch hockey and football and yet I know there are very significant  risks to the brain.  Decades of working with brain injured clients has created this dilemma for me.  In some ways, it seems hypocritical to be a fan of these sports and at the same time, point out what I see as a huge risk to people who play these sports. I can only imagine how difficult it would be if my life was and my livelihood was completely tied to these sports or promotion of these sports.  Derek Boogaard’s brother still plays hockey because in his words, “What else would I do?”

It isn’t an easy problem to solve. Still, it would behoove the NHL and NFL to become actively cooperative in trying to discover what risks are involved in playing a sport especially revealing the worst of these consequences. Don’t hold anything back and let the players, their families and their health care providers make informed decisions about what to do.  Also make necessary changes as a league  to improve conditions and have policies in place to minimize risk where possible.   However, the only way to arrive at a solution is to agree that there’s a problem.  How much more evidence will be required before professional sports acknowledge significant link between potentially compromised brain function and contact sports?  As the Minnesota Brain Injury Society stated in their 2010 Walk for Thought campaign: Play hard but play smart.




Another NHL Player Gone Too Soon

Another NHL enforcer was found dead in what should be the prime of his life. Wade Belak was found dead in his Toronto apartment today, apparently due to suicide. He joins Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien in hockey heaven. the causes of death were two suicides and one overdose on alcohol and pain killers.  This is very tragic especially for the families and friends of these players. I believe the culprit here is multiple traumatic brain injuries.  Moreover,  I suspect there are many more of these guys who struggle with pain, irritability, and depression as a result of multiple blows to the head over the course of a hockey career.

In the old days, when someone suffered a concussion on the playing field, court, or rink, it was said that that player, “got his bell rung” .  As soon as he could get back out there, perhaps with the help of some smelling salts, he was encouraged to do so.  However, it is now known that the effects of brain injuries last well beyond the sense of feeling better physically.  Cognitively, they last much longer because the brain has not completely recovered.  The effects of multiple head injuries are cumulative and the effects worsen as the brain ages.

Sports rely heavily on previous motor programming.  In fact, if an athlete is accused of “thinking too much”, it is likely that he is relying too heavily on his prefrontal cortex rather than his finely honed motor skills that are a result of hours of practice. An athlete that is performing in the zone is hardly aware of what he actually did to achieve that level of excellence.  If he thought about it too much, he would lose the flow.  It’s similar to when a golfer suddenly realizes he’s having a personal best round then loses it because he has brought it into awareness.  In my mind, a player could actually appear quite well when his motor functions returned after a concussion, but his executive functions could still be significantly below his pre-injury baseline.

The executive functions are located in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  They are involved in higher level thinking tasks such as planning, initiating, inhibiting, attention, and decision making. Moreover, the prefrontal cortex is the most vulnerable part of the brain so any concussion would likely involve this area and these functions.  In fact the prefrontal cortex is likely to be the most affected. Is it any wonder why someone who has had repeated blows to the head with little time for full recovery might experience problems in these areas outside of the sports arena?   What happens when they retire and they aren’t earning money using their well-practiced motor skills and having to rely on executive functions?   The worst scenario here is the poor decision to end one’s life.

Now, I am a huge hockey fan.  I love the Detroit Red Wings and have been to 2 Stanley Cup Final games. A close second is football, another head bashing sport. I like these sports very much. However, there are many changes that can happen that will make these sports safer.

1. Enforce the rules that penalize cheap shots that result in head injuries.  No exceptions.

2. Make sure executive functioning of the brain returns to baseline before allowing a return to the game.

3. Provide support and coping skills for individuals who played years before new rules would be in place.  These players are the most vulnerable and need the most help.


Note: Last year’s Minnesota Brain Injury Walk for Thought focused on increasing awareness about sports concussions.  Properly treating traumatic brain injury is important at all levels of competition from youth to professionals.


Walk for Thought 2010 Update

The Minnesota Brain Injury Association 2010 Walk for Thought occurred on September 25, 2010 at Como Park in St. Paul.  The theme for this year’s walk was “Sports Concussions.”  Sports concussions are not merely “getting your bell rung” as was previously believed.  It is now known that these brain  injuries are a serious matter and the effect of multiple injuries is not only cumulative but sometimes the ramifications of these injuries present later in life.  Our team, “Big on Brains” raised nearly $1600, exceeding our goal by 60%!  Thank you to everyone who donated and participated.  You only have one brain and it has to serve your needs long after you have left the playing field, the rink, or the court.  In the words of  the Minnesota Vikings All-Pro and Hall of Famer Randall Mc Daniel, the honorary ambassador to this year’s event, “Play hard but play smart.”  (Pictured at the right: Big on Brains Team 2010)

Cortical Matters: Youth Sports Concussions

“We must educate young athletes, coaches and parents to recognize the warning signs of brain injures and ultimately to find ways to prevent them. I want to educate young athletes to learn to play hard- but play smart.  We all must realize that there is nothing more important than the safety of your brain as brain injury can change your life forever” – Randall Mc Daniel (Former Minnesota Viking/2009 Pro Football Hall of Famer/2010 Honorary Ambassador of the Minnesota Brain Injury Association Walk for Thought 2010).

Sports related concussions occur in over 50,000 high school athletes each year, accounting for 20% of all brain injuries. This figure does not take into account the injures that occur on collegiate fields, courts, and slopes each year nor those that occur in grade school sporting activities .  Even “mild” injuries can affect  an individual’s ability to problem solve, concentrate, and regulate mood and behavior.  The brain is made of soft tissue and is cushioned by spinal fluid. It is encased in the hard, protective skull. When a person gets a head injury, the brain can slosh around inside the skull and even bang against it. This can lead to bruising of the brain, tearing of blood vessels, and injury to the nerves. When this happens, a person can get a concussion — a temporary loss of normal brain function.  Even “mild” injuries can have devastating repercussions on cognitive function.  Physical symptoms like dizziness and headache often improve before the cognitive symptoms. The effects of multiple concussions are cumulative making it particularly dangerous to return to the sport before full healing has taken place.

I love sports.  I grew up going to football games at University of Michigan. I got excited when Michigan beat Notre Dame last weekend.  However I worried about the ND quarterback who was “having troubles seeing.”  Team officials denied that he had a concussion but I  wondered  why they put him back out there with those symptoms.   It is very exciting to watch a game unfold on a beautiful fall day.  This year, my son who is a senior in high school, decided to play football. There are many benefits from playing on sports teams too numerous to list here.  However,I cringe and I worry about his safety and that of his teammates.  I wonder if this is against my values and my life’s work:  maximizing human potential by challenging and caring for the brain.  I think many of us feel the same way.  We love sports.  We want our teams to win and our young people to excel in these competitions.  Yet, in the back of our minds, we are concerned about the risks.

When my daughter sustained a mild concussion while taking a charge in an AAU National Basketball Tournament in 2004, I really wanted her to get back out there.  There were college scouts present and she had been playing so well. It wasn’t easy to reconcile with the fact that we had traveled all the way to North Carolina and she was going to spend the tournament on the bench.  There was much more at stake though than a basketball tournament.  Another concussion could have had far-reaching implications. The yearning to compete tempered by the real consequences when an individual sustains a brain injury during competition makes this  year’s Walk for Thought  particularly pertinent for parents and youth alike.   The magnetic pull to compete, win, or participate in a sports contest can override our better judgment in the face of a brain injury unless we build an awareness of what’s at stake.  Let them play but let them play smart.

Raising awareness about youth sports concussions is the theme of this year’s Walk for Thought. In the words of Randall Mc Daniel, “We need to change the old-school attitudes about brain injuries in sports.”  Please consider donating to our team “Big on Brains” as we “do the brain walk” on Saturday, September 25th.  Thank you!

**PHOTO:  2009 Big on Brains team (Theme: Brain injuries in U.S. Veterans)  Here we are modeling our “brain tattoos.”


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