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!



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!


What Color is Your Spark: Using Psychological Type to Energize Your Exercise Plan

It’s becoming indisputably clear that exercise not only benefits the body, it benefits the brain.  I just returned from the Learning and the Brain Conference in Chicago and the importance of physical exercise for learning, mood stability, and mental acuity was reiterated.  However, what  if we aren’t motivated to exercise or have a well-meaning trainer or friend who is trying to steer us toward a program that is workable for the short term, but tedious and likely to fizzle in the long run.

Shortly after I published a review on John Ratey’s Spark book, a scientifically based but very readable text on the benefits of exercise on brain health and function, I had several people step forward praising his work.  One of these was Suzanne Brue, author of The Eight Colors of Fitness and the former president of the Association for Psychological Type International.   One of Suzanne’s major projects is help match fitness approaches and goals to one’s MBTI type.

There are 8 major types based on the perceiving function.  Hence, as an ENFP, I am grouped with ENTPs because we both share dominant extraverted intuition.  Morever, instead of trying to remember a letter code, I am assigned a color, in this case silver, to help me remember what my type is.  Silver exercisers prefer variety and the opportunity to disguise exercise as fun..  Of course, we all prefer to have some degree of fun when we exercise, but is essential to silvers in order to sustain effort over the long haul. Other colors, such as the blues, respond better to goals and objective parameters.

Imagine a silver, who prefers variety and loosely defined objectives receiving exercise direction from someone who sees objective parameters as essential to a successful exercise program.  Here you may find a client and trainer who are initially attracted to each other because of the differences in approach but over the long haul, may grow weary of each other because of these differences.    Apart from the interpersonal element, an individual may also choose a regime that worked for a friend but become discouraged because it doesn’t work for him.   The exercise plan is not the problem but the fit may be.

The Eight Colors of Fitness website has many useful components. First, there is a quiz that will help you identify what type of exerciser you are-your fitness color.  It also has suggestions on how to energize your inner exercise warrior by giving concrete suggestions on what types of activities are likely to appeal to you in the long run.   There are also several links to articles that have featured the Eight Colors system including Arthritis Today, The Chicago Daily Herald, and the  Lifetime Fitness magazine.  Please visit Suzanne’s website and browse the offerings to see if this might help you get moving and stay moving.

Long ago in my career as a speech pathologist helping brain-injured people recover, it was intuitively clear to me that individual differences in the personality of the client dictated what approach would yield the best long-term results.  For any resilient changes to occur, a brain must be engaged and anything that goes against cognitive preference is likely to be discarded in the end (unless the client deliberately chooses to operate out of natural preference).   How one prefers to approach a challenge serves as the underpinning for the strategies he chooses to meet the challenge.

So it is with exercise!  Match your personality with the vast array of methods to achieve fitness goals. We now know that exercise and brain health are inextricably bound so start exploring your preferences for the sake of your body and your mind!  In  the words of  Thomas Jefferson:  A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind.

For more information on the Eight Colors of Fitness system, there is a free webinar this Thursday, 12-12:12:45 EDT.  Click this link for more information and to register.


Q and A from the I-Brain Conference Part III: Exercise and the Brain

Exercise releases a substance that is  “Miracle Grow for the Brain”, according to John Ratey, an expert on the effects of exercise on optimal brain functioning. The release of brain-derived neuroptropic factor (BDNF), in effect, fertilizes brain cells to keep them functioning and growing, as well as spurring the growth of new neurons.  This was one of  the several benefits of exercise that Dr. Ratey shared at the Learning and Brain Conference I attended recently.   We were designed to move and yet our culture has evolved to the point where we sit more often than we exercise. Tight clothes, lethargy, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease aren’t the only threats from inactivity.  Our brains pay the price too.

Our ancestral brains and bodies were used to walking/running 10-14 miles per day. We kept active because we were searching for food or avoiding a threat.  Our brains benefited from this exercise. When we move, 3 important brain chemicals, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are released and the organism becomes patient, optimistic, focused and motivated. From an evolutionary context, these are the qualities that make if possible for man to zero in on it’s prey (food). Likewise, when an individual gets consistent and sufficient exercise in today’s world, these same neurochemicals  helps him or her keep a stable mood, focus on tasks, meet challenges and engage in purposeful activities .  The more we exercise, the more nerve synapses in the brain are primed to be alert to these chemicals making these beneficial states of mind available to us.

Another benefit of exercise is that it regulates the stress hormone cortisol.  The brain and body needs a certain amount of cortisol to respond to stress but excessive levels of cortisol has a toxic effect on neurons.  The neuronal connections erode in the presence of high and unrelenting levels of cortisol, causing difficulty with learning and memory.  The hippocampus structure in the brain is the way stay station that bundles new and stored information together making learning possible.  This structure is highly sensitive to the effects of cortisol. It is also a structure that benefits from BDNF, the chemical that nurtures neuronal growth.   Exercise attenuates the damaging effects of cortisol and at the same time, increases the growth of new brain cells via the action of BDNF.

Who do you think has the highest math and science scores in the world?  An Asian country?  We know it’s NOT the United States.  We aren’t even in the top 10.  It’s Finland.  The typical school day in Finland has 45 minute class periods followed by 15 minutes of compulsory exercise. Students don’t use these 15 minutes to check cell phones and laptops.  They go to the gym or step outside to throw a few snowballs.  The best time to learn new information and have it stick is after a period of physical activity.

The take-away:

1. Exercise every day not only to stay physically fit but to stay mentally fit.  The same activity can provide multiple benefits.  What an efficient use of time!

2. Keep challenging your mind so your brain takes advantage of it’s readiness to learn something new as a result of exercising.

After the conference, I purchased Dr. Ratey’s book Spark that covers this topic.   He makes the case that if you can’t find the motivation to exercise for the sake of your body, it is certainly a good idea  to move for the sake of your brain. This is a highly readable book that will inspire most couch potatoes to get moving once and for all!