Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Exercising Your Brain

It’s hardly news one in three American’s is obese. The causes are two-fold – too many calories and not enough exercise.

A constant barrage of media encourages us to get off the couch and exercise. We are told that exercise improves mood, reduces tension and promotes the tendency to see problems as solvable. It increases endorphins and produces an important anti-distress effect in the body. And, more recent research indicates that exercise makes you smarter. The studies linking exercise to cognitive functioning have been going on for decades (1,2,). After years of research, we find that cardiovascular exercise does improve cognitive abilities, learning, memory and executive functioning (planning, scheduling, multitasking). Although we don’t know the exact mechanisms that improve brain health, animal research is giving us some clues. Researchers are finding that cardiovascular exercise creates new capillaries and increase blood flow and the production of proteins that create new nerve cells and encourage old neurons to grow. All good things, right?

Did you know that inactivity can contribute to depression, ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease? Studies done at Duke and University of Victoria found that exercise works as well as antidepressants on depression. In addition, Laura Baker, PhD, from the University of Washington School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System (3), found that Alzheimer’s patients with mild cognitive impairment improved with aerobic exercise while the group who participated in stretching and balancing exercises continued to decline.

So, how does this relate to resilience? Remember, resilience is all about recovery time. Your mental and physical health is directly related to how quickly you bounce back from stressful events. If you are losing brain cells and your cognitive abilities are declining, you certainly won’t be as sharp as you need to be to cope with life challenges. The healthier you are, the stronger you are, the tougher you are. So get off the couch, get fit and improve your brain. What have you got to lose besides brain cells?



Kramer, Art. Trends in Cognitive Sciences (Vol.11, No.8)
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol.106, No.49)
Archives of Neurology (Vol.67, No.1)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Man With Two Brains

A man with two brains? Only in the movies, right? No.

Each and every one of us has a second brain. It is called the enteric nervous system and is a network of neurons lining our gut. This “second brain” is not involved in any cognitive thought or decision making, but contains more than 100 million neurons (more than in the peripheral nervous system) that do more than just handle digestion. Those neurons can affect our mental state and influence certain diseases.

This system is far too complex to only move things through your colon. In fact, research shows that a “one-way street” runs from the gut to the brain via the vagus nerve. According to Emeran Mayer, professor of physiology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA , “A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut”. In fact, 95 percent of our serotonin is found in the bowels (low serotonin levels affects depression). What this means is that our emotional state partially relies on information carried from the brain in our gut to the brain in our head.

In addition, 70 percent of our immune system relies on the gut to kill and eliminate foreign invaders. Current research is focusing on specifics of how the immune system and gut work together.

How does this affect resilience?

  • We are what we eat. We want our gut to be healthy, happy and working properly. If our digestive system is in distress, we now know that our emotional state can be affected.
  • Our digestion is influenced by our stress response. When we go into the fight/flight state, digestion is halted so we can run or fight for our lives. Therefore we do not properly digest our food.
  • If 70 percent of our immune system relies on our gut, we had better make sure our gut is in top shape so the immune system can work efficiently.

    Source: “Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being. February 12, 2010. Scientific American.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How Stress Can Affect Our Memory

Have you ever been at a party or social/work related event and forgotten the name of someone whom you know that you know? Have you ever walked into a room to get something and forgotten why you are there? Have you ever started to ask someone to pass you something only to forget what it is called? “Could you please pass me that……you know, thing over there, I can’t think of the name”.

You could be suffering from “neurotic stupidity”. Yes, there is a name for it, and it has its roots in cognitive psychology.

  • Neurotic stupidity is a failure to use the real capacity of our brain due to its being overloaded by information.
  • Neurotic stupidity manifests as a failure to process information needed to function well.
  • Symptoms of neurotic stupidity include missing important details, having needed information readily drop out of memory, failing to pick up on important social cues, and loss of creative problem solving skills.
  • Multitasking and muscular tension are major sources of neurotic stupidity.

Cognitive psychologists say we have a 2.5 bit channel capacity. Our brains can process 2.5 bits of information at a rate of 18 times per second. To get a sense of how limited this is, the average home computer can process 32 bits of information at a rate of 2-3 billion times per second. What this means is that the brain is easily overloaded, and when it overloads we drop information from our memory and miss important information necessary for problem solving and navigating though our world.

The good news is that we have an amazing ability to store information and to take information in. When our brains are allowed to operate at their best, they have remarkable capabilities. We know from years of research that memory has been shown to be almost limitless. But because of our limited channel capacity, the brain can only process small amounts of information per unit of time.

Most people would think that things we see and hear are the greatest sources of information coming into the brain. While it’s true that information from hearing and seeing can overload the brain, the largest source of information processed by the brain comes from our muscles. Muscular tension is the major source of information flow into the brain, and tension goes hand in hand with stress. It is stress and tension that clog our channel capacity, therefore, learning to relax allows us to think more clearly and concentrate more easily.

The cure for neurotic stupidity? Relaxation and self-quieting exercises.

Friday, April 23, 2010

How Stress and Our Emotions are Connected

Last week I talked about stress and the fight/flight state, how to identify the signs of the state and how to neutralize the negative reactions associated with it.

But, there’s more to think about – namely, humans have an emotional response to everything that happens to them.

Every second of every day, we respond both mentally and emotionally to everything that happens to us. Here is why: everything that happens is processed in the subcortical part of the brain (also known as the limbic system or stream of emotion). Everyone responds in this way; it’s the way humans are wired.

At the base of the subcortical part of your brain is the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus governs the Autonomic Nervous System (fight/flight response) and basic functions of the body. It also controls sympathetic firing – whether or not you go into that fight/flight state.

So an event happens – let’s say a driver runs a red light and narrowly avoids hitting you. Your reaction is processed in the emotional part of the brain. As you silently (or not) curse the other driver’s carelessness your brain is busy. Chances are you found the incident stressful. Your hypothalamus reacts, you go into the fight/flight state and your hands get cold (remember if your hands are cold - and you’re not outside in very cold weather or have a medical condition that causes it - then you are in the fight/flight state).

The above is an obvious example of how you respond emotionally to events. But we also respond emotionally when we are stuck in traffic or grocery lines that are too long – or when we wake up in the morning and realize that our “to do” list is longer than we have time for. Remember we have a mental and emotional response to everything that we encounter.

Reversing the fight/flight state isn’t difficult if you practice self-calming techniques (please see last week’s blog for some simple techniques).

Be aware that there are thousands of different relaxation/meditation techniques. Some will work better for you than others. However, deep breathing is the basis of any relaxation or meditation technique. A good basic book on the subject is called “The Relaxation Response” by Herbert Benson M.D. To read further, go to http://www.massgeneral.org/bhi/basics/rr.aspx.

Next week I’m going write about how stress affects your memory.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Taking a Tiger by the Tail

Human brains are hard-wired to survive in jungles and grasslands. The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which is part of the Peripheral Nervous System, is designed to handle acute stress - such as a tiger trying to eat us for dinner. We meet the tiger and either fight, get away, or get eaten. One way or another, the stress is over in a few minutes.

If we  meet a tiger occasionally, our brains can handle the associated stress (if we get the recovery time). However, our bodies are not built to have tigers on our doorsteps for days, weeks, or months. When this happens, our bodies break down.

When you meet a tiger, your brain puts your body into a fight/flight state. The fight/flight state can be recognized if you know what to look for. Why look? Because, if you can train yourself to reverse the state, you can decrease the stress on your body.

Symptoms of the fight/flight state include:

  • Exercise: Even a 10-15 minute brisk walk can have an effect comparable to a tranquillizer.

  • Relaxation response: There are many techniques that can help you relax, and this “deep relaxation” makes a great contribution to rebuilding your resources.

  • Self talk: Say calming and reassuring things to yourself.

  • Calming imagery: Imagining yourself in a situation in which you would be calm.

  • Listen to calming recordings, music or voice.

  • Connecting with the energy of calming people. When stressed, try to be around people who help you rebuild your resources and avoid those who make things worse.

  • Go into predictable calming routines, e.g. something habitual that you love to do.

    • Pupils dilate to let more light in
    • Air pathways dilate to let more air into the lungs
    • Saliva becomes sticky so it doesn’t flow into the lungs
    • Blood vessels in the skin constrict so the blood can coagulate, therefore your hands and feet get very cold.
    • Blood leaves the intestines and goes to the skeletal muscles to prepare you to fight or flee for your life.
    • Heart pumps and blood pressure rises
    • Breathing becomes shallow
    • Palms of hands become sweaty

    One of the ten facets of resilience is the ability to self-calm. If you can identify the symptoms of stress and learn self-calming techniques, you will be able to reverse the fight/flight response and recover quickly from stressors.

    Some of the best ways to self-calm and replenish yourself:

      Tuesday, April 6, 2010

      Are You Resilient?

      Do you ever wonder why some people keep their cool, bounce back and recover quickly in the face of criticism, daily hassles and major life changes?

      What do they have in common?

      What makes them truly great at what they do, at how they handle life?
      They are resilient

      Resilience is what great minds have in common; it is the differentiator between good and great, the human variance that allows some to achieve enduring success. It is the new mandate for personal success.

      For the next ten weeks, I’m going to share some resilience tips with you. In this series you will learn applicable, daily exercises to help you achieve resilience and greater personal balance, enhance creativity, increase effectiveness on the job and in personal relationships, and attain greater physical health.

      What can you expect to gain by improving your resilience?
      You will:

      • Think more clearly
      • Concentrate more easily
      • Become more intuitive – better able to trust your gut
      • Feel more committed and in control of your life
      • Feel more in control of your emotions
      • Feel less critical of yourself and others
      • Find more meaning in your life experiences
      • Be hopeful
      • Become more optimistic
      • Be happier
      • Have more fun
      • Be able to handle anything that comes your way

        Stay tuned – more to come next week!