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More About Melissa


In case you’re wondering, that’s a brain reading an anatomy book. I’ll get back to that in a minute, but first I’d like to set the stage with a little yogic diversion.

I have a long-standing, very committed yoga practice and spend a good deal of my time in yoga-induced, la-la-land. Quite often upside down.

Wait, keep reading.

I’m not enlightened or anything. Far from it. I don’t sprinkle cosmic fairy dust around and although I’ve completed hundreds of hours of yoga teacher training, I still can’t pronounce most of the Sanskrit blah-blah-blahsanas. But, I’m serious when I say that yoga is my medicine. I mean that in a practical and qualitative sense. I was diagnosed with celiac disease many years ago and the healing power yoga has had on my life is profound. Plus, it’s cognitive therapy for my billions of neurons. Who wouldn’t benefit from that? Especially if gluten has played havoc on those neurons. 

But — meditation to go with my yoga?

Now that’s a different story. Although I’ve meditated on and off for decades (honestly, decades), I’m a fairly incompetent meditator. I need to be moving to clear my mind and find a peaceful rhythm for my ricocheting thoughts. Moving meditation is intensely satisfying, but I find it very difficult to sit in sukhasana (ironically called easy pose) in a silent attempt to clear my mind and be present. Don’t get me wrong, I think meditation is an amazing opportunity for positive transformation, I just like to move and let my neurons play pin-ball while I’m transforming.

Yes, I’m a touch ADD-ish. You know, that’s not always a bad thing. Mind-wandering research (imagine that) suggests that day-dreaming activates different problem-solving areas of the brain that don’t normally work together. It’s a good way to foster bipartisan, across the aisle (or hemispheres in this case), neural networking. Some of our most insightful moments come when we allow our thoughts to surf, drift and bounce around.

I say, let that ship sail.

But I digress.

This post is about healthy neurological function, but the above preamble is an important piece to the puzzle. Everything goes together. Nutrient-dense foods, movement, balance, mind-body connections, quality sleep, stress reduction, brain gymnastics, mind wandering. They’re all part of healing and thriving and every puzzle piece plays an important role in overall health and neurological aging. One of my interests is how gluten, as a neurotoxin, impacts mental and physical health, but regardless, this is pertinent information for anyone with a brain.

I’ll get to the nutrition piece in brain health – part 2, a post that will follow, so stay tuned. But first I’d like to set the stage with a few points to ponder. Put on your geek hat and fire up those neurons – this is interesting stuff (at least in my nerdy world).

Awe-inspiring brain facts (random stuff to blow your mind)

The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons (yes, that’s billion with a b). A neuron is a specialized cell that transfers information via electrical and chemical signaling. We want to keep our neurons happy and healthy so they can chat with each other in zippy harmony.

Nutrient-dense foods, exercise, yoga, meditation and cognitive activity can stimulate the creation of new neurons throughout life. You’re never too old to improve your brain function or your neurological health. Play chess, do crossword puzzles, skip, bend, twist and watch Jeopardy while balancing in tree pose.

Research suggests that yoga increases GABA levels. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. It’s the anti-anxiety, mellow-mood neurotransmitter. More is good, especially if you can boost your GABA levels in non-pharmacological ways. Yoga as valium.

Stress and poor sleep can contribute to cognitive decline. Yoga and meditation help reduce stress and promote quality sleep. Ommmm = Zzzzzz. I’m working on the meditation part.

Pull out your map and compass. Brain scans of elite London taxi drivers revealed a much larger hippocampus than in normal subjects. The hippocampus is the area of the brain associated with memory retention and navigation. These taxi drivers have a detailed mental map of the convoluted London streets stored in their grey matter. More evidence that the actual structure of the brain can change. This is called neuro-plasticity – changes in brain cells and the connection between them to encode new information. Beware, driving in London can cause severe stress. Breathe in, breathe out.

The human brain uses 20% of the body’s energy, but comprises only 2% of its mass and on average weighs about 3 pounds. Lots of bang for your buck in that little package.

At only 4 weeks from conception, a human fetus is producing 250,000 brain cells every minute. WOW!

Exercise is linked to the growth of new brain cells.

Your brain uses about 12 watts of power, less than your refrigerator light.

The human brain produces an average of 70,000 thoughts per day. How do they know that? Really.

The olfactory neurons in your nose die off on a regular basis, but are continually replaced. Humans have 12 million smell receptor cells. Sounds like a lot, right? Bloodhounds have 4 billion. Sniff, sniff.

Research shows that meditation boosts attention, processing speed and response times.

Think about how you think (or something like that). The power of positive thought and the intention of mind-body harmony can be more effective than drugs. See Professor Funk’s video below about shiny shit – his words, not mine. This is called the placebo effect. Our beliefs and thoughts directly impact our cellular physiology, so have a good attitude.

Thank you to my friends at I Heart Guts for the use of that handsome little brain reading Gray’s Anatomy and to the folks at Lumosity for some of the brainy fun facts.

Peace, love and joyous neurons!
Melissa

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19 Responses to “brain health – part 1”

  1. Fascinating stuff, Melissa! Of course, I knew a little about placebos, but nothing to that extent (e.g., withdrawal), but it all makes sense. So the question I have is this: does one have to be told by someone else that a placebo will “do the job” or is it enough that I tell myself say that my green smoothies will change my life? And, meditation that includes clearing one’s mind completely is very, very hard for me. Yoga rocks though!

    Thanks for another great piece! You always get me thinking.

    xoxo,
    Shirley

    • Melissa says:

      Shirley,

      I could have made this blog post 20 pages long (it was too long as it was). This (mind/body connections – food, thought, movement and neuro-plasticity) is such an interest of mine. One thing I probably should have added is a study of patients (80 subjects) with IBS who took took either a placebo labeled as such (PLACEBO) or a physician prescribed drug had similar improvement and reduced symptoms. You would think that for the placebo to work, people would have to think they were taking a drug, but if they believed a placebo would work, they responded positively. The power we have inside is amazing. We just need to learn to unleash it for our own good and that starts with the right food. It’s hard to think positive if you’re eating foods that impact your neurological functioning (i.e. gluten).

      Thanks for contributing to this conversation! Your input is always appreciated. xo

  2. I love reading your blog. I feel like you just open my brain and pour in amazing information. I love it. Having really just started yoga in January I’m so sorry I waited so long. What it has done for me physically, emotionally and mentally has been amazing. It’s cool to know the facts behind what I’ve been experiencing. I’m looking forward to part 2. Off to share this with folks!

    • Melissa says:

      Diane,

      Thank you SO much. I really appreciate the support. As I say (probably way too often), we’re all in this together. The more knowledge we share and information we pass along, the better off we all are (hopefully). Hang in there with your yoga, it only gets better. =) And thank you for your willingness to share my posts with your readers. xo

  3. Maggie says:

    Cool stuff Melissa! Love the video, it’s so true! And it definitely connects to all of that “stuff” from the film The Secret. If you believe it, it will happen. I did yoga and pilates before I had children. I NEED to make time (and money) to get back into it. A good instructor is essential for my practice. Can’t wait for part 2!

    • Melissa says:

      Thanks, Maggie. Isn’t Professor Funk a riot!? His videos are always good. Yes, the Secret and What The Bleep Do We Know are along those lines. I believe in positive thinking, but I also believe we need to take full responsibility and get things moving ourselves. With kids, it’s so important for you to have your own exercise time (yoga or pilates are perfect for busy moms), but I know how hard that is to do. Hope you find a way to get that back into your life!

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by changemylifejrn, Gluten Free Emily. Gluten Free Emily said: Gluten Free For Good brain health – part 1: In case you’re wondering, that’s a brain reading an ana… http://bit.ly/gfpXlv #GlutenFree [...]

  5. Alta says:

    My neurons are all firing and I am in less pain, have a greater sense of well being, and am thinking I am in overall better health after reading this and watching that video! Just think: if I was in tree pose while reading it, how much better would I feel? Okay, seriously though, I love reading these posts of yours. Educational and fun. My favorite combo!

    • Melissa says:

      Alta,

      Thank you so much for your fun comment! Sounds like (or, I should say, “reads” like) your neurons are firing at top speed. You always make me smile. And you’re right, educational and fun go well together. Makes learning easier!

  6. Nerdy stuff! I’m so in….
    Love Professor Funk! Especially that big ass medical machine placebo’s are more effective ;)
    The power of the mind for both good and evil is incredible. If we want to be well, more often than not we will be well. If we want to stay sick (even subconciously) we will stay sick. It was always amazing to me in physical therapy patient care. People with a lawsuit pending as related to their injuries just neveer got better.
    And I could not agree with more regarding the power of positive thinking. Thinking is good, but doing trumps thinking any day.
    And-I am finally getting back into yoga one day a week. My body and mind are in desperate need.

    • Melissa says:

      Erin,

      We’re nerdy girls together on a mission! Love that about you. And I love Professor Funk. He cracks me up, but also makes a good point. Here’s to the power of positive thinking! xo

    • Nadya says:

      Melissa, another great post – we MUSat have been separated at birth, LOL! I am another “need to move” meditator – in a workshop w/ Ros Bruyere, she commented that the brain goes into the meditative state more easily w/ contemplative movement, yoga or Tai Chi or mindful walking & to do seated meditation AFTER you’ve “switched” the brain! An MD specializing in elder care gave a “movement is Medicine” talk, and asked “if I had a pill that would help w/ heart problems, lung capacity,bone density, lessen your risk of falls, mental health …. & told you it was FREE, would you take it?” & went on to say “I do! Movement! ” He also mentioned social dance (which I happen to love) as lowering your risk for developing Alzheimers by 75%, as it fills several needs inc movement, sotouch touch, & mental stimulation!
      Roger Anmunson is another brain health specialist who suggests movement, mental gym (& do several activities – if you like suduku, try puzzles some days, etc) antioxidents, omega 3 fats …. & we would add go gluten free! Another gal & I asked if he knew the bennies of coconut oil & Mary Newport’s work with that – he didn’t when I last spoke to him …
      my personal favorites are qigong & Tai Chi, and weekly dance ….

    • Nadya says:

      I forgot to mention, Erin that as a massage therapist I’ve seen the same thing, folks with insurance claims can be VERY slow to improve! I do very few of those sessions myself – it’s also a challenge to get insurance to pay from massage, and frustrating to work with clients who don’t seem invested in their health!

  7. Nerd! Nerd! Can I be in your nerdy club?! Please!!!

    I laughed aloud twice while reading your post. And I also found myself fascinated with the information. I could’ve read all 20 pages had you written and posted that many. I’m looking forward to reading part 2.

    I just watched the movie “Harold and Maude”. Talk about having a positive attitude.

    I love your writing Melissa – you are a gem!

    ~Ellen

    • Melissa says:

      Ellen,

      Of course you can! Geeky girls unite! I love it.

      And thanks for the kind words. Not everyone thinks this geeky stuff is “gem” worthy. =) Glad you do.

      xo

  8. Melissa, I will be the leader of your nerdy geeky fan club. I have, and always will be, a total dork when it comes to information like this. Your post is brilliantly written. All that upside-down meditative movement is working for you, for sure.
    And, I am so with you on the note of being able to meditate and be present much more effectively WHILE I am actually moving versus while I am in sukhasana. I have been doing yoga for about ten years now and I still find that to be true. On my vision board, I have a HUGE picture of me in the middle of my board doing yoga on the beach to remind myself what an integral part of my life it has been and to not let my focus be taken from staying on track with my practice.
    I am such a huge advocate of brain health and how inter-related our guts and our minds are. I have seen huge changes just in my own family and friends when I watch them make nutrition and yoga (and other exercise) a daily habit and ritual.
    Here’s to your beautiful and joyously happy neurons, my friend!! AMazing post!!
    xoxoxoxooxoxo
    k

  9. Jim says:

    There is a difference between gluten intolerance and celiac disease- celiac is a subset of intolerance and not the only place in the body that gluten causes harm.
    My son had episodes of severe psychosis which have turned out to be caused by gluten. He’s been hospitalized for extended periods twice and unfortunately under the care of psychiatrists who have assumed he needed lots of meds. Unfortunately, the meds led to profound catatonia. I had seen him reacting severely to gluten but could not get through to the psychiatrists. They thought I was crazy and completely disregarded my accurate observations and became hostile toward me when I continued to insist that he did not have bipolar or schizophrenia, his brain was under attack (obvious to me but they only know what they’ve been taught and were the most closed-minded and arrogant providers I’ve ever encountered- my only motivation was helping my son- I knew what I saw and didn’t appreciate being humiliated) . Took a consultation with a brilliant neurologist to prove I was right and the gluten-free diet saved him from a life of subsisting under neuroleptics and probably institutionalization (he reacted very poorly to every drug they tried- always made him worse but they never stopped trying until he was catatonic- incontinent, unaware of his surroundings, unable to communicate and no instinct to eat or drink. Took extensive ECT to bring him back).
    Turns out there have been tons of peer-reviewed studies on the neurological effects of gluten and this neurologist was aware of them. Go to Pubmed and do a search on gluten, gliadin (the subfraction of gluten that causes the problems) and neurological and you will find countless studies. When gluten causes damage in the gut it’s called celiac disease, in the skin it’s dermatitis herpetiformis. There is not a name for when it causes neurological or psychiatric damage yet, but will be some day (as in gluten-induced ataxia, schizophrenia, etc).
    Also, there are many promising treatments that will soon eliminate the need for a gluten-free diet. There is a drug in human clinical trials right now that treats celiac and (probably many other autoimmune diseases) by stopping gluten from entering the bloodstream and initiating the exaggerated immune response. Check out Alba therapuetics, Dr Alessio Fasano (good info on this at celiac.com).

    • Melissa says:

      Jim,
      I’m so sorry for the difficulties you’ve had to go through to get to this point and I appreciate you taking the time to leave such a heartfelt comment. My heart goes out to you and your son. I’m familiar with the research and have been focused on this for some time now. I didn’t go into scientific detail here because the blog is for more of a mainstream audience, but your story is a perfect example of how these neurological problems caused by gluten can be missed. I wonder how many people are suffering needlessly. It’s very sad. I have celiac disease and DH and Dr. Fasano was my original doc on this, so I’m aware of what you mention here. I’ve also followed his role in Alba Therapeutics. I have no problem with a gluten-free diet and have been thriving on my healthy version of it for a decade now. I feel lucky and blessed. I hope things work out for your son. Hang in there!
      Melissa

  10. Kat says:

    AMAZING article. Thank you so much for your beautiful research and writing.

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