Tag Archives: natural brain health care

Want a better brain? Lift Weights!

Free weights

Image via Wikipedia

Exercise has long been known to increase brain function.  Most of the research, however, focused on the benefits of purely cardiovascular exercises like running.  New research shows that weight training has the same effect.

Conventional wisdom has stated that the benefits of cardiovascular exercise on brain function was from the significant increase in blood flow to the brain during aerobic type exercises.  It was concluded that because weight training didn’t cause this to happen for extended periods of time, it would not have the same benefit.

The creation of new brain cells, or neurogenesis, is thought to be dependent on a spike of blood flow to the brain. In fact, running and other aerobic exercises have been shown to increase neuron production in the areas of the brain associated with memory and thinking in both mice and humans.  However, this was thought not to apply to resistance training.  That is changing.

“In a study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in November, researchers from Brazil secured weights to the tails of a group of rats and had them climb a ladder five sessions a week. Other rats on the same schedule ran on a treadmill, and a third group just sat around. After eight weeks, the running rats had much higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (B.D.N.F.), a growth factor that is thought to help spark neurogenesis, than the sedentary rats. So did the rats with weights tied to their tails. The weight-­bearing rats, like the runners, did well on tests of rodent learning and memory, like rapidly negotiating a water maze. Both endurance and weight training seemed to make the rats smarter.” (From The NY Times)

A similar study from Japan at the same conference came to the same conclusions.

“The animals that were assigned to the loaded wheels showed significantly increased levels of gene activity and B.D.N.F. levels within their brains. The higher the workload the animals managed to complete, the greater the genetic activity within their brains.” (From The NY Times)

The genetic activity is important.  That’s precisely how the human brain adapts.  It changes the expression of certain genes in order to respond to certain environmental input.  That input may be in the form of exercise like weight training or it may be more cognitively based like learning to play the piano.  Whatever the input may be, the brain changes in response to the activity being performed.  This is a phenomenon called plasticity.  And the brain remains plastic our entire lives!  That means it can change right up to the day we die.

Just how does this resistance training increase brain function?  No one knows for sure, but there are theories.  The researchers propose that because weight training reduces many cardiovascular risk factors and does increase the strength of the heart it may also help the brain through similar mechanisms that aerobic exercise does.

I have another theory.  Ninety percent, yes that’s 90%, of the input that comes into our brains during any given day comes from the receptors in our muscles and joints.  That means that if we take into account all of the sensory input that our brains receive during the day – light, sound, touch, smell, proprioception – a full 90% of that input is coming from our muscles and joints.  If the body requires that much input from our musculoskeletal system it must be important, right?  It is.  This input keeps the brain functioning normally and maintains the health of just about every type of neuron in the brain.

Resistance training makes this input more efficient.  By training the muscles with weights they send more regulatory information to the brain and you also increase the amount of information coming from the joints.  The stronger your muscles the more force is applied through your joints.  This combination is a winning one in terms of brain function.

The best type of exercise program is one that includes both cardiovascular and resistance type training.  People are often hesitant to start a weight training program because of lack of knowledge on how to properly do it.  If you are concerned hire a knowledgeable trainer to show you how to do it.  The benefits will far outweigh your hesitance to start.

 

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Fish Oil and your Baby’s Health

Fish oil caps

Image by Stephen Cummings via Flickr

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has concluded that “the use of DHA-rich fish oil capsules compared with vegetable oil capsules during pregnancy did not result in lower levels of postpartum depression in mothers or improved cognitive and language development in their offspring during early childhood.”

The ingredient they tested, docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, has been shown repeatedly in other studies to be helpful for women and their babies.  Unfortunately, this study, because of where it has been published, will get all the headlines and I fear that some people will decide that fish oil during pregnancy is unnecessary.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.

This study followed roughly 2400 women from less than 21 weeks gestation to birth and analyzed data regarding the mother’s mood postpartum and the child’s cognitive development at 18 months.  Half of the participants were given fish oil containing 800mg/day of DHA and half were given a vegetable oil placebo.  What the study found was that depression scores in women taking the DHA were the same as the women taking the placebo and the cognitive development of the children was the same at 18 months regardless of intervention.  While you cannot argue with the findings of the study (they found what they found) I do have a problem with the implications this makes for high DHA fish oil.

Many studies have concluded that fish oil and DHA in particular is important for improving brain function.  Observational studies have shown that consumption of fish oil reduces postpartum depression and raises the I.Q. of children.  This is in direct contrast to what this study has concluded.  A 2003 study showed that children with higher levels of DHA had higher I.Q. scores at age 4 than controls.

Other benefits are known as well.  Fish are a rich source of long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), essential nutrients that have important structural and physiological roles in several body systems, including neurological, immune, and cardiovascular. Because humans cannot synthesize omega-3s, these nutrients must be consumed in the diet. Conversion from the parent omega -3, (linolenic acid), to the more biologically active long-chain omega-3 DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), is inefficient and therefore consumption of some preformed omega-3 is important for optimal health.

Possible Flaws

Perhaps this recent study was unable to properly assess cognitive performance at 18 months.  It is much easier to assess in a 4 year old.  Also, the benefits may not be seen until later in life.  In a society where we want results immediately it is easy to understand why they would try and observe for the benefits of DHA at only 18 months.  However, a very real possibility exists; maybe these benefits are not observable that quickly.  Are the negative effects of a bad diet on heart disease observable in a 20 year old?  Of course not.  We must wait much longer (perhaps until the person is at least 45) to clearly see the cause and effect relationship. This example perfectly illustrates the fact that not all relationships are readily available directly after treatment.  Unfortunately, these studies continue to employ a drug based research approach to nutrition.  They are separate entities and need to be researched accordingly.

Another possible flaw is that they did not assess dietary intake of omega-3s in the study participants.  This is problematic because it is possible patients already had enough DHA to provide the benefits.  It is also possible that the control group ate more fish and therefore had enough serum DHA to skew the results.  This is something that should be addressed when this is studied again.

A third flaw is that this supplement provided 800mg/day of DHA with only 100mg/day of EPA.  Research is mixed on the effect of EPA on depression and brain function.  However, many authors argue that EPA is important in this picture and this study failed to take that into account.  Their goal was to test high dose DHA but we must consider that hardly anything in nutrition works in isolation.  It almost always works in tandem with other nutrients.  This is again an example of a drug based research approach to nutrition.  Drugs are tested in isolation and work in isolation because they are synthetic.  For that reason they cannot work synergistically with the body.  The body has no innate chemical pathway for them to work with because they do not exist in nature.  This allows them to work independent of the body’s systems but also allows them to be tested independently.  Nutrition is not like that.  Not one bit.

One good thing about this study is that DHA was shown to be safe with virtually no side effects.  This is good because women can continue to take fish oil without any fear of negative effects on their babies.

The bottom line is this: fish oil supplementation has been shown repeatedly to be beneficial for many factors in health.  There seems to be little down side to taking fish oil.  This recent study is just one study.  It will unfortunately get a lot of press because it was published in JAMA.  I will continue to encourage my patients to take fish oil during pregnancy because the vast majority of research is positive and I am confident that it is a benefit to my patients.

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How to get better brain function!

In the study of neurology, there are many theories and formulas that can be applied in order to better help our understanding of how we as humans experience the world around us.  Scientists, researchers and other doctors break them down, analyze them and apply them to different areas of the brain, mostly for academic value.  That is extremely valuable, especially for me as a functional neurologist.  While helpful for me, this is usually not the case for many of you.  One of the most common questions I get is “How can I better understand the way my brain functions so I can feel better?”

There is one principle that applies to the entire brain that is very easy to understand and is indispensable for me when considering my treatments.  It is also very simple; input equals output.  That’s it.  And it really is as simple as it sounds.

Our brains are completely dependent upon the input coming in from all around us to generate its output.  Let me give you a simple example of correct input resulting in correct output and then just the opposite.  Picture yourself at a restaurant and you are ordering a wonderful organic, grass-fed New York strip steak.  When you place your order the waiter asks, “How would you like that done?”  You reply, “Medium, please.”  You responded appropriately because the input (the waiter’s question) was interpreted by your brain correctly and it quickly formed the correct output (your response to his question).  But what if the scenario unfolded as follows; the waiter asks the same question, but you hear, “Would you like a bun?”  You might reply, “No thank you,” but of course the waiter would look at you funny because that is not the answer to his question.  The problem in the second scenario is that the input was interpreted incorrectly, so your brain had no choice but to formulate incorrect output.

This is a very simple set of circumstances, but in fact, this is happening millions of times per day in our own brains.  And input comes from everywhere!  Input comes from the outside world in the form of hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell among others.  This is called external input.  Input is also internally generated.  This input comes from within the brain from other circuits that communicate with each other to maintain the high output of the human brain.

Both internally and externally generated input is critical.  In functional neurology, we use a combination of these two inputs to change the way the brain fires.  First we establish where the problem is.  A person might say they have headaches, high blood pressure or depression, all of which could be from aberrant output of the brain.  The symptoms are being caused from this aberrant output, but as illustrated earlier, the brain is actually just responding or interpreting the input it is receiving incorrectly.  Once we discover the part of the brain that is not working correctly, we recommend specific exercises to retrain the brain.

It is through these corrective exercises that we are able to change the input, which changes the output and reduces the symptoms of many conditions.  It is a cutting edge treatment for many conditions and is gaining momentum as research mounts on brain function.

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