Your Amazing Brain

The human brain is composed of over 100 billion cells,

.... creating a network of 100 trillion connections, and over 400 miles of blood vessels. This remarkable and elaborate communication system controls, coordinates, and regulates all the physical and mental activities we perform each day. Every action we engage in, every step we take, every gesture, every breath, every thought, every word we speak and write, the decisions we make, and the memories we store and retrieve require the direction, orchestration, and responsiveness of our miraculous brain.


Brain cells communicate by releasing chemicals allowing an impulse to pass from one cell to another. What we think and the imagery we entertain directly affect the chemistry of the brain. The food we eat, like the thoughts we engage in, either support the healthy functioning of the brain or deprive it and starve it of the nutrients it needs. When we see and appreciate things of beauty our brain releases chemicals that support the good feelings associated with what we see. The memories we entertain and the future imagery we engage in immediately impact the neurotransmitters the brain releases.


Every day new research is coming forth from major medical universities and research centers revealing that lifestyle is the key to protecting your brain and caring for it as you age. By leading a healthy lifestyle, you can significantly increase your chances of slowing down the physiological changes that occur as you age.


We have been erroneously taught that as we get older, brain cells in large numbers naturally die and the brain shrinks. But new research is showing that brain shrinkage is a result of certain life style factors that halt the brain’s network expansion. This expansion is called neurogenesis.


The health of your brain depends on many factors such as regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, incorporating mentally stimulating activities into your day, sleeping soundly, leading a satisfying social life, learning to effectively deal with stress, learning to effectively deal with depression, and maintaining a healthy weight. More than ever we need to be cognizant of the toxins in the food we eat, the toxins in the cigarettes we smoke, the devastating effects of too much alcohol, and the fast food and processed food that cause inflammation. 


We need to make a concerted effort to cut way back on the amount of refined sugar we ingest every day. The average American consumes over 150 pounds of sugar a year in a variety of forms, two of the worst being high fructose corn syrup and aspartame, and this sugar addiction can act like a poison in the brain. 


Begin thinking in terms of brain fitness: What are the things I can do each day to assist this precious brain of mine to function at an optimal level? Am I exercising and moving enough? Am I maintaining a healthy diet? Am I managing my weight? Am I sleeping soundly? Am I spending time with people socially who I enjoy being with? Am I laughing and playing often and doing fun things? Am I effectively handling stress? Am I participating in mentally stimulating activities? Am I taking time each day to relax?

Brain Power

In an article from the Massachusetts General Hospital’s newsletter,

... Mind, Mood, and Memory, a recent research study showed that older adults who regularly played crossword puzzles, picture puzzles, card games, chess, checkers, Scrabble and other games that make you think, received significant brain enhancements.

Janet Sherman, PhD, Chief Neuropsychologist and Clinical Director of the Psychology Assessment Center at Massachusetts General Hospital states, “Mentally challenging games and puzzles provide benefit by adding to an individual’s cognitive reserve, thereby helping to fortify the brain against cognitive decline.”


Current research shows that individuals who regularly participate in mentally stimulating activities, whether it is a book club, card playing group, writing group, or who simply play with puzzles or board games that require thinking and analytical skills, score higher on tests of memory, learning and information processing. If we want to guard against brain decline as we age, we need to actively participate in activities that force us to create solutions, consider options, expand perception, and explore possibilities. In other words, you need to regularly do things that require greater use of your brain power.


According to Nielsen research, Americans spend 34 hours a week watching TV. If you add the time you spend clicking and scrolling your way through the internet looking for stuff to buy and playing on Facebook, the number of hours more passively spent is growing.


Watching TV drama and comedy shows are not mentally challenging activities. In a Psychology Today study, it was found that, “Watching television over 2 hours per day and eating while watching television are associated with obesity. In the USA, 60 percent of people are overweight and this is a leading cause of a lower life expectancy, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. It has been shown that each extra daily hour of television that kids watch may lead to an 8 percent increase in developing depressive symptoms by young adulthood.”


Many of us do have a fear of brain and cognitive decline as we get older. We have been told that brain cells die with age and that our mental acuity will diminish. In some ways this is true and in some ways it is not true. It really depends on a variety of factors including genetics, environment, diet, lifestyle, head injuries sustained throughout our lifetime, exercise, and thinking habits. We have the ability and opportunity to positively impact our brain health, but we have to be committed to it, steadfast about what we eat, what we think, what we do, and the daily habits that either promote brain health or contribute to its decline.


Like your arms, legs, and heart, your brain needs exercise to keep it fit; to keep it operating at an optimal level of performance. Do your own research. There are dozens of articles on the internet every day that are focused on helping you learn the simple things that you can do to maintain your brain power, stay healthy, and live an optimal lifestyle. That’s a great use of the internet. 

A Beautiful Mind

Last year I spoke at the Fielding Institute's International Conference on Positive Aging

... in Los Angeles. The event was held at the Center for Non-Profit Management which sits next to Chinatown and the old Union Train Station. It is one of the most colorful and historical areas of Los Angeles. The conference presentations were divided into 4 categories: wellness, life transitions, creativity, and community. 


Aligning the main hallway leading to the workshop room where I spoke were twelve prominent and huge and colorful posters, each inscribed with one of the statements below. When I stood beneath these mammoth posters, looked up and read what these wise elders had to say about the power of maintaining a beautiful mind,


 I took out a piece of paper and wrote down each of their quotations.


  • A beautiful mind feels free to discover new things and to open new doors.
  • A beautiful mind avoids rigid thinking.
  • A beautiful mind is optimistic and sees the good in life and seeks out the good.
  • A beautiful mind believes that excellent nutrition is a pathway to inner peace.
  • A beautiful mind finds enjoyment in daily experiences and savors those experiences.
  • A beautiful mind stays physically active and knows that exercise enhances the mind/body/spirit connection.
  • A beautiful mind thinks creatively and looks for solutions.
  • A beautiful mind lives in the moment while playing with future possibilities.
  • A beautiful mind takes risks and loves to learn new things.
  • A beautiful mind knows how to play, enjoy, relax, and have fun.
  • A beautiful mind is not concerned with age but instead finds ways to thoroughly enjoy the fruits of aging.
  • A beautiful mind notices and appreciates the splendor of nature, music, art, and dance.
  • A beautiful mind loves loving and being loved.


Because of the negative ways the media portrays the aging process in America, we typically have very limited and biased views of what it means to age graciously and healthily. I’ve met thousands of people through my former classes at Santa Barbara City College who were enjoying aging and thriving in their respective lives and I have met thousands of people who were dreading aging out of fear of what their future holds. 


I do not regard aging as a process of deterioration. Instead, I see it as a process of change. We have the ability and opportunity to impact these changes favorably or unfavorably. We can do more to improve our health and wellness than we think we can. Our goal is to be more proactive and to take the time to educate ourselves on how we influence the development of the brain by our thoughts, feelings, quality of life, and how we view our future. 


The authors of these compelling proclamations were obviously vibrant people who had discovered the secrets of transcending the world of problems and conflicts and opening their minds to a higher vision of what is possible.

Endorphins

Endorphins are among the brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters.

... They are found in various parts of the brain, the pituitary gland and the spinal cord, but their release is primarily through the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is a pea-sized structure located at the base of the brain, just below the hypothalamus and attached to it by nerve fibers. Because of the brain’s remarkable design and miraculous inner workings, the hypothalamus brilliantly controls the pituitary glands activity. In 1977 Roger Guillemin and Andrew W. Schally won a Noble prize for their amazing research and findings on how endorphins work and under what circumstances they are released. One of the things they discovered is that endorphins have the same chemical structure as morphine. 


We have typically come to understand that endorphins are released when we participate in enjoyable activities like prolonged exercise, sexual activity, and the physical act of laughing out loud. But, what research has also shown is that when we are stressed and in pain, endorphins are also released. Endorphins help to reduce the stress that we experience as a part of daily living including headache pain and other bodily pain.  Endorphins are our own built-in natural pharmaceutical responses to stress, pain and participating in thoroughly enjoyable activities. 


Endorphin release varies among individuals. This means that two people who exercise at the same level or two people who laugh while watching a very funny film will not produce the same levels of endorphins. Endorphins are also released during meditation and self-hypnosis. This is exciting to know because what it means is that we have the power to stimulate the release of endorphins and to create feelings of euphoria every day. Those of you who meditate know from personal experience that it brings about a feeling of deep relaxation and well-being.  Self-hypnosis can have a similar effect. Through self-hypnosis, using your imagination you can take yourself to a deeply relaxing place like the beach or along a creek and use your imagination’s capability to see the beauty which surrounds you, feel the peacefulness there, hear the natural sounds of the environment, and smell the natural aromas. Meditation and self-hypnosis are resources we have at our disposal to use every day, as many times during the day as we choose to use them.


Eating chocolate also leads to the secretion and release of endorphins which explains the well-being that many people have come to associate with its ingestion. If you are very suggestible, your pituitary gland will release endorphins just by seeing the chocolate in the display case. You might even find yourself going into a light trance as you walk in smelling the delightful and intoxicating aroma and imagining the delicious taste in your mouth.


Some people make a big mistake by solely getting their endorphin rush from eating chocolate. Don’t forget about meditation, self-hypnosis, massage, walking, running, hiking, laughing, and sex. These will, in the long run, keep you a lot healthier than eating an inordinate amount of chocolate for your endorphin rush. 

Old Brain Young Brain

Scientist and brain research specialist Michael Merzenich believes

...  that everything that happens in a young brain can happen in an older brain. The media wants you to believe that youthfulness is reserved for specific age groups. Belief is a powerful force and because of the power of your belief that good things will happen and that dynamic change will occur, you create the opportunity to radically alter your life no matter what your age or current circumstances. Whether you are 16, 36, or 66 and beyond you can dance, sing, hike, play, laugh and learn new things and your brain will love you for it.


Age is only a number and if you look at the meaning of the word youthful, you will find its synonyms are energetic, vigorous, active, and enthusiastic. To be youthful, then, is to look upon life with wide and fresh eyes. Youthfulness is a state of mind that transcends age, an approach to life that relishes opportunities.


To better understand its meaning, look at the antonyms of youthfulness: sluggishness, listlessness, and inattentiveness which, like youthfulness, are also not age dependent.  We can be full of youth or full of hopelessness at any time in life. If we have been hanging out in the doldrums, we probably will have to make more effort and take more risks to bring that youthful state alive again.


We have learned to associate youthfulness with exuberance and freedom, but the reality is psychological states like depression and anxiety can come upon us at any age. Depression is a gloomy outlook, a feeling of dejection and sadness. Kids get depressed; adolescents get depressed; young adults get depressed; older adults get depressed. But, the good news is that people of all ages can be youthful and express their God-given vitality.


Run around with that new puppy just as you did when you were 10. Instead of sitting and listening to the band, get up and dance. When you visit your new grandchild, get on the floor and join in his or her marvelous exploration of the world. Take a yoga class or hike and stretch those limbs and back to reclaim your posture and flexibility. Smile more. Greet each person you meet throughout the day by looking into their eyes and smiling. All of these simple activities alter brain chemistry in the most marvelous and healing ways, creating new neural connections.


Robert Hill PhD, author of Positive Aging believes that one of the most important things we can do is to find meaning in life and to be happy in the process. Like youthfulness, finding meaning and purpose are not age specific. We can search for them in our 20’s and our 70’s; the key is that we discover them and allow them to bring a smile to our face and lightness to our emotions. Everything that happens in a young brain can happen in an older brain. Believe it!

Lifestyle is the Key

Every day new research is coming forth from major medical universities and research centers

... revealing that lifestyle is the key to protecting your brain and caring for it as you age. By leading a healthy lifestyle, you can significantly increase your chances of slowing down the physiological changes that occur in your 60’s, 70’s and beyond. 


We have been erroneously taught that as we get older, brain cells in large numbers naturally die and the brain shrinks. But new research is showing that brain shrinkage is a result of certain life style factors that halt the brain’s network expansion. This expansion is called neurogenesis. Ananya Mandal, MD writes, “Studies have shown that new neurons increase memory capacity, reduce the overlap between different memories and also add information regarding time to memories. Other studies have shown that the learning process itself is also linked to the survival of neurons.”


The health of your brain depends on many factors such as regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, incorporating mentally stimulating activities into your day, sleeping soundly, leading a satisfying social life, learning to effectively deal with stress, learning to effectively deal with depression, and maintaining a healthy weight. More than ever we need to be cognizant of the toxins in the food we eat, the toxins in the cigarettes we smoke, the devastating effects of too much alcohol, and the fast food and processed food that cause inflammation.


The Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation suggests you set your goal for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five times per week. Now this might seem like a lot, but you can incorporate a variety of exercises including walking, hiking, swimming, dancing, gardening, cleaning, vacuuming, and sweeping with more traditional kinds of exercise routines. The main thing is that you move and get your heart rate up as a result of the exercise. 


The Foundation also recommends strength training a couple of times a week that strengthen muscle, and assist with balance and coordination. This can include weight and resistance training, Pilates, yoga, Tai Chi, and Ki-Gong. Their research shows that the combination of aerobic exercise, strength training, balance, and coordination activities may cut your Alzheimer’s risk by 50%. 


One of the biggest warnings from the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation is to make certain you take precautions to protect your head from possible falls and accidents when you exercise. This warning is aimed at people of all ages. Traumatic head and brain injuries are becoming more prevalent. Brain injuries occur in a variety of ways and from many sources. One of the main causes is falling on hard surfaces, which is the kind of surface you would be typically standing on when you take aerobic and strength building exercise classes. But, you can also get a traumatic head and brain injury while hiking or even casually walking if you happen to slip and take a bad fall. 


Exercise for brain, heart and muscle health and make certain you are standing and moving in a balanced and sure-footed way. If you are concerned about this, take a class to improve your balance and build your exercise program from there.  

The Aging Brain

Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus neuroscientist at the University of California,

... San Francisco, believes that everything that happens in a young brain can happen in an older brain. No matter what your age, you can dance, sing, hike, play, laugh, explore, learn new things and the neurotransmitters in your brain will respond just like that of a 20 year old. Belief is a powerful force and because of the power of your belief that good things will happen and that dynamic change can and will occur, you create the opportunities that radically alter your life no matter what your age. Change your attitude and your brain will love you for it, releasing the chemicals that support your optimism. In other words, optimism releases the brain chemistry that makes you feel good. It begins with your attitude.


If you look at the meaning of the word youthful, you will find its synonyms are words like childlike, energetic, lively, active, alert, and enthusiastic. Youthfulness, then, is a state of mind that transcends age. Retaining a childlike approach to learning anything is what is called ‘beginners mind’ in Zen philosophy. Having an abundance of energy and maintaining enthusiasm are not the domain of the young but rather the young at heart which has nothing to do with age and everything to do with mindset.


To better understand the synonym of a word like youthful, look at its opposite or antonym: sluggishness, listlessness, lethargy, laziness, and inattentiveness. You can be energetic or listless or sad at any age. Through the media, we have learned to associate youthfulness with age, partying, and freedom, but my 25 years of work in psychiatric and brain injury facilities opened my mind to the reality that people of all ages, all religions, all ethnic groups and all socioeconomic backgrounds experience setbacks in life. Loss, loneliness, and low self- image can and do occur at any time and at any age. Life can take us to the heights of heaven and the depths of despair and everywhere in between, sometimes in a single day.


But, if you have been hanging out in the doldrums lately, please make an effort to get out and take advantage of all the holiday festivities Sedona has to offer. Volunteer at holiday events and give something rather than wait for someone to give something to you. Run around with that new puppy just as you did when you were 10. Instead of sitting and listening to the band, get up and dance. When you visit your new grandchild, get on the floor and join in his or her marvelous exploration of the world. Take a yoga class or exercise class and very gently stretch those muscles to reclaim your posture and flexibility. Greet each person by fondly looking into their eyes and giving them a warm smile. 


These simple activities combined with a positive attitude alter brain chemistry in the most amazing ways, creating new neural connections no matter how old you are. The good news is that people of all ages can be youthful and express their God-given vitality. 

Inflammation

Inflammation is one of the body’s natural defenses against injury and disease

... whereby the body’s immune system triggers the release of chemicals to heal wounds and infections such as bacteria and viruses.  Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is a disease and regarded as an autoimmune disorder.


Beginning with the pioneering medical research of Denham Harman, MD in 1956 and Imre Nagy, MD in 1978, chronic inflammation has been shown to be a main contributing factor of all degenerative diseases, and the root cause of the two greatest killers: cancer and heart disease. Mood disorders, gastric diseases, arthritis, dementia, thyroid disorders, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, and the premature aging of the body and skin may find their causes in chronic inflammation.


Causes of chronic inflammation may come from a diet composed of eating fast food, processed food, and all of the foods that have loads of additives, chemicals, hormones, and . Grains, especially wheat and other gluten containing grains, are now seen as potential culprits of cellular inflammation, but a lot of this depends upon how the grains are grown and processed and your sensitivity to them. You may also have sensitivity to casein, a protein in dairy. Sandra Cabot, MD writes, “Good health begins in the gut and most of the immune system resides in the gut.” 


Researchers at the American Heart Association, the Harvard School of Public Health and the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommend that we limit our daily sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day. Many typical products like soups, chili, or other canned foods that are bought at just about any market in America have this much daily recommended salt in just one can. If you begin adding up the additional salt you use when you eat out or at home, you will probably discover you are way over the limit every single day. High salt intake is also related to cellular inflammation.

Another culprit causing inflammation is sugar. If you read food labels you will find that the food industry seems to put sugar in everything either in the forms of high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, corn syrup or plain old white processed sugar. In all forms remember that each 4 grams of sugar listed is equivalent to one teaspoon of sugar. If a soda lists sugar content as 44 grams that is the equivalent of 11 teaspoons of sugar! 


Chronic stress is another leading cause of inflammation. The American Psychological Association’s results from its stress survey for 2014 shows that 72 percent of adults feel stressed about money. If you tend to worry a lot, you might be putting yourself at risk for developing an anxiety disorder, digestive problems, sleep disorders, and other emotional and physical health issues that result from stress.

Research has shown that adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet including wild salmon, walnuts, almonds, avocado, flax seeds, chia seeds, olive oil, dark leafy greens, lycopene rich tomatoes, berries and beets are an excellent way of protecting your gut and strengthen your immune system. 

Your Miracle Brain

The Human Brain....

The human brain is composed of over 100 billion cells, creating a network of 100 trillion connections, and over 400 miles of blood vessels. This remarkable and elaborate communication system controls, coordinates, and regulates all the physical and mental activities you perform each day. Every action you engage in, every step you take, every gesture, every breath, every thought, every word you speak and write, the decisions you make, and the memories you store and retrieve require the direction, orchestration, and responsiveness of your miraculous brain.


Brain cells communicate by releasing chemicals allowing an impulse to pass from one cell to another. What you think and the imagery you entertain directly affect the chemistry of the brain. The food you eat, like the thoughts you engage in, either support the healthy functioning of the brain or deprive it and starve it of the nutrients it needs. When you see and appreciate things of beauty your brain releases chemicals that support the good feelings associated with what you see. The memories you entertain and the future imagery you engage in immediately impact the neurotransmitters the brain releases.


Every day new research is coming forth from major medical universities and research centers revealing that lifestyle is the key to protecting your brain and caring for it as you age. By leading a healthy lifestyle, you can significantly increase your chances of slowing down the physiological changes that occur as you age.


The health of your brain depends on many lifestyle factors such as regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, incorporating mentally stimulating activities into your day, sleeping soundly, leading a satisfying social life, learning to effectively deal with stress, limiting TV time, maintaining a healthy weight, and drinking plenty of water. Another interesting component of brain health is to alter your daily routine by doing things differently. Try using your non dominant hand more often and taking a class in a totally different subject.


More than ever we need to be cognizant of the toxins in the food we eat, the toxins in the cigarettes we smoke, and the devastating effect of too much alcohol. We need to make a concerted effort to cut way back on the amount of refined sugar we ingest every day. The average American consumes over 150 pounds of sugar a year in a variety of forms, including high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, processed food, fast food, and starchy carbohydrates that lead to inflammation.


Begin thinking in terms of brain fitness and ask yourself, “What are the things I can do each day to assist this precious brain of mine to function at an optimal level? Am I exercising and moving enough? Am I maintaining a healthy diet? Am I managing my weight? Am I sleeping soundly? Am I spending time with people socially who I enjoy being with? Am I laughing and playing often and doing fun things? Am I effectively handling stress? Am I participating in mentally stimulating activities? Am I taking time each day to relax?”

Take the time to make the health of your brain a priority. What do you have to lose? What do you have to gain?