Promoting neuroplasticity: Helping brains adapt
In this blog we’ll be looking at neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change according to our environment.
Our Brains are Not Static
It used to be thought our brain stopped developing once we reached a certain age, with neurones gradually dying off over time. However, just as none of us think and behave in the same way as we did 20 years ago, scientific knowledge has moved on too with the discovery that our brains are constantly changing as a result of our experiences.
Also known as brain plasticity, neuroplasticity is the adaptation of the brain to our lives. A little like a muscle, if the brain does something frequently it becomes stronger at doing the task; if something isn’t practised, the ability will fade away. When we perform an action or have a thought over and over again, over time it eventually becomes automatic.
Synapses – The Brain’s Communication System
Each of our brain cells communicates with its neighbours via tiny gaps called synapses. These allow messages to jump across with the help of chemicals called neurotransmitters. The correct functioning of synapses is crucial to ensure messages are transmitted to the correct location.
In a plastic brain, synapses change over time, becoming stronger or weaker depending on whether they are used frequently – a kind of rewiring of our circuitry as it adapts to different situations. Pathways can form or fall into disuse depending on our experiences. It’s as if our brains have a hardware update every now and then.
Behaviour, thoughts and emotions can all cause these tiny changes in the brain.
Why is Neuroplasticity Important?
When we are young our brains are naturally plastic, but once we become older they are less so, and this can cause problems with memory and recall.
A loss in brain plasticity is a factor in mild cognitive impairment, which precedes the development of the neurodegenerative diseases of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
On the other hand, depression and anxiety are often associated with negative neuroplasticity which establishes unhealthy thought patterns.
Although neuroplasticity naturally happens on a daily basis, it’s also something we can encourage.
How to Encourage Neuroplasticity
Keeping your brain active by reading, learning new vocabulary or playing a musical instrument can all keep your brain plastic. However there are other measures you can take which may be less obvious.
Research has found physical activity can prevent or slow age–related damage in the part of the brain most susceptible to this decline, which is the area associated with memory and emotions. Exercise appears to have an effect on proteins produced by the brain called neurotrophic factors, which aid the growth and recovery of brain cells.
As little as half an hour of exercise per day has been shown to stimulate the growth of new synapses. Aerobic rather than strength training appears to be especially effective.
Fasting can change our brain connections. Science has found both calorie-restricted diets and abstaining from food can also cause brain cells to grow and not surprisingly decrease the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
Restricting calories on two days per week or even simply leaving a larger gap between dinner and breakfast, known as time-restricted eating, both appear to be beneficial. Try restricting your daily eating window to eight hours by having an early dinner.
We know stress reduces neuroplasticity. It’s impossible to avoid stress, but you can change how you react to it.
Meditation is a great stress-buster and can actually change the size of certain areas of the brain. Scientists discovered just eight weeks of mindfulness meditation led to increases in brain density which could be detected on an MRI scan. At the same time, areas of the brain connected with stress and anxiety became detectably smaller.
Getting enough sleep can promote regeneration of nerve cells, while insufficient sleep can interfere with the transmission of nerve impulses. It’s thought if we don’t have enough sleep, brain connections become muddled with too much competing information. This can occur even after just one night of sleep deprivation.
Aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Even better, turn in at the same time each evening to create a consistent sleep pattern.
Nutrients to Feed Brain Plasticity
- Magnesium has been found to increase brain adaptability and boost the number of synaptic connections. Researchers believe Alzheimer’s patients are often low in magnesium. Magnesium is rich in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes.
- Omega 3 fats have been found to assist with the plasticity of synapses. They’re found in wild-caught fish such as salmon, and seed oils such as flaxseed.
- Turmeric. Curcumin, found in turmeric, is related to brain plasticity, in animals at least.
As we’ve seen, the way we think, move, sleep and eat can have a significant effect on age-related changes in our brain. If you would like to optimise your physical and mental health through natural means, click here to enquire about a Functional Medicine consultation.