My Plastic Brain

My intellectual crush….Professor Eagleman, I am all ears!!

Your brain’s fitness is largely overlooked. Most of us focus on cardiovascular exercise for a healthy heart and strength training for a healthy musculoskeletal system. The mass of nerve tissue in your skull also needs its own training regimen. The “use it or lose it” adage is often quoted, but it wasn’t until I did some focused reading on the living organ that is our brain that I truly understood how this works (or doesn’t). The brain is comprised of precious real estate maps that correspond to regions of the body, as well as various cognitive activities. Should that particular region of the body become useless or an activity cease, the real estate doesn’t die off, but gets replaced by another area altogether. And in cases where are a part of the brain dies or is damaged, other parts are recruited to compensate for that loss. No corner of the working brain is squandered. Here’s an example:

A man working a job site accidentally saws through his hand, severing the nerve that feeds his pinky and ring fingers. After recovering from the initial trauma, he begins doing physical therapy to strengthen his hand and get the rest of his fingers to work without the 4th and 5th fingers. If we cut open his brain and mapped out the region that represents those two useless fingers with little lights, you would see a pretty amazing thing happen. Every time he recruits his other fingers and working parts of his affected hand, the region representing the two appendages that no longer receive commands from the brain will light up. How is this possible? In a remarkable feat of engineering, the silenced region of the brain is over grown by the working areas around it. They take over and grow stronger, thus maximizing their neurological property.

This is just one demonstration of the brain’s adaptability. Calling one’s brain “plastic” means that with the right exercises and activities, we can train our minds to circumvent any issue, like say a stroke, allowing us to recover lost function by recruiting other regions’ maps to take over those activities. Here’s another example:

Acclaimed American nueroscientist, Paul Bach-y-Rita, was a pioneer in the field of nueroplasticity. Early in his career he created a system of vibrating plates that were attached to a blind individual’s back. The plates would vibrate in connection to a forward facing camera that “observed” objects in what would be one’s visual field. The patterns of vibration were different depending on the object, but what ended up occurring was the ability for the blind person to “see” the world surrounding him. His skin sensors sensing the vibrations were sending the information to his visual cortex. One sense, touch, compensating for the other sense that did not function.

Further along in his career, he created a device that helped people whose vestibular systems (i.e. what helps us maintain balance and spatial awareness) were damaged. These people literally couldn’t stand upright; their world was in perpetual motion, like being on a rocky boat. The device attached sensors onto the patients’ tongues, which is a region saturated with sensory receptors, that interpreted forward, back and side to side movement. Accelerometers attached to them and linked to a computer would give the “position” in space of the patients and allow them to stay balanced. After using the device initially, a patient would experience the residual affects for many hours, despite still having a damaged vestibular system. Used for several weeks and many patients were completely cured. This just shows how the brain is able to reorganize itself and adapt to new information from an unlikely source.

Perhaps the best example from Bach-y-Rita’s career was his father’s massive stroke. After his father passed away years later, an autopsy indicated a large part of his brain stem had died, which would have left him unable to do most basic functions. However,  through neuroplastic exercises that Bach-y-Rita and his brother gave to their father, he was not only able to recover the basic functions, but more complex ones as well, which allowed him to return to teaching. His brain reorganized itself on very large scale.

After reading so much about nueroplasticity, I can’t help but think about my grandmother and how her brain was eaten away by a combination of stroke, Alzheimer’s and Aphasia; the latter two being a one two punch of memory loss, dementia and the inability to speak. I wonder if nueroplastic exercises done early after the stroke that started the ball rolling would have helped her brain remap itself enough to prevent many of the symptoms of the other two neurological diseases to manifest. There is some fascinating research out there that makes a brilliant case for this.

I guess the “use it or lose it” adage should be changed to just “USE IT!!!!” Crack open some of the below books if you are as intrigued as I am and get started this new year.

Recommended Reading List:

http://www.normandoidge.com/normandoidge.com/ABOUT_THE_BOOK.html

http://www.amazon.com/Incognito-The-Secret-Lives-Brain/dp/0307389928

http://www.amazon.com/Sum-Forty-Afterlives-David-Eagleman/dp/0307389936/ref=la_B001JRX0OQ_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1387720746&sr=1-2

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Psychosomatic Medicine

Acupuncture chart from Chinese medical text circa 1340s A.D.

There is nothing worse than going to a doctor with a host of symptoms and being told there is nothing wrong with you. Many people who appear on the program, Mystery Diagnosis, (my second Discovery Health obsession next to the The Food MD) have had this experience. I recall one particularly disturbing episode, where a young woman complaining of extreme gastrointestinal distress was prescribed an anti-depressant by one of the many doctors she sought answers from. Confused, she asked how these would help her to which the doctor responded that her condition was basically all in her head. When a physical illness or condition is caused by or aggravated by a mental factor it is termed psychosomatic. Essentially, that is how this young woman’s doctor viewed her illness. Many years later, she was properly diagnosed with severe endometriosis, a condition where the cells of the uterus grow in other places of the body causing cramping, severe bleeding and infertility to name a few. In her case, the cells had grown into and over parts of her GI tract. She had a full hysterectomy and a section of her large intestine removed in order to reclaim some quality of life. Take that, anti-depressants!

As you can glean from the above story, defining an illness as psychosomatic carries with it an intense social stigma here in the west, even though almost all physical illnesses have mental factors that determine their onset, presentation, maintenance, susceptibility to treatment and resolution. When doctors dismiss symptoms like in the case of this young woman, the rest of the world follows suit. The person who is suffering internally and externally is labeled “dramatic” or even worse, a liar. For thousands of years, Chinese medicine viewed the psychosomatic as the greatest key to diagnosing deeper illness and imbalance in the body. The strength of the nervous system and physical state of the individual (including their environment) is assessed in order to understand the degree in which an organ or a system is affected. Every symptom is taken into account and treated seriously, with the objective being to restore balance. Moreover, the eastern approach considers how interconnected the body and mind are.

The biggest physical bully is emotional stress, which can infiltrate suddenly or slowly, over a long period of time. Even from a western perspective, stress can be incredibly destructive, wreaking havoc on connective tissues, digestion, vascular integrity and the body’s restorative sleep cycles if not managed properly i.e. not just a script for anti-depressants. In Chinese medicine, if the nervous system of the individual is weak, the symptoms of illness will be more psychological. On a physical level, the organ most affected by the emotional stress will be the weakest/dysfunctional one. Whatever the natural emotions associated with this organ are, they will become stronger and more destructive to the nervous system overall. As the organ breaks down, it takes the system it is associated with along for the ride, leading ultimately to disease. If the emotional stress comes on suddenly, it will affect the Heart and the Lungs. If it is gradual and long term, it will take a toll on the Liver, Spleen and Kidneys. Even more specific is the type of emotional stress broken down into these 5 categories: tense/chronic, shock/sudden, sadness, rumination and fearful emotion. This gives an even more precise view of the affected organs/systems in the body, further honing the treatment approach.

Our young woman with endometriosis would have been assessed as having a strong nervous system in the beginning, as her symptoms were predominantly physical. By the time she had gone to see the doctor who prescribed the anti-depressants, she was exhibiting a combination of physical and mental symptoms. This would signify that her nervous system was deteriorating. If she had also gone to see an eastern doctor from the get go, much of her later suffering might have been alleviated, as the weakest organ, her large intestine would have been addressed immediately with herbs and acupuncture/bodywork. Since organs are partnered in the Chinese system of yin/yang (solid/hollow), the untreated large intestinal dysfunction would have affected her lungs. This woman developed an eczema like rash all over her trunk and extremities that would get worse every time she had a violent bout of diarrhea. The skin is considered the 3rd lung of the body in Chinese medicine. This symptom developed 5 years after her initial bout of gastrointestinal distress. After ten years, she began to bleed copiously during her period, which lasted over two weeks. Initial blood tests had already indicated she was mildly anemic, but this massive blood loss rendered her immobile. Ironically, during this time, her large intestine dysfunction seemed to dissipate; however, as soon as the period would end, the violent diarrhea would return. At this point in her illness, the Spleen had become involved. Responsible for creating Blood/Qi and keeping things upright and in their proper place, it’s no wonder that when she finally got her diagnosis 15 years in the making, this was the most affected organ. (Note: One could even argue that the Spleen could have been the weakest organ overall, but I won’t complicate things for the reader) The cells of the uterus growing out of control outside of their proper place is demonstrative of Spleen weakness. The uncontrollable bleeding led to a massive loss of Qi that just couldn’t be replaced by her depleted system. The only solution, at that point, was to remove the uterus and large intestine to prevent the out of control cell growth from migrating elsewhere. While organ removal can have detrimental affects on the Spleen, it proved more harmful to keep the stagnation in there than to remove it. If I were this young woman, I would seek out an acupuncturist to help me keep my nervous system strong and balance the loss of the organs that were surgically removed. They would be able to recommend herbs and dietary changes to support her treatment. After watching this episode, it made me all the more fired up about Integrating Eastern and Western medicine. If East met West from the beginning, she and others like her would have been spared a lifetime of suffering. We would all have a better understanding of our body-mind relationship and keep the stigmatic tongue wagging at bay.

SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING:

http://www.dragonrises.edu/learning-opportunities/articles-books/

http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/

Premenstrual fitness

I never miss a training day. My exercise schedule is rigid; conducted with a NO EXCUSES attitude. That is how I roll. No one has to cajole me out of bed, push me out of the house or leave threatening messages on my phone to scare me into fitness. When it comes to exercise, I have always been self-motivated. Twice a week, I do a combination of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and strength/weight training with my trainer. Another two days of the week, I do some form of cardio mixed with cross fit and strength band/weight training on my own, either at home or at the gym. Everyday of the week, I manage to fit in at least 45 minutes to an hour of walking, stair climbing or overall hustling intermingled with my work as a massage therapist, which is a tremendous core strength builder. It’s fair to say that I’m tired by the end of my day, but the only time I truly feel the affects of all my activities is the few days prior to my period known as premenstrual syndrome or PMS for short. To say I am pooped would be an understatement. My body feels like it is made of lead. My balance and coordination are a joke; I can barely do a one legged squat without tipping over, which my trainer finds highly entertaining being that I have that martial arts/dance background and what not. My nutrition becomes spotty, as I crave the saltiest of salty and chocolatey of chocolate things, but get so nauseated that I end up eating less than what my body needs. Worst of all these symptoms is my emotional state, which fluctuates from absolute rage to bottom of my soul sadness. The former makes me want to break someone’s face and the latter, like I am falling to pieces mid-workout.

Training like a Spartan may not be the intuitive thing to do.

The 7 to 10 days prior to the arrival of the menstrual cycle and the first two days of the cycle itself can be unbearable for many women. Men can make all the snide comments and PMS jokes in the world; however hormones are powerful movers and shakers of a body’s state of balance a.k.a. homeostasis. These chemical messengers regulate many functions and processes; too little or too much of a particular hormone and things go haywire. Take for example human growth hormone, which ensures our bones, muscles and tissues grow us into adulthood and beyond. Having an over production causes Gigantism, where a person will grow to heights above 7 foot. Having too little will cause Dwarfism, a condition where a person is extremely short (well under 4′ 10″) with proportional body parts. With respect to PMS, it is the shifting of estrogen and progesterone that cause its symptoms and determine how acutely one experiences them. My clumsiness (aforementioned falling over during my workout), low tolerance for noises (I can’t take it when weighted plates and dumbbells get dropped after people finish their sets), difficulty concentrating/confusion (no, no you meant my other “left”), fatigue (lead body), aggressive behavior (god bless boxing and muay thai) and craving for excessive sleep are all symptoms that challenge my ability to workout and work effectively. Rather than ignore and try to push through, I found that I had to modify my definition of what would be effective fitness for this period of time (pun unintentional).

I loved Xena, my pseudo Greek warrior princess!

While sparring relieved some of the aggression I felt, trying to take someone’s head off left me vulnerable to shoulder injury. Hence, know when to use 20% of your strength and when to go full on. Instead of taking a 4 second break between sets, I grab my water bottle more often and take the time to breath through whatever meltdown I am feeling coming on; therefore getting it out of my system before continuing.  Again, I am avoiding injuring myself by pushing my body, but without sacrificing the level of workout I have set out to do. I also found that increasing my cardio (i.e. aerobic exercise) during this time helped me to get my appetite in check and jump-start my cycle without as much muscular cramping as I felt when I did more strength training and aggressive exercise. Since every body is different, it is super important to pay attention to what your symptoms are telling you and then, try modifying your activities to see what works for you. Ultimately, PMS should not be a reason to shy away from fitness. If anything, it will help put those hormones back in their bloody place (that one was intentional 🙂 ) per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

A Body is a Terrible Thing to Waste

All bones, no strength – Anorexia circa 2003

October 13th was the 8th anniversary of my recovery from Anorexia. Back on that date in 2004, I broke down on the floor of my bedroom in the middle of the night. I was staring into the demon bowels of the disease that had dictated my life for 3 years. It sucked the air from my lungs. I couldn’t live another day with its crushing pressure. It took me two weeks to leave the confines of a friend’s home (where I had escaped to cocoon myself from reality) and once I did emerge, I felt like I was in some kind of silent film. The world moved slowly, while I felt frenetic. I quit and distanced myself from everything in my life that I had allowed to enable the disease. I went into therapy. I ate a bowl of black eyed peas and rice, my first meal, with trepidation. My stomach; my intestines; my mind slowly came back to life. With belly distended, I proudly proclaimed on whatever social networks existed at that time that I was recovering. I was still very thin, but by the New Year 2005, my consistent eating led my body to “betray” me.

Performing in 2007, at my heaviest post recovery (Image copyright: Gary Winter)

The life preserving shut down of my metabolism was meant to make sure I wouldn’t starve again. I was afraid to eat, but I did anyway. I submitted my food journals to my therapist who approved and told me to eat more. “Variety” she stressed, but I was fixated on foods I felt safe with. I did gratuitous amounts of cardio at odd hours, so no one would stare at my body at the gym. They had known me when I was at my thinnest and I feared their assumption that I was letting myself go. My fears were realized when in the Spring of that year, a trainer approached me and offered to give me a fitness assessment. The masochist in me accepted and after running his various tests, proclaimed to me that I was borderline obese. Oh, the shame that washed over me. For years, that left me with such an acrid taste for personal trainers. He told me to cut out the “junk food” and come see him for sessions at the gym. I was living on tuna fish and pita breads, fueling my workouts with coffee and bee pollen smoothies. I never went back to that gym. In fact I stopped going to any gym. My weight and health habits fluctuated erratically between 2005 and 2008, until a good friend recommended his trainer. I got over myself and the shame I had felt in my previous experience and contacted him. He assessed me through a short circuit of activities and introduced the concept of strength training. He taught me how muscle mass and strength would benefit me in the long run, making my metabolism more efficient and letting my body reshape itself into it’s own “normal.”

All muscle, all strength!

The seed he planted germinated when I went back to school for massage. I was hit with Anatomy, Physiology, Neuro and Kinesiology. I never soaked up information with such appetite before. I couldn’t get enough. This knowledge enhanced my workouts and sessions with my trainer because I understood how my body was designed to function. Suddenly, Mr. “Borderline Obese” became the joke that I should have never taken seriously. (Side note here: I saw his picture and name on a real estate placard recently, which clearly shows us he did not have a glowing career in exercise physiology after all). I also returned to therapy with a more cognitive approach to help get to the root of my control issues and take them head on…much like throwing knees and elbows during pad drills. I channeled my emotions into my workouts and learned, often times the hard way, what an art BALANCE is. Now, as a massage therapist, it is so important to foster this healthy sense of bodily awareness within my clients, wherever possible and always when solicited.

So when I was contacted recently by a Fitness/Wellness website for a review of their services, I stepped up to the plate and joined. SlimKicker is a point based program kind of in the vein of Weight Watchers, except that it values activities and nutrition at various levels and creates challenges for its users to foster long term health habits. It also provides a calorie counter, fitness tracker and other resources. There is the community aspect too, as users can post inspirational feed on the homepage, join each other in challenges/groups and “friend” each other for support. The About Us section states that the site is all about learning proper nutrition, portion control, and acquiring important habits. In that vein, upon signing up I was asked for my weight and what my goal was – weight loss or strengthening/toning. Although I chose the fitness oriented option, the pop up that followed was more for weight loss, citing how many calories and percentages I needed to consume in order to achieve my goal. The amount it noted was no where near what I would need to fuel my body and my workouts. To drive this point home, I logged only my exercise habits; not my food intake. If I followed what the site suggested, I would essentially send my body into starvation mode.

It is important to note here that there is a disclaimer in their Terms and Conditions that states the site should not be used by anyone with any medical or nutritional conditions and that content is for informational purposes only, not meant to replace professional medical advice. Obviously no one with an eating disorder has any business on a site where everything is meticulously logged and counted, but many people without said issues can still have disordered eating habits and cycles of guilt they feel compelled to share via social network. The site’s inspirational feed is 80% laments at having eaten too much of something labeled “bad” either by the user themselves or the nutritional information offered to them by the website (Remember that disclaimer,guys?). Also, there are statements of pride over extra exercises and completed challenges; however these inspirational statements are edged with complaints about weight gain or lack of loss (again, that disclaimer). This is not the site’s fault. They want you to be positive, stay focused and band together for support. Our society is more to blame for fostering this widespread self loathing and depreciation. The hate and guilt are infectious and breed a vicious cycle that will continue so long as we choose to continue “sharing,” despite any health oriented social networks best efforts.

SlimKicker, if used properly, can function as a motivator for adopting a fitness regimen because it holds you accountable for your activities. Much like a TO DO list, if exercise is factored into a week and logged daily, it makes you all the more aware of the need to check it off your list. After doing so for so many times, it will hopefully become a natural part of your daily lifestyle. I’m still not a fan of food logging due to my past; however if you truly don’t know what you have eaten in a day, keeping a food diary can help you track unhealthy patterns like over eating and of course, under eating. My advice is to pay attention to your body’s individual needs and seek out a registered dietician and/or nutritionist if you find the process to be overwhelming.

Champissage – from your head down to your toes!

Way back when I was a little girl, I used to rub my father’s head in order to help him fall asleep – an early sign of my eventual path into massage therapy, I’m sure. This task was requested of all family members, but I was the only one with the patience to do it. I would mindlessly play with his hair until his tensions were chased away by slumber. Little did I know what a therapeutic thing I was truly doing for him.

In my massage practice, one of my favorite ways to end a session is with a scalp massage. I usually put a few drops of conditioning oil in my hands and then proceed to cover the circumference of the head with rhythmic strokes until the entire scalp has been moisturized. Most clients either fall asleep or zone out to the verge of sleepiness by the time I finish. I do this both to relax them and give their hair a little TLC. I never learned a specific protocol for addressing the scalp. I just kind of did what felt natural and what related to a client’s condition, if they had one.

In India, head massage is a way of life. Practiced for thousands of years, it is not only an integral part of the Indian woman’s grooming ritual, but also an alternative medicinal treatment for many conditions, as outlined in ancient Ayurvedic texts. It was brought to the west in 1973 by osteopath and massage therapist, Narendra Mehta, who felt there was a gap in the full body massage that soothing head massage could fill. Dubbing it champissage, a blend of the indian word for “head” and massage, he opened a school in London and has now made this the top complimentary technique practiced amongst therapists in the UK. The certification course is just four days long and teaches how to properly address the shoulders, upper arms, neck, scalp, face and ears to reduce stress and flush out the buildup of energetic debris that affect one’s health and well being.

The interesting thing about champissage is its ability to be a stand alone treatment, sans the full body massage. The way the course is structured, therapists learn how to address the shoulders, upper arms, neck, scalp, face and ears with massage and energetic balancing techniques based on Chakra energy. A chakra is a channel of energy that follows a central path down the body starting from the crown of one’s head and ending at the base of the spine.  Each chakra branches off in the form of “petals” that distribute their energy through the body. The zones addressed through champissage encompass 3 chakras – the crown, the brow and the throat. Each has a profound energetic representation that makes it clear to me why just performing a champissage can feel like the entire body is addressed.

The Crown chakra or Sahasrara is considered the chakra of pure consciousness. Its role is like that of the pituitary gland, which sits on its own little crown deep within the skull and regulates the body’s functions through the release of hormones via the Endocrine system and communicates with the Central Nervous System via the hypothalamus. This chakra relates to physical action with a sense of cause and affect otherwise known as karma, mental action with respect to a sense of unity and belonging to the collective universe and emotional action through a sense of experiencing another person’s experience as if you were inside them, being them.

The Brow chakra or Ajna is also known as the third eye. It’s role can be correlated  to the function of the pineal gland, which is a light sensitive gland that produces a hormone, melatonin, that regulates sleep and wakefulness. Keeping with this concept of light and dark balance, this chakra balances the higher and lower selves. It also fosters trusting inner guidance through the access of intuition. Mentally, it deals with visual consciousness and emotionally, clarity on an intuitive level.

The Throat chakra or Vishuddha relates to communication and growth through expression. This chakra is paralleled to the thyroid gland, which is located in the throat and responsible for producing hormones that regulate growth and maturation. Physically, it governs communication, emotionally independence, mentally fluent thought and spiritually, it governs a sense of security. It is associated with the upper extremities; therefore addressing this chakra affects the neck, arms and hands.

Western therapists who have learned and received champissage describe a sense of mental and physical clarity post-massage, along with an increase in mobility and reduction in tension. It makes sense when these above 3 chakras are so integral to one’s sense of self and relationship to things outside of one’s body on spiritual, emotional and mental levels. I recall when learning the neck muscles in school, our instructor cautioned that for many people the throat and face could access all kinds of emotional triggers from past traumas and experiences. That is why it became so important to foster a sense of safety and trust with the client, so that they would know it would be okay to let go, no matter what feelings bubbled up to the surface during the work. A slow buildup is the recommended protocol for energetic balancing with respect to champissage. In this way, the client can trust in the touch and be prepared for the deeper strokes that come toward the end of the massage.

Although many spas in the U.S. are starting to offer this form of massage under various marketing monikers, its therapeutic value should not be dismissed. Whether you are receiving champissage at the day spa or in the offices of a licensed practitioner, the affects are still profoundly therapeutic.

SOURCES:

http://www.massagemag.com/spa/treatment/indianhead.php

http://www.champissageinternational.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chakra