Brain Health: What to Know, What to Do”

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“Take Care of your Brain”

Those affected by Multiple Sclerosis know that MS is a disease of the brain, spinal cord and the optic nerves. When MSers think of their brain, most are concerned about the lesions and possible cognitive impairment. Some people are aware that emotions such as depression and mood swings can also be directly affected by the brain.

But I bet most folks don’t think or even know that one can take care of their brain to help manage their MS symptoms and progression. Brain health is a crucial component of one’s overall health and wellness.

As a person who has lived with MS for decades and loves to research, I find myself reading almost daily about the brain. I am equally fascinated both by the tremendous amount of research that has occurred about this complicated organ and what is has been learned about it just in the past few years. More attention and funding for research is occurring such as The Brain Initiative”,  where the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has committed $40 million in the first year to develop better technologies for investigating the brain. The goal, among many, is to map the activity of every neuron and cell in the brain. This week, Arizona State University and Banner Health will team together to form a new brain research lab focused on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other brain-related diseases.

SO HOW DO YOU TAKE CARE OF YOUR BRAIN?

There are many things that can be done specifically for the brain just like one would do for overall wellness: getting enough good sleep, exercise, diet, stress less, etc. that are listed as main categories below. However, I have included many links to excellent articles from credible sources that expands/explains much more information for your knowledge/interests.

• Sleep: a #1 Priority

Sleep affects EVERYTHING in the body—your heart, energy level, pain, weight, and even skin. Your brain cannot function well without it. It affects your mental state: judgment, reaction times, moods, memory, concentration and decision making. Sleep enables your brain to process information and store it in your memory; it rejuvenates parts of your brain that was used during the day and even parts that are not normally used.

Scientists say sleep is nature’s panacea, more powerful than any drug in its ability to restore and rejuvenate the human brain and body. Studies consistently show that people who sleep less than eight hours a night don’t perform as well on concentration and memory tests. Check out these excellent articles for more detail:

The Power of Sleep New research shows a good night’s rest isn’t a luxury–it’s critical for your brain and for your health. Time Magazine 9/11/14  

“Why is sleep so important to the immune system?”

Many people with MS have sleep issues, due to a variety of reasons. Here is a blog post of mine that addresses this subject may be helpful “MS and Sleep”

• Exercise your Brain

Quite simply, the brain is similar to a muscle—you use it or lose it.

When I was a little girl, my aunt would always tell me to “use my intelligence” for making decisions, solving problems or looking for an answer to something. I was forced to use logic, common sense, imagination, creativity and social skills. Television was limited, and my mother made me read every night until I started middle school. They were wise and I was gifted because of it. I yearned to learn and am still doing it.

My cognitive function is now beginning to slip a bit—because of age? MS? menopause? Who knows, but I know there are brain exercises and other things that can be done to help keep my mind sharp.

A great place to get started is at the AARP Brain Health and Wellness website, where in addition to forms of solitaire, you can work on your memory, math skills, vocabulary, analytical skills and concentration by playing eight games such as “The Right Word” and “Private Eye.” You can pick your skill level on a sliding scale. Be sure to try the examples. The games are challenging — and addicting.

• Diet – “Brain Food”

Yes—there are foods that are specifically good for the brain. And what is good for the brain is also good for the body.

For example, avocados increase blood flow to the brain, and may help in lowering blood pressure. Deep-water fish, such as salmon, are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are essential for brain function. Omega-3s also contain anti-inflammatory substances. Beans stabilize glucose (blood sugar) levels, the brain is dependent on glucose for fuel. Freshly-brewed tea can boost brain power by enhancing memory, focus, and mood. Tea also has potent antioxidants, which promotes healthy blood flow. Check out“Eat Smart for a Healthier Brain”, or Google away!

• What is good for your heart is good for your brain**

Taking the following steps to keep your heart healthy may also help stave off cognitive decline:

• Don’t smoke.
• Sleep 7–8 hours a night.
• Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check.
• Eat a low-fat, healthy diet.
• Get plenty of exercise.
• Maintain a healthy weight.
• Limit alcohol consumption.
• Get blood sugar levels (and diabetes, if you have it) under control.

While scientists have traditionally viewed brain cells as finite resources, they’re now learning that the brain continues regenerating and forming new connections throughout one’s life. Although most cognitive reserve is probably built up early in life, engaging in mentally stimulating activities at any age may have a positive effect—and it doesn’t have any negative side effects.

**Source: “Staying Sharp: What you do during your free time could help save your brain.”

• Stress Less

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that stress affects moods, emotions, concentration and many other parts of the body. Everyone has stress in their lives, but it’s the chronic stress that will really activate an immune system response—something MSers do not want.

This recent article discusses the implications stress can have on the immune system and change brain chemistry. It is definitely worth a read: “From The Brain to the Immune System, How Stress Pirates Your Whole Body”

What de-stresses you? Music? Taking a rest? Talking to a friend? Deep breathing and Yoga? Therapy? Actions to de-stress are critical for your overall wellness, and for managing your MS.

• Drugs/Medications

There is no question that all drugs have side effects and work differently for different people—both on the body and the brain. But folks need to do their homework, ask a lot of questions, and weigh the benefits vs. risks of each drug that is taken—both in the short-term and the long-term. In my opinion,

o YOU are in charge ultimately, not your doctor or anyone else.
o YOU know your body best.
o YOU acquire knowledge about the drugs.
o YOU take responsibility for monitoring what you are taking, keeping notes…

It sounds like common sense, but it is amazing how many people don’t do these things. One woman I counseled with MS was freaking out about losing her cognitive function. During our conversation, I learned she was taking a sleeping pill, anxiety pills, and pain pills every day! Another woman I spoke with last week said her neurologist wanted to start her on a DMT, and she wasn’t definitely diagnosed with MS yet!

The following websites are for further information and interest:

“Common Causes of Brain Fog: How to Deal with Brain and Mental Fatigue”

Brain Health Center (AARP) Lots of cool info about the brain: memory, fitness, diet, sleep…

The Link Between Your Immune System, Brain, and Alzheimer’s

“Are Cognitive Problems Blamed Too Much on MS?”

The brain is the most important part of the body—protect and take care of it!

www.DebbieMS.com
Author/MS Counselor/Living with MS

*Image courtesy of atibodyphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Power of the Brain: A Coping Mechanism

 

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                  This has been what my head and life has been these past several months.

Scrambled. Out of order. Unfocused. Need of repair.

My usual ‘normal’ MS life was severely disrupted several months ago. For me, first a virus that took a long time to go away, then a badly injured right shoulder rotator cuff, then cancer surgery. Meantime, my hubby has been going through the process to determine the cause of his severe joint pain and swelling; possible RA? Don’t know yet, but only know that sometimes he’s worse off than me. I’m now a caregiver and patient. And then the problems with my aging mother, finances…

Somehow we manage to cope and find the strength to keep going.  How?

One of my favorite MS blog posts I wrote is “The Power of the Brain” http://blog.debbiems.com/?p=310 . I pull it out from time to time and read it for my own inspiration.

Since I can’t seem to find the time, energy, or the focus to write and continue my blog yet, I thought I would repeat this post. I hope it will inspire you, too.

www.DebbieMS.com
Author, MS Counselor, Living with MS

Update to Previous Post: The Power of the Brain

January 29, 2014

As I was perusing the internet about the brain, I came across this news today:

The NIH BRAIN Initiative – is part of a new Presidential bill/focus aimed at “revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain.”

Check it out, as MS could benefit from research done! http://www.nih.gov/science/brain/ $40M is allocated in 2014 for this.

www.DebbieMS.com

 

The Power of the Brain

“Mind over Matter”

During a recent January rut, I decided to escape into movie-land to occupy my mind with something other than my personal woes. I love movies and I have seen five of them that are recent releases. Four of them are based on true stories; one is not, but I like to imagine that it could have been.

As I watched these movies, it reminded me how powerful the brain is in our ability to survive. There is a common thread in all of them: Mind over matter. It is possible and it does work. Since I live with MS, I think about the brain a lot because it is a disease that involves the brain.

The movie Lone Survivor shows the unbelievable strength and endurance of Navy Seals, as does the lead character in Twelve Years a Slave. How can a person’s psyche be maintained while experiencing such immense physical and emotional pain? Matthew McConaughey’s character was given one month to live in Dallas Buyers Club, yet he finds ways to live another seven years because he’s not ready to die. All is Lost and Gravity are two movies that have characters with incredible intelligence in their fields—sea and space–who find themselves all alone in disastrous situations. Their ability to focus on using their skills and ingenuity, despite their obstacles, keeps their fears at bay.

The will to live, to survive, to endure, to think, to focus, to achieve… Sometimes these can be acquired through training; sometimes it just happens because of the human spirit, hope and faith.

We have all heard stories about people who obtain super-human strength and endurance. The guy stuck in a crevice who cuts his arm off to get free, or the woman who lifts a heavy car off of her child after a crash. POW’s who survive torture. Holocaust survivors.

There are people who beat the odds when given a bad prognosis for something like cancer. Or other chronically ill persons who get better receiving what they thought was a new drug, when unknown to them they had really received a placebo (i.e. a “sugar pill”)!

The possible, the positive. Positive thinking is like an ol’ shot in the arm for me. It gives hope and energy. The confidence to move forward.

I remember using Lamaze when I delivered my son, and had a relatively quick and natural childbirth. Yoga and deep breathing techniques are effective in helping my neuropathic pain and muscle spasms.

I read about the brain often to learn about new research taking place for MS. I’ll start Googling a particular subject like myelin repair, and an hour later I am immersed in reading about rehabilitating a stroke victim. Fascinating stuff going on with the brain.

Yes!–there are other ways to “train” or “re-train” the brain. I have had partial success in past years improving problems that MS has caused me, such as balance and coordination. My will to do aquatics therapy regularly has helped maintain function. Yes!—there has been great advancement in research for restorative function such as stem cells. Clinical trials have started. Yes!—the brain has the ability to repair some damaged myelin in the early years of MS. Yes!—exercising and resting the brain keeps cognition healthy and functioning well.

And then there are powerful things the brain responds to: brainwashing, hypnosis, and drugs. Both positive and negative.

It is a powerful organ, but a delicate one as well. For the life of me, I can’t understand why someone would do boxing or head-contact sports. While they are working on battering their brains, I’m working on protecting mine. And while some people will take any drug a doctor will prescribe (or not prescribe!), I diligently do thorough research before taking any new pill or shot. That is what my great-aunt used to refer to as “use your intelligence.”

Mind over matter. Realistically, it doesn’t always work. But I like to believe that a person can do just about anything if he/she puts their mind to it.

www.DebbieMS.com
Author/MS Counselor/Living with MS

 

 

 

Are Cognitive Problems Blamed Too Much on MS?

“What to Know—What to Do”

June 4, 2013

MS has many misconceptions associated with it, and cognitive impairment may be one of them. Lately, it seems that I read and hear more and more about how MS is the cause for memory issues that MSers experience–it is gaining a reputation for brain dysfunctioning. And along with the increased reputation comes the increased fear.

Although MS can cause cognitive issues, it is important to know that they are NOT the most typical symptoms of MS. It is estimated that 40-50% of people with MS experience mild to moderate impairment; severe cognitive decline like dementia are extremely rare (source: MSIF.org).

What are these impairments? Things such as:

• Long-term concentration; inattention; distraction
• Forgetfulness
• Planning or problem solving difficulties
• Loss in thought processes; word finding
• Not thinking quickly or clearly; “brain fog”

BUT, these types of difficulties can also be the result of other factors such as age, hormones, menopause, overload, stress, drugs, fatigue, depression and lack of sleep. For example, up to two-thirds of women report forgetfulness and other mental disturbances during hormonal shifts of menopause! So, maybe that 40-50% estimate is really lower in reality.

There is something called neuropsychological testing, and more people in the MS community are talking about them. These tests were designed to measure cognitive difficulties. However, unlike some other areas of measurement, with these tests 1) there is no single test that measures everything that the brain does, and 2) there are wide variations in how/what types of tests are done and their conclusions. Furthermore, the testing can be strenuous and expensive.

In the end, does knowing the test details make much difference in one’s life? Doesn’t it make more sense to learn about these cognitive difficulties and what can be one done to overcome them?

What to Do and Why

Exercise your brain. Practice brain games, crossword puzzles, and memory exercises that stress verbal skills.

Enrich your diet with plenty of omega-3 fats, low-glycemic index carbohydrates (e.g., whole grains) and antioxidants. Walnuts and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (including sardines and salmon) fight artery-damaging inflammation. Antioxidants raise acetylcholine, which is an essential neurotransmitter for memory. Berries, especially blueberries, are loaded with anthocyanins – potent antioxidants that protect cells, including those in the brain. Blueberries may also have the power to create new pathways for connection in the brain.

Eat several smaller meals throughout the day. Eating small meals prevents dips in blood glucose levels, and glucose is the primary energy source for the brain.

Take walks daily and do stretching exercises. Increased cardio can make your brain actually grow, with more white matter and more neuron connections.

Do stretching/relaxation exercises and meditation to reduce anxiety and stress. Stress causes the body to release cortisol. Cortisol—the body’s stress hormone– has been found to shrink the memory/learning centers in the brain, which results in impaired memory.

Make sure your body is getting enough iron. Iron helps the neurotransmitters essential to memory function properly.

Make sure you are getting enough sleep. Anyone who’s ever stayed up all night recognizes that next-day brain fuzziness, when it seems like nothing really registers or is available for recall later. That is what’s happening. Different parts of the brain are responsible for creating different types of memories – a face, a name, or just the recollection that you met someone. Sleep is also needed to make long-term memories last.

Focus on one task at a time to keep a recollection of each one. When you do multiple tasks, the brain switches processing to another region that retains fewer details. For example, listening to the news while reading something will impair your ability to recall either later.

Check your cholesterol. The plaque buildup can block the blood vessels in your brain, deprive it of valuable nutrients, and cue memory problems.

Keep thin or lose weight. The brains of obese people work harder than those of normal weight people to achieve the same results, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. High blood pressure and inflammation—both of which strike obese people hard–irritate the brain’s communication networks, making it more difficult for the brain to receive messages.

Many prescription drugs can affect your memory, and the older you are, the longer drugs stay in your system. Drugs that can cause memory lapses include antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, beta-blockers, sleeping pills, painkillers, antihistamines, and statins.

Easy Memory Tricks

1. Repeat yourself. To help get a routine activity lodged in your brain, say it out loud as you do it. “I’m getting the stamps” – fends off distraction as you go to get them. You may sound crazy, but rehearsal is one of the best tricks for memory. Memory experts also advise that you repeat a person’s name as you are introduced.

2. Bite off bigger pieces. Since your brain can process only so much information at a time, try chunking bits together. By repeating a phone number as “thirty-eight, twenty-seven” instead of “3, 8, 2, 7,” you only have to remember two numbers, not four.

3. Give words more meaning. When you’re introduced – let’s say to Elton – connect the name to someone (“Elton John”), a place, etc. Or you can use rhymes—“Dennis plays tennis.”

4. Create unlikely connections. For example, switching a watch to the other wrist when you need to remember something. The oddity of not finding the watch where it should be triggers recall.

5. Practice paying attention. What was your neighbor wearing this morning? Even if you’ll never need the information, forcing yourself to observe and recall the details of your day sharpens your memory.

6. Do something mentally challenging. Working a crossword puzzle, or learning an instrument or foreign language creates fresh connections in the brain. It can actually generate new cells in the brain’s hippocampus (i.e. the brain’s learning/memory center). Those new cells build cognitive reserves that are important for creating new memories and may protect against memory loss – even dementia – later in life. A timed game like Boggle or Simon will force you to pay attention, work quickly, and think flexibly.

In summary, if a MSer is experiencing some type of cognitive problem, it may be prudent to initially think through the possible causes and try commonsense solutions to improve it.
www.DebbieMS.com
Author/MS Counselor/Living with MS