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Exercise: How It Can Make Your Brain Bigger, Smarter, & Healthier

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By now, you’ve heard of the many health benefits of exercise (here, here and here). You may even be exercising to prevent or help control chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and even cancer. But did you know that exercise can boost your brain’s ability to think, remember, and stave off age-related cognitive decline?

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Literally, exercise can change your brain. Perhaps even prevent Alzheimer’s.

How Does Exercise Help Your Brain?

Exercise helps the brain both directly and indirectly. The indirect effect comes from its ability to reduce or prevent chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, while improving mood and reducing anxiety. These diseases and conditions produce progressive brain dysfunction and mental deterioration over time.

The direct effect of exercise on brain health has to do with its impact on brain cells through what’s called neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. A study out of Princeton University showed how exercise induces neuroplasticity by increasing the number of cells in the ventral hippo-campus and increasing the levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter. Check out this video.

How does exercise do this?

Scientists believe that exercise increases the amount of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that the body produces. This protein has been dubbed “Miracle-Gro for the brain” by Harvard psychiatrist John J. Ratey. It increases voltage in the brain by binding to receptors in the synapses that activate genes to produce brain-healthy neurotransmitters while sprouting new brain cells.

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For you, the benefit is better memory, heightened learning capacity, and better coping skills — not a bad payoff for your investment.

Benefits to the Brain through Exercise

Here is a list of some of the brain benefits you can expect from regular exercise:

  • Improved cognition, executive function (impulse inhibition, focus, goal management, etc.), and the ability to think clearly
  • Increased positive moods and a decrease in depression and anxiety
  • Changes in the physical structure (increase in the size of the hippo-campus) and chemical composition of the brain (higher levels of BDNF, GABA, endorphins, glutamate, etc.)
  • Reduced stress (augmented relaxation response) and enhanced capacity to cope with life’s challenges
  • Better sleep patterns.

brain-benefitsNot bad for something so simple as exercise.

What About Alzheimer’s?

The possibility of developing Alzheimer’s disease strikes fear in all of us. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that there will be an additional 10 million cases in the U.S. in the next few decades.

With no direct cure available at this time, emphasizing prevention may be the best route. Exercise, according to some research, may be a useful tool in your efforts to stave off this dreaded disease.

Researchers have found a link between exercise and brain health that may keep the brain young and able to resist degenerative changes. Research published in May 2­016 by Nathan Johnson, Ph.D. of the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences concluded that “being physically active improves blood flow to the brain and confers some protection from dementia, and conversely that people who live sedentary lifestyles, especially those who are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s, might be more susceptible.”

Exercise at any age can keep the brain young and reduce the chances of developing dementia, especially for those at high genetic risk.

My advice? Get off the couch and get moving.

What Type of Exercise Is Best for your Brain?

There is a wide variety of exercises available to you when getting in shape, but which type of exercise is specifically best for your brain and how much exercise is needed remains unclear.

Current research is beginning to piece together how various forms of exercise affect the brain and can potentially stave off age-related deterioration.

Let’s take a look at some of the current research.

Aerobics  

Study 1 – For the first time, in a study published earlier this year at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, scientists compared aerobics, resistance training, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on a group of rats.

One group used running wheels (aerobics), one group climbed walls with small weights attached to their tails (resistance training), and another used small treadmills with intermittent slow and fast running (HIIT) for seven weeks.

Results

Aerobic activity – The rats performing steady aerobic exercise showed high levels of neurogenesis, more BDNF, and hippocampal tissue swollen with new neurons. The further they ran, the greater the number of new cells.

HIIT – Rats performing high intensity intervals showed fewer new cells than the aerobic group.

Resistance Training – The weightlifting rats, although much stronger, did not exhibit much neurogenesis.

Study 2 – Researchers from the University of Muenster, Germany assessed post-exercise learning performance of 27 volunteers who were assigned to do either 40 minutes of high-impact sprints, low-impact aerobic running, or a period of rest. BDNF levels for all participants were measured prior to exercise.

Results  

Post-exercise, those who performed high-impact activity showed a 20% faster rate of learning vocabulary than the other two groups. The high-impact group also demonstrated higher levels of BDNF and other cerebral markers of brain health such as dopamine and epinephrine.

Yoga

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers studied yoga’s effect on cognition (executive function) of 30 female college-age participants who performed three different testing sessions consisting of yoga (stretches, breathing exercises, and meditation), aerobics (20-minute session on a treadmill at 60% – 70% incline), and a baseline assessment.

Results

Results showed that cognitive performance after the yoga session was superior to both the aerobic group and the baseline assessment in regards to shorter reaction times, increased accuracy, and working memory tasks. The performance of the aerobic and baseline groups was not significantly different from one another.

Resistance Training

A study out of the University of British Columbia took a large group of women between the ages of 65 and 75 who were already enrolled in a brain health study and had already received a brain scan. The study focused on women whose brain scans had indicated the presence of white matter lesions (age-related holes in the brain associated with memory loss).

The women were assigned to one of three groups for one year, one performing resistance training once per week, the second twice per week, and the third doing stretching and balance training.

Results

The women who performed only balance and stretching and those who weight trained once per week showed disturbing increases in white matter lesions. However, the women who worked out twice per week had much less deterioration in white matter and less brain shrinkage.

Conclusion

Current research is unclear and even contradictory as to which exercise is best for your brain, its long term effects, and the amount of time one must commit in order to reap positive results.

However, research does support the notion that exercise sustains proper brain function and emotional health, and may even prevent or slow neurological and psychiatric disease. Exercise has been associated with reduced risk of age-related Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other diseases.

Prescription: For the time being, it seems best to commit to an exercise regimen that incorporates a variety of exercise formats (resistance training, aerobics, stretching, and balance), is moderately intense, and conducted at least three times per week.

Whatever you decide, make sure it gets your body moving. Good luck.

Always consult with your physician before embarking on an exercise program.

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Awareness

Frankincense Shows The Ability To Alleviate Symptoms Of Anxiety & Depression

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Studies have proven the psychoactive effects the scent of frankincense has on the brain, alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression.

  • Reflect On:

    With all the man-made chemical pharmaceutical drugs out there, perhaps solutions to what ails us are more simple than we may realize.

Gold and frankincense and myrrh… sound familiar? These were the gifts that were allegedly brought by the three kings when Jesus Christ was born. We all know that gold is valuable, but what about the others? Frankincense has long been touted as a magical, mystical medicine and has been regarded as such for millennia within many ancient cultures of the world. The same goes for myrrh, but for the purpose of this article we are going to stick to the medicinal properties of frankincense.

Frankincense starts out as a type of resinous sap that is found inside a special family of trees called Boswellia, which grow almost exclusively in the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. When it is harvested at specific times of the year, the trees are cut carefully with special knives and the sap seeps out. This special sap is then dried in the sun until it is ready for use. More commonly, frankincense is burned simply as sweet smelling incense, but it has many other uses as well including the following…

Historical Uses Of Frankincense

  • As a part of ritual or religious ceremonies
  • Was used extensively during burial rituals as an embalming material to help mask the odor of the deceased body
  • Smoke from burnt incense can effectively drive away mosquitoes and other pests

Frankincense has also been used medicinally, treating various ailments such as arthritis (it has strong anti-inflammatory properties), gut disorders (like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), asthma, and maintenance of oral health.

And perhaps the most intriguing quality for our westernized modern culture is the psychoactive effects of this special resin, as studies have shown that burning frankincense can trigger an effect that can aid and even alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The Research

One study in particular, conducted by a team of researchers form John Hopkins University and Hebrew University in Jerusalem, explains how burning the resin from the Boswellia plant (frankincense) activates certain previously misunderstood ion channels in the brain in order to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. This might explain why Roman emperor Nero once burned an entire year’s harvest of frankincense at his favorite mistress’ funeral.

“In spite of information stemming from ancient texts, constituents of Bosweilla had not been investigated for psychoactivity,” said Raphael Mechoulam, one of the research study’s co-authors. “We found that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin constituent, when tested in mice lowers anxiety and causes antidepressive-like behavior. Apparently, most present day worshipers assume that incense burning has only a symbolic meaning.”

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The researchers administered incensole acetate to mice in order to determine its psychoactive effects. This compound they found drastically impacted the parts of the brain that generate emotions and the nerve circuits that have responded positively to current drugs used for depression and anxiety. The incensole that was administered activated a protein called TRPV3, which is connected to the ability to perceive warmth of the skin.

“Perhaps Marx wasn’t too wrong when he called religion the opium of the people: morphine comes from poppies, cannabinoids from marijuana, and LSD from mushrooms; each of these has been used in one or another religious ceremony,” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. “Studies of how those psychoactive drugs work have helped us understand modern neurobiology. The discovery of how incensole acetate, purified from frankincense, works on specific targets in the brain should also help us understand diseases of the nervous system. This study also provides a biological explanation for millennia-old spiritual practices that have persisted across time, distance, culture, language, and religion–burning incense really does make you feel warm and tingly all over!”

Can This Work For You?

Sure, this study was conducted using mice, which certainly aren’t the same as humans. However, many religious texts claim that this special resin had uplifting effects on the brain. So, the good thing is that if used appropriately, it really can’t hurt to try. You can typically buy the resin at health food stores and more commonly at stores that sell incense, crystals, sage and those sorts of spiritual ceremonial tools. It can also be found as an essential oil. I like to diffuse it in a diffuser, and sometimes I’ll burn the resin on charcoal pucks as well.

At the very least, you’ll get a nice and pleasant smelling aroma, and at best it can help turn that frown upside down, increase your mood, reduce your anxiety and maybe even put a smile on your face. Perhaps those three wise men were as wise as they’ve been made out to be, and frankincense really is as special as it’s been believed to be for millennia.

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Awareness

Binge Watching Is Associated With a 12 Percent Increased Risk of Inflammatory-Related Death

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    An Australian study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise looked at more than 8,900 adults and found that each additional hour of TV viewing was associated with a 12% increased risk of inflammatory-related death.

  • Reflect On:

    How much TV do you watch? How active is your lifestyle?

I’m sure that you hesitated before choosing to read this article, as most of us have been sucked into a binge watching marathon on more than one occasion (myself included). While it may seem like we’re buckling down to give ourselves a break, we may actually be hurting ourselves far more than we realize. Sitting for prolonged periods of time has proven to be harmful to our bodies, especially for adults over 50, and when you match lounging with television, you create a deadly combo.

In an Australian study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers examined more than 8,900 adults and found that each additional hour of TV viewing was associated with a 12% increased risk of inflammatory-related death, and those who spent more than four hours a day watching TV were at an even higher risk. This includes  diabetes, respiratory, cognitive, and kidney diseases. (source)

In general, watching television has proven to negatively impact mental health; it alters your brain, lowers your attention span, and has the potential to make you more aggressive. You don’t need to experience the “trance-like” state television can put us in, but I’m sure you’ve witnessed it before. This trance occurs roughly 30 seconds after you start watching TV. Your brain begins by producing alpha waves, leading to a light hypnotic state that makes the viewer less aware of their environment and more open to subtle messages — aka programming.

In the 1990s. Dr. Teresa Belton, a visiting fellow at the University of East Anglia, studied the effects that television has on the imagination of 10-12 year old children, ultimately concluding that television negatively impacts their development: “The ubiquity and ease of access to television and videos perhaps robs today’s children of the need to pursue their own thoughts and devise their own occupations, distracting them from inner processes and constantly demanding responses to external agendas, and suggests that this may have implications for the development of imaginative capacity.”

And these physical affects are becoming increasingly apparent. Not only does it eventually lead to immobility as you age, but with the risk of creating inflammation in the body, you are susceptible to a host of diseases including kidney disease, diabetes, asthma, Alzheimer’s, and even depression.

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Dr. Megan Grace is the lead investigator at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne. Between 1999 and 2000, her team quizzed adult participants about their viewing habits via a questionnaire. Again, this was before we had access to popular streaming websites like Netflix. The participants were separated into three groups based on their TV viewing habits: less than two hours per day, greater than two hours but less than four hours, and more than four hours.

“TV time was associated with increased risk of inflammatory-related mortality. This is consistent with the hypothesis that high TV viewing may be associated with a chronic inflammatory state,” the authors wrote.

They followed up with their participants 12 years later and found, of 909 deaths, 130 were inflammatory-related. Of the inflammatory-related deaths, 21 were from diseases of the respiratory system and 18 of the nervous system, and those who watched between two to four hours of TV a day showed a 54% higher risk of inflammatory-related death. Additionally, people who watched more than four hours of TV a day doubled their risk of dying from an inflammatory disease compared to those who watched two hours.

In addition to cutting down the amount of time you spend sitting in front of the TV and sitting or lying down, you can help combat inflammation with a number of foods like avocados, berries, sweet potato, onions, and watermelon, and herbs like, cloves, ginger, rosemary, and turmeric.

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Awareness

The Science Of Healing Trauma With Plant Medicine – Dr. Jeff McNairy Explains

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Ayahuasca has assisted thousands of people with an array of mental health disorders. There is real science that can explain how this "medicine" is able to actually change the brain.

  • Reflect On:

    Ayahuasca is not for everyone, and it will not fix you. It might, however, show you what you need to see in order to release what is no longer serving you in life and holding you back.

Over the past decade or so, the use of ayahuasca by western cultures has absolutely blown up. Chances are you’ve either taken it yourself or know someone who has. You may have heard some incredible and transformative stories about how this indigenous plant medicine has assisted many of those struggling with depression, addiction, anxiety and many other ailments.

It has been difficult to explain how this plant actually works to help alleviate symptoms of trauma, and many stick to simply regarding it as a mystical experience that shows you whatever it is that you need to see in order to heal your wounds. However, there is a scientific way to explain what is actually happening within the brain and body when ayahuasca is ingested. Some people with a more logical method of receiving information might prefer to know the actual physical “why” as to what is happening. In the video below, Dr. Jeff McNairy explains this.

Dr. Jeff McNairy is part of the Rythmia family, the world’s first fully licensed medical facility that offers ayahuasca. The entire CE team had the opportunity to go back in 2016 and it was a wonderful experience for us all.

Personally, I have processed a lot of my own trauma with the assistance of this potent plant medicine. It was able to show me things that I hadn’t realized had such a profound impact on my life, things that I had simply written off as unimportant. There were many things that I had stuffed down, locked away and refused to look at over the years that ultimately were the cause for my struggle with depression, addictive behaviours and anxiety. With the assistance of ayahuasca, a light shined on these areas that I had locked away in my subconscious, which helped me to see where healing was still required.

Is Ayahuasca For You?

Whether you are drawn to ayahuasca or not is okay, it’s not for everyone. But if you have a serious desire to uncover more layers of who you are and why you are the way you are, and you’re drawn to this medicine, then it may be for you. Ayahuasca can be a great tool for those who have suffered trauma, but it is important to know that ayahuasca won’t fix you, however it can lead you to understand what it is you need to know in order to fix yourself. It has the capacity to show you whatever it is that you are not seeing from a different perspective, opening your eyes to what you may not have been able to see before.

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It is no coincidence that ayahuasca has emerged within westernized cultures around the globe during this important time of transition. Not only is it assisting people to reconnect back to their soul’s essence, but it is also increasing our regard for our environment and our Mother Earth as a whole.

On another note, here’s an interesting quote from Joe Martino:

Psychedelics were used back in a time when the level of consciousness of the planet was not as high, which helped give insight to shamans so they could share it with their communities. It was meant for use in extreme cases where heavy trauma or addictions existed and people could not use other ways to work through their emotional challenges. Here in present time, we use them in a western fashion as THE GO TO for moving through all of our challenges. I’m here to remind you that you have so much power and ability as a being that in most cases, you don’t need any of these things to evolve. I’m not suggesting don’t do it, I’m simply saying truly ask your heart what you want, and don’t get caught up in the grand allure and peer pressure. (source)

Use Responsibly

It is important to seek out and use ayahuasca that is harvested using sustainable practices and served by shamans who have the utmost respect for the sacred medicinal brew. As its popularity has increased, so has the opportunity to exploit it, so do your due diligence when it comes to determining if ayahuasca is right for you and who will be serving you this medicine.

Related CE Article: Why Psychedelic Drugs Are Not A Shortcut To Enlightenment

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