When most of us think about mental health, we ascribe its presence or absence largely to luck or having good genes. We vaguely (or actively) dread the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s and cross our fingers it doesn’t happen to us. Well, there is a whole lot of good news on that front. It’s a LOT more under our control than we knew, and Norman Doidge tells us all about it in The Brain’s Way of Healing.

Yes, that’s right – brain healing. We rarely consider the brain as capable of healing – muscles, tissues, bones, yes. The brain? Not so much.

For the longest time we believed that the brain you were born with was the one you were stuck with. And if you were to have an accident or start down the slippery slope of cognitive decline, heaven help you, because there was little to be done about it. All that has changed with the relatively recent discovery of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to change its own structure in response to activity or mental experience. With modern technology, we now have windows into the living brain’s abilities at a microscopic level and this has increased our understanding of what the brain is capable of.

The brain communicates with itself electrically, forming and reforming new connections. We are coming to understand the role of energy, including light, sound, vibration, electricity and motion as natural and noninvasive ways for brain to promote its own healing. Our senses translate the energy into electrical signals the brain uses to operate.  One of the most effective ways to introduce energy is by using thought itself to stimulate brain circuits, which is why mental awareness is required in conjunction with energy. Our thoughts can literally change our brains.

Dr. Doidge tells us how this knowledge has helped patients with chronic and intractable pain achieve a pain-free life; how people suffering from Parkinson’s disease greatly mitigate the effects of the disease and retain their ability to move freely; stroke patients recover use of limbs which have been dormant for decades. The examples are remarkable.

While all of this is applicable to people with brain injuries, it’s just as relevant to those of us who are overstressed, over-stimulated and exhausted. In working with what is already available to us and actively promoting the conditions that allow the brain and body to work together in an optimal fashion, we can promote a healthy brain.

Here is the background info for those of you who are curious:

There are three stages to harnessing the role of energy to awaken and assist a brain that is not functioning well.

Non-Use: We know this as use-it-or-lose-it. Let’s use having a stroke as an example. People who have strokes go into shock for about six weeks during which time the brain doesn’t perform very well. If they try to use muscles affected by the stroke, say an arm, and it doesn’t function, they give up or “learn” that trying to move it is not worthwhile. Dr. Edward Taub has shown that if putting the “good arm” into a sling or cast such that it can’t be used, intensive, incremental training of the paralyzed arm can restore function, even decades after the stroke.

The same principle applies to other conditions, such as anxiety. In any situation where brain function is sub-optimal and a person finds ways to work around the deficit, they may unintentionally be making the problem worse.

The Noisy Brain: Similar to a radio station tuned slightly off the coordinate (you know that crackly, scratchy sound), the neurons aren’t generating strong or sharp enough signals to drown out the background noise. After a brain injury, which can result from causes as diverse as infection, radiation therapy or a konk on the head, the neurons become damaged but don’t necessarily fall silent. They may keep pumping out sporadic signals and clog the airwaves. It’s also seen when neurons are firing at the wrong or unusual rates, like in epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, children with learning disorders or sleep problems.

Rapid Ongoing Formation of Neuronal Assemblies (and what is that when it’s at home? you might ask). Simply put, neurons communicate electrically in large groups through widely distributed networks throughout the brain. We don’t have just one brain location per function, contrary to previous belief. Our brains are constantly reforming into “assemblies” or patterns, particularly for activities requiring conscious thought. When we learn, new connections are established between neurons, but the latest research shows that learning isn’t in specific neurons, or even in the connections between the neurons, but it’s the cumulative electrical wave patterns of neurons firing together. It’s like a piece of music being played by an orchestra – the piece can still be played even if one of the members of the orchestra is sick, as long as his replacement can read the same music.

For neuroplastic healing to occur, the following needs to happen:

First off, and this is good advice regardless, improve the overall health of the neurons. Remove toxins and attend to food sensitivities. While somewhat overdone in this age of food-preciousness, some of us are indeed sensitive to sugar and grains. It’s particularly important to attend to this when confronted with learning disorders, being at risk for dementia or with common psychiatric disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder and ADHD. For those of you who don’t think junk food is a problem, listen up.

Then do four things:

Neurostimulation: Using energy sources, including light, sound, electricity, vibration, movement and thought itself to revive dormant circuits in the hurt brain. It prepares the brain to build new circuits and overcomes learned non-use in existing circuits.

Neuromodulation: Teach the noisy brain to regulate and modulate itself, or to better balance between excitation and inhibition. This applies to people who are either too sensitive or insensitive to outside stimulation.

Many people with brain or learning problems are hyper-anxious. They’re too much in the fight-or-flight mode, and while in this state, healing is suspended. This was designed to be a short-term stage to deal with real physical danger.

The alternate state is one of “rest-repair”, and when it turns on, a number of chemical reactions take place that promote growth, conserve energy and increase sleep – all necessary for healing. This state also recharges the mitochondria, the power sources inside our cells. This system seems to improve the signal to noise ratio in the brain circuits, as well. All this quiets the noisy brain. People who are exhausted and jittery begin to sleep deeply and wake restored when better balance between the two states is attained.

Neurorelaxation: Once the fight-or-flight state is turned off, the brain can accumulate and store energy needed for recovery. People relax and sleep, which allows toxic waste in the brain to be discharged and cleansed. This “cleansing cycle” is 10x more active in sleep than while waking, which explains why sleep deprivation leads to a toxic brain. Who knew?

Neurodifferentiation and learning. Now that the brain is rested and the noisy brain has been modulated and is quieter, the circuits can regulate themselves. The person can pay attention again and is ready for learning, or doing what we do best: make fine distinctions or “differentiate”.

So back to where we began this article. Brought to you by Dr. Peter Elwood and his team* If you want to reduce the chances of getting dementia by 60%, then do four of the five following things.

Exercise – walk at least two miles or bike ten miles a day. This is by far the most powerful contributor and you can reduce your risk of cardiovascular incident at the same time. A two-for-one special.

Eat a healthy diet – this is measured by having 3-4 servings of fruits and vegetables a day

Maintain a normal weight, or a BMI between 18 and 25.

Low alcohol intake. They didn’t give a measure here, but it’s probably less than most of us would like. The principle here is avoiding a neurotoxin. (sigh, well four out of five ain’t bad….)

No smoking. Again, the principle here is avoiding a neurotoxin, but there are other obvious heath benefits, too.

I can hear the groaning now. All this sounds a lot like healthy living – nothing groundbreaking here. Fair enough. Another perspective, however, is noticing how disinclined we are to take straightforward and relatively simple measures to promote our own health. We all know we should be doing this, and yet… We value the proximate over the distant, we are attracted to the novel rather than the familiar, and sometimes we make things far more complicated than they need to be. Do your body, with its brain, a favour and give it a try.

*Dr. Peter Elwood and team, Cochrane Institute of Primary Care and Public Health, Cardiff University. Study released in December 2013. For 30 years, they followed 2,235 men aged 45 to 59 living in Caerphilly, Wales, and observed the impact of these activities on their health and whether or not they developed dementia, cognitive decline, heart disease, cancer or early death.

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