Neurogenesis is the birth of new neurons, and there was a time where science considered the number of neurons to be fixed. But nearly 30 years ago, the notion that after the brain matured there was no more neuron replication was shown to be incorrect. Today, neurogenesis and neuron research discoveries are changing how we even view the brain and its functions.
This concept has lead to the realization that neurogenesis is also linked to changes in neuroplasticity and changes in synapses and neural pathways in the brain. From habits and behavior to our environment, medicine, and biochemical factors, we also understand that many factors can affect this process – for better and for worse.
The two primary regions where neurogenesis occurs is the subventricular zone and the hippocampus. Learning and memory as well as anxiety, depression, addiction, and Parkinson’s are linked to the hippocampus. What’s interesting is the volume of the hippocampus seems to diminish in people with cognitive disorders and depression.
So, the question arises, is there anything we can do that can help support our overall well-being, reduce depression, and ultimately fend off shrinkage of the hippocampus?
Did you know the brain is nearly 60 percent fat? Funny how we want to eliminate excess fat in all regions of our body, but what about the brain? We know that both refined sugar and processed foods have a detrimental effect on the brain. A diet full of omega 6 fatty acids is bad for the brain, and that’s what most Americans are eating – fast foods, processed pork, chicken, dairy, and most condiments have high amounts of omega 6, as are nuts and seeds. Now, in moderation, nuts and seeds aren’t bad, but we are eating way too much of all of those foods in our daily diet.
Instead, add omega 3 fatty acids from plant oils, hemp, flaxseed, wild rice, fish, and other sources to boost DHA (docosahexaenic acid), which is a major structural component of the brain.
Movement, Exercise, and Inner Focus
Movement is essential to neurogenesis. Cardiovascular exercise like interval training and running can give neurogenesis a boost, as can more contemplative activities like meditation, yoga, and MELT.
Every day I use MELT as my way of combating the stress caused by daily living . In our clinical research, we found participants’ overall emotional balance improved after only a few weeks of consistent MELTing. One speculation of our research proposal was the concept that, similar to meditation, the gray matter density in the hippocampus could be the key factor in these forms of self-care.
From the amazing endorphins and key growth factors that support neurogenesis and combat cortisol and other stress-inducing hormones from getting out of balance, movement in general is really important.
Speaking of hormones, testosterone has a beneficial effect on neurogenesis and acts as a buffer to psychological stress, for both men and women. Think about what happens through menopause and why so many women suffer with hormonal issues and depression as they age – not just estrogen fluctuations, the changes in testosterone play a significant role in emotional stress.
Sleep, Touch, and Joy
This may sound too simple, but we know sleep deprivation reduces hippocampal neurogenesis, and I would consider a lack of sleep a key issue in mood balance, happiness, and social engagement. MELTing up to one hour before bed improves overall sleep cycles which may lead to an increase in melatonin level and give a boost to the hippocampus.
Some of my go-to treatments involve the Rebalance Sequence, Neck Release, and Foot Treatments before bedtime. I always sleep better if I MELT before I go to bed.
Many people are isolated most hours of the day. They only interact with people through a computer screen, email, texting, or on social media. But some people go a whole day without human touch.
A simple hug, handshake, eye contact, and a smile can help boost serotonin and other relax- and repair-inducing hormones. If your lifestyle is limited to work and gym time but no love, touch, or physical interaction with others, this can cause negative effects from brain shrinkage to weight gain. Tell someone you love them every day, smile at a stranger, say thank you to your barista, tell someone a funny story, or share something that brings you joy. We tend to share the crap that happens or the mishaps of the day, but how often do we share our excitement and joy with another person?
Human touch and happiness cannot be underestimated. Dare I mention the word SEX here? Is it bold to put the word SEX in bold… twice? I’m telling you, that’s touch too. Whether you give yourself pleasure or you share an intimate moment with someone you love, sexual touch and arousal is beneficial to your brain too.
Alcohol, Antidepressants, Tobacco, and Cannabis
Don’t get worried here, I’ve got good news and bad news on these commonly used drugs. First, alcohol and most psychoactive compounds tend to have a negative impact on neurogenesis. Chronic alcohol consumption is the worst of the bunch as it increases cortisol levels. Tobacco, stimulants, opiates, entactogens, and some psychedelics are also associated with a reduction in neurogenesis.
However, SSRI antidepressants have been found to increase hippocampal neurogenesis, although there are some unpleasant side effects when using these long term. Yet, for many, adding an antidepressant (especially in older adults) can truly shift the brain’s functions.
Finally… weed. Cannabis may have a positive effect on neurogenesis, reduce anxiety, and depression. That being said, I’m sad to say that THC (responsible for the psychoactive effect) isn’t so great for brain health. CBD however seems to be showing some great results in overall brain benefits. So, don’t roll your joint just yet if you believe you are helping your brain function better – the research isn’t fully vetted and it’s looking like CBD oils are really the way to go. Smoking is smoking, and despite what you might think, it’s still not great for your lungs. However, of everything we’re discussing, I’d say cannabis has the fewest side effects and the most benefit.
Similar to research into fascia, the science of neurogenesis is on the cutting edge. There’s still much that remains unknown about this process, but what’s great news is we have the power to influence this incredible brain process and keep disease and depression at bay. The best benefit of all, there’s no downside to taking action to boost brain balance. Don’t wait for problems to find a solution.
Remember to add some of these self-care initiatives to your daily life and keep your brain healthy for a lifetime:
1. Give a hug to someone today.
2. Tell someone you love them.
3. Go for a walk – no headphones, just walk in the park, look at the trees, breathe, and enjoy life.
4. Laugh – be around people who make you feel good, listen to a comedian, watch a funny movie… just laugh every day.
5. Move every hour for at least 3-5 minutes. Try a simple technique I call Reach for the Sky. Stand up, reach your arms overhead, take a deep breath, let your arms come back down as you make a forceful exhale with an shhh sound. Repeat this 5-10 times to increase blood flow, heart rate, and circulation.
6. MELT! Try the Mini Hand or Foot Treatment while you are at work. Before bed, try the Rebalance Sequence. This helps reduce accumulated tension in the neck, low back, hands, and feet and will give your body’s natural healing potential a boost.
7. Get a good night’s sleep by wearing an eye mask or sleeping in a very dark room. This has been shown to boost serotonin and dopamine naturally. These are the neurotransmitters and hormones that reduce stress-inducing ones like cortisol and adrenaline.
Give it a shot – try these simple tips to help your hippocampus out and make today one of the really great ones!