Fitness Magazine

Your Brain is More Than That Thing in Your Skull

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Baxter and Nina
Your Brain More Than That Thing SkullYour brain is an organ of the body just like your heart or liver. Although the organ itself resides in the skull, it is not isolated from the rest of your body as you might tend to think. Through an network of nerves, it is essentially connected to all the other organs, structures, and systems of your body. 

So, what we do to keep our other organs and systems healthy has an effect on our brains and we shouldn’t be surprised by that. But we are surprised! We tend to think of keeping the brain healthy just by feeding it new information and experiences, such as by learning new languages, playing music, and doing crossword puzzles. But just plain physical exercise could be as or more important than mental exercise. In fact, a recent study that looked at both leg strength and cognitive ability in twins as they aged showed that those who maintained better leg strength as a result of exercising had better memory and other cognitive functions than their non-exercising twin. But targeting cardiovascular health with your practice could be especially helpful for brain health. As our colleague Ram says, “What is good for the heart is good for the brain.” And just as a healthy diet is important for the physical health of our heart and other organs, the same is true for our brains.Learning a bit about the basic components that make up “the brain” will help you understand how your yoga practice can have a stronger influence over the health of your brain than you might first think:Brain. The organ we call the brain is housed securely within your skull, and extends down your toward your spinal cord in the form of the brain stem. The part of your brain located in your skull has different areas that are associated with different functions. For example, the deeper parts of the brain deal with background functions, such as digestion, blood pressure, hormonal balance, to name just a few and the more superficial parts are involved in activities associated with our conscious thoughts and actions.Throughout our lives, our brains can change, heal, and grow though a process called “neuroplasticity”. In response to stimulation and learning, the brain actively grows and rewires itself. With your yoga practice, learning new poses and practices, not to mention delving into yoga philosophy, will directly stimulate your brain. Other factors that influence your brain’s plasticity include lifestyle, environment, and exercise, so using yoga for exercise and stress management as well as to support healthy choices about lifestyle and environment will benefit brain plasticity.Your brain is also strongly affected by your physical condition. For example, chronic stress can affect how your brain functions day to day, such as making your thinking foggy, and, over longer periods of time, even change the structure of your brain for the worse, such as shrinking certain areas. Your circulatory system influences your brain because a sudden change in blood flow could cause dizziness or fainting, or in extreme cases, a stroke, which could result in permanent damage or even death.Sleep also has a strong effect of healthy brain function because too little sleep leaves us drowsy and unable to concentrate in the short run, and leads to impaired memory and physical performance in the long run. And scientists now believe that sleep helps to clear out toxins from the brain as well as from the body, which is vital for the long-term health of your brain.In general, using yoga for exercise, stress management, maintaining circulatory system health, improving sleep, supporting a healthy diet, will all contribute to the health of your brain, as does participating in your local yoga community.Blood-Brain Barrier. The brain and spinal cord are surrounded by three layers of connective tissue, which create the blood-brain barrier. This barrier protects your brain, making it very hard for infections to get to the brain and preventing the fluid around the brain from seeping out. However, blood vessels still directly penetrate and surround the entire brain, so your circulatory system can deliver fuel to and remove waste from it moment by moment. Your can have a positive influence on the moment-by-moment supply to your brain with your yoga practice by supporting good digestion and circulation, and lowering your stress levels. Nervous System. Your brain communicates with your entire body through your central and peripheral nervous systems. The central nervous system consists of the brain and the spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system consists of the large and small nerves that connect your spinal cord to all the parts of the rest of your body. Together, they all work together to make up the entire nervous system. Because the nerves from your peripheral nervous system plug into just about every structure in your body, they create a two-way communication system between the brain and body. Due to this two-way communication, we can influence the function and physiology of brain with our yoga practices. For example, when we use our breath, meditation, or asana practice to trigger the Relaxation Response, we not only create a mental state of calm but we also expand our thought-behavior repertoire to include a wider range of possibilities than those we have in stress mode (see Stress and Your Thought-Behavior Repertoire).Gut. Although your brain has two-way communication with all the parts of your body, it may not surprise you to learn that your brain has a special two-way relationship with your gut. The human gut has a semi-independent nervous system, called the enteric nervous system, which derived from the same embryonic neural crest cells that give rise to the brain. Your gut is in constant communication with your brain, primarily through your central and peripheral nervous systems. But your gut also communicates with your brain through neuropeptides to regulate complex feeding behavior and pain perception. And there is new evidence that even your gut bacteria communicates with and coordinates signals between the gut and the brain. So keeping your gut happy and healthy through a well-balanced asana practice, stress management, and a healthy diet will benefit your brain health as well (see The Digestion System and Yoga).Circulatory System. As mentioned above, the circulatory system supplies fuel to and removes waste from our brain each moment of our lives to keep the brain healthy and operating well. If the circulatory becomes compromised with conditions such as plaque build-up in the large blood vessels leading the brain, or if it has weak spots that could rupture and bleed, then the brain is at risk for strokes. Using yoga to keep your circulatory system healthy may lower your chances of developing cardiovascular disease (see Techniques for Improving Cardiovascular and Heart Health). And if a stroke does occur, yoga can be useful in your recovery. 

We hope this gives you a good appreciation of the ways in which your brain is closely tied to the other systems of your body, and a better understanding of how yoga can help you foster brain health. For specific tips about how to do this, see 6 Ways to Foster Brain Health with YogaSubscribe to Yoga for Healthy Aging by Email ° Follow Yoga for Healthy Aging on Facebook ° Join this site with Google Friend Connect

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