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Portland, OR 97209

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Naturopathic Medicine, Neurotherapy

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Exercise shown to significantly benefit psychiatric patients

Noel Thomas

324 exercise and psychiatric disorders

A recent study showed that exercise showed more benefits than pharmaceutical drugs and psychotherapy for patients in psychiatric care facilities. It helped reduce anxiety, depression, anger, and physical agitation while fostering a more integrated sense of self. The study asserts that exercise can reduce the time spent in psychiatric facilities and the dependence on prescription drugs.

Psychiatric in-patient facilities are often crowded, and patients frequently experience distress and discomfort in them. This often serves only to exacerbate their symptoms. As such, psychotropic medications are the first response for patients entering into this system, followed by psychotherapy.

A researcher at the University of Vermont decided to see what would happen if patients were prescribed daily exercise as well. Of the roughly 6,000 psychiatric hospitals in the United States, only a handful offer gym facilities.

Researchers built a gym that could accommodate about 100 patients at the medical center’s in-patient psychiatric hospital.

They then led patients through regular one-hour exercise programs as well as nutritional counseling.

About 95 percent of patients reported the exercise improved their mood, while more than 60 percent said exercising made them either happy or very happy, as opposed to the sadness they originally felt. The majority of patients also reported feeling improved physical well-being.

The researchers stated the exercise had greater benefit for patients in psychotic states for whom psychotherapy can be unproductive.

Other studies have shown positive benefits of regular exercise on more acute psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia. For instance, one study found regular aerobic exercise improved symptoms and lowered depression in about three-quarters of participants with schizophrenia.

Regular exercise is also shown to help people with schizophrenia improve their working memory, attention span, ability to understand social situations, and overall brain function. In general, regular exercise targeted the cognitive deficits that many people with schizophrenia struggle with and improved those.

Aerobic exercise has also been shown to help people with bipolar disorder have less severe manic episodes, sleep better, and reduce symptoms of depression. However, exercise can also exacerbate manic symptoms in some cases.

Numerous studies also show the benefits of exercise for depression and anxiety.

Why exercise improves mental disorder symptoms

Although an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle are imperative for managing symptoms associated with mental disorders, exercise must not be overlooked. This is because of the many benefits exercise gives to the brain.

For example, exercise boosts a compound called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF supports the brain’s neurons in their daily functions as well as helping the brain repair damage and stave off neurodegenerative disease.

Exercise also boost endorphins, our self-generated opioid chemicals that produce euphoria and improve mood and well-being.

Both BDNF and endorphins help relieve depression and anxiety, make us feel better about ourselves, and reduce inflammation the brain and body — inflammation in the brain is a common factor underlying many cases of depression.

The best exercise to release BDNF and endorphins is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT is a form of exercise in which you work out as hard as you can to reach your maximum heart rate, allow yourself to recover, and then do it again. This type of workout can give you great results in durations of under an hour — many HIIT workouts are only 20 or 30 minutes.

Improve your health by lowering brain inflammation

HIIT’s anti-inflammatory benefits also mean you are preventing Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, and other diseases of brain degeneration. Brain inflammation is a very common problem today and found to be a common underlying factor in depression. Poor diets, inflammatory foods, chronic stress, environmental toxins, head injuries, and sedentary lifestyles are some of the factors that can cause brain inflammation.

Common symptoms of brain inflammation include brain fog, fatigue, memory loss, decline in cognition, slow thinking, anxiety, and depression.

Unlike the body’s immune system, the brain’s immune system does not have an off-switch, so brain inflammation can burn through your brain for years or decades. Eventually it can trigger more serious neurological issues.

Ask my office how functional neurology and functional medicine can improve mental and mood disorders and help you lower the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

Four reasons why eye contact can over st imulate the brain

Noel Thomas

323 eye contact issues

If someone doesn’t look you in the eye during a conversation, they may come across as rude, aloof, or suspicious. Though avoiding eye contact can convey those things — or shyness — some people avoid eye contact simply to avoid short-circuiting their dysregulated neurology.

There are several reasons people avoid eye contact that have nothing to do with being arrogant or rude.

Eye contact avoidance and autism

For instance, avoiding eye contact is especially common in people on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Researchers at Harvard Medical School discovered neurological reasons why eye contact is stressful for people with autism. Eye contact over stimulates the subcortical system, an area in the brain responsible for reading emotions in other people’s faces.

The subcortical system is the layer just beneath the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain that plays a role in consciousness and thought.

Direct and sustained eye contact and looking at facial expressions activate the subcortical system. This response is what allows newborns to instinctually respond to human faces. But for the ASD individual, eye contact over activates the subcortical system, causing extreme stress and discomfort.

The scientists hypothesize this is a consequence of an imbalance between brain networks that activate and inhibit activity in the brain, thus leading to over activation and agitation.

As a result, the “social brain” is not able to appropriately develop. Other studies have shown this trait can be identified in infancy.

Forcing these individuals to maintain eye contact can be neurologically inappropriate and stress-inducing.

Gentle, gradual habituation to eye contact over time, however, has the potential to gently strengthen and relax the overactive subcortical region.

Eye contact triggers fear response in people with PTSD

People with autism aren’t the only ones who struggle with neurological imbalances.

People who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD (CPTSD) have also been shown to become agitated by eye contact.

A 2019 study of women with PTSD from childhood abuse found that their brains associated eye contact with threat. Their brains also had to compensate with heightened emotional regulation compared to the brains of the control group.

A 2018 study performed brain scans on subjects with PTSD and a control group during eye contact with a video simulation. In the control group, eye contact activated the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision making, personality, and social behavior. The prefrontal cortex also helps a person assess the nature of the person they’re looking at.

However, in the PTSD group, the simulated eye contact did not activate the prefrontal cortex but instead the periaqueductal gray, an area associated with pain, fear, and anxiety. This area of the brain is also associated with submissive and passive defense responses to PTSD such as disassociation and depersonalization.

Eye contact difficult for people with social anxiety

Avoiding eye contact is also common in people with social anxiety as it raises their anxiety levels. Avoidance of eye contact is associated with shame, embarrassment, and self-consciousness, things people with heightened anxiety suffer from.

Thinking and concentrating can be more difficult while making eye contact

Sometimes we all need to break eye contact to put our thoughts into coherent sentences. This tendency may be more pronounced in people who aren’t natural orators.

Research shows you’re able to speak more thoughtfully when looking away from a person. A Japanese study found participants struggled to find the right verbs for a language task when making eye contact with faces on a screen. The scientists asserted that eye contact drains our cognitive resources needed for other tasks — the more complicated your story (or lie?), the more difficult it will be for you maintain eye contact.

Is your brain inflamed? How to know and what to do

Noel Thomas

FNM 322 brain inflammation

Do you have any of the symptoms of brain inflammation, also called neuroinflammation, listed below? Brain inflammation doesn’t hurt like an inflamed ankle would. Instead it causes various symptoms, depending on the person, including:

  • Brain fog
  • Unclear thoughts
  • Low brain endurance
  • Slow and varied mental speeds
  • Loss of brain function after trauma
  • Brain fatigue and poor mental focus after meals
  • Brain fatigue promoted by systemic inflammation
  • Brain fatigue promoted by chemicals, scents, and pollutants

The brain can become inflamed like the rest of the body, although the brain has its own immune system. It’s important to take brain inflammation seriously because it can rapidly degenerate the brain, raising the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other brain degenerative diseases. In fact, scientists have discovered that brain aging is more related to the brain’s immune cells than the neurons, as previously thought.

Learning how to spot and dampen brain inflammation can help you enjoy better brain function, slow the aging process, and lower your risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

What causes brain inflammation

Brain inflammation can be caused by inflammation in the body, such as from chronic joint pain, infections, leaky gut or gut inflammation, or an unmanaged autoimmune condition. Inflammation in the body releases immune cells called cytokines that activate inflammation in the brain.

This is now being cited as a primary cause in many cases of chronic depression, such as in cases where people don’t respond to antidepressants. This is because the medications do not address brain inflammation.

The brain’s immune system

At the root of brain inflammation are microglia cells, the brain’s immune cells. They were once considered simply to be glue that held neurons together, but newer research shows how important to brain function they are. In fact, they outnumber neurons ten to one.

When the brain is healthy the microglia dispose of dead neurons, beta amyloid plaque, and other debris that interfere with healthy communication between neurons. They also facilitate healthy neuron metabolism and neuron synapses.

However, when something triggers inflammation in the brain, the glia cells switch into attack mode.

This hinders communication between neurons so they fire more slowly, creating symptoms such as brain fog, slower mental speed, slower recall, and slower reflexes.

Brain inflammation also shuts down energy production in the neurons, so brain endurance drops, making it harder to read, work, or concentrate for any length of time. This also leads to depression.

In the long run, chronic neuroinflammation results in neuron death and brain degenerative disorders.

Factors that cause brain inflammation

Many things can cause brain inflammation. If you have symptoms of brain inflammation, you want to address any of these factors to restore health to your brain.

  • Diabetes and high blood sugar
  • Poor circulation, lack of exercise, chronic stress, heart failure, respiratory issues, anemia
  • Previous head trauma
  • Neurological autoimmunity
  • Eating gluten when you are gluten intolerant
  • Poor brain antioxidant status
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Environmental pollutants
  • Systemic inflammation
  • Inflammatory bowel conditions
  • Leaky blood-brain barrier

The blood-brain barrier and brain inflammation

One of the biggest risks to triggering brain inflammation is a leaky blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier is a thin lining that surrounds the brain and is designed to allow only nano-sized particles in or out as needed.

However, like the gut, it can become damaged and “leaky,” allowing foreign invaders in to trigger the microglia. Although the blood-brain barrier degrades easily, it can also regenerate through dietary and lifestyle modifications similar to how you can repair leaky gut. For instance, high stress degrades the blood-brain barrier, but normalizing stress can allow it to repair. Simply stabilizing your blood sugar and stress levels, removing inflammatory foods, addressing chronic health issues, and taking powerful antioxidants can help restore the blood-brain barrier.

Factors that can break down the blood-brain barrier

  • Chronic stress
  • Alcohol
  • Elevated blood sugar and diabetes
  • Chronic environmental toxic exposure
  • Elevated homocysteine from B vitamin deficiency
  • Poor diet and antioxidant status
  • Systemic inflammation

Taming brain inflammation

Brain inflammation can be caused by a food intolerance, lack of sleep, gut infections, hypothyroidism, extreme stress, autoimmunity, systemic inflammation, and other factors. If you start to feel your “head clear” when addressing brain inflammation, that’s a sign you’re on the right track. Although various botanical flavonoids can address brain inflammation, you still need to address the underlying cause of inflammation.

Compounds that have been shown to help dampen brain inflammation in addition to addressing underlying cases are:

  • Apigenin
  • Luteolin
  • Baicalein
  • Resveratrol
  • Rutin
  • Catechin
  • Curcumin

Dose depends on the degree of brain inflammation. Ask my office for high-quality, extremely bioavailable forms of nutraceuticals that help dampen brain inflammation, as well for guidance on how to address underlying causes.

The body makes best drugs for depression and memory

Noel Thomas

FNM 322 endorphins for brain health

We all want to feel good, and many people turn to outside sources to produce those feelings. Those sources can include alcohol, prescription medications (anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs), illegal drugs, food, and other sources that ultimately rob of us health.

However, it only takes a little bit of work to produce our own feel-good chemicals, such as endorphins. Endorphins not only make us feel better, they’re also very beneficial to the body and the brain and usually work in conjunction with other beneficial chemicals our bodies make.

Endorphins are important to immunity and neurology and some studies suggest chronic conditions are in part a result of low endorphins. Low endorphins are linked with alcohol fetal exposure, alcoholism, drug abuse, anxiety, depression, and chronic psychological stress.

How endorphins help the brain

Endorphins are neurotransmitters that facilitate communication between neurons. They also interact with opioid receptors in the brain in a similar way to morphine or codeine to reduce our perception of pain.

But they also do so much more. The most beloved benefit of endorphins is they produce feelings of euphoria. This is the “high” people get from exercise.

They regulate appetite hormones and sex hormones and enhance immunity. They also help with fibromyalgia, headaches, and chronic headaches.

Best of all, endorphins have been shown to help reduce depression.

Here are some ways to boost your endorphin levels:

  • Strenuous exercise. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a great way to boost endorphins and other chemicals that help your brain, including brain derived neurotrophic factor and nitric oxide. The beauty of HIIT is that it can be adapted to your fitness level.
  • Acupuncture or massage therapy
  • Sex
  • Meditation
  • Laughter
  • Healthy socialization
  • Play

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and brain health

Another weapon against depression you already have in your arsenal is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is an anti-inflammatory brain chemical that promotes growth of new neurons. It plays a major role in memory formation and storage, and has also been shown to play a role in relieving depression.

The most well-known way to boost BDNF is through high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Even just a few minutes a day of HIIT can boost BDNF levels, meaning you don’t have to be a hardcore athlete to reap the benefits of this brain chemical.

Whereas a post-exercise endorphin rush gives you immediate and obvious results, the key to promoting BDNF levels is consistent exercise that gets your heart rate up — best brain results from BDNF occur a few months after consistent exercise. Shoot for an exercise program that you can do every day and keep going lifelong.

Below are a few ways endorphins, BDNF, and other chemicals the body naturally makes can improve your brain health:

  • Prevention of cognitive decline
  • Protects you from neurodegeneration that causes disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
  • Reduces stress and anxiety
  • Alleviates depression
  • Boosts intelligence
  • Improves learning and memory
  • Improves creative thinking
  • Grows new neurons in the hippocampus, the seat of learning and memory in the brain
  • Prevents addiction
  • Increases pain threshold
  • Improves attention
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Improves brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to learn new things

Endorphins and BDNF are just a couple of factors to consider when you are looking to manage depression, anxiety, fatigue, memory loss, brain fog, and other brain-based symptoms.

Other things to consider include gluten sensitivity, food intolerances, chemical intolerances, quality of diet, leaky gut, inflammation, nutritional status, brain health, and more.

For more information about managing your depression, memory loss, and other brain-based symptoms, contact my office.

Studies show botox injections impact the brain

Noel Thomas

FNM 321 botox and the brain

Although millions of people receive Botox injections to reduce the lines associated with natural aging, multiple studies suggest these seemingly harmless wrinkle-reducing shots may impact brain health.

For instance, some research shows Botox manages to make its way into the central nervous system.

Additionally, studies on rat found that when the active ingredient in Botox was injected into one side of the brain it could be found on the opposite side of the brain. Even Botox injected into the rats’ whiskers showed up in the brain.

Although these studies used more potent, purified forms of the toxin and not the diluted form found in the cosmetic injections, its ability to travel into the nervous system raises concerns nevertheless.

Botox affects brain signals from hands

A Swiss study on humans also found Botox affects the areas of the brain associated with the hands. This is because the face and the hands occupy areas of the brain that neighbor one another. The researchers found that the paralyzing effect of Botox on the face inhibited sensory input to the brain in this area, thus altering brain mapping of the hands.

Researchers theorized that loss of movement in the face caused by Botox injections could affect touch sensation in both hands. They called for further studies to determine whether Botox also affects other parts of the body.

Botox impacts the brain’s ability to read facial expressions

The human brain is highly adept at reading and responding to facial expressions — it is primary to how we communicate. We instinctively mimic facial expressions in one another as a way to understand, communicate, and empathize. However, Botox erases this vital aspect of communication by paralyzing facial muscles. Researchers believe this inhibits the person’s ability to interpret the emotions of others through their facial cues.

In fact, a study in 2011 found subjects with Botox injections were less able to read the emotions of others compared to those who had received different types of fillers for wrinkle reduction. Additional research suggests Botox also makes it more difficult for a person to feel their own emotions.

In other words, Botox injections can hinder the ability to empathize, read emotions in other people, and even feel your own emotions.

Other cosmetic fillers also potentially problematic for the brain

Fillers other than Botox used to reduce the signs of aging have risks as well. For instance, some people have reported that filler injections blocked blood flow to their eyes and caused blindness. There have been about 50 reports of this happening.

Although it’s rare, fillers can also get into an artery that feeds the brain, thus causing a stroke. Four reports of this happening have been reported.

Compared to the millions of people who use fillers this means these complications are pretty rare, but users should be aware of the potential risks.

Complaint reports about Botox and fillers are common

Given the popularity and easy access to Botox and fillers, more studies should be done to evaluate their safety. As for now, anecdotal reports on beauty forums, reported complaints, and lawsuits paint a frightening picture the average person isn’t aware of.

For example, some Botox users claim they suffered from devastating brain injury, chronic pain, double vision, and difficulty breathing after receiving Botox injections.

Additional complaints on online forums include drooping eyes and eyebrows, intense pain and headaches, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, dizziness, and more.

The consumer watchdog group Public Citizen found Botox was linked to 180 life-threatening conditions, 87 hospitalizations, and 16 deaths during a 10-year period. Because Botox doesn’t have much regulation, it is believed harmful side effects go largely under reported.

Other adverse side effects from Botox that have been reported include difficulty swallowing, respiratory compromise, generalized muscle weakness, a drooping eyelid, pseudoaneurysm of the frontal branch of the temporal artery, flesh-eating disease, sarcoidal granuloma, Fournier gangrene, and abnormal curvature of the spine in the neck, and death from anaphylactic shock. 

Meditating daily stops aging brains from shrinking

Noel Thomas

FNM 319 meditation grows brain matter

Sadly, as we age our brains begin shrinking, and loss of brain tissue means loss of brain function. But there are some simple things you can do each day to prevent this. The brain is highly malleable — or plastic — meaning it readily grows and adapts to input and stimulation. Much like a muscle, your brain operates on the “use it or lose it” principle.

Studies have found that people who have been meditating for seven to nine years had increased grey matter in sensory areas of the brain compared to control groups. It’s believed this is because meditation teaches you to be mindful of your body, breath, and physical sensations — all in an attempt to find relief from the hamster wheel that is the human mind.

But the good news is you don’t have to meditate that many years to change your brain.

Change your brain in 8 weeks of meditation

A follow-up study showed just eight weeks of daily meditation thickened many important areas of the brain, to the point where 50-year-olds were showing the same amount of grey matter as people half their age.

The areas of the brain meditating thickens include:

  • Decision making and working memory
  • Learning and memory
  • Emotional regulation
  • Empathy
  • The ability to see things from different perspectives
  • Neurotransmitter production

Meditating shrinks the brain’s fear center

Equally important, meditating shrinks the amygdala, the area of the brain that generates fear, anxiety, and aggression. This results in reduced stress levels overall.

The participants in the study were told to meditate 40 minutes a day. However, they still showed good results with an average meditation time of 27 minutes. Other studies show even just 15 to 20 minutes a day produces significant positive changes.

Meditating before you exercise can reduce depression better than either exercise or meditation alone, finds another study.

Mindfulness practices that benefit brain health

Meditation isn’t the only mindfulness practice to improve brain function and health. Although its benefits are profound enough to make it a daily routine, also consider these additions:

Yoga. Yoga is a proven way to improve brain function and stave off memory loss. A study had one group of people do 15 minutes a day of brain training exercises and a weekly one-hour brain training class. The second group did a yoga class one hour a week and 15 minutes a day of meditation.

After 12 weeks, both groups showed enhanced cognitive function. However, the yoga group also reported more elevated moods and improvement in “visuospatial” memory, which is important for balance, depth perception, and the ability to navigate the world.

The yoga group also showed better focus and the ability to multitask.

Tai Chi. A recent study found tai chi is very protective and supportive of brain function. Study subjects did one hour of tai chi twice a week for 12 weeks. After the study, they had significantly higher levels of brain compounds that indicated the generation of new neurons and improved plasticity — the ability of the brain to make new neuronal connections and pathways. Both of these functions are paramount in protecting the brain from aging.

Tai chi has another brain benefit — it promotes better balance. Can you stand on one foot easily? How about with your eyes closed? You should be able to. Poor balance is an indication the cerebellum, the area of the brain responsible for balance and coordination, is degenerating too quickly.

A degenerating cerebellum does more than make you unsteady — it also contributes to more rapid degeneration of the rest of your brain.

One of the primary functions of the cerebellum is to serve as a gatekeeper, regulating information that goes to the rest of the brain. When the cerebellum degenerates, too much sensory input floods the brain.

Symptoms may include:

  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Tinnitus
  • Hypersensitivity to stress, light, and sound
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Poor metabolic function…
  • …and other symptoms you wouldn’t normally associate with poor balance.

Tai chi is a Chinese art based on a series of slow, flowing motions and breathing exercises and has been shown to be excellent for improving balance.

Other ways to slow or prevent accelerated brain degeneration include daily exercise, an anti-inflammatory diet, functional neurology rehabilitation and optimization of the brain, and functional medicine protocols to reduce inflammation and reverse chronic health disorders.

Ask my office for more advice on how we can help you prevent Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Fecal microbiota transplants improve autism symptoms

Noel Thomas

FNM 318 FMT improves autism symptoms

The exploding rates of autism, which forecasts a surge in adults with the disorder in the coming decade, has pushed the boundaries of autism research. Now, dramatic results from a 2019 study show a significant and lasting reduction in autism symptoms among children who underwent daily Fecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT) for seven to eight weeks.

FMT involves transplanting gut bacteria from a healthy, carefully-screened donor to the colon of the recipient. It is successfully used to treat colitis and Clostridium difficile and is being investigated for other disorders, including obesity and autism spectrum disorders.

Autism rates have more than doubled in the last 20 years and continue to rise, along with other childhood brain development disorders. This rise is increasingly being traced to imbalances in the immune system that affect brain development, and immune health is increasingly being traced to gut bacteria, or the gut microbiome.

In other words, gut health profoundly impacts brain health. In the developing child’s brain, poor gut health can trigger imbalances in brain development and myriad symptoms, including symptoms of autism. In addition to brain-based symptoms, many children with autism also struggle with gastrointestinal symptoms and poor digestive function. Both parents and researchers note a correlation between gut symptoms and autism symptoms.

Past research has shown children improved after taking an antibiotic that killed off “bad” gut bacteria, however the improvements were temporary, even with concerted probiotic use.

The 2019 Australian study used FMT on children with severe autism and monitored the effects two years later. The two-year follow up showed very promising results.

Parents reported their children’s autism symptoms steadily declined throughout the treatment period and during the following two years. Professional follow-up evaluations showed an average reduction rate of autism symptoms of 45 percent. They also showed an almost 60 percent reduction of gut symptoms.

Prior to beginning treatment, researchers found that the subjects with autism had poor gut bacteria diversity and were missing key beneficial bacterial strains, such as Bifidobacteria and Prevotella. Because of how profoundly gut bacteria impact the nervous and immune systems, researchers believe this affects how their brains develop.

Study subjects were first treated with an antibiotic, a bowel cleanse, and a stomach acid suppressant. Then they were given FMT daily for seven or eight weeks.

Follow-up stool analysis showed the FMT treatments substantially increased gut microbiome diversity and introduced beneficial strains of bacteria. At the two-year follow up, both these markers had gone on to improve.

The research team is now working on optimizing dose and duration for clinical use one day. They are also working on a trial using the therapy for adults with autism spectrum disorders.

Although we can, thankfully, influence our gut bacteria, we nevertheless come into life with gut microbiome “signatures” that start before birth, as maternal gut microbiome diversity is a factor. C-section delivery, reduced or lack of breastfeeding, antibiotic use in childhood, and diets high in junk foods and low in fiber all play a role in establishing unhealthy gut microbiomes.

Although FMT is not yet clinically available, it points to how vital gut health and a healthy gut microbiome are to the developing child’s brain. A key component in a healthy and diverse gut microbiome is a diet diverse and ample in plant fiber — people should be eating primarily vegetables at every meal. Children should be eating 20 to 40 grams of fiber a day (depending on age) and adults should be eating 25 to 40 grams a day.

The earlier you start your children on a vegetable-heavy diet the more readily they will eat these foods as toddlers and children.

The Hazda people of Tanzania, one of the last remaining hunter gatherer populations on the planet, eat 100 to 150 grams of plant fiber a day and exhibit one of the healthiest gut microbiomes on the planet; Americans have the worst.

Aim for about seven to 10 servings a day of produce. One serving is a half-cup of chopped produce, or one cup of leafy greens. Because sugary foods can be inflammatory, opt for veggies and fruits that are low in sugar and unlikely to destabilize your blood sugar.

Adults should eat at least three to four servings of produce per meal – that’s 1.5 to 2 cups of chopped veggies or 3 cups of leafy greens. Or break that up into five meals if you eat more frequently to stabilize low blood sugar. Children’s needs vary with age.

Work your way up gradually with fiber consumption if you’re not used to eating it — too much at once will overwhelm the digestive system and cause problems. Increase your daily fiber intake by 1 to 2 grams a day. Equally important is to avoid foods and chemicals that promote bad bacteria and kill good bacteria, such as junk foods, sugars, and the use of toxic cleaning chemicals.

Ask my office for more ways to support your gut microbiome.

How grief and heartbreak can turn into physical illness

Noel Thomas

FNM 317 grief and heartbreak

We've all heard the term "Died of a broken heart," but most don't realize it's actually possible. Intense stress brought about by profound grief can sometimes damage the heart and spike inflammation in the body.

Grief is a powerful emotion, rendering many of us unable to function normally for a time. Mortality rates in those who are widowed is highest in the first six months after the death of a spouse and decreases over time. Heart disease accounts for the majority of these deaths.

We've known for a long time that inflammation is damaging to the body. It's at the root of major health disorders such as heart disease, cancer, obesity, and autoimmunity. Inflammation is also at the root of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

A recent study shows us that a broken heart isn't just an emotional metaphor, but can be the result of physiological changes that happen when we are under intense emotional stress.

The study delved into how emotional stress increases inflammation. Researchers found that grief can increase systemic inflammation and lower heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of how one's body responds to stress. Lower HRV and raised inflammation are risk factors for heart-related illness and death.

Subjects who had recently lost a spouse and reported "elevated grief" were found to have inflammation levels 17 percent higher than those who didn't feel as strongly, and the top third had levels an impressive 54 percent higher than the bottom third. Simply put, grief can kill us through inflammation.

The findings applied to both women and men, and in particular for older adults.

A second study looked into "broken heart syndrome," a rare but serious condition in which the heart weakens and bulges following extreme stress such as grief. The disorder mainly strikes women over 55, and while sometimes fatal, tends to resolve over time.

The researchers found the syndrome is linked to how the brain controls the nervous system under stress.

Normally, the sympathetic nervous system ramps you up to cope with stress by increasing heart rate and respiration. Once the stress is gone, the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body back down to normal levels.

The researchers found that in subjects who had survived broken heart syndrome, signaling was deficient in key parts of the brain associated with emotion and stress, resulting in a lack of calming after the grief.

Simply put, a broken heart may start in the brain.

Support your body through grief

While we all must take time to move through grief, there are ways to make the process easier on your body.

Compounds for pain and stress relief. Grief can result in physical pain. Physical and emotional pain are processed by the same area of the brain. These natural pain-relief compounds may help ease both:

  • Vitamin D
  • Essential fatty acids such as cold-water fish oil
  • White willow bark, a natural anti-inflammatory reportedly similar to aspirin
  • Herbal adrenal adaptogens such as rhodiola and ashwagandha

Reduce inflammation. While ongoing grief can keep inflammation levels high, do your best to calm it with these methods:

  • Avoid high sugars and carbs
  • Avoid processed foods, especially commercial seed oils
  • Keep blood sugar stable by eating frequently enough, and eating enough protein and healthy fats such as cold water fish, nuts, and supplemental omega 3.
  • Eat plenty of vegetables and keep fruit (sugars!) to a minimum
  • Take resveratrol and curcumin in combination
  • Support glutathione levels by taking s-acetyl glutathione or its precursors such as n-acetyl cysteine
  • Exercise regularly but no so intensely that you raise inflammation levels
  • Drink plenty of filtered water

Allow your body to rest. Grief is exhausting, so give your body support with the following:

  • Give your body plenty of time to sleep
  • Avoid working too much in an effort to hide from emotions
  • Avoid drinking too much alcohol
  • Practice daily stress-reduction habits such as mellow yoga, stretching, or chi gong

We all must grieve, but when grief leads to losing a sense of life's meaning, it can become dangerous. If you are under intense emotional stress, contact my office to find out if your body's response is becoming dangerous, and learn how to mitigate the effects.

Teen depression explodes along with smart phone use

Noel Thomas

FNM 316 smart phones teen depression

Although depression continues to rise among the population as a whole, it is rising most dramatically among teens, and smart phones may be largely to blame. Major depression diagnoses among teens have risen more than 50 percent in the last decade. While academic challenges and relationship woes can promote depression, scientists blame the precipitous rise on those evil twins, the smart phones and social media. Considering almost 20 percent of people suffering from treatment-resistant depression attempt suicide, this is concerning.

Also, in functional neurology and functional medicine we know other factors burden the teenage brain and contribute to depression. A rise in childhood brain-based disorders and neuroinflammation are also at play — treatment-resistant depression is increasingly being understood to be a problem of an inflamed brain.

Researchers found a correlation between smart phone use and depression. The more time teens spend on their phones the more depressed they are. Increased smart phone usage also raises possible exposure to the emotional anguish of cyber bullying.

Excessive smart phone use triggers another behavior that plays into depression: sleep deprivation, which has been linked to mood disorders, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts.

Compared to pre-smart phone days, teens are isolating themselves thanks to technology. This is not news to parents who grew up in a different era.

Today’s teens are spending more time in front of a screen instead of with each other hanging out — virtual hang outs have taken the place of roller rinks, bowling alleys, basketball courts, swimming pools, and secluded gathering spots.

Fewer teens work part time jobs and date. In fact, 56 percent of teens date today compared to 85 percent 30 to 50 years ago. (The good news is teen births are down.)

Research shows these changes in teenage behavior and emotional states happened rather abruptly around 2012, which coincides with the year when teens with smart phones increased to more than 50 percent for the first time.

Meanwhile, rates of teen depression and suicide have exploded since 2011. And now, research shows three out of four teens owned a smart phone by 2017.

Unfortunately, as clearly addicted to their smart phones and online hang outs as teens are, this modern collective habit is making them unhappier than previous generations. Research shows a correlation between time spent on screens and social media and degrees of unhappiness — depression rates among girls is more than double than among boys. Likewise, the less time kids spend on their phones and tablets, the happier they are.

In fact, teens who spend three or more hours a day in sucked into a virtual reality raise their risk of suicide by more than 30 percent.

Childhood brain development disorders and teen depression

It’s easy to pin all of teens’ mental health woes on smart phones. While they clearly play a role, today’s teen are hit with a double whammy: industrialization has significantly impacted the human brain, and young people’s developing nervous systems are the most vulnerable.

The rates of childhood developmental disorders has exploded in the last 20 years, including ADHD, autism, OCD, and learning disabilities. These disorders are increasingly being linked to the effects of environmental toxins, poor diets, and stressful lifestyles in both pregnant women and children.

Although it’s up to parents to work with their teens to help them engage in activities other than Snapchat and Instagram, functional neurology and functional medicine help address the metabolic health of the young brain.

This involves addressing not only neurological imbalances that may have been in place before birth, but also inflammation, blood sugar imbalances, poor diet, and a sedentary lifestyle. After all, depression is increasingly being recognized as an inflammatory disorder.

Metabolic issues to look out for with brain development disorders include:

  • Inflammatory foods and food intolerances
  • Chemical sensitivities
  • Chronic infections — bacterial, fungal, or viral
  • Digestive issues and leaky gut
  • Autoimmune disease (when the immune system attacks and destroys tissue in the body, which can include the brain)

The types of brain rehabilitation a child needs depends on their history and a functional neurology examination. Together with nutritional and lifestyle protocols, we develop functional neurology rehabilitation exercises tailored to the individual’s neurological needs.

Many families notice rapid and significant changes in their teens’ behavior, mood, sociability, learning, and other brain-based signs.

Ask my office how functional neurology can help if your teen suffers from depression.

Fail a sobriety test while sober? Your brain is in trouble

Noel Thomas

FNM 315 sobriety test sober

Even if you don’t drink or, heaven forbid, drive drunk, it’s still worth conducting a sobriety test on yourself while sober. This can give you valuable information about your brain health and your risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s. This is because the sobriety test measures the function of your cerebellum, the area of the brain most commonly known for its role in balance and coordination. This area of the brain is most compromised while under the influence of alcohol. However, the cerebellum is also very vulnerable to the ravages of modern diets, stress, and lifestyles.

Poor cerebellum function does a lot more than compromise your balance. It also can raise anxiety, cause insomnia, make you sensitive to sound and light, accelerate degeneration of the rest of your brain, and skew your metabolic and hormonal function. The cerebellum is basically the gatekeeper of input to your brain. When its function starts to fail the brain becomes overwhelmed with excess sensory input. This keeps your brain and body in a state of red alert, or chronic stress.

Sobriety test exercises that can tell you whether you’re in trouble. If you fail your sobriety test while sober, the exercises used in the test can also help you improve your brain function and health.

Sobriety test exercises:

One-leg stand test: Stand with your feet together and arms at your side. Keep your arms at your side during this test, do not raise them for balance. Raise one foot off the ground and hold it there while looking at it and counting slowly (one one thousand, two one thousand…).

If your cerebellum is healthy you should be able to stand comfortably on just one leg while doing this exercise. If you sway or start to lose your balance you know your cerebellum is compromised. Practice this exercise several times a day to improve your brain health.

To further challenge yourself, stand near a wall or something you can grab in case you start to fall. Then perform the exercise with your eyes closed. If you get good at that, then perform the exercise while standing on a piece of foam to make it more challenging, and then with your eyes closed.

Heel-toe walk test: Another common sobriety test is the heel-toe walk, also called the walk-and-turn.

Keep your arms at your side during this test, do not raise them for balance. Walk heel to toe on an imaginary line for nine steps, pivot, and walk heel to toe backwards for nine steps.

Although it’s not part of the sobriety test, we recommend you first begin by simply standing heel to toe before trying to walk. Stand next to a wall or something you can grab in case you start to fall. Can you stand heel to toe with your eyes closed? How about on a piece of foam?

You should be able to perform this test smoothly and without wobbling, swaying, or tipping. If you can’t, this means your cerebellum is compromised and you need to practice this several times a day to slowly improve the health and function of your cerebellum.

Although it’s not part of the sobriety test, another way to test your cerebellum is to stand with your feet together and close your eyes. If you sway more to one side, it may indicate that side of your cerebellum is more compromised.

Other signs or poor cerebellum function include dizziness, nausea in cars or on boats, or nausea or dizziness when seeing things move swiftly such as in movies.

Don’t overdo it cerebellar exercises

It’s common for people with cerebellar dysfunction to become easily nauseous or fatigued. Do not push your brain past its capacity by overdoing these exercises. Just a few minutes a few times a day should have you rapidly seeing improvement. If you start to feel nauseous or dizzy, simply stop and allow your brain to rest. Try the exercise for a shorter time next time. You want to exercise your neurons without overtaxing them.

Why good balance is so important for your brain

The cerebellum doesn’t just manage balance and coordination. Newer research shows it also plays a role in emotions, memory, language, planning, and abstract thinking.

When the cerebellum loses function, it starts to fail at gating information to the rest of the brain, thus overloading the brain with more information than it can manage.

This causes symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Emotional reactivity
  • Insomnia due to a racing mind
  • Light sensitivity
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Digestive issues

Other signs of a damaged cerebellum include:

  • Loss of coordination of motor movement
  • Inability to judge distance and know when to stop
  • Inability to perform rapid alternating movements
  • Staggering, wide-based walking
  • Movement tremors
  • Tendency toward falling
  • Slurred speech
  • Weak muscles
  • Abnormal eye movements

Is my cerebellum compromised?

Functional neurology and functional medicine offer ways to restore cerebellar function through diet, lifestyle, and customized brain rehabilitation exercises. For instance, the cerebellum is extremely vulnerable to a sensitivity to gluten, dairy, or other foods, but gluten especially. If you have poor cerebellar function, please ask my office about ways to determine if your diet is a factor in your rapid brain degeneration.

Also, please ask my office for information about how we can use functional neurology to identify your areas of compromised brain function and more targeted ways to improve brain health and lower your risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Memory slipping? This brain chemical may be low

Noel Thomas

FNM 314 acetylcholine

If your memory is starting to slip, if you get lost on common routes while driving, and if you find your brain isn’t working the way it used to, it’s important to know about the brain chemical, or neurotransmitter, called acetylcholine. Early signs of poor acetylcholine activity are a red flag for dementia and Alzheimer’s. In fact, the symptoms of acetylcholine deficiency and early dementia are the same.

Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter tasked with converting short-term memories to long-term. This happens in an area of the brain called the hippocampus, which also happens to be the area of the brain that degenerates in dementia and Alzheimer’s.

See if any of these signs of poor acetylcholine apply to you:

  • Loss of visual and photographic memory
  • Loss of verbal memory
  • Memory lapses
  • Impaired creativity
  • Diminished comprehension
  • Difficulty calculating numbers
  • Difficulty recognizing objects and faces
  • Slowness of mental responsiveness
  • Difficulty with directions and spatial orientation

Other symptoms of poor acetylcholine activity include forgetting common words, forgetting what you were talking about in the middle of a conversation, difficulty calculating numbers — such as counting backwards by sevens, and slow mental processing.

Low acetylcholine also can manifest as poor spatial orientation or memory. This can be seen in losing your sense of direction or getting lost on well-traveled routes.

It’s important not to laugh these off as senior moments if they are happening regularly. They are serious red flags that your brain is radically declining in health and function.

In addition to applying functional neurology protocols and principles, it’s useful to see whether supplementing with acetylcholine can help you. If you have a hereditary risk of Alzheimer’s this can also be a good ally in your tool kit. Even if your memory is fine and your risk is low, supporting acetylcholine can optimize your brain function for better performance.

Many of the nutritional and botanical compounds that support healthy acetylcholine activity have also been shown to help protect the brain against the plaques that cause Alzheimer’s disease.

Another benefit of supplementation is the brain does not become tolerant to compounds that support acetylcholine — it is something your brain will benefit from ongoing. With some supplements or drugs, you need to raise the dose or take breaks in order to have the same effect. However, with compounds that support acetylcholine the opposite can happen. Stimulating the receptors with acetylcholine compounds makes them more responsive and you may find you need less supplementation as time goes on for the same effects.

Here are some compounds that have been shown effective in boost acetylcholine activity:

L-Huperzine A: One of the most effective compounds for poor acetylcholine activity, and to boost memory and cognition.

Alpha GPC: An easily absorbable choline to raise acetylcholine levels that has been shown to improve cognition. It has also been shown to help with stroke recovery.

L-acetyl carnitine: An amino acid that activates acetylcholine receptors and improves cognition and delays the progression of Alzheimer’s.

Pantothenic acid: This B vitamin (B-5) helps increase acetylcholine levels in the brain.

Acetylcholine dosing

If you take compounds to support acetylcholine, the amount you take does not depend on your body weight but instead on your degree of need. Start with the recommended dosage and gradually increase until you notice a benefit. You can see whether even more continues to help you improve or if you have found your ideal dose. Too much can cause negative symptoms such as muscle cramps, nausea, and increased gut motility.

Signs that it may be helping you include improved memory and mental clarity.

How often you need to take it is also individual, whether it’s once a day or three times a day.

If taking acetylcholine makes you “crash” and develop fatigue, this does not necessarily mean it’s bad for you. Instead, it may mean those neurons are so fragile that acetylcholine support pushed them over the edge. If this happens, you may benefit from very small doses to begin with. If you know your brain is fragile to start with, it’s wise to start with small doses anyway.

If taking acetylcholine immediately makes you feel nauseous or even vomit, this is a red flag you may need to support your vagus nerve, the nerve that runs between the brain and the gut.

Foods rich in acetylcholine

If you are a vegan or vegetarian, acetylcholine support may help you because dietary sources of acetylcholine are primarily found in animal foods:

  • Liver and organ meats
  • Egg yolk
  • Beef
  • Tofu
  • Nuts
  • Cream
  • Milk with fat (not non-fat or skim milk)
  • Fatty cheeses

It’s important to get enough acetylcholine in your diet because if you don’t, your brain will break down healthy brain tissue to supply itself with the compounds needed to make acetylcholine: phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine.

Support general brain health

Although acetylcholine support can be great for supporting your memory and cognition, it is not a magic bullet. Your brain still needs a good supply of oxygen from healthy circulation, a steady source of energy from a diet that keeps blood sugar stable, and the right stimulation.

If you’re not exercising regularly, actively challenging your brain, and supporting your brain through a healthy diet and lifestyle, then you will experience a decline in brain health regardless of what supplements you take.

Ask my office how functional neurology can help you improve your memory and lower your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Want your kid to be a happy adult? Get them into nature

Noel Thomas

FNM 313 nature makes kids happier

Parents want their children to grow into healthy, happy adults. But a recent study shows they may be missing out on a powerful ingredient to help make that happen: Plenty of unstructured time in nature.

A recent Danish study showed that the more time kids spend in nature the more likely they are to be happy as adults.

This wasn’t a small study of a few subjects. These scientists had a point to make and made sure they did it right — they followed one million subjects over 28 years.

They accounted for and controlled other factors that influence happiness when looking at the data, such as familial mental health, education, and socioeconomic status. Yet even after factoring in those considerations when looking at the data, they still found a staggering 55 percent lower rate of mental health issues in adults who grew up surrounded by nature. This is significantly more effective than what any pharmaceutical drugs can do.

To verify the data, researchers used satellite images of the subjects’ hometowns.

Many studies link improved mental health with nature

Although it’s the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind, it’s far from the only one. Plenty of previous research has demonstrated the mental health benefits of ample exposure to nature.

With more than 50 percent of the world’s population living in urban areas, and with that number projected to increase to 70 percent, studies like this are important so that green areas are incorporated into cities and suburbs.

Here are some ways nature has been shown to improve mental health:

Improves creativity. Studies have shown spending time in nature improves cognition and complex working memory span and reduces anxiety and rumination.

Lowers depression. A 2012 study had subjects with major depression disorder take long walks. One group walked in nature and one group walked in an urban environment. Those who walked in nature exhibited better memory and mood.

Reduces anxiety. While regular exercise improves mood and brain health, exercising in nature has been shown to be most effective in lowering anxiety.

Buffers stress for children and the elderly. Children and the elderly are more vulnerable to the stresses of urban environments. Cities that incorporate parks, playgrounds, and gardens can help mitigate stress for both these groups. Additional studies have found access to green spaces improves quality of life for seniors.

Gardening lowers stress hormones. A 2011 study found gardening lowers stress hormones and improves mood.

Heart healthy. Walks in nature lower stress hormones and blood pressure and help relieve anxiety, nature, fatigue, and confusion studies have found. These all translate to an internal environment that is more heart healthy.

Feel healthier. A 2006 study found that urban environments that included plenty of green spaces made locals think of themselves as healthier.

Quicker recovery. If you’re sick or injured, you’ll recover faster with a view of nature. One study showed hospital patients with a view of trees recovered faster than those with a view of a brick wall.

Good for women. Studies have also shown nature helps women’s health by alleviating stress and anxiety and by promoting a clear and healthy emotional perspective that feels reassuring.

Why our brains respond to nature

It’s common sense that we feel happier in nature. Urban life is very new within the time span of human history. However, scientists have theorized that we feel and function better in nature for several possible reasons:

  • Evolution has built a positive natural response to nature into us a survival strategy.
  • Nature enhances brain function by making us pay attention more consciously to cognitive tasks.
  • Being in nature exposes us to bacteria in the soil that promote the release of serotonin, our natural “anti-depressant” brain chemicals.

Functional neurology can help you improve and restore your brain function so that you feel more naturally inclined and motivated to get out into a natural environment more regularly. Also, consider the mental health benefits of creating your own nature with a garden, potted plants, and hanging plants.

The best fat for your brain: DHA in fish and algae oil

Noel Thomas

FNM 312 DHEA for brain

Fish oil capsules tout their ratios of DHA and EPA. But DHA and EPA offer different benefits and the ratio between these two matters when it comes to brain health. In a nutshell, a higher ratio of DHA to EPA is best for your brain. Meanwhile, a supplement that focuses on EPA is more geared toward taming inflammation in the body.

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are both omega-3 fatty acids. They naturally occur in cold-water ocean fish, including salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, black cod, and bluefish. These are the best dietary sources of omega 3 fatty acids.

Vegetarians can find omega 3 fatty acids in raw nuts and seeds. Take note: Nuts and seeds contain fatty acids in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which your body must convert to EPA and DHA.

Unfortunately, if you have blood sugar issues from eating a diet high in carbs, your body may not adequately make this conversion

Also, some people’s bodies do not do a good job of making that conversion because of high blood sugar, genetic issues, a diet already too high in omega 6 oils from packaged and processed foods, or heavy use of omega 6 oils such as canola.

A potent source of brain-friendly DHA comes organic algae farms

The problem with depending on fish for omega 3 fatty acids is that ocean fish comes with problems these days. Fish populations have been gutted from over fishing. Ocean fish are contaminated with heavy metals and pollutants. It’s sad but this is where we are today with this vital source of brain nutrients.

Fortunately, researchers have discovered that the DHA we derive from fish comes in part from the microscopic algae they eat. We now have access to DHA algal oil through the harvesting of organic microscopic algae. Studies show that algal oil delivers the same omega 3 levels as fish.

This means you can access an algal oil-based essential fatty acid supplement with a very high, very brain-friendly ratio of DHA to EPA, with a 24:1 ratio. Most essential fatty acid supplements have a 1:1 ratio of DHA to EPA.

Algal oil also comes with the added benefits of avoiding the depletion of fish population and the contamination of mercury and other toxins.

Why DHA is especially good for the brain

While EPA is great for helping lower chronic pain and inflammation anywhere in the body, DHA is best for the brain.

In fact, studies show consuming high ratios of DHA help with depression, mood swings, bipolar symptoms, poor memory, cognitive decline, and other brain-based disorders.

If you want to support brain health, your essential fatty acid supplement should have at least a ratio of 4:1 of DHA to EPA. However, contact my office if you’re interested in one that has a 24:1 ratio.

How DHA improves brain function and health

DHA works in the brain by supporting the brain’s neurons.

Ample DHA in the brain ensures neurons are sufficiently fluid and flexible, which is necessary for them to communicate with one another. Good communication between neurons is foundational to healthy brain function, good cognition, a brain that is calm and alert, for proper brain development in children, and for healthy brain aging in adults. DHA also inhibits brain degeneration.

DHA has also been shown to improve both short-term and long-term memory and reduce brain inflammation. Reducing brain inflammation is important because this is at the root of so many common problems, including depression, fatigue, memory loss, and brain fog. Brain fog is also serious because it speeds aging of the brain and raises your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

DHA prevents a leaky blood-brain barrier

If you’ve heard of leaky gut, or intestinal permeability, you may also be interested to know that the brain can be leaky too. The brain is lined by a cellular membrane called the blood-brain-barrier. The blood-brain-barrier protects the brain from bacteria, toxins, and other pathogens yet allows necessary nano-sized compounds in and out. Leaky brain is much more common that people realize and typically accompanies leaky gut; both have similar mechanisms. A leaky blood-brain barrier also speeds brain degeneration and raises the risk of dementia.

Luckily, a study demonstrated we can use DHA to help preserve the integrity of the blood-brain-barrier.

How much DHA should you take for brain support?

Most people don’t realize how much fish oil they need for sufficient omega 3 fatty acids. This is especially true if they are eating a lot of chips, crackers, cereals, restaurant foods, and other foods that contain omega 6 fatty acids. One study showed that a beneficial amount is 3,500 mg for a person eating 2,000 calories a day, or about four capsules, more if you consume more calories.

The recommended dose of algal oil is about half that of fish oil — 2–3 grams a day. Fish oil can thin your blood, so please talk to your doctor if you will begin taking it.

For more advice on how functional neurology and functional medicine can improve your brain health, contact my office.

Low self-worth and no motivation? Check your dopamine

Noel Thomas

FNM 312 dopamine

When a person has low self-esteem, low motivation, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, and is prone to temperamental outbursts, it’s common to pin that on some deep-rooted psychological issue. Although that is often the case, sometimes simply being low in the brain chemical, or neurotransmitter, dopamine can cause these symptoms.

Do you suffer from these symptoms of low dopamine?

  • Inability to self-motivate
  • Inability to start or finish tasks
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Lose temper for minor reasons
  • Inability to handle stress
  • Anger and aggression while under stress
  • Desire to isolate oneself from others
  • Unexplained lack of concern for family and friends

These symptoms not only make one’s life miserable, they also can lead to loss of relationships, jobs, and a sense of meaning in life.

Dopamine is linked with pleasure in the brain. We need dopamine to feel enjoyment, a sense of reward, and for motivation to get things done or even go do something fun. Dopamine is what enables us to focus and concentrate and see a task through to completion. It also helps with libido.

Dopamine also allows us to stay calm under pressure and not lose our temper. People with low dopamine snap or explode easily or become aggressive. Then they may feel bad about it later.

At the extreme end, chronically low dopamine is associated with Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine is also linked with addictions.

Dopamine and hormones

It’s common to see symptoms of low dopamine in aging men. This is because dopamine activity depends on sufficient testosterone in men. In women it’s linked with low progesterone.

In functional medicine we like to try to address the underlying factors of why hormones are low in the first place. However, some people may need bioidentical hormone replacement therapy to address chronically low hormones and thus low dopamine symptoms.

Nutritional compounds that support low dopamine

Although it’s important to address the causes of why dopamine may be low, the problem with people who are dopamine-deficient is they have poor motivation and follow-through. As a result, they are often terrible at complying with changes to their diet or lifestyle that would help them.

In these cases, some supplemental dopamine support can help boost their motivation to address their neurotransmitter imbalances.

Ingredients that have been shown to help support dopamine include mucuna pruriens, also known as cowhage, and the amino acids D, L-phenylalanine, beta-phenylethylamine, and N-acetyl L-tyrosine. Vitamin B-6 (P-5-P), selenium, blueberry extract, and alpha lipoic acid provide cofactors and additional support.

Foods that support dopamine contain high amounts of phenylalanine and include primarily animal products in addition to oats and chocolate. Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, meaning our bodies can’t make it and it must come through diet. As such, vegans and vegetarians may need to make sure they are getting enough of this amino acid supplementally.

However, if you eat animal products and still have a dopamine deficiency, eating foods high in phenylalanine likely won’t do much.

The more important thing to do for many people is eat a diet that stabilizes blood sugar. Eating foods high in sugars and processed carbs on a regular basis will sabotage healthy dopamine activity.

Additionally, sufficient iron is necessary to make enough dopamine. If you are iron deficient this could explain your low dopamine symptoms. Many factors can cause iron deficiency, including anemia, gluten intolerance, and uterine fibroids.

Dosing dopamine support supplements

If you are trying to support dopamine activity, gradually increase the dose of dopamine precursors until you notice an effect. This takes trial and error. Then increase the dose again to see whether you experience even more improvement. Once you no longer feel any improvement, go back to the previous dose at which you felt improvement.

How often you take dopamine support also takes trial and error to see what works for you.

If dopamine support causes intense fatigue, those neurons affected by dopamine may already be overly fatigued even though you need dopamine support. In this case it’s more important to address issues of brain inflammation, oxygenation, and general support.

Dopamine clearance is important too

Just as making enough dopamine is important to feeling good, so is being able to clear dopamine out of your system. This makes dopamine activity more efficient. Proper clearance requires magnesium and methyl donors, such as betaine, folic acid, and methyl B-12.

The use of diuretics, over exercising, estrogen replacement therapies, low stomach acid, and long-time use of dopamine-based antidepressants can all hamper proper clearance of dopamine.

Ask my office for both nutritional and functional neurology support for your low dopamine pathways. One way to build dopamine is to pick something you have low motivation around and do one very small, positive thing in that direction regularly. For instance, if you want to build an exercise habit, start with one push up a day and build from there. The rewarding feeling of accomplishment is effective in building your dopamine pathways whereas beating yourself up for never getting around to that hour long intense Crossfit workout can further drive it down.

Sexual violence changes the shape of the female brain

Noel Thomas

FNM 310 sexual violence changes female brain`

Crazy, hysterical, overly sensitive, hyper sensitive — these are the labels often given to women. Although it’s true the female hormone estrogen is associated with feeling and being more emotional, research also shows that sexual violence, which is believed to affect about 30 percent of women, can change a woman’s brain in a way that may make her prone to PTSD-like symptoms.

A 2016 study on rats showed that pre-pubescent female rats paired with sexually experience older males showed higher stress hormones, an inability to learn as well, and reduced maternal behaviors.

Researchers said the study was significant because adolescent girls are more likely than the general public to be victims of sexual assault.

Despite the fact many women who experience sexual violence go on to suffer with depression, PTSD, anxiety, and other mood disorders, there is little research demonstrating the effects of sexual violence on the female brain.

This study was the first of its kind to observe the effects of stress on the female rat brain as males are usually used. It was also the first of its kind to observe changes in the developing female brain related to sexual violence.

Fortunately, the National Institutes of Health now requires that in order to receive federal funding, studies must observe the impacts on both male and female animals.

Women and PTSD

Sexual violence is estimated to be the most common cause of PTSD in women. As such, PTSD affects about twice as many women than men, women have more PTSD symptoms, and the condition lasts longer in women than men.

Studies also show this applies to various cultures and that the effects are worse in cultures where women have fewer rights and less safety.

It’s important to note that it isn’t women who are affected so much as people who fall into traditionally female roles. Therefore, it stands to reason that men who are victims of sexual violence would also fall victim to the same dynamics.

PTSD versus complex PTSD (CPTSD)

Both PTSD and complex PTSD (CPTSD) happen as a result of trauma, but both researchers and the World Health Organization acknowledge them as two distinct disorders.

While PTSD is more typically the result of an acute trauma, such as combat, witnessing a death, or being in an accident or natural disaster, CPTSD is the result of repetitive and prolonged trauma.

How functional neurology can help treat C/PTSD

The roots of the effects of PTSD can be traced to a part of the brain called the amygdala, a cluster of neurons that govern fear responses. Studies show a woman’s fear response lasts longer than a man’s, which may explain why women develop PTSD at higher numbers. Anger and threats also more activate the fear response in women than in men.

In functional neurology we help rewire the stress responses. We also address metabolic factors that can hinder recovery from PTSD, such as chronic inflammation, gut health, thyroid function, and hormone balance. These efforts, along with good counseling, can help people recover from PTSD and CPTSD.

For more information about how functional neurology can help you, contact my office.

Study links schizophrenia with specific gut bacteria

Noel Thomas

FNM 309 schizophrenia gut microbiome

It’s the age of the gut microbiome — researchers are finding our gut bacteria influence multiple aspects of our personality, mood, and health. New research has now recently shown a connection between the gut microbiome and schizophrenia.

Researchers analyzed stool samples from three groups: Patients with schizophrenia taking medication, patients with schizophrenia not taking medication, and people who did not have schizophrenia.

The results showed that people with schizophrenia had gut bacteria the control group did not. Likewise, the control group had gut bacteria the patients with schizophrenia did not. In other words, researchers identified a schizophrenic-specific strain of gut bacteria.

To further test the connection, the researchers then inoculated mice with sterile guts with the gut bacteria from the patients with schizophrenia.

The mice then exhibited behavioral changes resulting in symptoms similar to schizophrenia.

Gut bacteria influence the brain and body health

Schizophrenia symptoms aren’t the only disorders scientists have been able to promote in mice through gut bacteria inoculations.

In other studies researchers have used gut bacteria inoculations to:

  • Make fat mice thin
  • Make thin mice fat
  • Make anxious mice calm
  • Make calm mice anxious

Human studies as well have shown gut bacteria influence obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, autism, irritable bowel disorders, and now schizophrenia.

Although researchers have not yet developed treatments based on gut bacteria, it’s clearly a promising path in treatment of chronic health and mood disorders with profound implications.

How to promote healthy gut bacteria in yourself

When it comes to a healthy gut microbiome, the key is diversity: both of your gut bacteria and the vegetables you eat.

Promote a brain-friendly gut microbiome in the following ways:

Eliminate foods and chemicals that kill good bacteria. Things that can kill your good bacteria and promote the bad include sugars, processed foods, alcohol, energy drinks, fast foods, food additives, excess salt, antibiotics, hand sanitizers, and household disinfectants.

Eat plenty of lots of different kinds of vegetables. Be sure and eat a large diversity of veggies on a regular basis. Avoid eating the same thing every day, your bacteria need constant diversity of plant fiber. Shoot for 25-30 grams of fiber a day.

Take probiotics. Taking a combination of pre- and probiotic support can help support your good gut bacteria. Try different probiotic strains to see if some help more than others.

Consume fermented foods. Sauerkraut, kimchee, kombucha, and yogurt contain live bacteria that can help boost your own populations.

Exercise your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a large communication nerve that runs between the brain and the gut. Brain injuries, aging, brain inflammation, or other factors that affect your brain health can impair function of the vagus nerve and thus communication between your brain and gut. This can impact gut function in a way that degrades the gut microbiome.

Ask my office for ways functional neurology and functional medicine can better support the health of your brain and gut microbiome.

Art: Lower stress and feed the right brain in a left-brain world

Noel Thomas

FNM 308 Art stress right brain

A new study shows that making art — sculpting, drawing, or collage-making — lowers stress hormones, even if you aren’t an artist. This is important for brain health as stress ravages the brain. We also know in functional neurology that our information-overload society hammers away at the left brain non-stop. Art is great way to exercise the right brain, thus improving overall brain function.

The study collected samples of stress hormones before and after the subjects spent 45 minutes drawing, sculpting, or making collages. Three quarters of the subjects showed lower levels of stress hormones after the art-making period. The results were similar regardless of whether the person had prior experience creating art regularly.

Subjects also reported feeling calmer, less anxious, and less obsessive.

What’s interesting is about a quarter of the subjects registered higher cortisol levels after the artistic experience. Researchers say this is not necessarily a bad thing as it may indicate increased excitement or engagement. The older subjects in the experiment exhibited the lower cortisol responses.

The study is important because stress is one of the most significant contributors to accelerated brain degeneration in our modern society. It is especially damaging to the hippocampus, and area of the brain that regulates stress and serves as the seat of learning and memory.

Chronically high levels of cortisol from chronic stress very quickly erode and degenerate the hippocampus. This not only makes the brain more conducive to experiencing stress, it also more quickly erodes learning and memory.

Taking adrenal adaptogens can help buffer the brain from the damages of high cortisol. But it’s also important to engage in more right-brained stress-relieving activities such as creating art.

Using art to support the right brain

The study shows another value in taking time to create art, even if you’re not an artist — exercising the right brain. For most of us, life is dominated by a left-brain existence as we navigate long hours at work, digital information overload, and the logistics of survival in modern America. Left brain characteristics include being analytical, logical, numerical, fact-oriented, very structured, and thinking with words.

However, optimal brain function requires that both sides of the brain work equally. For many of us, the right brain is sorely neglected. Consider these right-brain traits that may be going overlooked in your life:

  • Visionary
  • Big-picture thinker
  • Intuitive
  • Creative
  • Free-thinking
  • Think in terms of visuals more than words

In functional neurology we realize brain rehabilitation is more complex than simply left vs. right brain dominance. But if you find right-brain traits missing from your life, taking some time to engage them can not only lower stress, but also improve cognition, learning, and memory.

Ask my office how we can use functional neurology to help improve your brain performance, recover from brain injuries, or manage brain-based disorders.

Food reactions linked to MS and neuro-autoimmune diseases

Noel Thomas

FNM 307 MS food allergy link

A recent study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital found subjects with food allergies experienced a higher rate of multiple sclerosis (MS) disease activity than those without food allergies.

Researchers divided a group of 1,349 patients into four allergy groups: environmental, drug, food, and no known allergies. They assessed these groups in relation to:

  • Number of MS attacks
  • Expanded disability status scale (EDSS)
  • MS severity score (MSSS)
  • Radiological variables: presence of gadolinium-enhancing lesions and lesion count.

While the drug and environmental allergy groups did not show significant differences compared with the no-allergy group, the food allergy group showed a 1.38 times higher rate in the number of attacks, and more than twice the likelihood of having gadolinium-enhancing lesions on MRI. Gadolinium enhancement is a marker for blood-brain barrier breakdown and correlates with the inflammatory phase of MS lesion development.

According to study author Tanuja Chitnis, MD, "Food allergies perturb the immune system in ways that seem to increase MS inflammatory activity."

Researchers also suggested gut bacteria, or the microbiome, is an important factor. Further studies on the microbiome and diet may provide more information.

Food allergies vs. food sensitivities in MS and neurological autoimmune diseases

Unfortunately, the study did not differentiate between true food allergy and food sensitivities — more research is required to identify which is at the root of these reactions.

Distinguishing between food allergy and food sensitivity is key for grasping how your diet may affect your symptoms.

A true food allergy is an overreaction by your immune system to a protein it perceives as a threat. Within seconds or minutes, it mobilizes fighter proteins called immunoglobulin E (IgE) to drive the invader out, resulting in these immediate symptoms:

  • Rash, hives, or itching
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Swelling in the airways
  • Anaphylaxis

Food sensitivities begin in a similar fashion, but less aggressive immunoglobulin G (IgG) proteins are mobilized. They may not show their effects for hours or days (or even longer) after the pathogen has entered the body. Symptoms vary widely and include:

  • Brain fog
  • Systemic inflammation
  • Mood disorders
  • Gut disturbances
  • Low energy
  • Joint pain
  • And many more

Because food sensitivity reactions are slower, not as obvious, and typically not potentially deadly, doctors tend to dismiss them. However, their slow-acting effects can still be extremely hazardous to someone with neurological autoimmunity such as MS.

Inflammation and the brain

If you are familiar with “leaky gut” you understand it occurs when the lining of the small intestine becomes overly porous. This allows toxins, undigested food molecules, and other pathogens into the bloodstream, triggering an immune cascade that raises your risk for food sensitivities, pain, systemic inflammation, and autoimmunity.

Like the gut lining, the blood-brain barrier is the protective layer around the brain that allows nutrients in while keeping pathogens out. The same factors that cause leaky gut can also cause the blood-brain barrier to become “leaky,” causing inflammation in the brain.

One of the worst consequences of food sensitivities and chronic inflammation in the brain is over activation of glial cells, the brain’s immune clean-up crew.

Under normal circumstances glial cells remove debris and dead cells from the brain and then the brain returns to normal. However, glial cells don’t have an easy off-switch, and when confronted by chronic inflammation, they go haywire, creating a further inflammatory cascade that can result in:

  • Brain fog
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Schizophrenia and other severe psychological disorders\
  • ADHD
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease
  • Neurological symptoms

Functional neurology for brain inflammation?

To manage your brain inflammation, you must determine if you have food sensitivities. This can be done either with sensitive lab testing by Cyrex Labs, or by an elimination and reintroduction diet that helps determine the offending foods. These are strategies we use in functional neurology to help guide you through the process.

Functional neurology offers many other ways to help reduce brain inflammation and associated symptoms:

Functional neurology rehabilitation. In functional neurology, we use comprehensive examinations and customized rehabilitation protocols to target the areas of your brain and nervous system that need support.

Regular exercise. Raising your heart rate floods your brain with oxygen, nutrients, and anti-inflammatory brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps your neurons communicate better.

Blood sugar regulation. Keeping your blood sugar stable is one of the most important ways to reduce or prevent brain inflammation.

Look out for high blood sugar symptoms including:

  • Constant sugar cravings, especially after eating
  • Fatigue after meals
  • Constant hunger
  • Waist girth equal to or larger than hip girth
  • Difficulty losing weight
  • General fatigue
  • Frequent urination

And low blood sugar symptoms including:

  • Lack of appetite or nausea in the morning
  • Eating to relieve fatigue
  • Sugar cravings
  • Irritability, light-headedness, or dizziness when you miss a meal
  • Energy crashes in the afternoon
  • The need for caffeine for energy

Ant-inflammatory diet. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is high in sugars, processed foods, allergens, and inflammatory foods such as gluten and nightshades. An anti-inflammatory elimination diet can help you determine which foods are causing inflammation.

Manage stress. Daily stress-reduction habits such as meditation, qi gong, walking, laughter, and play are anti-inflammatory and benefit brain health.

Improve brain circulation. The better the circulation to your brain, the more oxygen and other needed nutrients you give it. Ways to help include:

  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Don’t smoke
  • Address hypothyroidism
  • Address asthma and sleep apnea

Please contact my office for guidance on how functional neurology can help you with MS and other neurological autoimmune symptoms or diseases.

Beyond babymaking: Uterus and sex hormones vital to brain

Noel Thomas

FNM 305 uterus and female hormones brain

It has long been thought the uterus’ only role was for housing a developing fetus, however, new research shows that the uterus may also play a vital role in the brain’s working memory. In functional neurology and functional medicine, we know how important female hormones and all the organs are to proper brain health.

The rat study divided rats into four groups:

  • Had their ovaries and uterus removed
  • Had only their uterus removed
  • Had only their ovaries removed
  • Underwent surgery but nothing was removed

Six weeks after the surgery, the researchers trained the rats to go through a maze. Then they gradually modified the maze. The researchers were surprised to discover the rats who underwent removal of the uterus performed more poorly than the other three groups, all of which performed about equally.

The rats who only had the uterus removed also showed a different hormone profile compared to the other three groups.

Although the rats who lost their ovaries performed as well on the test as those that didn’t, human studies paint a different picture: Removal of the ovaries (oophorectomy) is associated with memory lapses and an increased risk of dementia. It’s also associated with an increased risk of heart disease and osteoporosis.

This is because the ovaries make the reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone, which are both vital to brain health.

As for the effect of a hysterectomy on brain function, the researchers cite the role of autonomic nervous system. We know the vagus nerve, a large nerve that connects the brain with the organs, plays a key role in the effect of diet and gut health on brain health. It stands to reason the back-and-forth communication between the uterus and the brain also affects brain health, especially if that communication is suddenly halted by removing the uterus.

This upends the conventional medical education that the uterus is a disposable organ with a “sole purpose.” The study’s authors remind us that nothing in the body acts in isolation, something we’ve long known in functional medicine and functional neurology.

The importance of the reproductive organs to the brain

Although an oophorectomy and/or hysterectomy may me medically necessary for conditions such as cancer, many oophorectomies and hysterectomies performed today are simply unnecessary and ignore the risks and side effects, which are severe for some women. Uterine fibroids, another common cause of hysterectomies, now have alternative treatments to removal.

Although women thankfully can use bioidentical hormone therapy to replace the loss of reproductive organ function in the case of ovary removal, an organ that communicates with the brain via the vagus nerve cannot be replaced when removed. However, functional neurology rehabilitation and vagus nerve exercises can help your brain compensate and find better function.

The importance of hormones to the brain

The female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone are vitally necessary to brain health. It’s important to use functional medicine strategies to balance your hormones for your brain’s sake.

If you are struggling with brain-based symptoms during perimenopause or after menopause, it’s important to determine whether an estrogen deficiency is the cause and to address that as low estrogen raises your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Common brain-based symptoms linked to estrogen deficiency include memory loss, anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

Ask my office how functional neurology and functional medicine can help you protect your hormonal and brain health.

Sing your way to better brain health, ideally with others

Noel Thomas

FNM 305 singing good for brain

Communal singing was once a regular part of life, and still is in some parts of the world. These days, however, we largely leave the singing to the stars, reality singing TV shows, and drunken karaoke nights. And it’s too bad — science shows singing is enormously beneficial to the brain.

Even though language is more of a left-brain task, singing activates the right temporal lobe of the brain, thanks to the rhythmic melodies that require the right brain’s involvement. In fact, some people who lose the ability to speak due to left brain damage are still able to sing.

Researchers have long been working with singing as a way to help rehabilitate speech. The areas of the right brain involved with singing are eventually able to compensate for the damaged left brain so that the person learns to speak again.

Singing also benefits people not suffering from brain injury. One study looked at the brains of singers versus non-singers and found singers had greater connections between different areas of the brain, especially on the left side. Researchers say this is because the left side of the brain is involved in language and articulation while the right side is involved in pitch and melody.

In our digital age of information overload, the left brain is beleaguered with non-stop evaluation, processing, and analyzing all the information thrown at us. Singing nurtures the right side of the brain, which governs intuition, imagination, and creativity, and can not only help improve overall brain health, but also simply make us feel better.

Studies show many benefits to singing, including:

  • Releases serotonin, the brain chemical that keeps depression at bay
  • Releases oxytocin, the love and bonding hormone
  • Releases endorphins, our internal feel-good chemicals
  • Lowers the stress hormone cortisol
  • Communal singing even synchronizes people’s heartbeats, fostering connection and community. Singing is believed to have evolved in humans to enhance survival by fostering cooperation between people, building trust and loyalty, transmit information, and ward off enemies. Churches, choirs, and kirtans are examples where you can sing together with others.

Taken together these effects lower inflammation, elevate mood, calm anxiety and stress, strengthen bonds and trust between people, and reduce loneliness and depression.

Singing could be good for your gut

Singing has another potential benefit, especially if you do it really loudly in the shower or in your car — it can strengthen the vagus nerve, the “information highway” between the brain and the gut.

The vagus nerve is a large nerve that runs between the brain and the digestive organs. Information travels back and forth between the brain and the gut via the vagus. It explains why brain issues can cause gut issues and vice versa. For example, a poor diet or unhealthy gut bacteria can cause depression while a brain injury can suddenly cause irresolvable gut issues.

If brain health is poor or if the brain has suffered damage, the vagus nerve can under function, compromising communication between the gut and the brain. Exercises to strengthen the vagus nerve can be profoundly effective in improving this connection and overall function of both the brain and the gut.

Vagus nerve exercises include gargling vigorously several times a day, pressing on the back of your tongue with a tongue depressor, and, you guessed it, singing loudly. Take advantage of having the house or the car to yourself to really belt out some tunes so your vagus nerve is robustly activated.

The most important thing to know about singing is you don’t have to be good at it. Everyone’s voice has meaning and purpose, including yours.

Ask my office how singing and other forms of neurological rehabilitation and optimization can help improve your brain function.