Wednesday, December 22, 2010

New Year's Resolutions For Better Brain Health - Part 2

Sleep. Everyone knows you should have 8 hours of sleep each night right? Unfortunately only 27% of Americans report actually getting 8 or more hours. A recent Gallup poll reported that Americans get an average 6.7 hours of sleep each night. Sleep deprivation can have serious effects on your health in the form of physical and mental impairments. Inadequate rest impairs our ability to think, handle stress, maintain a healthy immune system and moderate our emotions. Sleep deprivation results in the loss of sleep's benefits for cognitive processes such as memory and insight formation: the building blocks of learning, creativity, and scientific discovery. Rather than slowing or shutting down while we sleep, our brains are using the time to process information. Your brain is elaborating on what it has taken in during the day.

Elaboration ties the new information with previous knowledge, these connections become part of the brain's organizational system and enable that information to be solidly stored and easily retrieved. Not only is it important to get enough sleep, it is similarly important to maintain a regular sleep cycle or Circadian rhythm. These rhythms are regular changes in mental and physical characteristics that occur in the course of a day and are synchronized with the sleep/wake cycle. Studies indicate that the brain needs regular daily cycles of sleep and wakefulness for memory consolidation or to process and file in long term memory the information we learn. Scientists believe that as we take information in, the brain stores it in a holding area "short term memory", waiting to embed the information in long term memory while we sleep. If we often disrupt the brain's schedule, some of the information held in short term memory may not be fully processed and stored. Strengthen your sleep cycles by exposing yourself to bright light and by waking at the same time each day. Those weekends of sleeping in can actually do more harm than good to cognitive functioning by sabotaging your circadian rhythm.

Find moments of Peace. People who meditate or practice relaxation exercises say it increases their energy, relieves stress and improves both physical and cognitive performance. However, what effect meditating has on the brain has long been a matter of scientific debate.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital used MRI to compare 15 subjects who report meditating regularly and 15 subjects who have never meditated. They found that the subjects who regularly meditated displayed an increase in the thickness of the prefrontal cortex and the right anterior insula, areas involved in attention and sensory processing. The growth of the cortex was not attributed to the development of new neurons, but rather from wider blood vessels and more supporting structures and connections. While meditation is often seen as a religious exercise, I'm not suggesting that you must take up yoga or join an ashram to improve cognitive functioning.

Meditation is primarily about learning to relax and breathe. Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit uninterrupted for 15-20 minutes each day (set a timer so you won't be tempted to keep checking your watch). Close your eyes relax and breathe. Pay attention to your breathing, your inhale, and your exhale, how some breaths are naturally deeper than others. Just breathe naturally but pay attention to each breath. Focus on breathing and progressively relaxing your muscles. If you find your mind wandering, just go back to focusing on your breathing. As you learn to use this focus to relax, you'll find that you will be able to take short 2-5 minute "meditation" breaks throughout the day. If you find disruptive thoughts drifting in, something you need to do, grocery lists, recalling an argument, etc., think about a happy place or happy time then go back to focusing on your breathing. Learning to relax takes practice, don't expect to master meditation right away, but the benefits of improved memory, focus and emotional well-being make the effort well worthwhile. This time for you is an important part of brain health. Learn to say "no" when you're asked to do something you simply don't have time for, give yourself 30 minutes every day just for you, reduce your number of volunteer obligations if you're over extended, help your children learn to engage in one activity at a time.

Lucy Gross-Barlow: As a Speech/Language Pathologist of over 26 years and having practiced in a wide variety of therapeutic settings, Lucy brings to her clients a diversity of patient care knowledge. For the past 12 years, she has specialized her practice in the area of processing disorders and remediation of learning impairments, and she has a passion in seeing her clients succeed in their communicative and learning skills. Lucy now desires to extend the knowledge she has gained in processing and learning remediation to as many children as possible to enable them to reach their full learning and communicative potential in life.

Lucy is a founding partner of The Therapy Group, an association of Speech-Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, learning specialists, Speech-Language Pathology Aides, parent teachers, administrators and advocates pioneering an industry in web-based consulting for parents who seek to help their children with learning challenges or those learning with disabilities in achieving academic and social success. Providing parents with resources, learning therapies, proprietary products and programs worldwide.

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