Your brain is an amazing organ. It controls thinking, reading, memory, speech, emotions, movement, vision, hearing, senses, personality, decision-making, balance and so many other functions. It is constantly communicating with your heart, your gut, your nervous system. The sense of loss when this wondrous organ begins to fail is immeasurable. There are approximately 5.7 million people in the United States living with dementia. Alzheimer’s accounts for about 60-70% of those cases and vascular dementia accounting for the remainder. These numbers are expected to grow as life expectancy increases with a projection of 13.9 million people over the age of 65 with Alzheimer’s or other dementia diseases expected by the year 2060.
Professional drivers are at particularly high risk of dementia and other neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s due to the underlying conditions that prevail in drivers. Heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes are all conditions that can lead to poor brain health, cognitive decline, and neuro-degenerative diseases. If you are a Rolling Strong member, you have been receiving a lot of information this month (June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month). We know that a heart healthy diet, lots of exercise, good sleep and stress management can all help to prevent those causative underlying conditions (cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes). For many drivers, complications of chronic disease and severe time restrictions from long hours on the road can make some exercise painful or just not doable.
Yoga is a form of exercise that can offer a welcome reprieve for drivers.
As a method of exercise that combines movement, breath, and meditation it addresses both the body and the mind and has a vast array of physical and mental health benefits. Recent research has shown that practicing Yoga can have some amazing results in staving off brain function decline. Let us look at what Yoga is and how and why it helps.
What is Yoga:
Yoga practice dates back thousands of years and is now the most popular form of complementary therapy. Yoga combines a focus on both the body and the mind. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), yoga is practiced by more than 13 million adults. 58% of adults cite “maintenance of health and well-being” as their reason for practice. There are many different forms of Yoga and many different philosophies, however it is most commonly popular in modern culture for the relaxation benefits that come from rhythmic breathing and meditation and the stretching and strengthening movements (physical poses) that are incorporated into the movement. There are also many different levels of intensity making it easy to do and to reap benefits from; even the newest beginner who perhaps doesn’t do much other exercise.
- It can be especially beneficial to drivers who are challenged by the mental and emotional stress of the job along with the tight stiff muscles that result from sitting for long periods of time.
6 Ways Yoga Helps Your Brain:
- Yoga Stops the Stress Response: Yoga combines gentle movement, breath, and meditation as part of the program or better known as a ‘practice’ among yoga participants. The rhythmic deep breathing turns off and reduces stress, meditation helps to stop that ‘monkey mind’ of racing thoughts, worry, and rumination. The constant stress of driving long periods of time with isolation and loneliness can combine to wreak havoc on a driver’s physical health and mental well-being. The stress response brings about a cascade of hormones that set off a chain reaction of events in the body. Cortisol is released and becomes the master conductor of these changes. Cortisol orchestrates physiological changes in the body such as increased blood pressure, high blood fats, high blood sugar and digestive issues as well as ramping up inflammation throughout the body systems. These physiological problems are the underpinnings of chronic coronary and metabolic diseases which lead to cognitive decline.
- Yoga can change all this. Studies show that doing Yoga can reduce your body’s cortisol levels. Other studies have shown that just 12 minutes of daily Yoga can lower inflammation throughout the body. Remember, inflammation is the basis of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and research demonstrates that brain inflammation is a key component of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Why Gray Matter Matters: A recent study published in Brain Plasticity analyzed 11 previous studies regarding changes in the brain from practicing Yoga and came up with some interesting results:
- The Yoga practitioners in the studies showed a higher gray matter volume and this means better mental function as you age. Yoga increases gray matter in the frontal areas of the brain and in the hippocampus. The human brain is made up of two types of tissue: gray and white matter. Gray matter makes up about 60 % of the brain. Gray matter is made up of highly concentrated neurons and includes the regions in the brain that are responsible for memory, muscle control, sensory perceptions, emotions, hearing, speech, decision making and self-control.
- Gray matter also affects self-awareness. Lack of self-awareness is called “anosognosia” and it is a tool used to predict whether someone with mild cognitive impairment will eventually progress to Alzheimer’s disease. People with Alzheimer’s often lose their ability to recognize their cognitive deficits and become very “self-unaware”.
- When you practice Yoga and go through a series of different postures you put movement, deep rhythmic breathing and mental activity all together and the results cause an increase in gray matter which brings:
- Focus and concentration
- Decision-making and impulse control
- Emotional regulation.
- Increased Cortical Thickness: Studies show that those who practice yoga also had increased cortical thickness. Cortical thickness is tied to intelligence. A thinning of the cortical area disrupts your ability to focus, pay attention, and to attune to visual memory for social stimuli (how to act and read other people’s emotions). Cortical thinning is keenly noted in depression and anxiety disorders,
- Increased Neuroplasticity: Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change, adapt and respond. It refers to your brain’s ability to create new neural pathways and reorganize itself. Yoga can increase your brain’s neuroplasticity.
- Increased Gyrification: Gyrification refers to the folds and surface area of the brain: Your brain is tightly packed into your skull. For it to fit snugly inside your skull, the brain is folded upon itself. The more gray matter and neurons that you have, the more brain size surface area.
- Of the three areas of Yoga practice; movement, breath and meditation, it is the meditation part that scientists have found to increase the surface area of the brain and it allows for higher functioning in the cerebral cortex that is responsible for language, perception, voluntary movement and information processing.
- Increased “Feel Good” Neurotransmitters: Yoga makes you happier. The practice of Yoga floods your body with the ‘feel good” neurotransmitters GABA, serotonin, and dopamine. Interesting to note that it is these same 3 neurotransmitters that are the targets of anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants.
- Yoga prompts the natural release of these wonderful happiness chemicals that awash your body and the pleasure centers in your brain and reap the benefits of feeling content, relaxed and even joyful. Yoga also increases oxytocin which is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. Oxytocin is known as the “love’ and ‘bliss’ hormone. Who would not want more of that?
You can achieve ALL these wonderful benefits by practicing Yoga just 2 times per week. Yoga can be done by anyone and requires no special equipment except for a simple mat. Yoga can provide relief from stiff, sore muscles, decrease stress and is another tool in your box to stave off chronic illness.
Rolling Strong Members can contact a Rolling Strong Coach at firstname.lastname@example.org for tips on how to stay well on the road.
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By: Cindy Luisi WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach
Millard- Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health. “It’s True, Yoga Is Just as Good for Your Brain as Aerobic Exercise.” Runner’s World, 23 Dec. 2019, www.runnersworld.com/news/a30314229/yoga-benefits-your-brain-study/.
Gothe, Neha P, et al. “Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature.” Brain Plasticity (Amsterdam, Netherlands), IOS Press, 26 Dec. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6971819/.
“How Yoga Changes Your Brain.” Yoga Medicine, 4 Dec. 2019, yogamedicine.com/how-yoga-changes-your-brain/.
“Neuroplasticity, Yoga, and Transformation – How Yoga Affects Your Brain.” YogaUOnline, www.yogauonline.com/yoga-basics/neuroplasticity-yoga-and-transformation-how-yoga-affects-your-brain.
Peterson, Bradley S., et al. “Cortical Thinning in Persons at Increased Familial Risk for Major Depression.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 14 Apr. 2009, www.pnas.org/content/106/15/6273#:~:text=Cortical%20thinning%20in%20turn%20disrupts,disorder%3B%20NS%2C%20not%20significant.
AlzScience. “Dementia Patients’ Awareness of Their Own Illness May Predict Cognitive Decline.” AlzScience, 17 Feb. 2018, alzscience.wordpress.com/2018/02/17/dementia-parents-awareness-of-their-own-illness-may-predict-cognitive-decline/.
Stieg, Cory. “Doing Yoga Just Once or Twice a Week Can Boost Brain Performance.” CNBC, CNBC, 17 Dec. 2019, www.cnbc.com/2019/12/17/study-practicing-yoga-improves-brain-health-and-emotional-functioning.html#:~:text=Doing%20yoga%20just%20once%20or%20twice%20a%20week%20can%20boost%20brain%20performance,-Published%20Tue%2C%20Dec&text=Most%20people%20know%20that%20yoga,enough%20to%20reap%20the%20benefits.
Walton, Alice G. “Penetrating Postures: The Science of Yoga.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 17 Nov. 2012, www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2011/06/16/penetrating-postures-the-science-of-yoga/#389adaa7d4b5.
“Putting Your Mind to Yoga.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 15 Nov. 2013, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/minding-the-body/201311/putting-your-mind-yoga.