Have you ever wondered why some people even in their 80’s and 90’s are active, alert, cognizant of their surroundings, and have their memory intact, while others suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other types of cognitive disorders? Genetics plays an important role in degeneration, but there are important factors that contribute in a big way to keep brain cells growing and functioning until our ripe old age.
Old age need not conjure up images of frailty, weakened memory, loss of mobility, etc. Neither should it come as a surprise that we can age gracefully and remain strong, resilient, lively, curious, mentally stable, and completely cognizant. Now the question that comes up is how can we all feel young even though our body is aging. The physical aging process is inevitable, so is it not important that we take matters into our hands when it comes to health and wellbeing? It is only when we are in total wellbeing that all our organs, neurons, and brain cells fire on all cylinders.
It is a well-known fact that yoga and meditation builds a strong system. The breathing patterns and the postures in the yoga create healing from within, stabilize our body, mind, emotions, and transform the energies. Meditation calms our mind and increases our awareness of our thought and emotional patterns which we can break out of and become “Present”. This potent combination of yoga and meditation practices brings wellbeing by optimizing the way our brain functions which researchers have not yet been able to quantify.
Well-being means that we are in total physical, mental, emotional, and energy health. Research has found that there is a connection between brain neuroplasticity and wellbeing. The more the neuroplasticity, the better the wellbeing. Simple things like – good rest, wholesome diet, physical activity as in yoga and/or exercise harness neuroplasticity. As simple and intuitive as this is, a large majority of us struggle due to poor sleep, bad diet, and lack of activity which we have brought on ourselves due to our choice of lifestyle.
In a study conducted by Australia’s Deakin University, participants with a healthy diet – that had greens, fruits, bean lentils, etc – had a larger left hippocampus (a seahorse-shaped portion of the brain crucial for memory, learning, and decision-making) than those who had unhealthy eating habits (credit: Reader’s Digest). Eating even small amounts of fresh and/or cooked vegetables, fruits and greens can lower the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, early degeneration of cognitive abilities. Foods to particularly avoid are burgers, fried, soft drinks, and other high fat and processed food that harm brain cells by causing inflammation therefore decreasing brain plasticity.
Getting a good night’s rest boosts brain cell regeneration by washing away the toxins. Whatever the number of hours we sleep, it is very important to wake up well-rested. Maintaining a good sleep routine, avoiding exposure to blue light, and enhancing natural light exposure during the day slows down mental activity, causing relaxation in the body and can help us fall asleep faster and deeper. Prolonged sleep deprivation is shown to increase toxins, inability to focus, fuzziness of memory, slow reaction times, which as we age can lead to severe health problems.
In a 2016 National Institute on Aging study, people who ran for 45 minutes three days a week boosted their levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor, a chemical that acts like fertilizer for new brain cells (credits: Reader’s Digest). This means without activity, the brain cell regeneration is slow. Our body is built for activity. Remember the good old days where we had to hunt for food? Our body is still the same today. The only thing that has changed is our lifestyle which encourages us to be highly sedentary and inactive. Motivating ourselves to be active even for short periods of time whether it is on a treadmill or outside in the natural surroundings encourages the growth of new brain cells, improves oxygen supply and blood sugar to brain cells.
While diet, sleep, and exercise are important, the cherry on the cake is Yoga and Meditation. According to some imaging studies, yoga improves brain neuroplasticity. The imaging indicated that those who practiced Hata Yoga tended to have a larger hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex, thereby enhancing the ability to cope with emotions and improving memory, concentration, planning, and decision-making skills. The power of yoga comes from a mix of postures and deep breathing causing deep stress reduction and relaxation in the entire system. On the other hand, with meditation, one can just sit and breathe deeply to bring that deep relaxation and reap the benefits of neuroplasticity.
Yoga and Meditation can leave you feeling young, refreshed, and rejuvenated at any age. It is a gift that keeps on giving. Even a 5 to 10 practice can go a long way. Are you ready? Below is a simple breathing practice to create peace and psychological well-being.
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