Neuroplasticity: How Changing My Brain Brought Me Back to Life
I chose this topic because the upcoming story is vital in my journey in science and health. I wanted to share my story so that it is easier to understand why I will be speaking about upcoming topics. Disclaimer: I am not promoting any books or diets, but rather sharing my story and knowledge with you. The purpose of this post isn't to discuss depression or crazy diets as I am well aware that everyone's body is different. BUT we all have one thing in common: we all have the ability to change our brain and molecular composition to become a healthier, happier person.
The main question that we need to discuss is: What is Neuroplasticity? I could go on and on about this topic and how much I love it, (I actually wrote my senior thesis on Neuroplasticity). Though this topic can be difficult to understand on a cellular level, it is my goal to make this topic simple for everyone in order to provide a basis for those who are interested.
The brain at a base level is made up of neurons which create connections for all human functions. Neuroplasticity is the the process of new neurons growing and forming new networks in the brain. For many years, it was a belief that it was impossible for neurons to regenerate. However, in the last decade research has discovered that growth can undoubtedly occur in the human brain. My research focused primarily on how to trigger this growth and how to activate new connections in the brain. What I discovered was that this requires practice and mindfulness.
My favorite example and easiest way to explain Neuroplasticity is the topic of chronic pain. One of my favorite readings, Neuroplastic Transformation: Your Brain on Pain, is a guide for patients who have been diagnosed with chronic pain. The book provides patients with the picture to the left: one image includes all of the areas in the brain that are activated in response to pain, (the nine fireworks that are shown). The second is a picture of the brain without these areas lit up, and patients are told to imagine their brain without any fireworks when they are feeling pain. The majority of patients reported the ability to manage their pain and an overall decrease in discomfort with their thoughts alone. The key point of this example is that your mindset and thoughts can change your body and the physical and chemical makeup of your brain.
Neuroplasticity can be used to improve more than just pain. For the purpose of this post, I will share my experience with my weight. The simplest way that I can explain how I felt about my health and body for most of my life is unhappy and uneducated. I was an athlete growing up and throughout high school. After graduation, I was in a car accident that left me with my seventh concussion. I told you earlier that this post was not to discuss depression - but I will say that this was one of the most difficult times in my life. I had to sit in a dark room for two weeks after the accident, was not allowed to use any technology, and was not allowed to exercise. Although this was a difficult time for me, it was the beginning of a beautiful journey that sparked my interest in Neuroscience. When I started college, I was so lost about many aspects of my life, but I knew that I was eager to learn about health and the connection between the brain and the body.
One of the most important lessons that I learned in my education was that many people are not aware of the effect that food has on our bodies AND on our brain. Each time we eat, we are providing nutrients for our body; however, our brain is also being fed. When the brain is fed large amounts of sugar, toxins, and hidden chemicals, this affects how we think and act. I cannot stress how important it is to be educated in health and to teach children this from an early age. The brain reacts to sugar the same way that it reacts to cocaine. When children are exposed to sugary foods at a young age, it creates an addiction. I grew up with this problem, and in order to effectively transform my life and my body I had to remove harmful foods from my life. I challenge you to remove sugar from your diet for 30 days and then eat a cookie. You will be shocked at how sugar affects your physical body and mental clarity.
With all of the learning that I was doing, I knew that I needed to apply this into my daily life in order to change how I was feeling and how I looked. One of my best friends' mother is a doctor who helped me tremendously in my health journey. I learned from her that I had a thyroid problem and needed to adjust my diet. She recommended the Ketogenic diet for one month to give my nervous system a restart and a whole foods diet to follow. The combination of diet and an active lifestyle helped me to lose 30 pounds in four months. How does this connect and relate to Neuroplasticity though?
Changing my brain and rewiring my thoughts was the key to driving me towards the life I wanted. It was definitely one of the hardest things that I have ever had to do. Though the diets were a large part of my transformation, my mindset was the key. I had to work on my attitude and mentality continuously. Working on the decision to choose meat and vegetables over a bowl of pasta, or choosing to continue working hard even though these old habits were still in the back of my mind. What I did not realize at the time was that I was not only changing the way I was thinking, but I was rewiring my brain to think in an alternative way.
After the first few months of this new lifestyle, I no longer craved those old habits. I truly had wired my brain to live the way that I always wanted to by thinking in positive ways, practicing self-love, and being mindful of my new way of life. This doesn't mean that I was constantly hard on myself based on my diet, because cheat days/cheat meals were so important to reward reward myself with. But I started to crave fruits and vegetables rather than my usual Oreo McFlurry. This journey is long and requires mindfulness and energy, because just as you can build new connections it is just as easy to lose connections. There is a famous Neuroscience quote that says, "Use it or lose it" and I've never heard anything more accurate. In order to truly reach optimal health, these new connections in the brain must be practiced daily or unfortunately these new habits will not stick.
The pictures throughout this post no longer make me sad as they are a reminder of a confused girl who had the burning desire to learn and change her life. This person will always be a part of me and I'd go as far as saying this was the most important version of myself. She taught me what I did not want for myself and she inspires me to continuously push to become educated and passionate about my life. My past struggles were the first buds of hope that put me on my path of studying Neuroscience and the body, and I could not be more thankful to the girl in these photos.
After finding myself and the knowledge necessary to keep the weight off by learning about the connection between the brain and the gut, I felt free. I felt that this was so important to share with my readers because this is why I am so excited to share about what I have learned in my education. I hope to teach simple answers to daunting tasks that many can use in their lives to reach a point that they thought they never could be. Though this was just a brief overview of these topics, I am excited to jump further into issues such as: yoga, meditation, the science behind the mind-gut connection, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), and so much more!