Dr. Heidi Golding, LAc., DACM
Do you forget things? Do you need a few cups of coffee in the morning to stay on task? Have you ever walked into a room and wondered why you were there? If so, you’re not alone. Chinese Medicine, a 2500 year old medical system, can help; as it has shown to decrease symptoms of Alzheimers and Dementia with the use of Acupuncture and Herbal medicine.
Diseases of the brain are thought to arise gradually rather than from some specific dysfunction in the brain itself. This interpretation differs greatly from the modern medical approach which looks at dementia as specific proteins accumulating in the brain, gene variants such as ApoE4 and deficits in specific neurotransmitters. When looking at the brain, Chinese Medicine looks at the entire body, not just the head. The brain is actually part of several organ systems, especially the Kidneys.
Many of the herbs, dietary suggestions and acupuncture protocols to improve concentration and brain function are actually kidney tonics. The “Kidney” (actually the adrenal cortex/gland which sits adjacent to each Kidney) secrete stress hormones (i.e. Cortisol) signaling the Fight or Flight stress response which is a chain of rapidly occurring reactions in the body to help mobilize the body’s resources to deal with a threat. When in this state, blood rushes to our arms and legs and prepares us to fight, and doesn’t supply our central body with blood. When we are in this stressed states, we are not able to digest food – or actually see the world as clearly as when we are not in this state of alarm; you might feel scattered, have palpitations and/or feel a bit foggy-brained. The Hypothalamus and Pituitary (in the brain) are also involved in this cycle of hormones, but they are directly connected to the Adrenal Glands/Kidneys. This is known as the HPA Axis and directly affects this stress response in a feedback loop from your kidneys/adrenals to your brain. Many studies show that a little stress is actually beneficial, but chronic stress can change your brain function, even its structure down to your DNA via this cycle of hormones when activated too much.
The heart and the kidneys create the “Shao Yin” grouping of organs in Chinese Medicine and are vitally connected. Science has shown that the heart communicates with the brain neurologically, biochemically and energetically. When your heart receives signals from the brain under stress via the Flight or Fright stress response, it pumps faster. When it’s in the Rest and Relax mode (controlled by the Vagus Nerve), it slows down. Your heart has even been proven to produce Oxytocin, known as the “love or social connection drug” in similar concentration ranges as the brain. We might be “heart broken” when we lose a loved one, or when we truly memorize something we “memorize it by heart”, In other words, our language shows the heart takes precedence over the mind in key situations
There is now an abundance of research and books, (including one authored by our very own Dr. Jason Barker, ND of Rocky Mountain Natural Medicine ) connecting the gut and nutrition to brain function and coherence. Gut flora or bacteria is known to influence memory. What we eat or drink can influence our brain for up to three days. Certain hormones such as Dopamine and Seratonin which are known to influence mood are highly influenced by the brain-gut axis and are actually primarily made in the gut, not the brain. If the flora or bacteria in the gut are fed lots of sugar, fried food and other junk, then they (the actual bacteria living in our guts) will demand more and more of the same – influencing you to grab that cookie, soda or beer and refrain from moving – to keep their environment damp and moist (just like they like it). Beware of the bacteria in your gut telling you to be that couch potato!
The Vegas Nerve
As you can see, three seemingly disparate organ systems are all connected to the brain. But are they really separate? Even modern medicine can point to a common unifier – The Vegas Nerve (Cranial Nerve X). Aside from other functions, It is responsible for “Rest and Relaxation”, or the Parasympathetic response for all three organ systems listed above. This is the opposite of the Fight or Flight or Sympathetic stress response which occurs when we are under stress. Keeping stress to an optimal level and living primarily in this relaxed “parasympathetic” state is proving, via research, to be critical for brain health. Acupuncture and herbal medicine has been scientifically proven to directly or indirectly modulate parasympathetic nervous system activity.
With the growing understanding of Amyloid plaques, tangles, tau protein and genetics connected to brain disorders, there have been many attempts by pharmaceutical companies to come up with the perfect medication. Huperzine, for example is an anti cholinesterase alkaloid, derived from the Chinese Herb – Lycoodium serattum.
Prevention is Key
A good practitioner or Doctor of Chinese Medicine can often see a problem before it manifests into full blown disease. When using Chinese medicine, one foggy-headed individual may require a different protocol than another with the same problem. Solutions are always based on the person and their constitution, NOT the problem or symptoms. Therefore, it’s important to understand not only the issue, but the person behind the issue. In this way, Chinese medicine can be used for prevention. Acupuncture literally activates the brain; as few as five or six treatments may be all you need to increase focus.
Each person’s Dementia or Alzheimer’s may have different root causes – each pointing to a different acupuncture protocol or herbal formula. This is why a proper Chinese Medicine diagnosis is so important.
It appears that a combination of modern drugs, life-style changes and ancient herbs are key to confronting brain issues. Several widely used Chinese Herbal formulas today that support vital brain function include:
- Benefit the Intelligence Seed (Yi Zhi Ren): Commonly known as Black Cardamon Seed. A Kidney tonic used for recall and memory. Its known to increase Dopamine and lower inflammation in the hippocampus where memories are formed. It also helps decrease frequent urination!
- Cerebral Tonic/Healthy Brain Pills (Bu Nao Wan/Jian Nao Wan): Common formula used for memory problems related to weakness in the Kidney and Heart systems (known as Shao Yin). Several herbs in the formula have been used for hundreds of years to calm the mind and help with focus.
- Heart Supporting Decoction (Yang Xin Tang): Used when a person is weak, thin and struggling to get adequate nutrition. This formula supports the gut/digestion.
- Restore the Spleen Tea (Gui Pi Tang): A gut and heart formula commonly given to patients for whom anxiety or over-thinking leads them to memory problems. This is known as the student formula since its often used at exam time.
- Ginseng, Poria and Atractylodis Pill (Shen Ling Bai Zhu Wan): A gut formula for those that suffer from cloudy mind due to poor fluid metabolism including diarrhea.
- Six Flavor Tea Pills (Liu Wei Di Huang Wan): This formula is used to support the Kidney system and has actually been shown to keep brain cells alive longer and prevent the build-up of plaques which can destroy brain cells.
Things you can do right now to improve focus and memory:
- Drink plenty of water: Stay hydrated! When dehydrated, the brain shrinks in volume. This shrinking is what causes a dehydration headache. Even mild or temporary dehydration can impact mood. Water should be the drink of choice, nothing compares to it. Effects of dehydration can be reversed in 20 minutes!
- Eat Walnuts: Your brain does NOT want to be skinny, feed it essential omega 3 Fats with Walnuts – the body can then go on to convert it to EPA and DHA, which helps with maintaining plasticity and the stabilization of nerve cell membranes.
- Stay Still: Mediation, Yoga, Qi Gong or Tai Qi all have been shown to do SO MANY things associated with the promotion of relaxation and decreasing anxiety. Low stress on the body equals a more focused and sharp mind and keeps you out of Fight or Flight mode which, if chronic, can damage the brain’s DNA.
- Keep Moving: In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that intense exercise, that increases your heart rate and makes you sweat, increases the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.
- Stay away from tobacco, drugs, and too much alcohol and overeating: Come in for Nutritional counseling, Acupuncture and/or Herbal medicine if you need help with combatting addictive behavior. Tobacco, drug abuse and alcohol can wreak havoc on the brain. Fasting 12 hours/day is part of the famous “Bredesen” protocol used to decrease dementia.
- Create Face to Face connections over Face Book connections: “The Blue Zones” research shows that people living long, healthful lives point to having good social connections with family and friends as the most important indicator of overall health. This type of connection greatly supports brain health.