Friday, December 18, 2009

The ultimate do it yourself project

I had an appointment this past week for an assessment with a speech therapist.  I did speech therapy initially after my brain injury for three months. As you may have figured, I have not been a real big fan of traditional, western medicine.  I have not utilized it at all in my recovery.  I am just now starting to blend it back into my regime because I have been forced to basically.  I have incorporated it into my practices in an attempt to "look good" in the eyes of the court system which is making painstakingly slow decisions regarding the visitation issues with my children or they are supposed to be anyway. Hope it works.

So I have gone back to the neurologist, to a rehabilitation specialist and now to a speech therapist.  I am finding that I am developing a new found respect for these people.  Cynical me?  Who knew?   While I am finding they do not have all the answers, they do have valuable information that can lead me to find my own answers.

I have found my recovery to be like a jigsaw puzzle.  Pieces I need to complete the puzzle can and do come from all different places.  It is up to me to be open, take the information and research and assimilate it and act upon it in a way that works for me. 

While the speech therapist did not want me to come back for regular therapy as he did not think that would benefit me.  He did tell me things I can do on my own and gave me valuable pieces of the puzzle for me to turn all around and look at from every angle and then fit into place for myself.

Your brain's health, your overall health and life are very similar and very much a do it yourself project.  I watched a webcast by Daniel J. Segal in which he defined the mind as the process that regulates the flow of energy and information.  He described the physical brain, the mind, and our relationship or interaction with our world as forming a triangle that basically makes us us.  He said the mind uses the brain to create itself.  Hmmm. Think about that one for a minute.

A thought can actually change neurons.  Interactions in the world or relationships with people and things shape the firing in the brain hence the synaptic connections.  Neurons that fire together wire together. There is your power to change your brain and change your life.  It is like having a secret weapon or a super power.  What you actually do in your life and how you think about what happens in your world shapes your brain and your reality.   This power is within us and it has been there the whole time.  It is up to us to put it to good use.  To actually do the do it yourself project and not put it on the shelf for some later date.

He calls the most basic process of changing your brain mindfulness training. It has been around for thousands of years in the form of yoga, tai chi, qi gong, meditation and the many other similar activities.  Being mindful is a way of focusing and integrating energy flow to actually strengthen the prefrontal area of the brain.  This, in turn, creates what he calls an approach state where a person is adaptable, open, and motivated.  It also has been proven to strengthen the immune system, improve blood pressure, and to increase empathy.

Even doing simple mindfulness techniques such as focusing on the breath for 10 minutes a day can make physical changes in your brain.  This creates an awareness state. Done repeatedly, this state becomes a trait.  They have shown these practices to reduce playground bullying in children.  Because you can't tell an 8 year old to mediate  - well you can, but it probably is not gonna do any good, - they teach the techniques by putting a stuffed animal on their belly and telling them "to rock" the animal.  They have even found it increases their grades.

So back to speech therapy. What does all this have to do with my speech therapy?  We are our own ultimate do it yourself projects. All too often we look to the doctors or other "experts" in any area to give us the answers or a super pill or quick fix when we have the power to change ourselves, our health, and our lives.  We just have to start using it.

I have decided to read out loud everyday as my own speech therapy.  I started last night and made myself laugh at some of my horribly twisted pronunciations, but I know I will see improvement, and the important thing to me is that I am actually doing something about it myself.  How empowering.  Dr. Zeuss is calling.  One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.....

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sleep well, think well

We spend about one third of our life doing it.  That is roughly 56 hours a week, 240 hours a month and 2920 hours a year.  Kinda hard to believe when it is put that way, isn't it?  All that time doing nothing.  Or are we really doing nothing?

When we sleep, as you may know, our brains are very active.  Sleep is very essential to a healthy brain.  I know with my brain injury, I did not truly begin doing some serious healing until I started doing some serious sleeping. 

Over the first year, I would sleep a lot...until the afternoon oftentimes. I would get up and answer the phone when it rang.  "What you doing?" the caller would ask.  "Oh, you know, the usual," I would answer groggily probably not very convincingly.   Because the neurologist told my family to not let me sleep more than 10 hours a day, I felt like I had to hide it.  That was the first time I remember just doing what my body innately needed and not following the conventional medical recommendation.  Thank goodness.  Smart girl.  In my research, it has been shown that sleep and lots of it is absolutely necessary for recovering from a brain injury.  It is when the brain heals.

For all that time spent horizontal, I never really felt rested and was always sleepy because it was not deep, contiguous sleep for me.  I woke up several times throughout and could not go back to sleep.  I would get up and take a bath.  Some nights I know I took as many as 4 or 5 baths and my fingers got all wrinkly.  I found something about the water soothing, but all too often it did not help me to go back to sleep.  I would just lie in the bed, very clean mind you, half asleep and half awake for hours until I got bored and decided to take another bath.  Not fun.

I started doing some major healing when I started sleeping better shortly after beginning neurofeedback which is a therapy I still do where electrodes are attached to the head and the brainwaves are actually trained to perform within an optimal range like they are supposed to.  It has been the one therapy which has made a huge, dramatic difference for me.  More on that later.

OK.  So you don't have a brain injury, but did you know sleep can make a tremendous difference in your life?  Studies have shown that sleep enhances your immune system, your motor skills, your language processing, your memory, and much more, but most of all it greatly increases your ability to learn.  So whenever you pull an all nighter...or did...way back are really kind of shooting yourself in the foot, defeating the purpose. 

Rats deprived of sleep die within a matter of 2 to 3 weeks, and it is practically impossible to kill those little pests otherwise. You know you need your sleep. Total sleep deprivation in humans is fatal.   Lack of adequate rest will start showing very quickly as problems with executive function, mood, memory, attention, logic and even speech and coordination.  Coffee will not help.  Only sleep does.

I used to pride myself on being able to go without sleep, and it sure came in handy in the baby days, but not anymore.  I love my sleep now.  I consider it a treat when I can go to bed early.  I know.  I am getting old and boring.  I also often take several naps throughout the day if I feel the need to.  A NASA study showed that a 26 minute nap improved a pilot's performance by more than 35%.  Talk about a power nap.  Go ahead. Indulge.

The point is that you may not realize how important sleep is in your own life or how the lack of it can be manifesting itself everyday for you.  Inadequate sleep is highly correlated with many things that greatly impact quality of life from stress and anxiety to depression and more...studies even show that lack of sleep is linked to gaining weight.  OK, now there is some motivation for a lot of us.

Make an effort to get some more, good sleep for a couple of days and see if you don't feel better.  Then, make it a habit.  Treat yourself.  I am.  zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.......

Friday, December 4, 2009

Feed Your Brain

How did you do this past week?  Did you feed your brain and body good stuff?  I did less than my norm because of the Thanksgiving leftovers.  Can't just let a pumpkin pie and a chocolate cake made expertly by the loving hands of my son go to waste, can I?  So, I didn't.  Well, some got thrown away.  Now that they are all gone, it is easier to get back to a good standard.  I find it much easier to not even bring the bad-for-you, tempting stuff in the house on a normal basis.  Works for me.

We all pretty much know the things not to eat.  They are the same for your brain, in general, as for the rest of your body.  However, I want to extend the list to include anything we breath into our bodies or introduce into our blood stream.  Nuf said?  It affects your brain.  Not only in the mellow, far out, groovy way temporarily, but permanently in a not so cool kind of way over time.  Repeated use of mind altering substances alters your brain permanently.  It actually makes holes or areas where the blood does not flow anymore.  Even cigarettes.

So what should you be putting in your body to boost your brain power?  The three key essentials to keep your brain healthy and to keep your mental processes razor sharp are really pretty simple to say.  Harder to do.  They are nutritious food, water, and oxygen.

A highly intelligent diet would be heavy on the proteins, complex carbohydrates and good fats.  Proteins are essential to make neurotransmitters which are vital for smart processes. Carbohydrates break down into glucose which is the brain's primary source of energy.  You are aiming for a steady supply here.

The brain is more than 60% fat.  The next time someone calls you a "fat head," just say "thank you very much!" Brain cells are covered by a myelin sheath which is 75% fat. Fats also play a crucial role as important messengers.  Good fats would be your omega-3 fatty acids.  These are found in things like fish, nuts and flax seed.  They can easily be added to your diet in a daily fish oil supplement.  An excellent book for diet and supplements specifically for improving the brain is Gary Null's Mind Power.

For those of you that like things spelled out, me included, here is a short list of especially good brain foods.  The list will look familiar to you as it is the same stuff that is good for your heart.

lean beef
brown rice
flax seed
wheat germ

Even if you don't like going anywhere near the water, your brain loves water.  Water makes up 83% of your blood and is the transport system to the brain, making the needed deliveries of nutrients and taking away toxins from all the bad habits you haven't given up yet.

Studies have shown that most people are permanently partially dehydrated.  If you're already thirsty, you're in this group.  This means your brain is working considerably below its potential.  I don't know about you, but I surely don't need that.  So drink up.  Water that is!  I am guzzling water as I write this.  That is one I have to continually work on. To my credit though, I have become quite a bathroom connoisseur and know where the best bathrooms are conveniently located all over town.

The third thing our brain absolutely needs for us to do is to just breathe.  Easier said than done.  We are taught to hold our stomachs in and breathe out of the top of our lungs for vanity.  Relax. Let it all hang out.  A little pot belly here is OK.  You want to breath slowly and deeply into your diaphragm and even pooch out your stomach.  One way in which it was described to me which helped me take my breath even deeper, but also always makes me kinda giggle just a little is you want to breath as if to distend your perineum. I always imagine myself saying to no one specific "Excuse me while I puff out my perineum."

Digestion pulls oxygen away from your brain and diverts it to your stomach.  So you don't want to eat a big meal right before a task where you want all your brain power available.  Eating little and often is best for your brain to stay alert.  Cardiovascular exercise increases the oxygen in your blood and oxygenates your brain.  Yet another reason to add to the list to exercise regularly. 

Gulp.  (More water.)  Gotta go take a bathroom break.  I am gonna try to do better this week in feeding my brain and giving it what it needs.  Hope you do too!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Brain food

One cannot think well, love well or sleep well if one has not dined well."  Virginia Woolfe

With the holidays fully upon us (fa la la la), and having just finished turkey feasts with all the fixings and still working on the leftovers, I thought now would be a great time to talk about food.  When it comes to your brain, you literally are what you eat.  Your grocery list can have a direct impact on whether you effectively cross things off of your to-do list.

Your brain is the biggest energy hog in your body.  While, on average, it represents only 2% of the body's weight, although I know we all can think of some people where it is obviously much less, it uses about 20% of the energy produced by the body.  Studies show that a person can be as much as 200% more productive just by making better eating choices.  That is pretty powerful stuff! You can promote quicker thinking, better memory and concentration and improved balance and coordination, sharper senses, and the activation of your feel good hormones just by what you put on your plate.

On the flip side, it is equally important to realize that certain foods can also diminish your brain power and  help to make you the dullest knife in the drawer. I don't know about you, but I want no help in that department.  With holiday food and festivities at every turn from now until after the new year, I'll go ahead and be a kill joy and concentrate on the bad things first. Let me add a little to the guilt. 

A list of the worst brain foods would include:  alcohol, artificial food colorings, artificial sweeteners, sugars and corn syrup, hydrogenated fats, and nicotine. Basically, what is bad for your heart is not going to help your brain either.

You brain runs pretty much on blood sugar, using as much as 20% of the carbohydrates you ingest.  It performs best on a steady supply. Simple carbohydrates - processed flour and sugary foods - cause wild fluctuations in this.  The blood sugar roller coaster is just plain not good for any part of your body.  So while that chocolate covered, cream filled doughnut may taste sinfully delicious, it is doing much more than making your pants tighter.

Since my brain injury, I have quit smoking and do not drink. I have become the obnoxious ex-smoker who gets offended when anyone pollutes "my" air.  How dare they?  While I do miss the way red wine would just slide down my throat and give me a big, warm hug all over, I don't want to chance canceling out all the other good things I am doing in my life. So, as a general rule, I do not indulge.

I have also cleaned up my daily diet immensely eating things like rice milk, flax seed and lots of nuts, fresh fruits and veggies and other good things.  I also do not eat any diet foods or artificial sweeteners.  Stevia is a natural artificial sweetener that can be found at any grocery store.  I know, don't I just make you sick?  It took a brain injury to make me do these things.  Believe me, I know it is not easy to do with less motivation.  But, then, I am jumping ahead to next week's blog.

Now, I am not advocating that we all give up every indulgent pleasure and become boring, abstainers from almost everything.  I did have a little bit of each dessert after the Thanksgiving meal thank you very much.  I believe that totally denying yourself only sets you up for failure and makes life very colorless.  I make healthy choices every day on a regular basis as a general rule and allow myself to indulge when I think the occasion calls for it.  That works for me.  You have to find what works for you.

I would encourage you to start by doing something manageable and small for you.  It might be changing your sweetener or limiting yourself to one cup of coffee a day.  I know my Dad cut out the sodas in his daily diet and lost weight and noticed that he feels much better.  The point is do something. You can do it. Look at your life and diet.  What can you change or eliminate?  Try it for a couple of days and see what changes you notice in your energy levels, your thinking,your moods or whatever.

I would love to hear what you are doing and any differences you perceive.  Now, go enjoy those leftovers!


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Giving Thanks Can Actually Change Your Brain

Since the upcoming week includes Thanksgiving, I feel compelled to offer some of my priceless wisdom about that.  It may be easy to feel gratitude and thankfulness on such a cozy occasion surrounded by family and friends and maybe a herb roasted turkey, some yummy sweet potato and pecan concoction, a sinful pumpkin pie and lots of other stuff you really don't need, but are gonna indulge in anyway.  You can light some candles in the center of the table and say a few words of thanks before digging in, and feel absolutely blessed with such abundance. 

Or maybe not. It can be pure hell, and it can be just something you endure, hating every minute and counting the seconds for it to be behind you for another year.  There is that one annoying relative that won't shut up incessantly babbling about something you could care less about.  Yawn.  There is also that one friend of a relative that has breath so bad you imagine it melting your face like plastic.  Yeech.

It really is up to you as to how you experience the day no matter who is there, how toxic their breath may be or how inane their conversation topics.  You can intentionally focus your thoughts and attention on the good or the bad. It is your choice with a Thanksgiving get together or anything in your life.  This type of choice in any situation literally effects you physically and can change your brain and your life with regular repititon. 

Emotions evoked by your thoughts cause cellular reactions in your body which then are transformed into physical reality. Norepinephrine is an example of a chemical that flows in your blood stream when you are in a pleasant state of mind.  Norepinephrine and other "happy" chemicals lock into the cellular receptors in your body.  When viruses or "bad" chemicals look for a place to enter your cells and hook on they cannot because the receptor sites are filled with "happy" chemicals.  Thus making you feel better and your immune system stronger.  That is a really simplified explanation, but you get it, right?

Artists and athletes vizualize their performances before the events.  It has been scientifically proven that the brain cannot tell the difference between this mental practice and the actual event.  It chemically responds and fires the same as if the thing was really occurring.  That is very powerful stuff.  Herein lies your ability to actually change your brain and your reality.  What you repeatedly think about is actually changing your brain. Be careful what you think about.

For example, I just went to court AGAIN this last week.  Uugh!  Unfortunately, I am a regular. This time it was to address some visitation issues.  Because I tried to kill myself and had a resulting brain injury, the visitations with my kids were ordered to be supervised by the courts.  I also was under court order not to drive the kids.  The restrictions were warranted and in the best interest of the kids at the time they were originated. That was two and a half years ago.  A lot has changed since then.  I have been trying to get to court for over a year and a half to get them revised.  Our legal system is infuriating and ridiculous. 

I followed the court order down to the letter on supervision for a year.  I did not drive the kids until I took the NC on road driving test and passed.  Yes, like when I was 16.  Only, I passed the first time this go around.  However, I relaxed it a little on my own for the last year and a half just complying with telephone supervision.

The judge is not going to announce her decision until December 5th.  For the Thanksgiving holiday visitation she ordered that the restrictions are still to be in place full force and are to be followed around the clock.  Initially, I was extremely hurt and insulted to the point I was ready to tell my X just not to send the kids.  To comply now seems totally ludicrous to me and the restrictions competely change the dynamics of my relationship with the kids. 

That was the "old Debbie" reacting out of ego.  But giving the news some time to sit with my changed brain and new way of thinking, I soon began to see a larger picture and a different way to respond.  I can focus on the limitations of the visit or I can focus on the fact that I get to hug my kids and be with them for a couple of days.  It is my choice.  I can choose to experience it as a visit with the kids with the grandparents around a lot or I can choose to not even have the kids come and experience it as incredibly painful and senseless.  Hence, creating my own struggle.  It is totally up to me. I can't change the restrictions, but I can change the way I think about them and choose my experience. 

Making this kind of choice repeatedly actually changes the pathways in your brain.  It is like a sled going down a hill. The first time, it has to plow through the rough snow.  After many times, there is a well worn path. It becomes the default.  Mine is not virgin snow, but as evidenced by my initial reaction, the grass isn't showing through yet on the path. I am getting there.  

How you experience Thanksgiving and something as everyday as the toilet overflowing is completely up to you.  Either can be whatever you make of it.  I am gonna choose to make most of my experiences not so bad....even the toilet overflowing.  Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.  Blessings to you.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The start of it

In June of 2007, I swallowed a colorful assortment of over 90 pills and tried to kill myself. Needless to say, it wasn’t a successful attempt, but it did put me in the hospital for two weeks and leave me with a serious brain injury changing my entire life. It is not clear whether the cause of my global brain injury, technically termed encephalopathy, was the result of all the drugs going completely through my body or my heart stopping multiple times or the 107 degree fever or the hours of seizures. Right afterwards, I would say that by my own honest definition I was mentally handicapped.

I had tremendous trouble remembering anything short term or long term. I asked my Dad on the way home from the rehab center I went to after the hospital in all seriouness "I have a house?"  I am sure he thought, "This is bad."

My speech was very slurred and hard to understand. My thinking processes were impaired and very slow. I couldn’t sleep for any length of time at all. I even had trouble controlling my bladder and eating without biting my cheek or tongue. My hands had a constant tremor, and I did not know what to do with them when I walked. The best I can liken it to is being drunk. I literally had to struggle to maintain some level of coherent consciousness for any period of time.

Over the next year, I was driving and living on my own, but I had lost custody of my kids and they rightfully went to live out of state with their Dad. It was all I could do just to take care of me. I slept fitfully for as much as 16 hours a day, but never felt really rested as it was not deep, contiguous sleep.

I would go to put up laundry and get lost in my drawers or closet for hours. "Where did all these clothes come from?" I would wonder to myself. 

A good day for me was one in which I had emptied the dishwasher and that took a ridiculously long time. The world terrified me. Going to the grocery store required me to muster my bravery. Every interaction with people would send my heart racing and leave me mentally exhausted. My speech had improved somewhat, but I still got the sideways glances and people whispering “How much has she had to drink today?”

Western medicine had nothing to offer me, and after three months of occupational and speech therapy, they basically told me to go home and cross my fingers. As I became more aware, I did my own research and assembled my own therapy regime. I have incorporated neurofeedback, acupuncture, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, cranio sacral massage, hyercapnia or “bag breathing,” my own respiratory therapy with a device called a power lung, energetic healing, meditation, visualization, cardiovascular exercise,cross lateral movement, supplements and more.

It has been an incredible and painstakingly slow recovery process and journey.   In addition to the things above, I spent hours every day doing computer programs and exercises on online websites to increase my processing speed, brain function, and memory.  I carried a Nintendo DS with me everywhere and played a game called Brain Age.  I breathed into a plastic bag every 15 minutes when awake and not in public. I also did daily cardiovascular exercise to oxgynate my brain.  I still do and am in the best shape of my life.

I crawled daily.  Yes.  On my hands and knees like a baby.  Still do, but not every day.  It is great for making familiar  pathways for signals to travel across the hippocamus as is any cross lateral movement.

The point is that I found out there is a great deal I could do on my own, and did it.  There was no easy or standard rehabilitation for my injury.  It was unique, and I had to educate myself and draw from many other areas.  No doctor told me all this stuff.  I had to find it on my own and have the discipline to do it.  You can too. Whether it is a brain injury, a stroke, alzheimers, autism, age related decline, cerebal palsy, obssesive compulsivity, ADD/ADHD, can do something about it.  You can improve your brain.

The estaslidshed medical community will most likely not tell you about any of this as is considered "aternative."  I will here.  Stay tuned.