In Genesis 3:19, there is a verse that stuck me as odd from my very early readings of the scripture
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
At a very early age, all of my Sunday School teachers and Bible teachers would simply explain that this verse meant that man was built to toil. When you work hard you get sweaty, and the sweat that mentioned is the sweat of hard labor. I understand the poetic license about this, and I don’t doubt that this is one meaning of this verse. However, even at an extremely young age, I thought something different. I though, “I wonder if we have to sweat to be healthy and be able to work.” However, this meaning would be too odd for most people. Why would God call out in the early part of the scriptures the need to sweat? No, it simply must be that this verse means to “work.”
Well, the research is turning to a very interesting direction. It may be that what I suspected many, many years ago as a child, may actually be right. God created man, and if man does not sweat (fro some type of a labor) it will have a strong detrimental effect on our lives.
Through out this blog, I have preached the idea that we are a triune creature. We are made up of mind, body, and spirit. It is turning out that this is more true than ever, as we see that our body’s activity level is tied closely to the health of our brain.
John Rately covers this subject in the book Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. This book has my own “top ten” books that should and would change your life if you are willing to read it, understand it, and change your life.
We have covered some of this before, but let’s do a quick summary of some of the key areas of the brain and the way that it is wired. The way that your brain cells talk to each other is through chemical signaling. Often we think that because computers are electrical, our brains must run on electricity of some type. However, the key interchange is in the gaps between nerve cells. The communication in these gaps is chemical in nature. The type of chemical that lives between these gaps (or what are call synapses) are called neurotransmitters.
There are a few things that we want to do with our brain, and these neurotransmitters get involved with making sure we can do these things:
1. We want to compute things
2. We want to retain and recall things
3. We want to be able to move our bodies
Two of the major neurotransmitters are glutamate and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). The first one gets your going, and the second one, which is known for slowing your brain down (inhibitory) in mature brains. However, these neurotransmitters are critical and used all the time to signal any motion or thought, but they are not the focus for this post.
There are multiple other neurotransmitters, a handful have really interesting properties.
Norepinephrine is often used as the flight or fight signaler, but it also make you alert and awake and more on edge. If you have high levels of this chemical, your heart rate is going to go up, and some parts of your brain will really come alive, such as the amyglia. Norepinephrine is made in the Locus coeruleus, which is part of your brain. Exercise will create a small increase in norepinephrine, and this in turn make it a bit easier for individuals to learn things. However, the effects don’t stop here. From other reading, I believe that norepinephrine is a part of a hormone cascade. By linking it to physical activity, you give the right feedback into your system. Physical activity seems to create it, and it should be used for physical activity. It may also be important for your mental health. It turns out that a break down product of this is called methoxyhydroxyphenylglycol (MHPG), lower levels of this by product is often present in depressed people. It would make sense that without the proper cycle of norepinephrine, you won’t have the appropriate level of MHPG.
In his book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” Robert Sapolsky explains that our modern environment is set up to confuse our brains. Norepinephrine is not necessarily the “stress hormone” per se. Norepinephrine is a catecholamine, which means that it’s action is rather short. There is the real set of stress hormones called glucocorticoids that stress you out over hours or maybe even over days.
So your brain has two sets of chemicals in the way that it reacts to stress. The problem is that these different chemical are designed to be used in different ways and are related to each other, but in our modern environment we totally screw this cascade up. First, our population has a lower level of norepinephrine than we should. This is because we don’t do the basic exercise required for healthy levels of this neurotransmitter.
Secondly, we elevate the glucocorticoid levels in our body when we shouldn’t. It turns out that our modern environment tends to increase our levels of glucocorticoids (such as corticosteriod) in our bloodstream. We all know this feeling. You are sitting in traffic. The guy in front of your is allowing the cars to get in front of him, and thus you feel that you are going backwards. Yet you are closed off in this little tin box and you can’t do anything about it, other than get frustrated. Your glucocorticoid level is rising, and the way to turn it off is for you to do something physical like running. However, because we don’t run, the level of this stress hormone simply stays high.
This is bad news, and does some nasty things to your body. This post is not about Sapolsky’s work, however, but my guess is that physical activity is very helpful for this stress. For more background on this aspect, I encourage you to go to this post, and listen to Radiolab link that I have. Net-net, physical activity will also help your stress levels in my opinion.
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter of being calm. Serotonin is created from the amino acid tryptophan. There are some nights that I am upset about something that happened at work, or something that I need to do. Because of this, I will awake up in the middle of the night and not be able to get to sleep. In this case, I get up and go downstairs to take 1g of tryptophan on an empty stomach. Because I rarely take this drug, the tryptophan crosses my brain-blood barrier, and once there, it says, “why not make some serotonin?” While this effect goes away after multiple nights, it always works the first night. It takes about an hour, but suddenly I till feel as if I am calm and extremely tired. I will always quickly fall asleep.
Dopamine is another key neurotransmitter because is helps in concentration. If you have high levels of dopamine, you’ll be able to sit down and crank through whatever you need to do. Dopamine allows you to have the feel of complete absorption, where all you want to do is finish your project. The break down of people’s systems to either receive or create dopamine can results in problems like schizophrenia or Parkinson's disease, which killed my maternal Grandfather.
These neurotransmitters are so important that they are often try to be modified with other drugs. For instance, lack of dopamine means kids can’t concentrate. This leads to Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). To solve this problem, we have been giving our children Adderral or Ritalin, which effectively raises the level of dopamine in the brain. Prozac does something similar for serotonin levels in the brain. Prozac is known as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which simply means that whatever serotonin that you have in your brain sticks around longer. With Prozac, people who are nervous and worried find out that life is much, much better. There brains are no longer uptight and wound up. People that suffer with depression may suddenly find that life is worth living.
Unfortunately, these drugs have side effects as they are screwing around with your brain chemistry. Prozac users are known to have more suicidal thoughts. The long term effects of Ritalin and Adderall don’t look like a good long term fix either. The government has been sponsoring long term follow-up on these types of drugs in “The Multimodal Treatment Study” (MTA). You’ll find out that the kids start off just great, but after about 3 years, the effects fade. Adderall may get somebody through an episode, but it does not solve the issue.
It turns out that there is an alternative. Ratey documents, illustrates and explains how your brain changes with aerobic exercise. Dopamine levels go up. Serotonin levels go up. The brain adjusts and become much more balanced. The effects are similar, if not better than the prescription drugs that are used on children and adults. Ratey is a little discourage in that the mainstream medical society is starting to come around, but it is hard to read his book an not feel that the evidence is building so quickly that even the conservative, slow society of doctors will embrace this new research.
If the brain benefits of exercise stopped there, we would have a revolution on our hands, one that has the potential to change the face of our world. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg for exercise and the brain. There are a whole hosts of changes that happen inside of our brain. One of the most exciting one is the fact that we can create new brain cells. The only method to get them? Aerobic exercise.
There are several parts of the brain that you should be aware of to make sure you understand what is happening. The idea of forming memories and learning is called long-term potentiation (LTP), which effects several areas of the brain. The main actors that we are interested in is the cerebellum , the hippocampus. and the neo-cortex or cortex.
The cerebellum only makes up 10% of our brain. Doesn’t look very big on the picture. Here’s the factoid for the day. This small part of your brain contains 50% of your brain cells. It is packed full of activity, and for the most part you are not aware of it.
The reason why you don’t know about the cerebellum is that you are conscious of your conscience. While this part of the brain has some responsibility for fear, pleasure, and language, the primary thing that it does is control your motor skills.
The cortex is where all of your thinking happens, at least your conscious thoughts. The frontal lobe is well known for making a bunch of deep thoughts, and philosophers must have a well developed frontal lobe. The cortex is the most recognizable thing about the brain if you’ve seen pictures, as it is outer covering which looks a little like a sponge, and looks grey, thus cause some people to refer to the brain as the “grey matter.”
Finally, the hippocampus is basically a clearing and routing center. It makes sure that the long term memories are saved, and that the really important stuff gets kept. If you have trouble with knowing what is important, and we all do time to time, the hippocampus probably didn’t route the right stuff for saving.
It turns out that when we exercise, our body creates Brain Derived Neurotrophic Ffactor (BDNF). Nootropics are drugs that make you smarter. For a number of years, many people have tried to find a “smart pill” to help them get bright. Neurotrophic is positive toward brain cell growth. You may have been told at some time that “you only get so many brain cells.” This really is not true as you can proto-brain cells. The trick is to get them to bloom. When we exercise, we grow new brain cells (neurogenesis). Exercise does this.
Now if these brain cells are not used, they don’t stick around. Any brain cell that is not used basically stops reaching out to it neighbors and shrinks in size. However, you get an opportunity to lock in these new cells because you made them. You just need to go out and study. Then these new cell will be incorporated into your brain system.
Exercise allows you concentrate more. It makes you more happy. It makes your smarter. For a more indepth discussion of all of this, I encourage you to buy the book “Spark.”
However, there are some caveats about this. The first is that you may get some good results right away if you start to exercise. Yet, many of the biggest impacts come after long term exposure to exercise. In the case of having serotonin levels increased, the study saw Prozac type of levels after six months.
Also, going to the gym and doing weights or pilates is good, but certainly does not do all the chemical rebalancing that one would want. There is only one way to get the good stuff: get your heart rate up. This means aerobic activity. There are many good sites on what this means, but even wikipedia has a great starter section.
This is not to say that other types of skill sports are not important, as both coordination sports (such as yoga or golf) and weightlifting has many good impacts. In the future, I predict that we’ll see that exercise needs to be defined into buckets like our food groups.
However, there is no doubt, aerobic exercise is the most important exercise for the brain and our overall health. It can make us more balanced, more healthy and smarter. Now, the trick to figure out how to get all of the world to get the discipline to start exercising.
In conclusion, I will finish with a story that Rately starts his book off with. In Naperville, Illinois, they got the idea that exercise may help with academics. However, this is not the old “gym class” exercise. They thought that kids that enjoyed aerobic activity would do better in school The results are nothing less than outstanding. This particular school district have a group of kids that test well out of the norm of what would be expected of their social-economic arena. In fact, they have because they have take a smart drug called “exercise.”
When the school district decided to match themselves up against the rest of the world in academics, they decided to take a test call standards test called TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), which the USA regular ends up around 9th or 10th place. When the kids from Naperville took the the test, they ended up as better than the best in the world in science, and 6th in math.
When they school district tested the kids for being overweight, they came in with only 3% of kids being overweight, as compared with the national average of 30%.
Exercise. Good for the body and brain.