Following last weeks FB Live session on mental health, Petra ran out of time to mention that the brain can grow new nueral pathways. This is so freeing and empowering because it can reduce the feeling of 'stuckness' that many feel in times of pain, grief, trauma and stress. It takes work, practice, just like training your body, but it's so worth it. Read on to find out more:
Neuroplasticity refers to the emerging and revolutionary idea that our brains are not fixed unchanging balls of neurons, subject only to damage and degeneration. We now know that everything we experience influences how our nerves fire and connect. This opens up realms of possibility beyond anything physicians thought possible only a few years ago.
The conventional view of the brain (and body) came about because scans and other investigations (like dissections) could only observe the structures - often not living - of the body, and not the constant processes of change fundamental to life. This is one of the main distinctions between Western medicine, where we are seen primarily as structure, or complicated machinery, and Eastern medicine, which places function, or interaction and transformation at the centre of physiology.
This has profound implications for the way we see learning, relationships, pain, trauma, culture, addictions, technologies and psychotherapies. Our brains are continuously responding to whatever goes in. There are incredible positive ramifications for learning, self-healing, integrating constructive change, and stimulating new areas of the brain to take on different actions. But our brains also respond to negative influences such as pain, fear or grief.
Acupuncture is one therapy that has now been shown to invoke neuroplasticity. It has been shown to stimulate neurogenesis – the birth of new nerve cells – and their migration, integration and connection to new areas. It can modulate brain activity by increasing nerve firing in areas that might be underactive or damaged, and reduce activity in hyperactive areas. Rather than having one fixed effect acupuncture always works by restoring the body/mind to optimal, flexible, dynamic balance.
The hippocampus is an important, seahorse-shaped area of the brain that regulates motivation, emotion, learning, and memory. It has been found to shrink in size in depression, reflecting the loss of access to memory and feelings.
Studies of chronic and unpredictable stress that leads to depression have shown a benefit from acupuncture. Stimulation of the points BaiHui (Thousand Meetings) and Anmian (Peaceful Sleep) reduced the stress-induced depression, as well increased neurogenesis (nerve formation) in the hippocampus.
Chronic pain can also lead to changes in the brain. Here, neuroplasticity makes the brain and nervous system super-sensitive and hyperactive to otherwise normal sensations and activities – just like turning up the volume on a speaker. This does not mean it is all in your head - sometimes areas of the brain responding to pain are much larger than usual, and it is just doing its job a bit too well.
Acupuncture treatment has been shown to reduce physical sensations of pain, to reduce cortical (brain) hyperactivity, and to normalise the distribution of somatosensory (body sensing) neurons in the brain. It seems to act by helping to repair the injured site (including through better circulation and less inflammation), releasing natural endorphins (pain killers) and remapping the brain itself.
By normalising and optimising the way the brain responds, many of the disorders that impact on fertility can be moderated. Acupuncture treatment can not only reduce pain perception as well as the pain itself, it can help to look after our brains during the inevitable fluctuations in stress, protecting our emotional state, motivation and access to happiness and contentment.
Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Rev. ed. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications, 2010.
Yang, Ye, and Yan Cao. "Applications of Acupuncture Therapy in Modulating Plasticity of Central Nervous System." Neuromodulation 21, no. 8 (2018): 762-76.
Napadow, Vitaly, Jing Liu, Ming Li, Norman Kettner, Angela Ryan, Kenneth K Kwong, Kathleen K S Hui, and Joseph F Audette. "Somatosensory Cortical Plasticity in Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Treated by Acupuncture." Human Brain Mapping 28, no. 3 (2007): 159-71.