Exercise & Neurodegeneration

We know that incorporating regular sessions of physical activity into your everyday routine is beneficial for health, and in more ways than one; not only can exercise help you lose weight, but it can also reduce anxiety, decrease your risk of certain cancers, reduce the risk of developing diabetes, help to increase balance and coordination, and build strength within the muscles and bones (1). But did you know that exercise can also help to reduce neurodegeneration that occurs with age?

Neurodegeneration is not probably a word you hear often, although its quite a prominent disease. If we break the word down, it’s essentially referring to the breakdown or loss of function within nerve cells. This condition has been primarily touted in diseases like Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and Alzheimer’s, just to name a few. With the number one risk factor of neurodegeneration being age (#2 is diabetes!), we can see just how problematic this can be within a growing population of elderly people. Granted, there are plenty of pharmaceutical interventions out there to help reduce some of the symptoms of neurodegeneration – many of those being prescription drugs – but unfortunately, these come along with highly unwanted side effects (and very short window of improvement). (2)

Thankfully, there is another way to combat this breakdown of nerve cells within the body as we age…and that is with physical activity! Studies have shown that consistent exercise improves overall cognitive function, which is fantastic news for those looking for a more natural way to stay healthy and combat mental decline that can go along with aging. Based off information from the Alzheimer’s Association, one out of every three people older than 65 passes away due to complications from Alzheimer’s, or some other neurodegenerative disease resembling dementia. If we can use physical activity to lower these statistics while reducing the need for pharmaceutical intervention, then quality of life can be improved as we age as well! (3)

So, how exactly does exercise help to slow the neurodegeneration that can happen as we get older? Studies have shown us that one of the main components of this question leads back to the mitochondria within the body; aging decreases the functioning of mitochondria, which are essential in order to think, learn, and retain memory. Exercise comes into play by improving the overall functionality of the mitochondria, and has even been shown to help reduce inflammation as well! (4).  Also of critical importance is that your mitochondria are integrated into how you regulate blood sugar.  Insulin Resistance is when you start to lose the ability to get blood sugar inside our cells, so therefore it accumulates outside and begins to damage tissue.  As this continues the damage builds up and critical cells like neurons become compromised, and die off faster.  Exercise stimulates these mitochondria to help you optimize insulin/glucose within the cell and keep the inflammation in check!  This is so critical it is estimated that 80% of the root cause of Dementia in our country is “Type 3 diabetes”, or insulin resistance of the brain.

Studies have also shown that, regardless of age (from children to the older generations), there is a positive correlation between exercise and doing well with cognitive assessments. One particular research segment showed that when a group of older women were divided into groups of fit versus sedentary, the women who were fit had much better cognition than those who were sedentary. (5) A large link here between the improved cognition and better fitness levels is an increase in blood flow to the brain during exercise; this increase in blood flow can be one of the key elements in determining how well exercise helps to improve brain functioning, although more research needs to be done to determine just how this happens. (3)

The question is, what type of exercise needs to be performed in order to obtain the benefits of improved cognitive function and decreased neurodegeneration? While more research needs to be presented in order to see the full depth of this particular question, some studies have noted that activities like dancing, yoga, interval training, and aerobic exercise are all optimal ways to improve brain functionality. (4) One study compared balance exercises to strength training, and found that there was greater blood flow during testing of cognitive function with those participants that did strength training more so than balance training (6), and it appears as though workout programs that include multiple areas of fitness – i.e. balance, strength, aerobic endurance, mobility – are going to be more beneficial in improving cognitive function as opposed to one particular area of fitness by itself. (4)

Living in the Denver and Boulder metro area provides us with an abundance of opportunities to find exercise that we enjoy.  I remind clients daily one of the only ways you will stick to an exercise program is to truly enjoy what you are doing!  Community is also essential and we all know that a class, exercise partner or gym is a great motivator to keep on target with daily exercise.

Figuring out how to optimize brain health is essential in not only delaying neurodegeneration, but also to improving one’s quality of life and increasing health and wellness parameters. It’s clear that exercise, across multiple capacities, is capable of slowing down cognitive decline, and should be a vital part of a treatment program for those looking to prevent further breakdown of nerve cells and their counterparts. If you’re needing more assistance on how to incorporate fitness into your routine in order to help boost cognitive functioning, speak with your local functional medicine doctors in Boulder!
Yours in health,
Ian Hollaman, DC, MSc, IFMCP

PS Can’t seem to get the energy to exercise right now?  Is there something interfering with that initial bump in energy to get you going? I’ve found many times the lack of exercise is NOT the primary culprit to jump-start your energy system!  If there are metabolic problems, gut, hormone or brain imbalances many times those need to be addressed first.  Don’t beat yourself up if you are so tired you can’t exercise!  Call us and we can look deeper into areas like your thyroid, cortisol/adrenal health, blood sugar and gut problems like food sensitivities or bacterial overgrowth.  Once we can get you started on a customized plan most of our clients find it dramatically easier to start an exercise program they can maintain and enjoy!

Stem Cells: Can They Help Paralysis?

stem cells, can they help paralysisUnfortunately, injuries of the spinal column are not an uncommon thing.  Studies have shown that incidences like these happen in up to 80 million people each year. Typically, these accidents are caused by falls, violence with knives or guns, and car accidents, along with arthritis or cancer. Spinal cord injuries can cause damage that interferes with normal functioning of motor skills, as well as sensory perceptions.(1)

There are set standards as to how severe and impairing these injuries to the spinal column can be, and they are determined by the American Spinal Injury Association. The worst is complete paralysis, and with it comes an increased risk of death, since there can be complications with breathing, blood clots, infections, and long-lasting nerve pain, just to name a few.(1)

Thankfully, because of stem cells and their ability to differentiate into multiple types of cells, they have been vastly studied in regards to helping improve and treat spinal cord injuries. This is imperative, seeing as how less than 3% of people with injuries such as these regain any type of functional strength back.(2)

Research has been done for more than twenty years on using stem cells for spinal cord injuries, because of the fact that repairing tissues and improving the networks between the nervous systems is what can lead to better treatment of people with injuries like this. Stem cells have the ability to renew themselves as well, so paired with being able to make themselves into different cell types is best for spinal injuries.(2)

Studies have shown that after damage to the spinal cord, the body actually tries to repair itself; however, scar tissue is formed by some cells, which inhibits re-growth. This is where stem cells come in to help decrease the amount of functional loss. Promoting growth in areas of damage seems to help repair certain areas of the body, especially the spinal column! Amazingly, research has shown that stem cells have the ability to differentiate into neural cells, which can then assist in the recovery and repair process.(3)

The outlook for stem cell research is very promising! A fantastic example is a recent one…a man was paralyzed in 2016 from injuries due to a car accident. In order to hopefully promote function back into his limbs and increase quality of life, he underwent treatment with stem cells that were aimed to stimulate growth of nerve cells as well as forming new blood vessels that could bring fresh oxygen and blood to the site of injury. Amazingly enough, this man was able to regain function and participate in activities of daily living after about 3 months of treatment!(4)

Although there is much research still needing to be done in regards to the extent at which stem cells can be utilized in order to help renew, regenerate, and repair injuries that can lead to full or partial paralysis, the future is promising. Granted, just stem cell therapy in and of itself is not enough to fully heal the devastating effects of paralysis and spinal cord injuries; however, combining these regenerative and protective cells with other therapeutic modalities will hopefully help begin to heal and treat many injuries that are out there today and get people back to functioning normally.(1)

If you have questions about potential treatments for spinal cord injuries or improving/increasing your quality of living after suffering from an injury such as this, contact your local functional medicine doctors around the Denver area and they would be more than happy to speak with you about your options!

(1) Gazdic, M., Volarevic, V., Harrell, C. R., Fellabaum, C., Jovicic, N., Arsenijevic, N., & Stojkovic, M. (2018). Stem Cells Therapy for Spinal Cord Injury. International journal of molecular sciences, 19(4), 1039. doi:10.3390/ijms19041039
(2) Shroff G. (2016). Human Embryonic Stem Cell Therapy in Chronic Spinal Cord Injury: A Retrospective Study. Clinical and translational science, 9(3), 168–175. doi:10.1111/cts.12394
(3) Nandoe Tewarie, R. S., Hurtado, A., Bartels, R. H., Grotenhuis, A., & Oudega, M. (2009). Stem cell-based therapies for spinal cord injury. The journal of spinal cord medicine, 32(2), 105–114.