by Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio
See if these types of scenarios sound familiar to you: You attempt to read a book, but the words on the page meld together, and no matter how many times you re-read the text, you still can’t comprehend it. Or, maybe you notice that ordinary life skills like paying bills, preparing a recipe, or sorting through your medications and supplements suddenly seem impossible to accomplish, and you wind up feeling anxious and frustrated.
Although the occasional mental foible might be amusing — like searching high and low for your glasses, only to find out they’ve been on your head all along — daily episodes of neurological and cognitive issues can be debilitating. As day-to-day tasks become more difficult, you might begin to feel as though your mind is betraying you, and the fear of losing your mental faculties is no laughing matter.
Unfortunately, many people with chronic Lyme disease find themselves in this state and alarmed by the damage the disease is doing to their brain and nervous system. Indeed, cognitive impairment, mood changes, and brain fog are common concerns, and Lyme coinfections such as bartonella, babesia, and mycoplasma can compound the problems.
These pathogens tend to set off an inflammatory chain reaction in the brain and nervous system due to a rush of immune chemicals called cytokines. The chemicals give rise to neuroinflammation, immune dysfunction, and an array of neurological and cognitive changes.
Extinguishing Lyme-related inflammation and repairing damaged tissues begins with a comprehensive natural protocol aimed at suppressing infections, reducing toxins, and fueling up with nutrient-dense foods that provide a firm foundation for your brain and nervous system. But sometimes, healing the brain and nervous system takes some extra effort, which is where neuroplasticity comes into play.
Let’s take a closer look at this compelling concept and how it can help heal your brain and nervous system so you can get back to feeling your sharp, relaxed self.
The Brain and Neuroplasticity
If you’re on a path to recovery from chronic Lyme disease, you probably already know to care for your body by making healthy choices, including engaging in physical activity and movement as your body permits. When you exercise your physical body, you build muscle, strength, and stamina.
However, if you do the same activities day after day, or utilize the same muscle groups without switching things up, your body adjusts to the movement patterns, and physical gains can plateau. On the other hand, your body benefits from occasional and unanticipated challenges to train your muscles and stimulate progress.
By now you might be wondering, what does my physical routine have to do with getting my brain back in tip-top shape after Lyme? Like your body, your brain requires similar TLC and novelty for obtaining optimal mental fitness.
When your brain experiences challenges, either good or bad, neuroplasticity is facilitated. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s adaptive mechanism that allows it to reorganize and create new neural pathways in response to illness, injury, stress, or mental demands.
Although many neural connections are made on a subconscious level, certain activities fortify positive neural connections, while others reinforce maladaptive ones. But as you’ll soon discover, we have a measure of control over the situation — we can choose activities that aid in forming the more beneficial neural pathways.
The term “neuroplasticity” was discovered in the field of neuroscience several decades ago. It’s had long-standing therapeutic and rehabilitative value in fields like occupational therapy, physical therapy, and psychology for treating neurological conditions because of its ability to enhance neural connectivity.
In recent years, there’s a burgeoning interest in its use to facilitate healing in people with Lyme disease and overlapping chronic illnesses like ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome), fibromyalgia, mast cell activation syndrome, mold illness, and multiple chemical sensitivity — conditions where there’s an ongoing and heightened stress response. It’s surged in popularity because we can use neuroplasticity to our advantage, improve stress tolerance, and bring the brain and nervous system into a more tranquil, healing mode.
Although the majority of neural connections are made in early development, science is growing in its depths of knowledge showing that neuroplasticity can occur in people throughout their lifespan. The brain’s ability to rewire itself varies based on such factors as age, gender, genetics, and diseases of the brain. Still, this essential organ can generate new neural pathways, strengthen the pathways that are the greatest benefit to it, and disengage from detrimental ones at most stages of life.
When you seek to create neural pathways, you utilize the power of neuroplasticity as a mighty tool to positively alter the way your brain and nervous system operate. Retraining and rewiring your brain can significantly impact how you react to the stress of dealing with chronic illness, and, in the process, improve cognitive functions like memory, concentration, mood, and focus.
No matter where you are in your healing journey from Lyme disease, if your brain and nervous system feel out of sync or overtaxed, you’ll benefit from these neuroplastic, cognitive exercises that encourage neural connectivity and new patterns of behavior.
5 Ways to Boost Neuroplasticity and Improve Cognition
1. Manage Stress.
You’ve probably heard a million times that you need to lower your stress levels. While it’s certainly true that chronic stress can wreak havoc on the physical body, it can also be destructive to the mind, adding to symptoms like brain fog, confusion, and forgetfulness. In fact, stress is a major obstacle that stands in the way of creating beneficial neural connections while facilitating harmful ones.
For instance, unmitigated stress hinders neuroplasticity in the hippocampus (responsible for long-term and spatial memory) and the prefrontal cortex (which facilitates goal setting, decision making, and managing emotional impulses). On the other hand, chronic stress activates neuroplasticity in the amygdala — which in this case is an undesirable thing. Why?
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure in the limbic system that governs the fight-or-flight response and how you process emotions, especially fear. When chronic stress runs amok, your amygdala is amplifying alarm signals that you must stay on high alert at all times, and it’s hammering away at this point over and over again — regardless of lack of energy, countless sleepless nights, or unrelenting pain. As a result, you’re actually reinforcing the neural connections in your brain that there’s a perceived threat against which you need to fight continually.
The good news, however, is that there are several ways to break the flight-or-fight cycle and manage stress more effectively. (Notice we didn’t say “eliminate stress entirely,” as we all know that’s impossible.)
The primary way is to bring your brain back to a state of calm and security. Tools that can effectively build neuroplasticity, create more balanced systems, and rewire the brain are programs like Dynamic Neural Retraining Systems (DNRS) and The Gupta Program. They provide structured plans to recalibrate the brain and nervous system’s response to stress and stimuli.
Additionally, a regular meditation practice, deep breathing, vagus nerve stimulation, or other mindfulness activities can facilitate neural pathways that emphasize a calmer state of being as well. But the important point to remember is that consistency is paramount, so find an activity that brings about some tranquility and stick with it. It may take some time, but eventually, you’ll begin to notice a greater sense of ease, less reactivity, clearer thinking, and better focus.
2. Dance it Out.
It might sound silly, but dancing— especially styles that consistently require individuals to learn new and challenging choreography — has been linked to enhanced neuroplasticity. That’s because dancing integrates several areas of the brain at once, which strengthens neural connections on several levels, according to a systematic review in the journal Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews.
The research also indicated that dancing yielded cognitive improvements in memory and attention, among other brain functions. So, put on some music and get moving. It’s highly likely to improve your mood as well.
3. Use Your Non-Dominant Hand.
When you’re chronically ill, energy and money can be in short supply. But there are ways to improve neuroplasticity that don’t place significant demands on your physical or financial resources.
One of the simplest is to use your non-dominant hand to perform everyday tasks like brushing your teeth, combing your hair, writing your name, and washing dishes. This simple change-up stimulates the brain enough to gradually help build neural pathways, plus it may foster greater self-control, according to research in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
In the 2012 study, participants used their non-dominant hand to perform as many activities as they could safely do — stirring their coffee, opening doors, using a mouse — for two weeks. At the end of the study, participants demonstrated improvements in self-control and impulse behavior.
The idea is that the conscious act of using the non-dominant hand requires practicing self-control to go against a person’s normal tendency. The findings may have positive implications for daily life and lead to less reactivity in intense situations — a skill we could all benefit from when being bombarded by endless stressful news and events!
4. Study a New Topic.
Have you always wanted to start a blog? Launch a business? Play the flute? Now might be the right time to implement the ideas that tend to get placed on the back burner while tackling recovery.
At first, the thought of undertaking something new might seem overwhelming. But learning a craft is one of the best ways to boost neuroplasticity and improve skills like problem-solving and concentration. As you acquire a different skill set, the brain changes and develops, building new connections.
Just remember: It’s perfectly okay to go at your own pace and set small, attainable goals. The key is to find activities that ignite your passion and immerse your senses, because those will engage and integrate many parts of your brain.
5. Tap it Out.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is a do-it-yourself method for re-aligning energy, alleviating emotional distress, and improving feelings of wellbeing. The system is similar to acupuncture in that you tap points along meridians on the body, but instead of needles, you use your fingers to target the various areas.
The basic tapping order uses eight points that run along the body and face while simultaneously repeating a statement of self-affirmation about a particular problem. The tapping sequence is repeated until the worry or discomfort about a situation or circumstance reaches the lowest possible level. Though the exact mechanisms of action are yet to be understood, it is believed that EFT’s ability to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems may result in neuroplasticity.
There is a surplus of online graphics and videos you can use to start an EFT practice. If you want a more individualized approach to EFT, or if your practice isn’t yielding the changes you had hoped for, practitioners are located throughout the country and come from a variety of disciplines.
Ultimately, neuroplasticity works to balance the brain and nervous system and encourage healing in areas of the body that have been overburdened by the pressing demands of living life with persistent Lyme disease symptoms. Coupled with natural therapies and lifestyle changes, practicing neuroplasticity-building techniques will get you well on your way to a healthier nervous system — and you just might discover some new interests and hobbies as you go.
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2. Denson TF, DeWall CN, Finkel EJ. Self-Control and Aggression. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2012;21(1):20-25. doi: 10.1177/0963721411429451
3. Park DC, Bischof GN. The aging mind: neuroplasticity in response to cognitive training. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2013;15(1):109-119
4. Teixeira-Machado L, Arida RM, de Jesus Mari J. Dance for neuroplasticity: A descriptive systematic review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019 Jan;96:232-240. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2018.12.010
5. Voss P, Thomas ME, Cisneros-Franco JM, de Villers-Sidani É. Dynamic Brains and the Changing Rules of Neuroplasticity: Implications for Learning and Recovery. Front Psychol. 2017;8:1657. Published 2017 Oct 4. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01657