Supporting Brain Health with Ancient Tools
In the year 2015, researchers defined a system in the human body which they called the glymphatic system, a system which removes waste from the brain and detoxifies the brain, a discovery that could mean a world of difference for neurological conditions. This new research has been a major system of attention in Functional Medicine and Functional Nutrition.
What is Glymph?
Glymph refers to glial cells in your brain, and is a vast system that holds neurons and synapses together. Cerebral spinal fluid protects your brain, and your glymphatic system is the way in which your brain is protected. When there is inflammation in the brain, glial cells are inflamed, causing restriction in the flow of cerebral spinal fluid. This starts to impact how neurons fire and how the brain starts to decline. This waste that accumulates from inflamed glial cells is called beta amyloid plaque.
Why is healthy functioning of your glymphatic system crucial? Cerebral Spinal fluid literally washes your brain when you are in deep sleep. Let me explain it a little more. Cerebral spinal fluid is a clear fluid protecting your brain within the cranium. In deep sleep, it washes toxins and metabolic byproducts from your brain into the glymph system, Glymph is a waste clearance pathway for clearance of excess protein and metabolites from the brain and spinal cord, and this happens only in deep sleep. Glymph that is not cleared has been linked to mental health challenges from brain fog, anxiety to depression and more serious mental illness. Your brain can actually deteriorate when it does not have sleep at night when it should.
The quality of sleep and having some form of exercise are considered crucial to how efficiently your glymphatic system works. Today craniosacral therapy is considered a way to increase the flow in the brain, which in turn helps reduce inflammation, which in turn reduces the chances of neuro degeneration. Yet, not everyone has access to such therapies. Having been teaching yoga for two decades, I started to use some ancient tools with my functional nutrition clients, especially those who clearly had inefficient glymphatic flow, and the results were astounding! I’m cautiously sharing many of them, and I say cautious as it is still too early to track long term progress, but these are tools that any of you can add to your daily routine. One of the signs that you have poor glymphatic flow, is if you wake up in the morning with congestion or feeling depressed. Why not incorporate some of these wonderful ancient tools?
Tools for Brain Health from Yoga
Trataka in yogic science just means “steady gaze”. it is one of the yogic shatkarmas, or cleansing practices. It involves gazing at an external object without blinking your eyes, and then closing your eyes and gazing within on the image of the object. I used trataka on a candle flame for a group of people, as a form of release, based on my instinct that it helps glymphatic flow. When you stare at the candle flame without blinking, until your eyes tear profusely, it allows for glymphatic circulation. When you cannot keep your eyes open any longer, then close your eyes, and let your mind still by watching the image within your closed eyes. Then repeat the whole process. Try this practice for fifteen minutes daily, and observe if you feel more circulation in your brain, if you feel less congested, or less anxious, depressed or dull. Make sure that you position the candle flame on eye level. A word of caution though, if you do have several symptoms associated with brain health, begin very slowly, and observe yourself. It is a powerful tool, and as glymphatic flow increases, there could be an initial phase of emotional purging, where you feel more emotional than usual.
Jal Neti is a process of cleansing your nasal passage with salt water. I was fascinated to see jal neti being spoken about on the Oprah Winfrey show and the Dr Oz show! Jal Neti has been a part of yoga for time immemorial. You can use a copper neti pot or a stainless steel one. Make sure the water you use is luke warm and as salty as your tears. Salt is crucial, as salt water is not easily absorbed via delicate blood vessels. Tilt your head head to a side, and gently pour the water through one nostril so it comes out of the other. Making a sound helps you close off the throat. Repeat it on the other side as well. It is not possible to describe it in depth here, so please do connect to a trained practitioner for further advice. Jal neti can help brain health, as regular cleansing improves the efficiency of your breathing, supports reduction in inflammation within the sinus, adenoids and mucus membranes, soothes nerves within the olfactory bulb and has a soothing effect on your brain. Once you get the hang of it, it’s as simple as brushing your teeth, yet a powerful tool to support brain health, right there in your hands.
Breath work is another wonderful ancient tool that supports glymphatic flow and brain health. Of course, breath has been an important topic of discussion in the Functional Medicine space, but here I’m going to speak about one specific breath, which is Anuloma Viloma, or the alternate nostril breath. One of the simplest methods is to look at it as three parts, which is your inhale, your retained breath and your exhale. Fold the first two fingers of your right hand and use your thumb to close the right nostril and the ring finger to close your left nostril. When you first begin, breathe in through your left nostril for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of eight and the exhale through your right nostril for a count of eight. Then inhale through your right nostril for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of eight and the exhale through your left nostril for a count of eight. This is one round. For more advanced practices, consult a trained practitioner. Anuloma Viloma is an excellent practice to slow down your breath and move into a more Parasympathetic Nervous System function, where you can rest, digest and heal. It supports movement of prana or the vital energy, helps with glymphatic flow, removes congestion, purifies overall blood system and is wonderfully supportive to brain health.
The practice of yoga postures has had a profound series of postures for brain health, which are the class of inversions. What really came together for me, was the Anterior Cingulate. Dr David Haase, a Functional MD, says the Anterior Cingulate in the brain is the crossroads for the whole brain, much like Grand Central station, so I thought of a junction which is busy, people are interacting constantly, even if not personally, and the energy is palpable. Dr Haase says if the Anterior Cingulate is dysfunctional, and often there is dysfunction in that area, then there is dysfunction in mood, attention, sense of self and more. This is also where the gut and the brain intersect. My instinct got me thinking naturally of the area where the Anterior Cingulate and the path of yoga might cross. I thought of inversions, headstands and more, and I thought of meditation! So I went down that rabbit hole of research and came across multiple research studies done, that connect such similar yoga intervention amidst that Neurological perspective.
I cannot conclude a section on yoga, without including a daily practice of meditation. There are so many forms of meditation today, and multiple apps as well. But after so many years of teaching, I still say the same thing, which is to build a consistent practice without change. In the depth od yoga, meditation is profound when it is sustained practice, not one which changes all the time and is fleeting. Meditation allows you to bring about immense deep healing to your brain and is neuro protective. If you haven’t started already, what are you waiting for?
Tools for Brain Health from Ayurveda
Ayurveda has some wonderful ancient tools as well, for glymphatic clearing. Nasyam, head massage with ayurvedic oils, cleansing through the eyes and shirodhara are all supportive to glymphatic circulation. Having an Ayurvedic head massage, soaking some oil to cool the head, getting some movement going to clear glymphatic fluid can all help support brain health. Nasyam is a medicated oil which is dropped into each nostril while your head is hanging upside down. When you breathe in the medicated oil, it starts to instantly clear glymphatic congestion via your nostrils. Sometimes you even end up sneezing powerfully! Ayurveda also has a medicated eye drop, which also makes your eyes water profusely. Shirodhara is an ancient practice where an Ayurveda practitioner gently guides a flow of oil or cool medicated buttermilk from side to side over your forehead for half an hour or longer. It has been in existance for so long, and is a vital tool in Ayurveda for circulation to your brain. When it comes to all these practices, be sure to consult with a trained Ayurveda professional.
There are such amazing ancient tools from the science of yoga and Ayurveda which are deeply supportive to glymphatic circulation and brain health. Most of these tools are easily accessible, and all you need is to find the right guide. It does not cost a huge amount, but once you learn a few of them, you’ve found a powerful tool which is there right in your hands which can help you with your brain health! Let me know if this article was helpful! I’d love to know!