Neuroplasticity healing or limbic system retraining may help to improve pain, anxiety, stress response, and cognition.
Neuroplasticity healing requires the right fundamentals — diet, sleep, and gut health maintenance — to allow the adult brain to form new neural pathways and learn new skills.
Imbalances in your gut microbiome can affect cognitive, emotional, and mental health via the gut-brain axis (the millions of neurons running between your gut and brain cells).
For those who have improved diet, lifestyle, and gut health, but still feel unwell, reprogramming nervous system responses through neuroplasticity training may be a powerful next step.
Can you change your brain in order to improve your health?
Neuroscientists and clinicians once believed that only people younger than 25 had a malleable brain, but this is now known not to be true.
In fact, the ability of the human brain and its complex neurological circuitry to make new connections and be adaptive to change can also happen in the more mature brain. This ability is called neuroplasticity or neural plasticity [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
In a medical context, neuroplasticity shows up as the rewiring of parts of the brain to help improve chronic pain or heal brain damage. The ability of the brain to recover in stroke patients, or after traumatic brain injury is a good example of neuroplasticity healing in action.
Neuroplasticity or limbic system training may also be able to help with trauma healing, emotional regulation, and anxiety by retraining nervous system responses that have become “stuck” over time.
If you’ve been struggling with a chronic illness or symptoms for some time, neuroplasticity healing might be the missing link to bring you back to your healthiest self.
Or, if you’re generally feeling well but looking to improve your cognitive health, diet and lifestyle changes aimed at improving brain plasticity can help to sharpen your learning, memory, and focus.
What Is Neuroplasticity Healing?
Neuroplasticity healing refers to the lifestyle changes and brain exercises that can help the neural connections in your brain continue developing and changing.
Some diet and lifestyle changes can help to increase neuroplasticity along with overall health. There are also a number of programs aimed specifically at retraining the brain and nervous system, and reprogramming emotional responses.
These may be referred to as neuroplasticity training, limbic system retraining, or amygdala retraining (the latter two referring to specific components of the nervous system, which we’ll cover below).
Neuroplasticity healing programs typically involve a combination of meditation, breathwork, visualization, and behavioral exercises.
Understanding the Limbic System and the Amygdala
The limbic system is a group of structures in the brain that regulates behavior, emotion, and memory. The amygdala is one component of the limbic system and is connected to emotional memory and response, including the “fight or flight” response to danger or stress.
Benefits of Neuroplasticity Healing or Limbic System Retraining
Pain reduction for those with fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome
Improved stress response
Reduced levels of depression
One 2020 pilot randomized controlled trial involving patients with fibromyalgia found that, compared to a relaxation therapy, an amygdala retraining program led to improvements in pain, anxiety, depression, and even mindfulness and self-compassion [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
What’s really interesting about this study is that three months after treatment had ended, the limbic system retraining group still had not only improved pain and symptoms but significant improvements in “pain catastrophizing” and “psychological rigidity.” In other words, it wasn’t just their pain that had improved, but their response to pain, and their mental or emotional ability to cope.
Can Limbic System Retraining Help with Anxiety and Chronic Illness Healing?
The fact that our brains can create and strengthen neural pathways when we learn or are faced with something new is a good thing. But what does this mean for those who have been through a traumatic event or are dealing with a chronic illness? According to the limbic system or amygdala theory, the nervous system may have learned to become overly sensitive or responsive to certain triggers — even after they’ve stopped being harmful.
For example, if you have dealt with reactivity to food or supplements for several months or even years, paired with chronic symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, bloating, or constipation, your limbic system may have learned to associate food, supplements, or mild symptoms with danger.
Even if you’ve healed your gut, improved the health of your immune system, and resolved the majority of the underlying issues that led to your symptoms, your brain could still be responding to food or any hint of symptoms the way it’s been trained to: essentially, by making you anxious.
And that’s where neuroplasticity healing or training comes in. The goal is to rewire those neural pathways and reprogram the responses that might be keeping you “stuck” even after your body has healed.
It’s worth noting that research in this area is still quite limited. However, I’ve found with my patients that for those who have done the work when it comes to diet, lifestyle, and gut healing, and whose conditions have objectively improved but who are still feeling unwell, this type of training can be incredibly powerful and helpful.
How Neuroplasticity Training Works
What’s actually involved in a neuroplasticity or limbic system training program? There are a number of different programs available whose approaches may vary slightly. Generally, a limbic system retraining program will last for several weeks to several months, broken down into short regular sessions.
Neuroplasticity retraining typically involves specifically targeted programs that combine multiple mind-body modalities. These may include:
Meditation or mindfulness training
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Therapies aimed at emotional restructuring
How to Encourage Neuroplasticity
Beyond limbic system or amygdala retraining programs, there are many diet and lifestyle strategies that can help to encourage neuroplasticity. Tips for boosting neuroplasticity may include:
Improving gut health and the gut-brain connection
Reducing brain inflammation, through:
An anti-inflammatory diet
Improving the health of your gut bacteria
Getting better sleep (or improving your sleep hygiene)
Let’s go through some of these areas in more detail.
Neuroplasticity, Cognition, and Your Gut
A sluggish brain and poor cognitive function might actually relate to what is going on with your gut bacteria.
The science linking the brain and gut health is far from fully developed, but it shows that:
There is constant two-way communication from your microbiota to your brain and the other way around, via nervous and immune systems and hormonal signaling [6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Lifestyle Changes to Boost Neuroplasticity and Cognition
Before jumping into neuroplasticity training or cognitive enhancement supplements, it’s important to get the lifestyle basics (diet, sleep, exercise) right.
Brain Boost Diet
Avoiding foods that cause inflammation, such as sugar, alcohol, deep fried foods, and highly processed foods is your first step towards healthier brain function.
Most healthy diets include plenty of anti-inflammatory foods, which encourage a more neuroplastic brain.
Cutting out the junk and eating whole, unprocessed foods should bring benefits, but specifically, polyphenols, found in colorful vegetables and fruits, tea, and some herbs have been linked with improved neuroplasticity [23 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
The Mediterranean diet, which is rich in polyphenols, has been the most tested for its impacts on cognitive function. For example:
A 2016 review of 32 studies associated the Mediterranean diet with improved cognitive function, a decreased risk of cognitive impairment, and decreased risk of dementia. However, results were not consistent and some of the studies reviewed found no association between diet and improved cognitive function [24 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
A 2018 systematic review found that a Mediterranean diet improved 12.1% of outcomes on cognitive tests [25 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Overall, the researchers found the evidence was inconclusive but noted the significant cognitive improvements
I also get good reports of cognitive improvements from my patients who are following a Paleo diet. The paleo and Mediterranean diets are very similar, but paleo also cuts down on carbs [26 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Paleo also restricts gluten and dairy, which are some of the most common food intolerances.
Most people need 7-8 hours of good quality sleep a night to ensure good cognitive function and maintain good neuroplasticity. Neurology research shows us that a good night’s shuteye improves learning outcomes, restores the synapses (junctions) between nerve cells, solidifies memories, and removes brain waste [28 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Monitoring your sleep is worth investing in. Two of my recommendations for doing this are the Oura Ring and WatchPat One — worth checking out if you wake up groggy and brain fogged and would like some feedback on how to sleep better.
Daily exercise is vital for concentration, focus, and mood. Each week, you should try to fit in 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise. This can be spread over several short (5-10 minute) bursts if you prefer.
Improve neuroplasticity by altering the structure and function of synapses in parts of the brain (including the hippocampus, which plays a big role in learning and memory).
Increase the density and size of cortical neurons (never cells in the brain’s cortex), which could also positively impact memory, attention and perception.
When you raise your heart rate and get a sweat on, levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) also rise. BDNF is a molecule with a key role in neuroplastic changes related to beneficial learning and memory [31 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
The theory behind brain training aids and apps is that they use techniques from the world of neuroscience to offer targeted mental stimulation. In turn, this reorganizes connections between brain cells, improving brain neuroplasticity.
One study found that young adults who used brain training games had gains in brain processing speed, working memory, and executive functions like flexible thinning and self control [53 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
A 2020 systematic review and meta analysis, this time involving adults over 60 without cognitive impairment, found that computerized brain training programs also significantly improved their processing speed, working memory, executive function, and verbal memory, but not attention or visual-spatial processing [54 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
If you have access to a sauna, this could be another way to give yourself a brain boost. The evidence here isn’t strong, but it’s intriguing. For example, observational studies have shown that:
Young men’s brains were more relaxed and more efficient at performing auditory and visual tasks 90 minutes after sauna bathing (at 101.3 – 103.3 F) [58 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
People who took saunas 9-12 times per month were less likely to develop dementia than those who sauna bathed 0-3 times per month [59 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Exactly why saunas are so beneficial is uncertain. However, heat therapy can cause activation of heat shock proteins, which may be part of the brain’s way of healing itself from neurodegenerative attack and benefiting muscle function and brain blood flow [60 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
As well as the potential mental health benefits, saunas, and other heat and soak therapies have been shown to have physical benefits including:
Improving metabolism markers, like fasting blood glucose
More research is needed, but if you have the opportunity to take a hot bath or sauna on a regular basis it’s worth doing — after all it’s a very soothing thing to do anyway.
The Bottom Line
In summary, you can encourage an adaptable, neuroplastic, healthy brain by working on your diet, sleep and exercise. And if you feel like you’ve hit a wall with your treatment for chronic illness or symptoms, a neuroplasticity or limbic system retraining program might be able to help.
Sometimes, unpacking what aspect of your diet or lifestyle might be causing your brain fog or lack of focus is hard to do without professional help. Consider making an appointment with myself or someone on my team for personalized help.
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