Whether we are trying to create new habits, break old ones, learn a new skill, recover from injury, gain new physical milestones, or improve our bodily function and mental wellbeing; our ability to accomplish our goal is found in the concept of neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the brains ability to change, create new connections, strengthen old ones, or get rid of connections. It rests with two commonly used phrases in neuroscience, the first of which is “things that fire together wire together”. This concept indicates that as we begin a new activity, new therapy, new way of thinking, of experiencing our emotions, the brain will start to create new connections (also known as synapses). If while we are doing these activities we combine different sensory experiences, for instance visualizing scoring a goal simultaneously while performing the activity of taking the shot, then the areas of the brain that control both individually begin to form a connection together. As we continue to undergo these new activities, therapies, ect. then those connections get stronger.
If we are trying to change a habit, a state of physical function or health, then creating new connections allows us to weaken old ones. This takes us to the second phrase of “use it or lose it.” If we stop using a skill then those connections in the brain get weaker and are less likely to impact us functionally. An example of this is forgetting the languages you once learned as a child in school when you’ve become an adult.
Stages of Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity has several stages to it. I would wish to relate them to how we go about healing and improving our physical function. I see this on a daily, weekly, monthly basis when working with peoples health and functional goals.
When we are suffering from an injury, chronic condition, or wanting to improve our wellbeing we go through stages or phases of improvement. These mirror the stages of neuroplasticity.
The first two steps to healing is about improving overall function. The brain and nervous system require 2 things to become and stay healthy: nutrition (oxygen and glucose) and stimulation. Without them connections become weaker and are lost, or dysfunctional is created. Improved oxygenation and utilization of glucose improves cellular metabolism, decreasing waste in tissues, and creating cellular repair. Stimulation helps create new connections, improving widespread function of pathways and the various areas of our nervous system.
As we start to improve function we enter a phase of neuromodulation. This phase creates an renewed balance or baseline of function and health, moving away from one of over or under excitement. This allows our brain to better self-regulate our body. Commonly we talk of this stage as correction of underlying dysfunction that has lead us to having a particular condition or poor response and adaptation to life’s varying stresses.
We then enter a phase of neurorelaxation. This is where the body starts to recuperate and consolidate the improvements from the previous steps. Often people will find they are sleeping much more soundly and restfully. This is important as our primary recovery functions occur while we sleep. It is quite common that people who do not have good quality of sleep do not heal or recover very well.
The final phase is neurodifferentiation or learning. As the brain and body is relaxed, and at a receptive baseline of function it can more easily respond to new experiences, adapt and recover to new stresses, learn new skills and activities. We discuss this in office as wellness care or optimization of health. This phase is one of helping maintain the bodies improvements but also allowing it to be able to consistently adapt, refine, and grow to all of life’s experiences.
Neuroplastic Stages and Wellness
These stages occur over time, they can overlap, and the way we gain improvement is through repetition of stimulation. Higher frequency of repetition is needed at the beginning to create connections, and as connections grow stronger, then less repetition is needed to maintain their strength and function. When people undergo the journey of healing we first see improvements in bodily function, as this continues we start seeing decreases in symptom occurrence and strength. As we create a new baseline of health and function we are also reducing the impact of the old one. As this occurs we may experience recurrence of symptoms but not necessarily lasting as long or as intensely. As we continue to near neurorelaxation, many times we experience a plateau in symptom improvement, which is quite a normal experience. This allows consolidation of improvement and can last weeks or months, but the brain and body are still undergoing healing and getting stronger.
Wellness can and should be a lifetime pursuit that involves physical fitness, healthy eating habits, good quality sleep, positive mental and emotional wellbeing, and social connection, the foundation to all of these is a well functioning nervous system. This allows us to more vigorously and thoroughly enjoy the many things we do in our lifetime.
These neuroplastic stages are more elegantly and thoroughly discussed in the two wonderful books by Dr. Norman Doidge. Feel free to pick them up: The brain that changes itself, and The brains way of healing.
By Nate Bogedain DC M.Sc
Nate is a chiropractor with a background in functional neurology and sports medicine. He has been helping people optimize their health and nervous systems since 2014.