Posture, positioning, and specific movements affect our brain chemistry. In a Harvard business study, Amy Cuddy looked at the effect of posture on class participation and on biochemistry. Cortisol, which is an indication of stress levels decreased with two minutes of standing in an open posture or what Cuddy calls the Wonder Woman or Superman power posing. Try this yourself. Stand for two minute with your shoulders open, hands on your hips, and feet apart. Stand in the way you would stand if you felt powerful and soon you will feel stronger and more capable of enjoying the challenges. Cuddy also monitored testosterone or the chemical that makes us feel confident and powerful. Testosterone levels went up with two minutes of standing in the open power pose. Here are some other influences posture has on brain chemistry.
1The Movement of Dopamine
People with Parkinson’s disease or too little dopamine tend to develop a shuffling gait, in other words they walk with short steps and shuffle along. This is a sign of too little dopamine, the chemical that helps our muscles move as well as helps us decide which risks to take and which ones are the most rewarding. People with Parkinson’s disease are not restricted by their body to walking with a shuffle but rather it is a tendency based on brain chemistry. Think about an exercise that could, like power posing change dopamine levels. What if long walking or walking consciously with as long a stride as possible influenced the brain to produce more dopamine or get by on less? Try long walking for two minutes today.
2Blood Pressure and IAA-RP
Imidazoleacetic acid-ribotide (IAA-RP) is a neurotransmitter or modulator thought to be a natural regulator of the general sympathetic drive (fight or flight response) and particularly blood pressure. This brain chemical is also associated with the vestibular system or our sense of balance and equilibrium. When we sit up suddenly our blood pressure is affected, typically rising. Sometime falls or black outs are caused by a drop in blood pressure when it should be getting higher. If we stand up from a seated position our blood pressure typically rises in part because of changes in the vestibular system, situated around the ears on both sides of the head. What if visualizing yourself standing up quickly from a seated position could change IAA-RP levels and improve blood pressure? Researchers put it this way:
The regional distribution of IAA-RP immunoreactivity corresponds to the location of vestibular neurons involved in autonomic [automatic] functions. The presence of IAA-RP in those neurons suggests that they participate specifically in vestibulo-autonomic regulation of blood pressure
Journal of Comparative Neurology (2007)
Vasopressin, another neurotransmitter that affects blood pressure, is also affected by the vestibular system and causes contraction of the extensor muscles of the arms, including triceps brachii and the legs. Is it easier for you to extend your arms fully or flex your arms fully? Laying on your back can you fully flex your hips, knees, and ankles? Can you extend them? It is an intricate system that allows us to bend and move efficiently. Researchers noted,
Vasopressin (VP) acts as a neurotransmitter or a neuromodulator on noradrenergic locus coeruleus (LC) neurons by exciting them. The changes in posture as well as in the gain of vestibulospinal reflexes were attributed to tonic activation of presumptive noradrenergic neurons, which exert a facilitatory influence on limb extensor [triceps in the arms and quadriceps in the legs] motoneurons either directly, by utilizing the coeruleospinal pathway, or indirectly by inhibiting the dorsal pontine reticular formation and the related medullary inhibitory reticulospinal neurons.
Pflügers Archiv European Journal of Physiology (1992).
3Lay on Your Stomach
Prone posture (lying on your stomach) alone seems to affect stress levels and biochemistry. When you add massage there can be a further increase in relaxation. The sensations we feel whether it is a smell, a taste, something we see or hear, or the way someone touches us can all change our brain chemistry and blood flow. In a study on blood flow to the brain, researchers noted,
Biochemical tests showed that the light massage (palm-pressure) reduced levels of stress-related serum cortisol [a stress chemical] and salivary stress protein chromogranin-A. Absolute cerebral blood flow significantly increased in the parietal cortex (precuneus) under the prone [lying on your stomach] condition compared with the supine [lying on your back] condition, and this cerebral blood flow increase was in parallel with comfortable sensation and slowing heart rate during the massage. To conclude, prone posture itself can stimulate the precuneus region to raise awareness, and the light massage on the back may help accommodate the brain to comfortable stimulation.”
Neuroscience Letters (2006)
4Brain Chemistry and Anatomy
It can be interesting to look at the functions of a particular area of the brain and see how one chemical or one part of the brain affects several, often very different, functions. The cerebellum, for example, affects our balance as well as our language processing.
The brain is a heterogeneous tissue composed of various highly interconnected cell types. Each type has a particular pattern of expression and is differentially located in the brain regions. The cerebellum smoothes and coordinates contractions of skeletal muscles, regulates posture and balance, and may have a role in cognition and language processing.
Brain Neurotrauma: Molecular, Neuropsychological, and Rehabilitation Aspects. (2015)
Sometimes the chemistry affecting the brain comes from an external source, such as food and drinks. Another study noted,
The cerebellum controls balance, posture, motor coordination, and cognition, and studies suggest that ethanol [alcohol] impairs these cerebellar functions. Evidence suggests that ethanol acts, in part, by impairing synaptic plasticity mechanisms at cerebellar Purkinje neurons
International Review of Neurobiology (2010)
5Stiff Person Syndrome
Sometimes an exercise can be reverse engineered from the information we have about what happens when brain chemistry is not working properly. For example, the symptoms of cerebral palsy can result from an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, the excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate and the inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Cerebral palsy causes spasms that result in the person’s body contracting into a flexed posture. What if extending the arms and legs could help restore the glutamate / GABA balance? The following exercise is from an article on using yoga with children with cerebral palsy but what if this posture could also influence brain chemistry and create a better balance of brain chemicals in everyone?
Savasana means relaxation but also refers to a specific supine [laying on your back] posture. In the Iyengar yoga tradition, Savasana is practiced at the end of every yoga class and as preparation for the breathing practice (Pranayama). In the Iyengar tradition, alignment is carefully instructed and the practitioner needs to position the body gradually and slowly. It starts by sitting on a mat (with a line drawn in the middle – to assist with symmetry) with knees tucked in and feet together planted on the floor. Alignment of the back of the body is done by lowering the back down, vertebrae by vertebrae, following the line that was drawn longitudinally on the mat. While pressing the feet on the floor, the pelvis is actively lifted and the practitioner uses hands to carefully align the pelvis into posterior tilted position and move the soft tissue from the back of the pelvis down towards the feet, before positioning it on the mat. With the pelvis on the mat, the head is actively lifted and the practitioner views the anterior symmetry. Then the legs are slowly extended one at a time. When both legs are extended, the practitioner joins together heels and knees, respectively. The practitioner can then view a straight midline connecting chin, sternum, naval, pubis and the joined feet. Adjustment of the head is done with both hands ensuring elongation of the back of the neck, so that it is centrally placed on the mat. The body relaxes in this pose and the feet relax and turn out.
Journal of Yoga and Physical Therapy (2014)
Another study looking at antibodies in patients with Stiff-Person Syndrome (SPS), epilepsy, cerebellar ataxia and Batten disease, concluded,
Further investigation seems merited of the possibility that variation in the GAD1 sequence, potentially affecting glutamate/GABA ratios, may underlie this form of spastic cerebral palsy, given the presence of anti-GAD antibodies in spastic cerebral palsy and the recognized excitotoxicity of glutamate in various contexts.”
BMC Neurology (2004)
Whether you stretch, are conscious of your posture, do yoga, or other form of physical exercise, pose, or moving meditation think about the effect of your body on your brain function. What are you doing to have great brain clarity and strong muscle function?