The "Easier Than You May Think Neurology"
Behind the Health Benefits of Yoga
By Dr. Gregory S. Malakoff
The easiest way to understand this difficult subject is to picture our central nervous system as a building with a lot of electrical wires. The wires don't do a whole lot, but plug in a television, and for some people, their entire world has miraculously changed.
Plug in a washing machine and we have a totally different function. Nothing is happening in the house until the appliances (muscles, organ, glands) are turned on. Imagine the switches that turn on the body as these sensory receptors. Nothing is going to take place in your body without these switches being stimulated into the "on" position. Researchers have put people in complete sensory deprivation. Their brains stopped functioning within two minutes and they became schizophrenic.Ninety percent of the incoming sensory impulses to the brain come from the joints and muscles. That's why contracting muscles and moving joints have a profound effect on all neurological function, which then affects every other system in the body. Mostly, it happens in two special areas of the brain - the hypothalamus and the brain stem - the starting points for most of the automatic functions of the body. Included here are blood pressure, heart rate, sweating, control of blood vessels, eye motion, function of the digestive system, temperature, balance, and muscle coordination.
These muscle receptors are communicating with the higher brain centers. Otherwise, your heart wouldn't know to send more fuel to your muscles and away from your stomach. These reflexes are mediated between the spinal cord and the brain. Everything occurring in our bodies needs to be controlled by our brains. A dysfunction in one system can wreak havoc in another.
If the joints don't move properly, the brain doesn't receive sensory input, resulting in no output to the muscles. This decrease in output affects the protein in the muscles that perform work. These proteins resemble Velcro. The Velcro (muscle) will lose its binding ability in just six days if it doesn't receive signals from the joints. Think about an arm in a cast. When the cast is removed, not only have the muscles atrophied and bone density decreased, but the skin has become dry and scaly. That's because the oil glands aren't firing due to lack of sensory signals from the joint.
That was a very bold statement - glands not working because of faulty joint movement. When joint receptors don't fire, because of non-use, it's as if the brain has no idea that part exists; so, it withers and dies. The Russian cosmonauts that were in space for three years lost so much protein that they are permanently bedridden. Their spines are 95 years old. They exercised, but it wasn't enough. It's as if they were in whole body casts, because of the lack of gravity. That 90% of information our brain receives from our joints and muscles needs gravity to respond maximally. Still, it's not the weight you lift that's as important as the movement of it.
Let's examine the typical low back patient. This person is bent at the waist. Their flexor muscles (abdominals) are overpowering their extensors (back muscles). If the flexors were weak, they would be bent backwards. These deep low back muscles are antigravity muscles, regulated by a part of the brain that acts like an automatic pilot. Otherwise, we would lose our minds having to constantly think about how to oppose gravity. This part of the brain is called the cerebellum and is fired up by, you guessed it, muscles and joints. The significance here is, if you can't control a muscle group, then how do you exercise it? You can turn your hand, but let me see you rotate your bottom vertebra to the left, while moving the one above it to the right. Don't try it for too long, because you just can't do it. It's these deep muscles that we can't control, which are often the cause of low back pain. So, when patients tell me that their doctors advised them to do sit-ups to solve this problem, I find myself with a perplexed look on my face. These deep low back muscles do receive signals that are summated from different areas of the body not associated with the low back. Hence the need to work your whole body.
One reason Tiger Woods is beating the old guys on the golf course is because he has more sensory receptors. We naturally lose populations of these receptors with age. These receptors allow for fluid movements. When a joint moves uncontrolled, it breaks down its cartilage. Cartilage is made of long sugar protein, the favorite food of white blood cells. When exposed, cartilage attracts white blood cells and the inflammation process begins. Reduced movement also increases inflammation by allowing pain signals to increase. When this happens, we either move less or take drugs which cause many different types of damage (arthritis, kidney, and liver failure, digestive disorders, etc.). Drugs such as aspirin, Tylenol, Advil, and Motrin allow joints to degenerate painlessly, while they continue to kill the receptors in the joint, causing a vicious cycle.
Reduced activity adversely affects the brain stem too. When we don't move joints and muscles, the amount of electrical signals is less. Fewer movement signals allows pain signals to increase. As pain signals come into the cord, they cause muscles to go into spasm, which decreases our desire to move further still. When the vagus, a nerve that controls the heart, respiratory, and digestive functions, isn't receiving proper signals, a myriad of symptoms results. This nerve goes everywhere in the body and can mimic disease, so beware.
A whole bunch of problems can occur with our bodies and the pharmaceutical companies have dangerous solutions for every symptom you might experience. Yet, human beings are equipped to overcome these problems naturally. The machinery just has to be used correctly or, at least, just used. I think at this point, you will probably believe that practicing yoga is probably the best health insurance you can buy.