Juggling makes health sense

October 22, 2009 by  
Filed under Healthy Ageing, Mental Health


I wrote recently about how multi-tasking is actually less efficient than focusing on one thing, and I was delighted to learn of a different form of ‘juggling’ that can improve your health.

If you have any oranges handy, you might want to start using them to learn to juggle as an Oxford University study has shown that it leads to changes in the white matter of the brain. These are the bundles of long nerve fibres that conduct electrical signals between nerve cells and connect different parts of the brain together. What this means in practice is that there is improved connectivity in parts of the brain involved in making the movements necessary to catch the balls.

We tend to think of the brain as being static, or even beginning to degenerate, once we reach adulthood but this research shows that its structure is ripe for change and can condition its own wiring system to operate more efficiently.

You may not want to juggle, but what this shows is the importance in adults of learning a new task or skill. The volunteers in the study had never juggled before and they were given weekly training sessions and asked to practice 30 minutes every day. After six weeks of training changes were seen in the white matter in regions of the brain which are involved in reaching and grasping in the periphery of vision, so that seems to make a lot of sense.

Ability varied, but after the training they all could juggle three balls for at least two cascades and some could juggle five balls and perform other tricks. As someone who never managed to juggle more than two bean bags, and that in slow motion, I am impressed so head out and find a new hobby that shines up that white matter to a glowing halo, and it could be as simple as going for a walk or doing a crossword rather than juggling the family finances!

Progesterone’s role in mental health

Last week I talked about testosterone and this week there is more news on the hormone front – but this time about progesterone. This is one of the key reproductive hormones in women, but it also has a host of other functions; one of the most important being it’s effect on brain chemistry and function. Dr. John Lee, the American pioneer of natural progesterone usage for osteoporosis, once was quoted as saying famously said that if anyone in his family had a brain injury, he would slather them with progesterone cream. He said that over ten years ago, and as ever he was ahead of his time, as new research has vindicated what must have seemed a completely lunatic idea.

Sadly Dr Lee was not given the respect of his peers, but I was privileged to host several seminars for him in London and he was certainly one of the most generous and compassionate of men, as the many thousands of women who benefited from his research have proved. He has been vindicated on the brain chemistry front by a fellow doctor working in an ER department and who saw a lot of saw a lot of head injuries. He was curious about why brain injuries were worse in men than in women, and got approval to do a study in which brain injury patients were given injections of progesterone when they arrived in the ER. His research showed that those who received the progesterone did significantly better than those who didn’t and later studies have also shown the same result.

Around the same time, researchers discovered that progesterone was a key component of the myelin sheath that protects or insulates the nerves-so important in fact that progesterone is made in the myelin sheath. Other research showed that progesterone stimulates the brain’s GABA receptors, those feel-good, calming neurotransmitters. Now we know, according to this review paper, that “…progesterone has multiple non- reproductive functions in the central nervous system to regulate cognition, mood, inflammation, mitochondrial function, neurogenesis and regeneration, myelination and recovery from traumatic brain injury.” Furthermore, progesterone is everywhere in the brain: “Remarkably, PRs [progesterone receptors] are broadly expressed throughout the brain and can be detected in every neural cell type.”

Those who have experienced the mental fog of hormone imbalances – otherwise known as the ‘what did I come into this room for ‘syndrome – can now point to their brain and say, “It’s not me that’s confused, it’s my brain!”