Myelination is an important neurological process that impacts almost everything I care about in my child: motor coordination, learning, focus, moods.
And there are some easy ways to impact Myelination: Practice, Nutrition, and one more key mindset. Yes, it is actually a mindset.
Disclaimer: The information in this Podcast is for educational purposes only. Vaishnavi Sarathy, Ph.D. is an educator, not a doctor, specifically not your child’s doctor. Please consult your physician before implementing any supplement or diet recommendations.
Welcome, welcome back to functional nutrition and learning for kids. I’m your host Vaish. This is a podcast, where we explore gut-brain access from many different perspectives while honoring the fact that intelligence and cognition are accessible to everyone regardless of disability or labor. Today’s topic is myelin myelination. Last week in Episode 16, Elizabeth Ehlers speech-language pathologist and advocate for spellers spoke about how cognition is often mired in the complex means of motor issues.
In this context, she also mentioned that repeated motor practice is a great way to build autopilot muscle memory, which is the common term for the biological phenomenon known as myelination. And I want to correct one statement that I just made. She didn’t speak about how cognition is mired, but how they understand how our understanding of other people’s cognition is mired in their maze of motor issues. But let’s come back to myelination, autopilot muscle memory, and so on. What is myelin?
Dr. Terry Wall one of my heroes who I will be referencing more in this episode says and I quote myelin is the insulation on the wiring between brain cells. And this is spelled MYELIN.
myelin is in fact, an insulating fatty sheath that surrounds axons, which is what she calls the wiring, which carries electrical signals from neuron cell bodies. In fact, if you have heard the term white matter in the brain, this refers to myelinated axons because they’re white, okay? In other words, myelin is insulation it prevents energy loss, it makes it easier for information transmission to take place, for example, from the brain to muscles, okay, and this is why we’re interested in myelination.
I’m going to reference a very lovely Ted Ed video called How to practice effectively. And this is something I would highly recommend that all of you go and check out right after this podcast, just Google tethered and within quotes, how to practice effectively. And this video very nicely connects the dots between myelination and physical skill. So one of the things they say in this video and that we all know is that mastering any physical skill takes practice. Okay, and what is this practice when we are doing this physical skill? What are we doing? We’re transmitting information from the brain, through nerves through the spinal cord to the muscles. Now what
we have noticed what we have what research has observed, at least research on mice has observed that the myelin sheath, this insulation seems to increase with practice. This is muscle memory. Again, if you’ve heard people counter the term muscle memory by saying that muscles don’t have a memory there, right? But it’s just a way of speech right? What we are talking about when we say muscle memory is increased myelination. Again, this comes back to practice.
What we’re saying is that repeated practice increases seem to increase myelination in some studies, okay? Now, practice isn’t just about time, but it’s about consistency. It’s about focus. Repetition, we know that freaks are infrequent shoppers. And there is one thing that is just often casually mentioned but is enormously important to practice at the edge of your ability.
Do you know what this means? When I heard this phrase, practicing at the edge of your ability, I mean, we all know that consistency, focus, repetition, and if you have children with any disability, they’re probably getting tons of therapy with the consistency with the repetition with maybe frequent short bursts, but are they practicing at the edge of their ability, I can tell you what it does not mean at least to me. It does not mean repeating juvenile, cognitive, or even motor skills but often juvenile cognitive skills to a child when they are capable of more when these skills are significantly below their age levels. This is often done in APA-style settings, but also in other places.
To me practicing at the edge of ability means the presumption of competence when a child cannot show you especially when a child cannot show you what the edge of his or her head his or her skill is. Now one of the most interesting things that came out of this video is where they talked about the fact that once a physical motion has been established, it can be reinforced by just guess what? imagining it in detail is not amazing. Just think about what this means. I’m just going to repeat that sentence. Once a physical motion has been established.
There is research to prove that This can be reinforced, they actually studied basketball players that were actually, you know, doing the practice and imagining the practice it can be reinforced by imagining it in vivid, descriptive detail.
What does that mean for our kids? How much can we manipulate or increase our brain capacity by imagining work in detail?
For one, I know that it means developing visualization skills. But we know for a fact that this works. This imagination works for physical skill. Do we need to wait for a long-term study to see if this could work for mental skills like math or poetry? This would be a great place where I mean this is just fantastic to try right? If we are influencing myelination, by detailed descriptive imagination, just think about how important it now becomes to presume competence.
We are not just being kind, fuzzy, positive-thinking people by presuming competence we are actively influencing our kids nervous systems. In fact, I would go so far as to say that How dare we presume a lack of competence when we haven’t given the nervous system time to adapt? Okay, I’m done with my rant. Let’s come back to neuroscience. Okay, thank you for staying with me through that. myelin is produced by the cells called oligodendrocytes. These are important glial cells in the brain.
In the central nervous system, outside the brain, myelin is produced by cells called Schwann cells. Now what is known about myelination is that this process is critical, especially in early brain development, for connectivity, and for what we broadly call cognition, and we rarely understand at least I don’t, and behavioral health, cognition, behavioral health, everything that we consider important for learning in our kids can be positively or negatively impacted by the health of the myelin sheath around the axon. And what do I mean by everything? I mean, motor control, I mean coordination, learning speed, problem-solving, mental health behavior, mood, I mean, just go to PubMed, or Google Scholar, or wherever you search for publications and research and enter the keywords myelin and learning, or myelin and focus, myelin and mood, and so on. And the research is amazing.
Okay. In fact, while it’s definitely not known for sure, at least in my search, I didn’t come across any study that we know for sure that children with autism or Down syndrome or cerebral palsy have difficulty. We know that they have difficulty with motor movements, but we don’t know that this is because of myelination issues. I think just by connecting the dots, it’s a pretty safe presumption. It’s a reasonable assumption, right? And it’s a great opportunity to target noninvasive techniques like exercise and nutritional support for myelination. We’ve already spoken about the value of practice exercise, and repetition working at the edge of your skill. But let’s talk about nutrition. So one of one studies that really
called out to me was a 2018 study in this journal called neuroimage, which has shown that breastfed infants have improved myelination and increased general verbal and nonverbal cognitive abilities. Now I’m very skeptical about these terms, but they definitely saw some abilities that were different. It led to say improved myelination, compared to children who were exclusively formula fed, within formula-fed infants a better fat and mineral profile in the formula lead to better outcomes. And this is what we’ve been saying all along in these this podcast, right? We’ve been talking about micronutrients we’ve been talking about macronutrients the importance of eating whole foods, and better nutrient density profiles. So we do know that nutrition, especially in the early years can impact myelination.
Another study in 2016, and was on mice. This was by Mayo Clinic researchers found that I loved the study found that a high-fat diet combined with exercise training, increases myelin protein expression. Now it’s known that myelin is made primarily of fat and cholesterol. Anyway, they did find that high fat alone, even though it helped, also simultaneously promoted loss of oligodendrocytes. And to remind you, these are the cells in your brain that create myelin, but they still helped in myelination. And when combined with exercise training, this combination was most effective in increasing major myelin proteins. Now, there’s a little I have a few issues with this paper where the high-fat diet consisted of sources of unsaturated fats such as corn oil, which are most often super refined and oxidized and never a source that I recommend as a fat option.
So, it is definitely not clear whether the oligodendrocyte loss observed from this high-fat diet was because of oxidative stress from what is colloquially known in functional medicine as bad fat. And in fact, the saying that I have encountered sometimes is that good fat is good, but bad fat is terrible. I think it does call for a podcast episode on fats and we’ll come to that in a bit or later. But it’s clear that a takeaway that we can take from this research is that a combination of good fats and that is my paraphrasing they just said fat I’m going to say good fats and exercise makes for good myelination. And that is always good news. action item one, what can we do about this? So we need good fats.
We need practice. We need smart repetition with frequency bursts and we need imagination. I love that we need imagination. And I think in order to use these effectively, we need an assumption of competence. Coming back to the good fats. What are they? We know that essential fatty acids especially DHEA Che are known to be critical for healthy myelination. Sources of essential fatty acids include and you might notice fatty fish like salmon, marine algae, and sometimes eggs but eggs are not so significant. Okay, bad fats are terrible for oxidative stress and inflammation. So some trans fats you know, are bad fats, oxidized vegetable oils, if the vegetable oil is not cold pressed, it’s likely oxidized. Now I want to dive a little bit into multiple sclerosis.
And I have learned a lot from Dr. Terry walls, who has managed her Multiple Sclerosis symptoms largely through diet. Now the reason studying MS is important in this context is that Ms. is an autoimmune condition where your immune system actually attacks the myelin sheath. Dr. Walls went from being in a reclining wheelchair to biking several miles and building being fully mobile and functional.
Dr. waltz talks about the importance of mitochondrial health to maintain healthy myelin sheets. Now for those of you who don’t know mitochondria are energy-producing many factories inside ourselves also call for a different podcast episode. We know from research that mitochondrial health is important for the health of myelin sheets on axons. When there are mitochondrial issues myelination suffers, this is known, okay, and to be clear on mitochondrial issues that are everywhere in children and adults with both Down syndrome and autism, in fact, both conditions I’ve heard some researchers characterize them as mitochondrial dysfunctions at different times.
Action item number two, how do we address mitochondrial health antioxidants for one our key to mitochondrial health, mitochondria both produce and are impacted but what are known as reactive oxygen species. So some of the easily doable items are increased consumption of cruciferous vegetables, colored fruits, and veggies, diverse fruits and veggies, and spices, which can play a huge part in reducing the stress in our mitochondria. Now the final point I’m trying I’m going to make is that oligodendrocytes, our cells that create the myelin sheath in the brain are particularly sensitive to neuroinflammation. There are many triggers for brain inflammation, including injury or infection, but one part is cut inflammation. This is why in functional medicine, gut health continues to be one of the pillars of healing.
Now there are several studies that have seen elevated inflammatory markers in children with autism as compared to a neurotypical control. And it’s generally known that both gut dysbiosis and systemic inflammation occur in most kids with autism. What can we do about it? We could really add this last passage that I talked about last few sentences that I talked about gut inflammation, and gut health to about any episode in this podcast. It’s not just relevant to oligodendrocytes, but it’s important to know that neuroinflammation affects them. The thing is that when we know something is a key factor, it becomes a handle, it becomes a key handle that we can use to tweak health in many many situations. action item three.
Learn more about what inflammation means for you and your child. What are dietary and lifestyle factors that you can use to modulate and bring down inflammation you know, most everyone can drink green tea to increase omega-three is bring in turmeric and other spices, diverse colored plants, antioxidants, etc. in their meals right?
But let’s bring this whole topic of myelination together. We are interested in myelination because it seems to be a core neurological process that helps in things that affect our children the most motor coordination, motor learning general learning, focus moods, behaviors, and so on. And if we can do anything, we can do this. We can eat good fats
We can presume competence we can drink green tea, and we can practice, practice, practice to the edge of our abilities and we can imagine that sounds like an amazingly good life.
Thank you for listening to functional nutrition and learning for kids. I’m your host, Dr. Vaish Sarathy. And today’s music was my nine-year-old Maitri Gosh. See you next Thursday.