father and son playing music togetherOne of my biggest inspirations was my late father, Laurence Sisson. He supported our family as a painter, primarily water color paintings of New England nature scenes. His work ethic was insane as was his creative genius. But my most salient memories of him are not those spent in the art studio watching beautiful representations of nature’s glory appear before my eyes. No, what I remember most are the evenings spent around the piano.

He was also a great jazz pianist, and often took paying work as a musician when the times demanded it. During holidays, he’d play the classics. On quiet afternoons, he’d noodle on the keys. Piano music was the backdrop of the house. And, I’m convinced, playing that piano kept his brain nimble to the very end.

Music and Brain Function

If you spend any time at all on social media, you’ve probably seen the videos of otherwise unresponsive Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease patients lighting up when a favorite piece of music from their younger days plays.

There’s this one, where an old man in a nursing home on his last legs comes to life. After listening to some of his favorite music, he becomes incredibly responsive, answering questions about himself and his life. Music gives him access to the parts of his brain that were previously shut out, at least for a brief moment.

The most recent one I saw is of a former New York City prima ballerina with Alzheimer’s disease. When she hears “Swan Lake,” she motions to raise the volume and then launches into the choreography from her chair—the same dance she mastered and performed over 50 years prior.  Even as I’m writing this and picturing it, I feel tears welling up from the beauty of the moment.

Most of you reading this aren’t in that dire of a cognitive situation, but you can probably relate to the effect music can have on our brains. We’ve all felt the power of music. When that song comes on and catapults you back to some bygone era of your youth. When you hear an album and actually smell the smells, taste the tastes, and feel the emotions it evokes in you. Something powerful is happening in the brain, and we shouldn’t wait til degeneration sets in.

If we know there are certain lifestyle, dietary, and behavioral modifications that can improve the outlook of a patient with dementia, then enacting those changes before dementia arises will be even more powerful and effective at staving it off. Music is one possibility.

And if merely listening to music can have that effect on cognitive function, even severely degenerated cognitive function, what can playing music—creating it with your own mind—do for it?

Playing an Instrument for Brain Health

We actually have evidence that playing an instrument is protective of brain health and function.

In one recent study, researchers asked 23 former orchestral musicians if they or any musician they knew had dementia. Dementia rates among the queried musicians were nonexistent, nor did any of them know other musicians who had the disease.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24375575/‘>2 Those who could read music had better episodic memory and better semantic verbal fluency. Notably, researchers controlled for IQ, so this wasn’t just an intelligence test.

Another earlier study had similar results, finding that older adults with at least 10 years history as a musician performed better on a battery of cognitive tests than those with no experience.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18815249/‘>4 It can also reduce or prevent the age-related degradation of Broca’s area, a section of the brain partially responsible for speech production that’s often damaged in dementia.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21910546‘>6 All these changes spell big potential benefits for people with age-related cognitive dysfunction, but there are also benefits for younger brains too.

Research has found that children who engage in musical training show increases in IQ, verbal memory, and linguistic ability, even when the control group is composed of kids with otherwise similar backgrounds (socioeconomic status, academics, etc) except for the music training.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15270994/‘>8https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18832336/‘>10 This doesn’t prove that playing instruments changes the brain or improves its function, but it’s quite suggestive.

Playing an Instrument to Hit Flow State

Flow doesn’t happen when you struggle. It doesn’t happen when you trip over your own fingers or have to concentrate so hard you start sweating and stressing.  Flow happens when you know the material and the instrument so well that you fuse with it and become one. When you lose yourself in the music and all sense of time. If you’re learning an instrument, you probably won’t reach flow very reliably. To trigger a flow state, you should play something you’re good at. Something that you can lose yourself in, whether that’s a Chopin prelude or a simple hand drum beat. It all depends on your skill level.

But hitting that flow state is one of the major brain benefits of playing an instrument. It’s instant mindfulness, where you turn off the churning brain for once and simply exist in the present moments as they unfold. If you’ve wanted to meditate but haven’t had any luck with typical sitting meditation, get to a place where you can groove or jam or play on an instrument for an extended period of time.

Playing an Instrument to Reduce Stress

One of the biggest impediments to brain function is chronic stress. A little stress can help—if anything, acute spikes in stress hormones like adrenaline or cortisol can momentarily heighten cognition and awareness. But chronic elevation of these hormones destroys cognition. Studies show that playing music can reduce stress levels.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23420574‘>1 One study that compared the effects of tea, wine and schnapps on gastric emptying showed that tea won hands down.https://news.yahoo.com/gut-microbiome-changes-rapidly-diet-173000799.html‘>3 While our guts are amazingly adaptable, that holiday binge might not be doing it any favors. Help replenish your healthy gut environment with a good probiotic supplement.

Relax yourself.

If you’re a bound up bag of aches and nerves, it doesn’t do your digestive process (or mentality) any good. Relax. Take a hot bath or shower. Turn up the heat, put on some relaxing music, and put a hot water bottle on your stomach and heated rice sock around your neck and shoulders.

Get some help from enzymes.

Especially if you ate something that you don’t tolerate well, try a quality enzyme supplement. (If you don’t have one on hand, bribe a family member or friend to visit your local health food/co-op store and search for one.) Avoid anything that contains sugar or artificial colors, fillers, etc. This is not the time for chemical additives.

Move but don’t push it.

You might not be up for your regular weight lifting session, but resist the urge to totally park it on the couch all day. Research shows that slow, low-level moving like walking aids gastric emptying.https://news.llu.edu/health-wellness/how-celebrate-holidays-safely-during-flu-season-and-covid-19‘>1 There are restrictions at stores and restaurants. And, in some places, limited supplies of groceries and household items.

One thing that looks the same (at least with my health coaching clients) is the internal dilemma of whether or not they’re going to stick with their healthy eating habits or say “Screw it!” and dive into a plate of real bread stuffing, cornstarch-thickened gravy, and multiple slices of pecan pie.

On one hand, there’s the philosophy that holidays are a special occasion and should be treated as such. And that includes all the traditional carb-laden goodies. On the other hand, there are people who are 100 percent committed to their Primal lifestyle and prepare their holiday feast accordingly.

Let me emphatically state that there’s no right or wrong answer here.

Just Don’t Call it a ‘Bad Food Day’

Honestly, I don’t care if you indulge in several servings of green bean casserole or marshmallow-crusted sweet potatoes. What I do care about is the level of guilt you carry around with you after doing so.

What does guilt have to do with food? Guilt is the feeling that you’ve done something wrong. At a young age, most of us are taught the difference between right and wrong. So, in a general sense, you might feel guilty if you stole something, hurt someone, or got caught up in a lie. On the other hand, you might have been rewarded or praised for doing something right (i.e. getting good grades, helping a neighbor, doing chores without being asked).

Examples of Food Guilt:

  • I shouldn’t have another piece
  • Dessert/bread/wine is unhealthy
  • Once I start, I can’t stop
  • I’ve totally blown it
  • I don’t want to see the scale tomorrow

Diet culture tells us to feel bad if we overeat or indulge in *forbidden* foods. It says that a higher number on the scale is equal to lower self-worth. Don’t get me wrong, certain foods come with consequences. Depending on your bio-individuality, foods with higher amounts of sugar, industrialized oils, and artificial ingredients might leave you feeling foggy, fatigued, bloated and on the fast-track to chronic disease. But moralizing foods for their good vs bad qualities always backfires.

Metabolism is Influenced by State of Mind

In addition to the heavy emotional baggage you have to carry, deeming certain foods as negative actually discourages metabolic activity.https://www.prweb.com/releases/remorseful_for_every_morsel_new_study_looks_at_the_psychological_complexities_of_food_guilt/prweb16191634.htm‘>3 Across the board, they found that the food guilt group had higher scores in the areas of binge eating, low self-esteem, isolation, and avoidance coping.

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