We all train our bodies when we hit the gym. But few of us realize that we also can train our brains via a discipline known as functional neurology. For insights on how to improve our cognitive function, balance, motor planning and more, read on for a Q&A with Dr. Titus Chiu, author of “BrainSAVE! The 6-Week Plan to Heal Your Brain From Concussions, Brain Injuries & Trauma Without Drugs or Surgery” (Dr. Titus Chiu, May 2018).
What are functional and root cause neurology? Are they the same thing? Are they a subspecialty within chiropractic medicine?
Dr. Titus Chiu: Functional neurology is a unique, whole-body diagnostic and treatment approach to optimizing brain health. It’s based on the concept of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change itself through sensory experiences: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Functional neurology can be used as a safe, natural and effective treatment option for people struggling with chronic neurological disorders like concussion, anxiety, poor memory and so much more. It can also be used to enhance athletic performance (speed, balance, reaction time) and cognitive function (clearer thoughts, sharper focus and faster creative insights). Simply put, functional neurology is “personal training” for the brain.
Root cause neurology is a holistic treatment approach that I put together after years of working with patients, teaching other doctors, and healing my own brain from the multiple head injuries I suffered from. I wanted to figure out why patients were struggling with anxiety, having brain fog or not recovering from concussions. I wanted to get to the root causes rather than just treat the symptoms. Root cause neurology combines the latest breakthroughs in modern neuroscience and systems biology with ancient wisdom, like meditation, holistic lifestyle practices and food as medicine.
Why should someone see a functional neurologist? Are there certain symptoms that reveal a need for that type of help?
TC: There are many reasons why someone should see a functional neurologist. I’ve seen many patients who’d been struggling with concussion symptoms months or years after their original head injury respond very well to care. In addition, if you are struggling with chronic neurological symptoms, such as brain fog, chronic migraines, memory loss, problems with focus and concentration, and other brain symptoms, it would be a good idea to get checked by a functional neurologist.
In addition, I’ve worked with many patients who had other chronic symptoms, like digestive issues, pain or even autoimmune disorders that didn’t respond to the usual treatments. After doing an in-depth evaluation, I discovered the root of their symptoms was in their nervous systems. And since everything is connected, it wasn’t until we used a brain-based approach to their treatments that they began to get better.
[Ed. note: Dr. Chiu is offering telehealth services.]
For people who haven’t had a stroke, say, could a functional neurologist help them improve their performance?
TC: Absolutely. Any activity that relies on brain function can be improved with functional neurology. For example, athletic performance is not so much due to “muscle memory” but rather specific neural networks in the brain that control a muscle’s “memory”: the frontal lobe, basal ganglia, thalamus and cerebellum to name a few. And by applying the concept of neuroplasticity, we can train a person’s nervous system to improve their “muscle memory.” What does that look like in the real world? Faster reaction time, better coordination and stronger core stability, which are essential parts of any physical sport or activity.
For readers who aren’t able to see you in Berkeley, California, please describe some simple exercises they could do at home to improve their health and performance.
TC: Adding specific eye movements and eye exercises to your current workout routines can really enhance the brain-training aspect of any physical activity. For example, if you’re strength training and doing squats, you can focus your gaze on a point directly in front of you as you go through the motion. You can switch it up by looking at a point to the left of you, to the right of you, above you, etc. The cool thing is that each of the various eye movements activates different areas of your brain that are involved in core stability, balance, and the ability to mentally focus and concentrate on a task.
Another great way to exercise your brain is to incorporate vestibular exercises into your workout routines. Half spins to the left or right, swinging on a swing or rocking in a rocking chair powerfully activate the region of your nervous system that’s related to balance, coordination and emotional stability. If you find that one activity is more challenging, say spinning to the right, then slowly work on improving the weaker side. This leads to balance and integration within your nervous system.
Is there an exercise readers could do at home to improve their coordination?
TC: A simple, low-tech, yet great way to improve your coordination is by playing catch with a ball, like a tennis ball or racquetball. Whichever hand you find is less coordinated (which is typically your non-dominant hand) is the one you want to focus on improving. So, for example, if you’re right-handed, throw the ball against a wall with your left hand and catch it with your left. Or dribble the ball on the ground with your left hand. The key is to switch it up and progressively make it more challenging. One way is by speeding up how quickly you throw the ball. Another way is adding more complexity by balancing on one foot while doing this or adding more than one ball at a time, like you’re juggling.
What about improving motor planning?
TC: Dancing is a wonderful way to train your brain and improve motor planning. Synchronizing your movements to music lights up multiple regions of the brain related to rhythm, motor planning, balance, coordination and higher brain functions, such as focus, concentration, mental planning and social bonding. There are video games that give you feedback on how in sync you are with music, which is a very powerful route to enhanced brain function.
What about improving proprioception?
TC: A great way to improve proprioception, or body awareness, is balance and stability training. You can improve your proprioception and make your normal workouts more challenging by exercising on an unsteady surface like a foam pad or balancing on one foot or a BOSU ball. To make it even more challenging, try doing these things with your eyes closed. Most people will find it’s a lot harder with their eyes closed. The reason is that we rely on three major neurological systems in order to balance: vision, muscle/joint and inner-ear function. When you close your eyes, you’re removing vision, so if your other two aren’t working properly, you’ll find it much harder to maintain balance. But the flip side of that is, when you train with your eyes closed, you really sharpen these two other major systems: the muscle/joint and inner ear/vestibular. Another great way to improve proprioception is to exercise on a vibration plate. This increases the signaling and neuroplasticity happening in your proprioceptive systems. It’s like steroids for your cerebellum, vestibular system and parietal lobe, brain regions needed for strength, balance, core stability and body awareness.
Do you have any other advice related to exercise?
TC: The amazing thing about neuroplasticity is that you can use different types of exercises to target specific regions of the brain. And each region of the brain serves a specific function. So, for example, any type of group exercise activity–like dancing, tennis or group yoga—strengthens the limbic system. the area of the brain related to emotions and social bonding. And so my patients who struggle with depression, excessive worry or low self-esteem do really well with “limbic” types of exercises.
And for patients of mine who’ve suffered a concussion, a very common symptom is balance problems or dizziness. So I prescribe exercises that can strengthen their vestibular system, the area of the brain related to balance and coordination. Gentle bouncing on a trampoline, rocking on a rocking chair or micro-spins on a swivel chair are all powerful exercises to retrain the vestibular system and speed up concussion recovery.
By understanding the root cause of a person’s symptoms, I can prescribe very safe and specific exercises to rewire their brains and get their lives back on track.