Myelin is a vital part of healthy bodily function – and like all aspects of health, exercise such as cycling will help to keep myelin healthy. But what is myelin? We’re glad you asked! Read on for an in-depth look at myelin.
The human body is highly complex. It has different systems running concurrently. One such system is the central nervous system. A highly delicate aspect of the body, the nervous system features a network of nerves that facilitate the transmission of messages from different parts of the body to the brain.
Due to their sensitivity, nerves are protected by a natural protective layer known as myelin that protects them from damage. This post explains:
- What is the myelin sheath?
- Functions of myelin in the body
- How myelin loss or damage affects a person
- What can you do to maintain or boost myelin production?
What Is Myelin?
Myelin is a white protective layer that surrounds a nerve cell. Made of fatty and protein substances, myelin insulates all nerves in the body, including those that are in the spinal cord and the brain. Myelin is produced in the central nervous system by oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs).
The Schwann cells that are found on the peripheral nervous system also support the formation of myelin. Commonly referred to as the myelin sheath, this layer covers fibers known as axons, which are long, thin projections that protrude from a neuron’s or nerve cell’s body. Axons come in varying lengths, but mostly range from one millimeter to one meter.
When bundled together, axons form nerves, which in turn form a network that passes electrical impulses throughout the human body. Axons that have myelin insulation are primarily found in the white matter of the brain.
Functions of Myelin in the Body
Myelin has several important functions in the central nervous system including:
No. 1: Keeping the Nervous System Healthy
The key and most important function of myelin is to maintain the health of the nervous system by protecting the axons – the thin fibers that carry nerve signals. When a person is healthy, their nerve cells transmit impulses from one nerve to another through tiny fibers that are attached to the body of the nerve cell.
These thin fibers are known as axons. Most axons are insulated by myelin from damage. Myelin protects axons by building special molecular structures on the tiny, uncovered spaces in the sheath that are known as nodes of Ranvier. Where axons are unmyelinated, nerve impulses move along the axon in a continuous manner.
However, in a myelinated axon, impulse currents only occur in areas where axon membranes are not covered – this is at the nodes of Ranvier. This enables the axons to transmit nerve signals from the main body to the nerve cells, glands and muscles. Where myelin gets damaged, impulse transmissions slows down significantly. This is reflected by development of severe neurological ailments like multiple sclerosis.
No. 2: Enhancing Membrane Resistance
The resistance membrane in myelin is generally high. Resistance is the extent to which membranes are able to enable or stop ions from moving freely. When membrane resistance is low, the movement of ions is high and when resistance is high, movement of ions is low.
The myelin sheath keeps ions from moving along the protected areas of axons which increases their diffusion into the axon. This in turn enables ions to get to the next node where in high levels, ions allow for quick depolarisation and generation of potential actions.
No. 3: Reducing Axon Capacitance
Myelin helps with lowering the capacitance of axons. Capacitance in this case is the ability of the axons to hold the chard they need to initiate an action or an impulse. By reducing the axon capacitance, myelin is able to reduce the charge within ion concentration to enable them to initiate impulse or action potential.
As such, myelinated axons are capable of conducting nerve impulses faster through saltatory conduction compared to those that are not myelinated. When it functions properly, myelin enables nerve cells to send signals to systems, organs and muscles across the body from the brain.
Myelin also ensures that all impulses from the spinal cord and the brain are delivered effectively to the entire body.
How Does Myelin Loss or Damage Affect a Person?
Demyelination or degradation of myelin leaves nerve cells without any protection. When nerve cells are not insulated, impulse signals are mixed up and normal movement is hampered and in some instances, impossible.
This exposure causes damage to the cells, leading to development of degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune ailment that attacks the central nervous system. A person can also develop other neurological conditions that are related to nerve damage like blindness and paralysis.
People who develop multiple sclerosis are not able to produce new myelin because the disease destroys the oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) that are responsible for myelin production. Loss or damage of myelin also causes delays in nerve impulse messaging. As a result, multiple sclerosis patients develop tingling, fatigue, numbness, dizziness and vision problems due to damage to the optic nerve.
Studies show that myelin loss occurs naturally as a person ages. Nerve impulse conduction changes that occur in the central nervous system explain the correlation between aging and cognitive decline. Besides aging, myelin loss or damage may occur as a result of nutrient deficiency due to high sugar and alcohol intake, hormonal imbalance and poor sleep and exercising habits.
How Can You Maintain or Boost Your Myelin Production Levels?
If you experience brain fog and forgetfulness, it’s because your myelin sheath is struggling. The good thing is that there are several things you can do to improve the situation. Here are some of them:
No. 1: Eat Foods that are Rich in Healthy Fats
Your brain needs the right raw materials to repair, maintain and synthesize myelin sheath. In the brain, the highest amount of cholesterol occurs in the myelin. This cholesterol plays an essential role in the myelin synthesis process. Since up to 70% of neural tissue is made up of cholesterol and fat, it is important that you consume foods that are rich in healthy fats.
The presence of DHA also has an impact on the myelination process. As such, consuming DHA fatty acids improves myelination because out of all the fatty acids in the brain, DHA is the most. One way to increase your intake of healthy fats is by including omega-3 fatty acids in your diet.
These are essential fats that the body needs but cannot generate on its own. Omega-3 fatty acids support the electrical functioning of the nervous system and the brain and they are primarily found in fish. These fatty acids can reverse declining cognitive ability, stimulate vagus nerves, help with addiction and repair blood-brain barriers. Studies also suggest that omega-3 fatty acids can boost production of myelin.
No. 2: Be Physically Active
Exercise such as cycling is one of the most effective ways to maintain and repair myelin and numerous studies have been conducted to determine the impact that physical activity has on formation of myelin. Exercising has been associated with an increase in the thickness and volume of myelin. At the same time, it has been found to reduce myelin damages that result from poor blood flow. Generally, engaging in physical exercise promotes the growth of brain hormones, supports brain mitochondria and enhances formation of myelin.
Existing studies show that exercise can improve a person’s memory in the long run by restoring and increasing production myelin. In fact, evidence shows that running delays the loss of myelin while increasing myelination. This delays progression or development of Alzheiners’s disease. Studies also show that engaging in physical exercises boosts mitochondrial activity – which in turn increases production of myelin in the brain.
Besides boosting the production of myelin and slowing down its loss or damage rates, Mayo Clinic research shows that physical exercise can reduce the impact that diet has on the nervous system. The research shows that living a sedentary life and taking a high-fat diet can lower the amount of myelin formation cells in the brain, leading to cognitive decline and demyelination. However, this situation can be turned around by including exercise to the high-fat diet – leading to improved formation of myelin.
No. 3: Improve Your Sleep Quality
Studies show that sleeping for at least 7 hours every night boosts the production of OPCs and myelin. But it’s not just sleeping, the quality of that sleep also matters. This is because OPCs production is at the highest during deep sleep. Quality sleep also causes the genes that maintain and repair myelin sheath to become active. Loss of sleep on the other hand can advance symptoms of diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
People who experience problems falling asleep can take supplements that are high in melatonin to reduce brain inflammation. Sleep hormone, melatonin also promotes myelin production by reducing brain inflammation. When the brain is inflamed, the functioning of OPCs and myelin is highly compromised.
There are several things that you can do to increase production of melatonin naturally and improve the quality of sleep. These include exposing your eyes to the sun every morning, taking collagen and magnesium supplements before going to bed and turning off lights during sleep time. Taking meals at least three hours before bedtime and going to bed at the same time each night also boosts production of the melatonin hormone and reduces the stress hormone.
No. 4: Boost Your Vitamin C Intake
Increasing Vitamin C intake can help increase formation of myelin. Vitamin C is known to energize the genes that are responsible for the formation of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
As a natural hormone that occurs in the brain, BDNF is known to boost the creation of new neurons because it supports brain cell survival and also splits to create new neurons. A high amount of BDNF increases the myelination rates and boosts the thickness of myelin by enhancing the production of the basic protein in myelin.
Vitamin C also enhances the production of collagen in the brain. It plays an important role in myelin production because no collagen synthesis can happen in the body without it. Collagen is produced by Schwann cells and is known to support the production of the myelin sheath. Ideally, the capability of Schwann cells to create collagen is a reflection of the quality of myelin the cells can produce.
No. 5: Increase Your Iron and Zinc Intake
Your brain requires zinc and iron minerals to stay healthy. Zinc is known to activate numerous enzymatic reactions in the body, including neurotransmission. Zinc deficiency is also associated with brain function impairment in children as well as adults. When it comes to myelin, this mineral supports myelin protein performance by preventing it from detaching from the myelin membranes.
Studies also show that its deficiency could reduce myelin recovery and formation. You can boost your myelin production and repair by including foods that are rich in zinc in your diet. Such foods include pumpkin seeds, beef from grass-fed animals, spinach, mushrooms, and oysters. Iron is the other mineral that your nervous system needs to increase myelin production. Present in all body cells, iron plays a critical role in supplying oxygen.
Research shows that low levels of iron in the nervous system have a negative effect on myelination. This is because when iron levels are low, the OPCs fail to split to form new cells – which leads to low levels of myelin. When supplied in good amounts, iron supports myelination.
When taking iron, ensure that you don’t overdo it as too much iron will oxidize the body. The best way to boost your iron intake is including foods such as green leafy vegetables and grass-fed lamb and beef in your diet.
Myelin sheath protects your nerves by wrapping around brain cells so that signals can be sent at high speeds. It keeps your brain healthy and boosts your cognition levels throughout your life. However, if not taken care of, the myelin sheath can be lost or get damaged – paving the way to the development of brain ailments such as multiple sclerosis, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
But this does not have to happen because there are many practical steps that you can take every day to boost myelin recovery and formulation. These include exercising regularly, getting quality sleep, and eating foods that provide your brain with nutrients like Vitamin C, Iron, and Zinc, which boost the formulation and repair of myelin.
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