Serotonin and movement from the spine

May 16, 2018

It is relatively easy to understand that movement is intimately linked to our survival – from not moving at all (freezing), to running away from, or fighting our way out of, danger. More difficult to comprehend, though, is that movement is also intimately linked to our health and wellbeing.


Modern technology brought about major advances and innovations that continue to make our lives easier, but it has also unwittingly disconnected movement from our immediate survival; and from our health and well-being. Cutting back on movement in order to get more done in our day may work well in our twenties and thirties while our bodies are still supple and resilient.


From around our forties onward the accumulated effects of over-working and under-moving generally starts catching up with us.


We drive to work instead of getting there under our own steam; we order in instead of going out to hunt and gather; we use electricity to cook, heat & wash instead of chopping wood and making fire.


We spend the entire day sitting at work and then wonder why we collapse from exhaustion when we get back home in the evening.


When we are this far gone, we tend to feel wired but tired most of the time.


The accumulated effects of over-working and under-moving caught up with me when I was 44. Exactly ten years after I got back into full time research following my accident (Day my life changed). Up to then I was highly focussed and so goal driven that I kept pushing myself to be ever more productive. Two months before my 44th birthday I even completed the Cape Town Cycle Tour, a 110 km race around the Cape Peninsula. I did it despite not having taken any time out to train; or rather my workload was so massive that I couldn’t ‘afford’ to take any time out.


I felt absolutely awful the whole way through the race, but I did finish. Remarkably I didn’t suffer any major ill effects after the race. I say remarkable, because ever since my accident I would inevitably crash and burn every time I pushed myself too hard. One thing was sure – I had pushed myself way beyond my limits to finish the race. The only thing I did notice was those pesky minor feelings of overall weariness that caught up with me every now and then.


At times like these I yearned to be super fit once again, though I had no stomach for the efforts required to build and keep my body in tip-top condition. I can clearly recall how exhausting it was to keep up my previous over-trained & under-rested racing days.


Going to bed early on Fridays, racing on Saturdays and resting on Sundays took a lot of dedication. Especially the 2 hour 5 am Monday morning pool sessions needed every last bit of my will power!


After pushing myself so hard in the Cycle Tour, combined with my never ending to do list, those pesky minor feelings of overall weariness that had settled in my body made me feel tired and listless when I woke up in the morning and I needed a few cups of coffee and a front-footed approach to my day before I eventually started to hit my straps. Despite starting out lethargically I had enough motivation to push through, which seem to do the trick for me, so I just kept going with it.


I had no idea what else to do.


That is until a series of unexpected events demanding immediate action on top of all my other commitments hit me one after the other. I pushed through the first 4, but when the 5th one hit I could feel something go ‘snap’ in my brain. The next day I couldn’t get out of bed.


Feeling burned out on top of being weighed down by severe physical disabilities was a toxic combination that made my life increasingly more intolerable. As the year wore on I felt progressively worse. Just prior to burning out like this I had the opportunity to do a Tai Chi intervention with some pro soccer players, which opened my eyes to the benefits of teaching your body to move from the ‘spine’.


Slowly at first, until the ‘spine’ is able to ‘take over’ movement control from the Thinking brain. The key concept is that movement execution is more efficient, reaction times are quicker and timing more precise when thinking is minimized and movements are done more subcortically via R-brain co-ordination of the spine (Art of soccer).


It was fortunate indeed that before I succumbed to full-blown burn out an opportunity arose for me to spend 5 week at Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK on an EU Researcher Exchange Program. This effectively removed the bulk of my daily commitments and helped me to refocus on my research and to build up my UK collaborations. I gently eased into the first 2 weeks of my Researcher Exchange Program, mainly working on a collaborative research proposal. By the 3d week I felt like a new person.


It had become very clear to me that I had to find an alternate way of staying fit and healthy without pushing myself beyond what my body could comfortably recover from. I presented some of my ideas about this concept to the Department of Sports and Exercise Science at Northumbria University in July 2012. The title of my talk was: "Heart rate dynamics in health and stress".


As I was to discover subsequently, some people really connected with what I had to say, while others thought it too simplistic and 'out there'. The collaborations I set up with researchers at Northumbria University during these 5 productive weeks laid the foundations for our research direction, subsequently renamed,  Wellbeing Informatics.


The following year I presented the data from our Tai Chi training intervention that Andre and myself did with pro soccer players at a conference in Barcelona, Spain.


On this same trip I also completed a 7 day Qigong (Daoist pillar) workshop at the Shen Foundation in Forres, Scotland.


From the Tai Chi and Qigong movement principles I had learned, I began developing a scientific model of Wellbeing that centred on rhythmic movement from the spine, a movement technique that Andre had developed over the years by combining Tai Chi principles with boxing and natural movement.


I soon discovered that neurotransmitters are a central component of moving from the spine, with serotonin being one of the most crucial. A relatively straightforward way to grasp how intricately serotonin and movement from the spine are linked is to observe what happens during REM sleep.


During these periods of very deep sleep the serotonin producing nuclei in the brainstem shuts down completely; plus the muscles of the body become paralysed due to inhibition of the motoneurons controlling antigravity muscle tone. This then prevents all bodily movement during very deep sleep to prevent us from injuring ourselves because of an overly violent movement e.g. when having a bad dream. This complete shutdown of the serotonin producing nuclei, the Raphe Nuclei lying on the midline of the brainstem, enable these nuclei to replenish its serotonin stores to ensure that there is enough serotonin available for the coming day.


The light bulb moment was that if movement is not inhibited during REM sleep, the serotonin levels aren’t replenished. Furthermore, if the serotonin producing nuclei are inhibited by drugs, then muscles become paralysed even in the waking state. Serotonin neurotransmission is indeed absolutely crucial for independent movement from the spine. Independent that is from the Thinking brain.


Interestingly, as soon as our Thinking brain engages with a sensory prompt (e.g. thinking about the knife in an opponent’s hand, or mentally engaging with something in our peripheral vision or mentally engaging with a loud sound), movement from the spine is immediately shut down to give us time to incorporate the new sensory information. 


This is where the concept of the pregnant pause or the empty step becomes very important. For the trained person, this is all the time needed to assess whether any new sensory information may negatively impact goal acquisition.


Serotonin essentially provides coordination of motor, autonomic and sensory processes during movement and the less the interference from the Thinking brain the better the movement will be and the nicer it will feel. What is more - and this was the concept that changed my outlook on how to improve and maintain my cardiovascular health - 'delegating' movement to the spine not only makes movement more efficient, it also makes it feel better than movement enforced by the Thinking brain!


The reason for this is that the R-brain ensures the correct chemical release, to co-ordinate and energize the body independently from the Thinking brain, which effectively removes most of the mental effort required to keep moving/exercising. Although not as intuitive, the real benefit of movement from the spine is that it stops damaging interferences from the Thinking brain to manifest.


It was this interference from my Thinking brain that created the wired but tired feeling in my body in the first place. This happened because the number of receptor in my brain - that the various chemicals bind to in order to energise goal directed movement - became down regulated by the continual overriding from my Thinking brain in order to adapt the receptor levels to align with my Thinking brain's perceived needs.


The key concept I unearthed was that my Thinking brain engages with anticipating future events in order to maximise my survival potential and to be as productive as possible, while my R-brain engages in keeping my body in tip top condition in order to support the overall goals of survival and productivity. 


The ever increasing competition for good education, housing, jobs, etc., etc. results in the Thinking brain delegating the R-brain's prompts in relation to keeping the body in tip top condition to be of lesser importance than productivity.


The R-brain does its best to adapt to the Thinking brain's demands by altering the receptor numbers in the brain for feel good chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and also for stress chemicals like cortisol.


My one sided drive to improving my productivity eventually resulted in getting to the wired but tired state. It had taken a good few years to get me to this place, so it made sense that it would take some time to reverse the damaging adaptations in my brain.


Given that I was doing this all via trial and error it took me two full years of continuous dedicated effort to get my brain operating at a level where I could feel the changes for the better. I have not looked back since.



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