Slowing down mentally and physically is a normal side effect of aging. But what if someone told you that these unwanted experiences could be greatly reduced or even delayed? Enter: myelin repair. As more studies reveal the role of myelinating cells in a healthy brain and body, more people are asking how to increase myelin to boost their longevity.
So what exactly is myelin and the myelin sheath, and what do these things mean for living your best life? Here, we outline everything you need to know about myelin loss and myelin repair, including how to create new myelin for a sharper, healthier, and longer life.
Myelin and the Nervous Systems
Learning how to increase myelin starts by learning the role of myelin in the body’s nervous systems.
The central nervous system, or CNS, comprises the brain and spinal cord, and is responsible for controlling all major bodily functions. Voluntary movements, speech, thought, memory, and spatial awareness are all controlled by the CNS.
In contrast, the peripheral nervous system comprises all of the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord, such as those that connect the limbs and organs.
The nervous system gets its name from neurons, which are responsible for transmitting electrochemical signals throughout the body. Neurons send messages from the brain to enable us to think, act, feel, and interact with the world around us.
What Is the Myelin Sheath?
So where does myelin fit in? Myelin in the central nervous system is produced by oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, also called oligodendrocyte precursor cells or OPCs. Oligodendrocytes are a type of glial cell that helps create the myelin sheath, the fatty coating around nerve cells keeping them insulated and protected.
Schwann cells, located in the peripheral nervous system, also support axonal myelin formation. Myelinated axons exist primarily in the brain’s white matter. Myelin is critical for quickly conducting messages throughout both nervous systems.
When functioning properly, myelin protects nerve cells as they transmit signals from the brain to organs, muscles, and systems throughout the body. The myelin sheath, or myelin membrane, also ensures that impulses are effectively delivered from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body.
Myelin Loss, Multiple Sclerosis, and Aging
Multiple Sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that attacks the myelin sheath in the central nervous system. Myelin damage, also called demyelination, leaves the nerve cells unprotected, where they then experience damage. In addition to causing damage along the nerve fibers, MS also halts new myelin production by destroying OPCs.
Myelin loss leads to delays in messaging from the nerve impulse, which results in the common symptoms of MS: vision problems (due to optic nerve issues), tingling, numbness, fatigue, and dizziness.
Loss of myelin also occurs naturally as a result of aging, as explained in a study on myelin and nerve fibers. Changes in nerve impulse conduction in the central nervous system is one reason why aging is associated with cognitive decline. Poor eating, exercising, and sleeping habits also play a role in increased demyelination, as explained further on.
How to Increase Myelin
Heavily myelinated neural pathways function up to 300 times faster than cells that have experienced neurodegeneration. This helps us move more quickly and make smarter decisions. These optimized neural pathways also help us become more emotionally agile, boosting our resiliency against life’s greatest challenges.
It’s clear that myelin is important for living a healthy and fulfilled life. But in some cases, such as an immune system disorder like multiple sclerosis or other demyelinating diseases, demyelination is unavoidable.
The good news? The same study we mentioned earlier on myelin and nerve fibers revealed that OPCs increase with age, suggesting that myelin production can still occur at any point throughout our lifetimes, even in spite of neurodegenerative diseases. Further studies have shown that the act of repairing myelin (remyelination) can be increased through lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and cognitive stimulation.
Exercise and Myelin Repair
Exercise is one of the best ways to ignite remyelination and keep your neurons firing quickly and efficiently. In addition to improving functions of the central nervous system, exercise has been shown to mitigate the negative impact of diet on the central nervous system, according to the Mayo Clinic.
This was revealed in a myelin study by Isobel A. Scarisbrick, which showed that a high-fat diet combined with a sedentary lifestyle can reduce myelin-forming cells, contributing to demyelination and associated cognitive decline.
Adding exercise to this high-fat intake, however, has been proven to increase myelin production. Specifically, the seven-week study on mice showed that frequent exercise training has the ability to boost myelin protein expression, even alongside a high-fat diet.
“Our results suggest that consuming high levels of saturated fat in conjunction with a sedentary lifestyle can lead to a reduction in myelin-forming cells. But exercise training can help reverse this process and promote the myelinogenesis necessary to meet increased energy demands,” says Dr. Scarisbrick.
Similar findings were displayed in a study on patients with multiple sclerosis. Published in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal, this study found that measures of overall functioning improved in patients after exercising with free weights, elastic bands, and exercise machines over the course of 24 weeks.
MRI findings also showed that certain areas of the brain thickened, suggesting preservation or regeneration of brain tissue, in 19 of 74 examined brain areas.
Increasing Myelin With Diet
Most people understand that diet plays a critical role in aging. But can it also contribute to increased myelin? A study on gut bacteria in adult mice suggests that probiotics and prebiotics have the ability to alter the gene expression associated with remyelination.
The tests revealed that differences in mice’s microbiomes led to differences in gene expression. Mice that weren’t exposed to certain germs had greater expression in the genes responsible for structuring, regulating, and forming myelin. This suggests that there could be a relationship between gut biome composition and myelin production, and that foods rich in healthy bacteria could aid in achieving the ideal levels.
Dietary supplements have also been shown to boost myelin, as explained by board-certified internist and health care provider Colleen Doherty.
Vitamin D is thought to aid in remyelination because it assists in regulating the role of oligodendrocytes (which, as we’ve learned, aid in producing myelin). Specifically, vitamin D aids in the maturation of these cells. This nutrient is primarily absorbed through the sun, but it can also be increased by consuming salmon, egg yolks, orange juice, and fortified foods.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Increased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with improved MS symptoms too. Healthy fats play an important role in longevity and can be found in foods like salmon, chia seeds, flax seeds, soybeans, and walnuts. Healthy fats reduce demyelination because they replicate the fatty texture of myelin.
Cognitive Stimulation and Remyelination
Learning new habits and skills can aid in the generation of new myelin in the nervous system, according to Christine Comaford at SmartTribes Institute,
When we practice a new habit, we’re forging new neural pathways in the brain. Repeatedly firing signals down those pathways helps our body understand that this new habit is important.
“Repetition is key — myelin is living tissue: if you stop firing a pathway for 30 days, the myelin will start to break down,” Comaford adds.
She adds that, after persevering through the discomfort of starting a new habit, it’s important to repeat the behavior in quick bursts. Repairing myelin in the body is about quality, not quantity. Practicing for just 5 minutes a day can make all the difference when it comes to forming a new, myelin-boosting habit.
It doesn’t matter so much what activity you’re doing — learning anything from scuba diving to ice hockey to web design can create new pathways in the brain. Rather, it’s the rate at which you do it that determines your body’s ability to experience myelin regeneration.
Melatonin and Myelin Production
Melatonin, the hormone in your body that helps regulate your sleep and wake cycles, plays a role in myelin formation. Specifically, melatonin has been shown to decrease the inflammation that’s associated with demyelination. Exposing yourself to sunshine throughout the day can improve your circadian rhythms and help you achieve more restful sleep.
Adopting bedtime habits such as going to bed at the same time, eliminating late night snacking, and reducing blue light exposure are all ways to boost melatonin production. Supplementing with magnesium and collagen may also help regulate melatonin production so that you can achieve more consistent sleep schedules that increase myelin-producing nights.
Increasing Myelin for a Healthier Life
While you can’t boost your myelin production in one day, following healthy habits can greatly improve the functioning of your neural pathways. By exercising regularly, learning new skills, and maintaining an active lifestyle, you’ll stay sharper and more mobile as time progresses.