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Stress: Give Your Brain a Fighting Chance!

Based upon Dr. Bruce McEwen’s Herzberg Lecture “The Brain on Stress: Novel Epigenetic Mechanisms of Brain Plasticity”, delivered at Carleton University 19 November 2015

Your body is an adaptive organism. It adjusts to the environment it finds itself in. When that environment includes significant amounts of stress, dozens of important biological changes take place, changes that impact your ability to live your life.

The first, most important thing to understand is that scientists at the cutting edge of this research are nowhere close to having all of the body’s responses to stress mapped out. But many of the most interesting responses have to do with the brain.

The Brain Changes

In people experiencing prolonged stress, the hippocampus, the region of your brain most directly responsible for processing stress, shrinks dramatically. You’d almost think that was good news. The problem is, the same mechanism that gets you worked up about stressful situations is the mechanism that helps stimulate you in general. The more stress, the less you can actually motivate yourself.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the same neurotransmitter chemicals that are released in response to stress are very important in terms of epigenetics- they help to determine which of your genes get expressed in any given cell at any given time. For the brain, this means that cells begin to produce excess free radicals- molecules that are normally part of your body’s immune system but which lead to cell death if they build up.

With prolonged stress, the dendritic connections in that part of your brain, the neural pathways that you depend on to function properly, recede and begin to break down. The only new pathways being formed under chronic stress are ones that are impacted by the imbalanced neurochemical environment created by that stress- in other words, you’re learning how to be stressed.

These reactions are the sort of thing designed to help us survive periods of scarcity- in fact, in some ways they look a lot like the reaction of a hibernating brain. Unfortunately, since most of our stress is human-created rather than anything to do with danger or absolute scarcity, these responses don’t help us much.

Another side-effect of chronic stress is that your circadian rhythm becomes disrupted, usually resulting in insomnia. This in turn reduces your ability to process stress.

The Brain Grows Back

Two definite factors that quickly and reliably reverse the epigenetic process, change the neurochemical balance and help your brain regenerate to a normal state are regular exercise- even studies which involved senior citizens in low-impact exercise for an hour a day over a period of time found vast improvement- and intense learning. Mindfulness meditation has also shown promise, as has a reduced diet. But by far the most powerful positive impact comes from a sense of meaning and purpose in life, combined with social integration.

On the other hand, there are a number of factors known to increase neural impairment over the course of a lifetime. These include a lack of intellectual stimulation, a chaotic or unsupportive/distant home life and lack of exercise in childhood.

For more on the benefits of meditation for stress, check out the TEDx talk below:

Trauma

Sudden traumatic events produce a different impact than chronic stress. In this case, the problem, especially the first time around, is that you may not have the capacity to produce enough of the right neurotransmitter to fully process the stress. When this happens, your body will tend to overcorrect, and after about ten days your brain will be fully keyed in to respond to that kind of stress. That’s why one experimental intervention for post-traumatic stress involves injecting glucocorticoids, the neurotransmitter in question, within a short time after a major trauma, to let the victims physiologically process what happened to them.

PTS after a single major incident, therefore, may have a lot to do with not being able to respond to it at the time. Repeated traumas act differently, acting on the amygdala, the part of your brain that helps you control stress. As a result, you begin to respond to different levels of stressor with the same intensity your body has learned to bring to life-or-death situations.

Finding a Way Forward

When we look at the many responses of the brain to its environment, and add to that the wider context of epigenetic change and the sophisticated system of brain-body interaction that leads to the emotional and biochemical state called Survival Mode, we risk getting lost in a system of baffling complexity. At the same time, the options we have for usefully addressing chronic stress may seem both too many and insufficient to the task.

And that is so. If you’ve lived years with chronic stress or anxiety, you will not conquer it by making minor adjustments to your lifestyle. An active mind, exercise, meditation, these are all useful tools, but none of them can replace having a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.

Stress and the Warrior

A blog post is no place to cover what could fill a book! Suffice to say that for the true practitioner of Warriorship, the ultimate “anti-stress weapon” is simply mind-body integration. Sadly, few people ever realize this consciously, even if they dabble in practices that promote this integration, like that Yoga class at your local fitness center or the Tai Chi class nearest you. The catch is this…

Can you find a way to assimilate the small tastes of mind-body integration you get in classes like those into every moment of your life, as you go through your day? When you can do this, your TAO will reveal itself to you and you will be a true Warrior who understands the magic of life.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


Nutrition and the Brain: Quick Tips

Nowhere is the body-mind relationship more important or more ignored than in the relationship between the brain and the food we eat. We often don’t realise how much our mental state has to do with the chemical state of our body, which in turn is affected heavily by the food we eat. We’ve already covered the all-important relationship between senility and poor diet. Patrick Holdford’s book Optimum Nutrition for the Mind looks at some other brain problems related to nutrition and what you can do about them.

 

Anxiety

There are a few important things to know about your diet if you suffer from anxiety. One is that your blood sugar balance is extremely important. A dip in blood sugar caused by an overactive insulin response can bring on hyperventilation and increase lactic acid in the body, which is a contributing factor to anxiety attacks. In general, balancing out your blood sugar is a very good idea for mood disorders. High copper levels, often the result of drinking water in buildings with new copper pipes, depress histamine levels, associated with extreme fears. You may need to increase your level of zinc if high copper levels are an issue.

On the other hand, dark green leafy vegetables and nuts provide magnesium, a mineral that helps both the mind and the muscles to relax. Other important micronutrients for anxiety sufferers include Vitamin B12 and folic acid.

The neurotransmitter we look to to govern anxiety, reduce adrenaline and promote a calm mood is known by the abbreviation GABA. Drugs like alcohol stimulate brief GABA releases, making us feel momentarily good, but the more we drink, the more our GABA levels fall. Tranquilisers work by making the body more receptive to GABA. Unfortunately, tranquiliser addiction is rampant throughout Western society. Benzodiazepine tranquilisers are more addictive than heroin and are associated with extreme withdrawal symptoms. There are natural alternatives with less risk, such as valerian root, which performs the same function, and hops (yes, the same hops found in beer) which act to calm the central nervous system.

Depression

There are a few major ways to improve your diet to address depression, the most important of which is to make sure you take in omega 3 fat and B-series vitamins. Together, these help the brain build up receptor sites for neurotransmitters and promote neurotransmitter production, especially serotonin. In clinical studies, major improvements in depression have been linked to omega 3 intake. Folic acid, a B vitamin, has an important effect on neurotransmitter levels.

Long-term depression, as opposed to a momentary low, is primarily a chemical state of a brain that either does not know how or does not have the materials to change that state. Antidepressant drugs are notorious for their side effects, but there is a natural alternative, St. John’s Wort, which has far fewer side effects at recommended doses (despite frequent attempts to scare people with any side-effect stories that come up). Its success rate is comparable, and more patients stick with it due to the reduced side effects.

Learning Disorders

Learning problems such as ADHD, dyslexia and so on are heavily linked to nutritional deficiencies. This has been heavily studied. Studies from MIT and California State University have shown that the fewer refined foods children ate, the better their learning, mainly due to the lack of micronutrients in processed food. Other studies have explored the effect of nutritional supplements and dietary changes on learning, with often dramatic results, including leaps of years in reading level and jumps in intelligence test scores. In one study by Dr. Michael Cogan, a group of children on vitamin and mineral supplements showed an average improvement of 1.1 years in reading level and 8.4 I.Q. points over 22 weeks, while a group which also had changes to their diet improved 1.8 years in reading level and gained 17.9 I.Q. points.

(As an aside, one of the most noxious elements of intelligence testing has been the role of its proponents in arguing that intelligence level is innate to the individual, and that because intelligence level is a predictor of success, people are somehow innately destined for their lot in life. The huge difference made by a change in nutrition calls this sharply into question, especially where impoverished populations are concerned.)

The important factors here are antioxidants, which help to reduce the detrimental effect of free radicals on the brain, and the building materials such as omega 3, B vitamins and amino acids that are essential building blocks of the brain and neurotransmitter system. The effects of increasing healthy fats in the diets of dyslexic children have been shown repeatedly. Increasing vitamin and mineral sources and healthy fats while decreasing high-carb processed foods is the essential formula for healthy learning, although heavy metal contamination and other issues may enter into it.

Hyperactivity, as we all know, can be partly attributed to sugars, but also to deficiency in the nutrients the body needs in order to calm down, such as magnesium and Vitamin B6. Studies by Dr. Bernard Rimland compared the effects of Ritalin against B6 and magnesium supplements, and found the latter to be ten times more effective.

(The same dramatic improvement has been shown in a California State University Study on the behaviour of young offenders. Correcting vitamin and mineral deficiency greatly improved behaviour.)

Bottom Line

The food we eat effects our brains, neurotransmitters, nervous systems and therefore our moods, our fears, our mental capabilities. The conditions discussed here are only the tip of the iceberg. Mental and psychiatric disorders that we often regard as chronic and irreversible are strongly linked to nutritional deficiencies. The complex interconnectivity of the body-mind organism is a major key to addressing what may seem to be mysterious or intractable problems. We need to optimise the whole organism, rather than just a part.

The general lessons we can draw from these particular conditions are straightforward:

1. Make sure that you eat a good amount of Omega 3 fats

2. Make sure you eat enough fresh produce and leafy greens

3. Supplement as necessary to compensate for the poor state of micronutrients in our food chain- the B and C Vitamins as well as magnesium are particularly important for brain health

 


Whole Grain Health Food- A Nutritional Myth

 

 

 

Foreshadowing our upcoming Resilient Life Code unit on nutrition, here’s a bit of conventional nutrition wisdom you’re better off ignoring: the idea that grains or grain products of any kind constitute a “health food.”  For much if not the majority of the developed world, overuse of grains is the single most prominent nutritional source of obesity and chronic disease.

Bulk grains are a recent addition to the human diet in biological terms, and while eating them has helped to sustain our societies, we are now faced with the triple problems of overabundance, overuse and harmful processing.

Overabundance of grains has meant that we are generally eating far too many of them.  Grains are basically empty carbohydrates, little more than a sugar hit as far as your metabolism is concerned.  The ramifications of our carb-abundant culture for your insulin levels are the number one source of the chronic disease epidemic.

Overuse of grains by the food industry has seen grains pop up in new foods.  Livestock and dairy cattle are often fed entirely with grains, and develop nutritional deficiencies as a result, which they pass on to us.  High-fructose corn syrup has found its way into many packaged foods, fast foods and junk foods, and we will see that fructose is much more pernicious than glucose.  We are encouraged to eat grains four meals a day, from our breakfast cereals to our lunchtime sandwiches to our chips to rolls and pasta at dinner.  This is far more raw starch than we could ever use.

Processing of grains is another big problem.  The processing of white flour removes not only the fibre of the germ, but also the beneficial unsaturated fat, Vitamins E and B, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium and other trace nutrients.  In return, it inserts chlorine, harmful enzymes, a load of chemical preservatives, emulsifiers and reducing agents, and food additives like soy, processed salt, high-fructose corn syrup and others, none of which may appear on the label.  Processed grains have been robbed of their nutrients, and unhealthy chemicals are left in their place.  No amount of “enrichment” can make it healthy again.

 

Gluten

The rise of gluten allergy is linked to the overabundance of processed grains in our diet, and even low-level gluten allergy can adversely affect your health in numerous ways.  Gluten intolerance or gluten allergy is acknowledged to affect about one in thirty-three people in at-risk populations, but in truth this is only the most severe manifestation of gluten-caused digestive disorder.  Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley among other grains, is the substance that makes your pastry and your bread dough stick together.  It also interferes with your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and promotes constipation.  Undigested gluten causes your immune system to attack your intestines.  Over time, gluten causes a number of nutrient deficiencies, unpleasant physical symptoms and degenerative effects.  Gluten allergy is simply the most pronounced level of your body’s revolt against this interloper.

Research has shown that gluten-intolerance is on the rise relative to past generations, partly because we have created varieties of grain with much higher gluten content, and partly because of the use of high-gluten white flour and the decline of whole-grain and mixed-grain flours.  If you do have the symptoms of gluten allergy, looking at a gluten-free diet is probably a good idea, but reducing grain consumption, and moving to whole grains when you do eat grains, is recommended for everyone.

 

Fat From Carbs

Contrary to popular belief, the fat that the human body accumulates is mainly the result, not of eating fat, but of the body storing excess carbohydrates.  Grains are among the worst carbohydrate sources as far as your body is concerned- there is little difference metabolically between eating refined grains and eating pure sugar.  It’s hard for us to see the equivalency between a bowl of white pasta and a candy bar, but other than the higher fructose content of the latter, there isn’t much to choose between them.  Vegetable sources are much preferable because the body converts their carbohydrates into simple sugars much more slowly, lowering your overall blood sugar, the resulting insulin response, and therefore the percentage of the carbohydrates you store as fat.

If you eat too many of the wrong carbohydrates, especially grains which rapidly convert to simple sugars in the body, your body gets the message that it is time to let insulin store that excess fuel as fat.  While it’s doing that, your body won’t let you burn fat for fuel.  Your body operates on the principle of storing energy whenever carbs are abundant as a survival mechanism.  Unfortunately, that means most of us need to reduce our intake of grain products simply in order to get the body back to the point where we can work with it toward meaningful health goals.  And it’s a vicious cycle. You eat lots of carbohydrates, your insulin levels skyrocket in response.  Later on, your blood sugar crashes because all that insulin has rounded up the blood sugar and stored it.  You lose energy, and you crave more carbohydrates, starting the cycle over again.

If you want to lose weight, don’t cut out the fats- cut out the bread and pasta.

 

Other Health Effects

The impact of high blood sugar and resulting high insulin levels on your health is covered thoroughly in Level 2, Unit 1 of the Resilient Life Code.  But here is one doctor who’s done his homework on another area impacted by grain-heavy diets: brain health.

 


Doped Up! How We Sabotage Our Resilience Even Without Alcohol, Nicotine, Narcotics or Pharmaceuticals

Authentic Ancient Traditions are fairly consistent in teaching that there is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in the everyday things of life, that such pleasure is good and healthy and natural.  Some would go so far as to say that the pleasures of life were created for our enjoyment.  Heck, C.S. Lewis’ character Screwtape goes so far as to accuse God of being a secret hedonist.

All this is true.  So what about the other side of the coin, the discipline, the self-denial that finds an equal place in those traditions?  There are many important aspects to this question (none of which have anything to do with self-mortification or penance as taught in Western Christianity of the last thousand years), but one that is particularly important for this culture to understand, is that many of our so-called pleasures are actually manifestations of pain.

Specifically, they are manifestations of the anxiety trap (also known as the adrenaline addiction cycle), and situations of personal constriction and dissatisfaction.  Through chronic pleasure-seeking (more accurately, stimulation-seeking), we are seeking validation from something outside of ourselves to make up for something that should be coming from within, but is not.  Unfortunately, the neural and biochemical results of these activities in turn reduce our ability to find what we are truly looking for.

 

 

Drugs of Choice

We can all recite the litany of addictive drugs, from alcohol through nicotine to cocaine and heroin.  And it is true that drug addiction often begins with unaddressed pain.

But the real drugs of choice for our society are things we don’t usually consider in that light.

 

Food

Food, particularly fast food and junk food, the high-sugar, high-sodium food substitutes that are so easy to come by, is one of the first drugs of choice.  Between sports drinks, soft drinks, chocolate bars and corner store candy, we have almost limitless opportunities for a sugar high.  High carb, high transfat diets, in fact the obesity epidemic itself, is symptomatic of an underlying dysfunction in society.  People who are happy with themselves and their lives simply do not make those choices – their bodies know better, and they listen.

 

Adrenaline and Other Stimulation Highs

We’ve written previously (http://globalresiliencesolutions.com/escaping-survival-mode) about the cycle of adrenaline addiction in our society.  Constant, low-level, unresolved stress sustains the fight-or-flight response, making us biochemically dependent on adrenaline, and above all, persuading us to see the universe in antagonistic and hostile terms.  This biochemical process is the cornerstone of the modern Newtonian Worldview.

As this kind of constant, low-level anxiety has taken hold, we’ve seen a distinct change in how we entertain ourselves.  While society experienced rebellion against established forms of music, for instance, as liberating, another, largely unnoticed theme went along with the change.  It is the same theme that has gone along with changes to film and television for at least the past twenty years.

You see, traditional forms of entertainment, whether musical, literary, theatrical or anything else, had a common element.  They were designed to relax us while engaging our intellectual and creative capacities.  Recreational reading in itself, as John Taylor Gatto among others has persuasively argued, required a high level of intellectual participation from the reader, and required both attention and relaxation, in a way that an increasing segment of the population is simply unfamiliar with today.  Classical music was mathematically complex and relaxing.  Folk music was relaxing and participatory.

Ever since this sensibility has changed – and it was quite a jarring change if you think about it- we have had a different expectation from entertainment.  We expect stimulation- laughter certainly, but also provocation, controversy, anger, noise, violence, titillation, and above all, adrenaline.  Where it was once customary to reduce anxiety by relaxing with, well, relaxing things, we now feed the adrenaline addiction directly.  The problem with violence on television isn’t (primarily) desensitization, but rather that most of the audience will never have the same opportunities to discharge the adrenaline they have built up as the fictional characters do.

Of course, every other kind of stimulation complements that adrenaline high, and so we have the ever-expanding world of designer energy drinks to keep us juiced twenty-four hours a day.  Titillation also goes well with adrenaline, as the advertising industry knows.

 

Social Media and Video Gaming

Social media addiction is about the feeling we get from belonging, acknowledgement by others, fitting in within a group.  Social media caters to our instincts as social animals on a scale that would once have been considered ludicrous.  The addiction component, however, is tied to the need to be heard, to feel something other than helplessness at the circumstances of your life.  In this sense, it is a band-aid at best.

Video game addiction, by contrast, is a release rather than a band-aid.  It is a surrogate for the natural consummation of the fight-or-flight response.  Unfortunately, there are very few video games with only one troll to kill, so the adrenaline addiction is heightened, not reduced.

 

Coming Down

The adrenaline addiction cycle is one reason that we surround ourselves with stimulus.  The other is constriction or dissatisfaction.  In the post about the emotional roots of chronic disease (http://globalresiliencesolutions.com/emotional-roots-of-chronic-disease), we mentioned the ways in which life patterns of either constriction of anger or enslavement to it can start.  Similar patterns appear in many different areas of our lives.  An unconscious belief or experience leads us to replicate the same dissatisfying relationships, career situations, family dynamics or personal habits again and again.  In the face of apparent helplessness, we turn to any of a dozen ways of distracting ourselves.

The catch is that by doping ourselves, we exaggerate whatever biochemical problems we already have.  We lead ourselves further and further away from a positive attitude and a healthy lifestyle.  That above all is why a new attitude needs to come with a change to your external lifestyle choices. 

The flip side of that coin is that by making those external changes, you can begin to move yourself toward a better mindset. The question we should all be asking ourselves is, “How am I doping myself and why?”  An uncomfortable question, to say the least, but absolutely essential if we want to become truly RESILIENT and, therefore, HAPPY.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


Brain Resilience: 5 Steps to Healthy Gray-Matter and Avoiding Alzheimer’s

 

We all talk about slowing down as we get older, but Alzheimer’s and other brain-degenerative conditions don’t have to be part of the package.  Far from being part of the natural ageing process, Alzheimer’s, as with every other dementia and memory loss is an acquired condition with definite contributing causes.   Don’t believe it?  Then check out this article after reading this blog post.  Here are some simple approaches you can take to maintain the health of your brain.

 

Free Radicals

 

No, we’re not talking about anarchists.  Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that are produced naturally in the metabolic process and that the body uses as part of the immune system.  Your body has mechanisms to neutralize excess free radicals, but when too many of the molecules build up, that system is overwhelmed.  Because of their reactive quality, free radicals tend to destroy cells, including those in the brain and nervous system.

 

Sources of excess free radicals in the modern world include:

–          Radiation from x-rays and microwaves;

–          Toxic metals such as aluminum and cadmium in food preservatives, cosmetics, antiperspirants, aluminum cookware, and even public water supplies and flu vaccines; autopsies on Alzheimer’s patients often reveal abnormally high levels of aluminum;

–          Chlorine and fluoride in drinking water, toothpaste etc.;

–          Cigarette smoke;

–          Hydrogenated oils, such as shortening, deep-fryer oil and non-dairy creamers; these fat molecules have been modified through long-term exposure to heat or chemical process.  They act like a silver bullet going right to your brain and nervous system, where they oxidize much more quickly than ordinary fat molecules, releasing free radicals at a rate that kills or damages the host cell.

 

What can you do besides limiting your exposure?  Antioxidants are nature’s counterbalance to free radicals.  Vitamins C and E, Beta Carotine, D3 and B complex, as well as certain amino acids either act as antioxidants or stimulate antioxidant production.  The herbs ginko and ginseng and the spice turmeric likewise have antioxidant effects, and certain fruits, such as wild blueberries, are high in antioxidant content.  Increasing your vegetable intake also helps.

 

 

The 3-6 Balance

 

Your body needs a certain amount of dietary fat.  Unfortunately, modern diets tend to be weighted toward Omega 6 fatty acids rather than Omega 3, while our bodies are designed for the opposite.  This is of particular concern, because there is evidence that one particular kind of Omega 6 molecule is associated with memory loss and neural degeneration.  Arachidonic acid overstimulates the brain’s nerve cells.  We get Omega 6 from grain-fed factory-farm animal products, but especially from vegetable oil (corn, sunflower, canola and soybean), which is the main source of this imbalance in our diet.  These are present in most processed foods.

 

Conversely, Omega 3 is quite important for brain health.  It can help to break down the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s and reduce brain inflammation.  Dietary sources can be supplemented by krill oil or fish oil capsules, but beware of eating too much fish, as fish in our food chain is often contaminated with mercury.

 

Exercise

 

Exercise plays a major role in regenerating the brain and nervous system.  Less active people are much more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s.  By exercising three to four times a week, you can promote cell and tissue repair mechanisms in your body, as well as increasing production of compounds that protect the nervous system.  It increases the flow of blood in your brain and improves the health of your cardiovascular system.

 

Sleep

 

Getting a good night’s sleep is critical to memory, as you know if you’ve ever been a university student.  There is also evidence that a healthy circadian rhythm is critical to the long-term health of your brain.  Working nights over a long period does serious damage to the health of your brain, since it is that regular biochemical cycle that keeps your neural pathways in good working order.

 

 

The Diabetes Connection

 

Diabetes and insulin-resistance have a very high correlation with Alzheimer’s.  Diabetics have up to a 65% higher chance of developing the disease.  As such, the same approaches you’d take to avoid diabetes, such as reducing your sugar and grain intake, are also helpful in promoting brain health.  Going to a diet richer in proteins is one of the first steps recommended to Alzheimer’s patients by natural health experts.

 

 

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


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