Photograph by Anne Blodgett Photography for Ponderosa & Thyme
The Limbic System's Role in Chronic Illness
It is not uncommon for people to get upset when I bring up the brain's role in chronic illnesses. They've had to validate the reality of their illness to friends, family, and even doctors, and the least helpful thing anyone can suggest is that the pain and suffering that they experience is in their head.
I can't stress enough that this is not at all the case.
These diseases are absolutely real, measurable in lab work, and visible when they manifest in symptoms like seizures, rashes, hair loss, or muscle wasting. They are also degenerative in nature because the longer you have them the more damage they cause throughout the entire body. In short, these diseases are confusing at best, debilitating at worst, and to be taken seriously.
That being said....
Our brains control every aspect of our bodies. From hormones, blood pressure, body temperature, electrolyte balance, emotions, gene expression, enzyme production, intestinal peristalsis, anxiety, sexual arousal, depression, sleep, immune system, histamine, mast cells, blood sugar, and detoxification (just to name a few).
It does this in two primary ways: chemically - via neural pathways that signal neurotransmitters that trigger hormones and neuropeptides that then communicate to every organ and cell in the body including DNA. And electrically - via action potential signaling from one neuron to the next, throughout the nervous system, and into the entire body.
The part of your brain that controls 90-99% of your body's functions (as well as autonomic thoughts, emotional states, and behaviors) is called the limbic system. The limbic system conducts all autonomic processes and operates entirely meta-cognitively, meaning, we don't have conscious awareness that it's doing what it's doing.
This is a really good thing, because if we had to consciously be directing our bodies to perform the trillions of functions it does every second to keep us alive, we wouldn't have any prefrontal cortex space left for creativity, imagination, learning, compassion, and focus. Furthermore, our prefrontal cortex is not particularly good at multitasking - something the limbic system is hardwired to do continuously and subconsciously.
But the Limbic System can adapt in undesireable ways, causing all kinds of problems.
If you have any chronic condition, the neural networks in your limbic system are damaged, cross-wired, and/or maladapted. With that in mind, it is more accurate to view chronic conditions as the result of brain damage or malfunction. This malfunctioning can be due to chemical injury, bacterial and viral infections, heavy metals that cross the blood-brain barrier, trauma, acute stress, head injury, a highly sensitive nervous system, or more often than not, a combination of these things.
Even if the original causation subsides, the brain can continue to operate in multiple negative loops, further damaging systems within the body, causing more stress and symptoms, increasing the fight/flight/freeze centers in the brain, elevating environmental and internal sensory perception, creating more nervous system overload, and thus causing more maladaptive neural networks in the brain and more symptoms over time.
The physical, emotional, and mental stress of this disharmony then causes the nervous system to enter a chronic sympathetic state. When the nervous system is stuck in this state, the immune, digestive, and detox systems are all catastrophically impaired. At this point, a cycle begins where one has to take drastic medical interventions such as heavy metal chelation, antibiotic pulsing, and donor immunoglobulins, just to keep the body (barely) functioning.
While such interventions can be medically neccessary, it is my experience that people become dependent on them while their body gradually continues to fall apart.
This downward spiral comes to a dramatic halt the moment you begin to harness the power of neuroplasticity.
"Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and adjust their activities in response to new situation or to changes in their environment.
Brain reorganization takes place by mecanisms such as "axonal sprouting" in which undamaged axons grow new nerve endings to reconnect neurons whose links were injured or severed. Undamaged axons can also sprout nerve endings and connect with other undamaged nerve cells, forming new neural pathways to accomplish a needed function." (1).
The ability humans possess to remodel their own brains has been used to heal everything from major strokes to phantom limb syndrome (a formerly mysterious condition where people experience pain in an amputated limb), to conditions that are seemingly less "physical" like depression, eating disorder, and addiction.
In order to heal, one must delete and recondition the maladapted neural pathways that perpetuate chronic illness and install new pathways that signal radiant health and profound joy. Once a neural pathway is hardwired, it becomes our autonomic "default" state of being. This might sound like magic and it can feel that way to experience, but neuroplasticity is solidly based on well traveled research in biology and physics.
Conditions Improved with Neuroplasticity Work
Fibromyalgia Depression Dissociation Allergies - Food, Environmental Chemical Sensitivities Mold Illness Electromagnetic Sensitivities Autoimmune Diseases Pain and Inflammatory Syndromes: CRPS, Carpal Tunnel, Tendonitis, old injuries Chronic Fatigue Syndrome / Myalgic Enceophalomyelitis Sexual Dysfunction IBS Hormone Imbalances Social and General Anxiety Addictions Eating Disorder Procrastination ADD/ADHD Weight Loss - Low Metabolism Interstitial Cystitis
A Note on Doctors
I am oftentimes asked by clients how I feel about allopathic as well as holistic medicine.
There are so many amazing and brilliant doctors out there. If we were to have a heart attack, an ER doctor can save our life. And if our bodies are severely depleted and compromised from chronic illness, functional medicine can offer desperately needed support.
My life has been saved by both emergency and naturopathic physicians during acute episodes. In fact, I am certain that I wouldn't have survived long enough to discover the techniques I now teach without the support and treatment I received during the years of my illness.
Medical treatment can definitely bring us to a certain point in healing, but I believe that getting to a place where your body is functioning on its own, without supplements, prescriptions and IVs, can only come from within.
My advice to all of my clients is to work with a doctor that you trust. Let them interpret your labs and prescribe treatments and medicinals to support you in your recovery process and to protect your body from further damage. From there, focus on the part of your healing that you, and only you can do. The work we do here!