Brain Stress Results in Vicious Cycle

JanisB

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This article from the NY Times talks about studies in which high stress over time rewires the brain to lose executive function and shift to repetitive actions. It got me thinking that maybe part of the dementia we experience in ME-CFS could be due to the disrupted allostasis of so many of our body systems (immune, endocrine, digestion, nervous, cardiovascular) which create physiological stress in a brain that doesn't distinguish between the effects of physical and mental/emotional stress.

The good news is that the brain can recover when the stressors are removed.

The bad news is that it is hard to get allostasis working again in all these areas.

Here's the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/18/science/18angier.html?th&emc=th

and below the text of the article:
If after a few months exposure to our David Lynch economy, in which housing markets spontaneously combust, coworkers mysteriously disappear and the stifled moans of dying 401(k) plans can be heard through the floorboards, you have the awful sensation that your bodys stress response has taken on a self-replicating and ultimately self-defeating life of its own, congratulations. You are very perceptive. It has.

As though it werent bad enough that chronic stress has been shown to raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppress the immune system, heighten the risk of diabetes, depression and Alzheimers disease and make one a very undesirable dinner companion, now researchers have discovered that the sensation of being highly stressed can rewire the brain in ways that promote its sinister persistence.

Reporting earlier this summer in the journal Science, Nuno Sousa of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute at the University of Minho in Portugal and his colleagues described experiments in which chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.

Moreover, the rats behavioral perturbations were reflected by a pair of complementary changes in their underlying neural circuitry. On the one hand, regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed.

In other words, the rodents were now cognitively predisposed to keep doing the same things over and over, to run laps in the same dead-ended rat race rather than seek a pipeline to greener sewers. Behaviors become habitual faster in stressed animals than in the controls, and worse, the stressed animals cant shift back to goal-directed behaviors when that would be the better approach, Dr. Sousa said. I call this a vicious circle.

Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist who studies stress at Stanford University School of Medicine, said, This is a great model for understanding why we end up in a rut, and then dig ourselves deeper and deeper into that rut.

The truth is, Dr. Sapolsky said, were lousy at recognizing when our normal coping mechanisms arent working. Our response is usually to do it five times more, instead of thinking, maybe its time to try something new.

And though perseverance can be an admirable trait and is essential for all success in life, when taken too far it becomes perseveration uncontrollable repetition or simple perversity. If I were to try to break into the world of modern dance, after the first few rejections the logical response might be, practice even more, said Dr. Sapolsky, the author of Why Zebras Dont Get Ulcers, among other books. But after the 12,000th rejection, maybe I should realize this isnt a viable career option.

Happily, the stress-induced changes in behavior and brain appear to be reversible. To rattle the rats to the point where their stress response remained demonstrably hyperactive, the researchers exposed the animals to four weeks of varying stressors: moderate electric shocks, being encaged with dominant rats, prolonged dunks in water. Those chronically stressed animals were then compared with nonstressed peers. The stressed rats had no trouble learning a task like pressing a bar to get a food pellet or a squirt of sugar water, but they had difficulty deciding when to stop pressing the bar, as normal rats easily did.

But with only four weeks vacation in a supportive setting free of bullies and Tasers, the formerly stressed rats looked just like the controls, able to innovate, discriminate and lay off the bar. Atrophied synaptic connections in the decisive regions of the prefrontal cortex resprouted, while the overgrown dendritic vines of the habit-prone sensorimotor striatum retreated.

According to Bruce S. McEwen, head of the neuroendocrinology laboratory at Rockefeller University, the new findings offer a particularly elegant demonstration of a principle that researchers have just begun to grasp. The brain is a very resilient and plastic organ, he said. Dendrites and synapses retract and reform, and reversible remodeling can occur throughout life.

Stress may be most readily associated with the attosecond pace of postindustrial society, but the bodys stress response is one of our oldest possessions. Its basic architecture, its linked network of neural and endocrine organs that spit out stimulatory and inhibitory hormones and other factors as needed, looks pretty much the same in a goldfish or a red-spotted newt as it does in us.

The stress response is essential for maneuvering through a dynamic world for dodging a predator or chasing down prey, swinging through the trees or fighting off disease and it is itself dynamic. As we go about our days, Dr. McEwen said, the biochemical mediators of the stress response rise and fall, flutter and flare. Cortisol and adrenaline go up and down, he said. Our inflammatory cytokines go up and down.

The target organs of stress hormones likewise dance to the beat: blood pressure climbs and drops, the heart races and slows, the intestines constrict and relax. This system of so-called allostasis, of maintaining control through constant change, stands in contrast to the mechanisms of homeostasis that keep the pH level and oxygen concentration in the blood within a narrow and invariant range.

Unfortunately, the dynamism of our stress response makes it vulnerable to disruption, especially when the system is treated too roughly and not according to instructions. In most animals, a serious threat provokes a serious activation of the stimulatory, sympathetic, fight or flight side of the stress response. But when the danger has passed, the calming parasympathetic circuitry tamps everything back down to baseline flickering.

In humans, though, the brain can think too much, extracting phantom threats from every staff meeting or high school dance, and over time the constant hyperactivation of the stress response can unbalance the entire feedback loop. Reactions that are desirable in limited, targeted quantities become hazardous in promiscuous excess. You need a spike in blood pressure if youre going to run, to speedily deliver oxygen to your muscles. But chronically elevated blood pressure is a source of multiple medical miseries.

Why should the stressed brain be prone to habit formation? Perhaps to help shunt as many behaviors as possible over to automatic pilot, the better to focus on the crisis at hand. Yet habits can become ruts, and as the novelist Ellen Glasgow observed, The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.

Its still August. Time to relax, rewind and remodel the brain.
 

Cort

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Several things in this article rang true to me. I really do think I'm in a kind of neural rut. I don't know how I got there or what is causing it but short of some kind of miraculous intervention (Freddd's B-12, Mike's Neural Therapy?) the only way I can see to get out of that rut is to build new neural connections by using different techniques.

Ashok's Gupta's theory that the fear centers of the brain are "on" all the time really fits for me - so I'm engaged in trying to turn them off and at the same time turn on a better neural pattern - one that doesn't overreact to all mannner of things. I know that I'm doing this -I can feel it - it's very slow and I may never turn it off completely and I am continuing to improve.

My big question is what happens if I can turn that hyper arousal off all the way? Will I be well or will I just feel a whole lot better? I really don't know. :confused:

Thanks for the article.
 

JanisB

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I think it is possible to tune down the amygdala hyper response somewhat, because we have control over our thoughts (although it doesn't always seem that way!) Thoughts often lead instantaneously to feelings, which then circulate in the body as peptides and neuropeptides, having a physical effect on nerves and other tissues.

But William James (that 19th century English scientist) was also right when he made the argument that feelings in the body create thoughts, and so sometimes, the way to calm things down is through the body chemistry.

This is where I think protocols come in, like B-12 (Freddd) or acupuncture and neural therapy (Mike's doc). In ME-CFS, the body is in a valid hyper state because it senses the threat to its survival from the lack of crucial nutrients like amino acids, B12, etc. and/or the excess of toxins.

I have found, for example, that when my dysautonomia is acting up, if I stay upright for one extra minute I will go into a state of tremendous hyperarousal. But if I catch it and lie upside down, letting lots of blood flow into my face and neck, letting the legs drain, the nervous system calms down. The feeling of fear and stress goes away completely.

Indian scriptures talk of yogis who learn to melt a circle of snow, walk on hot coals, and slow their heart beat and breath to a point where they seem dead. This can be done with the mind. But I wonder if it can be done in a body that is basically unhealthy, where the nerve potentials are all screwed up, and allostasis is not functioning.

My own experience: I've been doing Siddha yoga meditation for 15 years (and previously did Transcendental meditation for over a decade). I've found that in the periods that I've been most healthy, I go into meditation fairly easily, go to a deep place, and feel my whole body shift into an awesome, light-filled expansive state. But when I crash, which has happened in 2000 and 2007, I can barely meditate. My mind is all over the place, and I'm lucky if I get a few moments of calm. I haven't lost the skill I developed earlier. I've lost the willful control of the nervous system.

Janis
 

Jody

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Interesting stuff, Janis.

I was just a few minutes ago working on an article about psychoneuroimmunology. I know that's not the main thrust of your post, but ... there it was sitting here, very similar to what I was just writing about.

Sounds like you're on a good track. You may not be where you want to be right now, but it sounds like you've got a fair idea as to some of the things that will help get you there.
 

JanisB

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And I was just reading your blog! Nice work.

I'm curious to know -- since you say you have gotten (or are getting better) -- what worked for you? Are you at 90% or higher? What are your persistent symptoms?

Janis
 

Jody

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Janis,

Well, today and the last few days are NOT good indicators of my improved health in recent months. I have had some regression in symptoms recently.

I chalk it up to carby diet from food bank of late, and to being much busier online than I have been in years. I still need to readjust the old balancing act fairly frequently. I have been falling into old habits of just going when I should be resting because I like what I'm doing. But it has been wearing on me lately. That and the fact that I have some really good new things happening that occasionally is scaring the daylights out of me. :D Not used to some of this stuff. Though I will GET used to it. :)

Main things that worked for me have been, low carb diet, a tincture with main ingredients reishi, maitake and shitake mushrooms, astragalus, ginseng, licorice and some other ingredients I can't remember right now ... omega 3 oil, esp. for joint and muscle pain and I think also for mental confusion (helps the messaging system work right), vit. D(3), acupuncture once a month, pacing, lots of rest, positive self-talk,... also probably helped, dry skin brushing, liquid chlorophyll, ... going as green as I could manage, eg. vinegar instead of dryer sheets, no SLS in shampoos etc.

May be other highlights not coming to me right now, I have been really foggy off and on today. Had a Reiki treatment this morning and went really messed up for the first few hours (had started messed up before the treatment also) to very clear over the later part of the day ... a little burnt out right now, my son and daughter-in-law were here for a visit and while I enjoyed them, after a certain number of hours I do wilt ...

If I was going to guess what percent I'd be hovering around these days ... it's hard to say until I know again what 100 % is like, it's been so long!

Within my little "normal" envelope, I feel like maybe a 75%. But that's working from home, doing little shopping trips to familiar places in my own town mostly. To step outside that ... I couldn't work part-time even in a pokey store that does hardly any business, even if I could sit down most of, say, a 3 hr shift. Couldn't do that more than twice a week and probably would crash in a short time.

Went to our kids' new place recently. Husband drove the hour long trip into the city (no longer a familiar trip for me) and by the time we got there I was toast, bounced back a bit for the evening and felt falling down drunk on the trip home. Had to recover for a day or so after.

So ... really nowhere near a "real" robust life yet. But, within the confines I am mostly clearheaded, don't have the vibrating and swirling seasick sensations most of the time. Am coherent, without vertigo most of the time. Don't need 2 hr naps morning, noon and evening any more. Have an hour kicking back in an afternoon and I am good to go.

This all sounds really disjointed to me, as I try to give you what information I can. Hope it doesn't read as disjointed as it wrote. :)

Let me know if I didn't actually answer your question, ok? :)
 

Jody

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Just re-read your post, and then mine.

Persistent symptoms are some vertigo, which is disorienting and is related to the brain fog that I will get when overtired or stressed.

Parasthesia, the weird physical sensations (otherwise known in some corners as the body stone :)).

Have to go low carb or old symptoms will return, though I have more leeway there than I used to have.

Some joint and muscle pain though mostly it just makes me feel old and creaky when it hits. Exception -- my right shoulder, arm and hand are prone to tendinitis and edema when overused. And also stress will bring on burning pain in my lower right arm and elbow. As stress eases, so does the pain.

I am crap with numbers still, but not as bad as before. Short term memory still sucks but again ... not as bad. Sometimes it is even ... good.

That's probably the lot.
 

JanisB

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Sounds a lot like where I'm at, but I can't exercise yet. I did a little weight lifting yesterday. Emphasis on a little -- 10 reps on 6 machines, took about 10 minutes. Last night I slept 11 1/2 hours!

Anyway, hang in there and keep improving. It's so hard to trim the fat when we get going. After years of deprivation, we become energy hogs... And often being cautious doesn't seem to reap enormous results, while being incautious reaps havoc.

So much for philosophizing. Wrote back because I got a call from a woman who read my story "48 hours" on the ME-CFSKnowledge.org site and is doing the guaifenesin, and reminded me that Dr. St Amand usually finds that people can tolerate more carbs after a 2 month period of strict adherence to his diet (which is awfully close to Richie Shoemaker's diet, and Patricia Kane's diet). Have you ever tried any of those to see if you can get your body to become more carb tolerant?

I'm doing okay in that department, e.g. no more hypoglycemic need to eat NOW, but limit the starch.

Janis
 

Jody

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Janis,

I'm not familiar with those particular diets, but do know that after 7 yrs of mostly avoiding starchy carbs, while it seems that I can now have the occasional cheat, if it is too often I will have the same old symptoms reappear.

But I do have a weakness for pizza if it's in front of me ... :D
 
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Hi Janis,
you wrote:


I have found, for example, that when my dysautonomia is acting up, if I stay upright for one extra minute I will go into a state of tremendous hyperarousal. But if I catch it and lie upside down, letting lots of blood flow into my face and neck, letting the legs drain, the nervous system calms down. The feeling of fear and stress goes away completely.


Janis
I was so amazed when I read this. I have been ill for 17 years, and I know exactly what you mean by the hyperarousal, but I have NEVER NEVER thought of lying upside down and let the blood flow back to my head. Next time it happens, I will certainly try it out. Because once I enter the hyper arousal state, it takes hours (up to 24 hours I guess) to calm down, and I feel so very, very ill.

So thanks a lot for the tip!

@ Jody: Your wrote about the low carb diet. I am more and more experimenting with the low carb. I already did a fairly low carb diet because I want to loose weight, but sometimes I do the wrong thing and eat cake or bread, and it makes me very foggy in my head, even the next day. So I am beginning to think it is a really important issue to stay on low carb, and even increase it. (sorry, have a very vague head right now, so difficult to express myself)(and I didn't eat bread or cake :rolleyes:)

So many things to be learned on this forum :)

take care,

bettine
 

Jody

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Bettine,

Definitely worth a try going further low carb if you've been finding it makes a difference.

I get fog in the head from things like bread. It's very common, yet you don't read much about this. I'm glad you came across something that may make a big difference for you. I hope it does. :)

And isn't it great to be someplace where there are things to be learned that may make a difference? I love this place. :D