Come Join Me For Talks & Booksignings in July 2015 on Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal!

DSC_0090-1Hope you can come join me on Tuesday July 7th at 7:00 at Baltimore’s lovely Ivy Bookshop for a talk, chat, and booksigning!
Tuesday, July 7th, 2015
7:00 p.m.
Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal — a Discussion & Book Signing
with Donna Jackson Nakazawa
http://www.theivybookshop.com/

Or, come join me on Friday, July 17th at the Annapolis Bookstore for a talk, chat, and booksigning!
Friday, July 17, 2015
7:00 p.m.
Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal — a Discussion & Book Signing
with Donna Jackson Nakazawa

http://annapolisbookstore.com/

Hope to see you at one of these!

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A Q. and A. with “Between the Covers” on What Compelled me to Write The Last Best Cure

I recently spoke with Melanie Brevis, blogger at Baltimore County Public Library System, and we had a great chat!

Between the Covers with Donna Jackson Nakazawa

Donna Jackson NakazawaBaltimore author Donna Jackson Nakazawa discusses her latest book, The Last Best Cure, on Wednesday, April 16 at 7 p.m. at the Perry Hall Branch, sponsored by the Friends of the Perry Hall Library. The award-winning science journalist and writer recently answered questions for Between the Covers about her book.

Before The Last Best Cure, you authored another book about autoimmune diseases, The Autoimmune Epidemic. What insights or new knowledge did you gain between that book and The Last Best Cure? What was going on in your life prior to writing these books?

The Autoimmune Epidemic focused on how modern chemicals in the world around us and in our diet are overwhelming the human immune system, contributing to rising disease rates and chronic illnesses. The Last Best Cure takes this research a step further and investigates “psychoneuroimmunology,” a new field of study that investigates how mind states, such as anxiety, fear, worry, rumination, anger and pain, can end up damaging our immune function in much the same way as environmental chemicals. Prior to this, I was struggling with my own health crises. The Last Best Cure is my chronicle of a one-year doctor/patient experiment to see if altering my mood state might shift my inflammatory markers and perhaps even improve my physical well-being.

 The Last Best Cure has received much critical praise, described as a book that will offer hope for recovery, and change and save lives. What is the most important insight or piece of information you want readers to take away from your book?

I want people to know that there already exists an understanding as to how we can activate the healing potential of the brain. Understanding how to do this gives us powerful tools, ways to change the messages our brain is sending to our cells and our body. Everyone deserves to live the life they want, and these tools can help us all achieve a greater sense of well-being, and even joy.

You were already an award-winning science journalist and writer when you began writing these last two books. What was it like writing professionally about a topic that was also very personal to you? Were there any “aha” moments for your own life as you were writing?

At first, I was only going to write about my personal experiences in the introduction to The Last Best Cure, but my editor thought readers would want to read more about how I also went on this transformational journey myself. She thought it would help convey to readers that we can all take this journey, no matter what physical or emotional health challenges we face. There was so much that I realized along the way about adversity, self-respect and how they play a role in adult illness. Now I’m profoundly grateful to have taken this journey: Life is sweeter, relationships are better and it’s a better, more meaningful way to live.

In addition to being about healing and recovering personal joy, The Last Best Cure is a story about a health epidemic. What steps do we need to take now to secure a better health outlook for future generations?

We need to absolutely, completely and radically change how we view the doctor/patient relationship. If we keep up the current “medical factory” model we’re going to see very little progress in managing chronic health issues. Right now, 133 million adults in America have chronic illnesses, not counting the 22 million with addiction – and these numbers are rapidly climbing. The tools to help patients participate in their own healing and facilitate greater well-being exist; it just requires that physicians incorporate new practices into their doctor/patient paradigm. In order to do this, we must change the way we as a society view treatment, health care and the doctor/patient relationship.

Are there any new books in the works?

Yes, one due out at the end of next year called Childhood Interrupted: How Adversity in the Past Writes the Story of Our Future – And How We Can Change the Script (Atria/Simon & Schuster). It’s a deeper, more extended study of how childhood adversity can create changes in the brain and in our immunology that impact our health long into adulthood – and what we can do to reverse those effects as adults. I’m telling cutting-edge stories of science, about how even very common forms of childhood adversity can reset our immune system to be more stress-reactive, sparking a state of chronic low-grade neuroinflammation for life. I want to help readers understand how the stress we meet in childhood can determine our lifelong “set point” for emotional reactivity, inflammation, disease and depression – and what we can do to reverse the impact of early adversity and trauma years later, in adulthood, to regain our physical and emotional well-being.

How long has the Baltimore area been home to you? What do you like best about living in this area?

My family moved to Baltimore four years ago from Annapolis; my mom and my husband’s parents were already living here, so it just made sense. What I like best about Baltimore is its people. Baltimoreans are real, genuine, honest, intellectual, creative, smart and energetic. They’re committed to their community and engaged in making this a better place to live. We love it here. It’s a vibrant place to be.

 

Thank You Readers – The Last Best Cure hit #10 in Bestselling Books in Health Memoir

Thank you readers, I just found out that last night THE LAST BEST CURE hit #10 on AMAZON in BESTSELLING BOOKS IN HEALTH MEMOIR! That made me smile, and I realize I have all of you to thank for spreading the word, one woman, one reader at a time! In gratitude, I thank you.http://amzn.to/1dIIyVd

Thank you all for spreading the word, I'm so very grateful.


Talking on NPR about The Last Best Cure

I really enjoyed a great discussion today with Dan Rodricks, the host of the NPR show, Midday, on WYPR, Baltimore’s Public Radio station. Dan is smart, genuine, and asks great questions. We really delved into why I wrote The Last Best Cure, the science behind it, and how I hope it can help readers with chronic conditions. You can listen to the entire show by clicking on the podcast at this link: http://wypr.org/post/last-best-cure.

photo of dogs with glasses reading

My writing companions, Ashlie and Winnie

This photo has nothing to do with this show — I am just reposting it here because I like it and it makes me smile!

The Ones Who’ve Helped us Along the Way

Yesterday I was struggling to manage a few swirling mind states — you know, those fears, resentments and regrets that well up, or at least they do for me. I just could not find any inner compassion for my own life mistakes. My suffering was mind-wrought, and doing me no good, but even knowing all that I could not manage my thoughts.

Then I remembered a type of meditation that has helped me get unstuck in the past. It is taught by many but my favorite version is by John Makransky. It’s called “Identifying Benefactors and Receiving Love.”

So I got it out again, that tape, as a rescue remedy (you can listen to his free 13 minute audio version at this link).

It’s pretty healing stuff. Here’s how a “receiving benefactors” meditation works, in case you feel inclined to give it a try.

Makransky asks us to first think of people in our lives whom we might think of as benefactors, those who have wished for our “deep well-being and happiness.”  Often, these are, he says, the people we most liked to be around at earlier points in our lives.  A dear aunt or grandparent, a friend of our parents, a teacher or professor or coach, someone whom it feels good to remember because we knew in our hearts that they wanted the absolute best for us.  We felt safe by their side.

Thinking of my Own Benefactors

My Dad and I when I was eight-years-old.

I think of my Dad, of course I think of him. I think of how one day, when I was 11, a year or so before he died, we were sailing. As I took the tiller on that blue-green Chesapeake day, my Dad turned to my mother and asked — despite my buck teeth, my horn-rimmed tortoise shell glasses, my frizzy blond hair that inspired my brothers to call me “lampshade head” — “Isn’t she just so beautiful?”  As if he saw something incandescent beneath my profound gawkiness.

Someone who believes we are beautiful, even when we are gawky and awkward, and who knows we need to hear it precisely because we are gawky and awkward, that is a benefactor.

My grandmother, who we called GrandMary, on her wedding day.

I think, too, of my father’s mother, whom we called GranMary. GranMary always called me “my darling girl,” no matter how old I was.  The last time I saw her shortly before her death, she patted my hand between her palms, and, caught in a moment of dementia, asked, “You are going to Jay’s play tonight, aren’t you?”  She was talking about my father, who had been dead for 30 years.  She was reliving one of those buoyant, excited moments of mothering: the opening night of the school play her son had written and directed — albeit half a century after the fact.  “Jay and I have been rehearsing his lines all afternoon!” she said with pride, leaning toward me, our knees touching between the sofa where she sat and the ottoman on which I perched.  “He has his lines down,” she said proudly, patting my knee.

My father, at age 17, the age when he would have been about to appear in the play he wrote and directed, the age at which he would have come in the door to practice his lines with his mom, a memory she held dear after he died.

I recall how she turned and glanced around the room, as if expecting her son to come through the front door of her assisted living apartment.  How she somehow seemed to know who I was and yet not understand that I was also her dead son’s now grown daughter.

“My darling girl.  You are coming to Jay’s play?  Oh, you must!”

I wanted to go to my Dad’s play, yes.  See him as a 17-year-old, directing, acting, taking his curtain call via some kind of magical time reversal.  Or see him on any single day of his life – still alive.  But there is no such magical clock.  I think of how much my father’s mother loved him, how it broke her heart to lose her son without warning.  “The worst thing,” she once told me, in her earlier, lucid years, “is to lose your child while you still live.  It’s an unnatural pain.”  How she loved us all.  How she would tell us at the end of every family party or dinner or day, just that: “I love you all.”

I think, too, of the aunt who comforted me through the years after my father’s death. My Aunt Nan wasn’t related to me, she was my parents’ best friend and our neighbor. When he died, the summer I was twelve, I began spending Saturday mornings at her house, making pancakes, and school day afternoons climbing the pine trees in the field in front of her driveway. We’d run around in her yellow Volkswagen Beetle; the same one in which she’d driven me to kindergarten seven years earlier — she’d also been my kindergarten teacher.

She’d leave surprises for me in the mailbox, knowing I picked up the mail when I got off the bus. One day there was a small toy Leprechaun sitting in the mailbox, his pliable legs and arms crossed, as if he’d been waiting patiently for me.

Years later, when I moved to New York, Aunt Nan tirelessly helped me to find my first walk up apartment. She’d moved to Connecticut, and on weekends I’d recover on her couch in the country in front of her fireplace. We often had a cup of tea together as she listened, patiently, dearly, to my stories of work and love in the city. One day I gave her a porcelain tea cup.

When she died a year ago, her daughter said she had wanted me to have that tea cup back, and gave it to me.

The tea cup I gave my Aunt Nan, which she left for me when she died.

I keep it on my desk beside me and I always think of her when I see it, every single day.

I think of my mother’s mother Gammer; how she was there to hold me with open arms the day my mother broke the news to my brothers and me that my dad had died.  I think of the New Year’s Eves I would spend with Gammer well into my twenties if I didn’t have a boyfriend.  Each time I ditched or got ditched by a guy, she would send me another small tiny ceramic frog with a hopelessly beautiful cliché note that simply read,

My grandmother, Gammer, holding me when I was 8 days old. I miss her everyday.

“Dearest Donna, I guess you will have to kiss a few …”  After a while frogs began to appear with no note at all whenever a relationship bit the dust.  Her collection still makes me smile.

I think of them all, my father, my two grandmothers and my aunt.

“Bring them to mind,” Makransky says.  “Imagine their smiling faces before you.  Envision your benefactors sending you the wish of love, the wish for you to have deepest well being, happiness and joy.”

It is enough to make my breath slow, my throat catch.

I try not to think of whether I deserve their love, or whether those I’ve loved and lost would in fact be proud of me, when I haven’t done half of what I thought I’d do in my life, have been cranky too often and selfish and have my share of regrets and resentments that are, well, the reason why I am doing this meditation.

They were all so resilient, so upbeat despite the sorrows life threw their way.  I am not as resilient, I fear, as the ones who came before me.

The Benefactor Meditation

“Allow the soft healing energy of their love into every cell of your body and every corner of your mind.” Makransky’s voice continues. “Bathe in this.  Heal in this.  Rest in this.”

He suggests we bring one benefactor more to mind than the others, and let that connection “energize the magnitude of the radiance we feel ourselves receive.”

I imagine, of course, my Dad.  He is standing before me.  I try to brush aside the worry of whether he would be proud of me or not so proud.

“Join your benefactors in their wish for you while receiving the radiance of their love, repeating the wish for yourself in your mind,” says Makransky.  May this one have deepest well-being, happiness and joy.

I can’t help but think of the scene where Harry Potter gazes into the mirror of Erised  — the name backward for desire — which shows the deepest wishes of one’s heart.  How he saw his dead parents waving to him, their heads nodding.

This one,” I hear my father say.  “May this one have deepest well-being, happiness and joy.”

My eyes prick with tears.

I hear Makransky’s voice: “Rest in this love until you feel complete, whole.”

Sometimes, I have found I can’t recall the exact contour of my father’s face; the crevices, the smile lines, the five o-clock stubble.  But in this moment I see my father with utter clarity. He is smiling at me, as if to say, Remember what I taught you as we sailed together, as we took in the whole wide sky and bay. Remember that this world is a magical place. Remember to be amazed.

I imagine the love of my dad and the beautiful women whom I have been so blessed to be loved by, how they loved me. How I want to carry that love forward, pay it forward, in the way I am in the world.

As I open my eyes, I feel washed of something. Of all the swirling fear and regret that consumed me just fifteen minutes earlier. I feel a compassion for myself. For all beings.

And I am okay with what is. I trust in my capacity to be here, with what has been, what has not been, and what is.

Try the Benefactor Meditation for Yourself — It’s Worth it

Who are your benefactors? Can you imagine them standing beside you, sending you so much love and well-wishes? How does that feel? Give it a try.

Distressing Thoughts and Stressing Our Cells

It was when my own physician, Dr. Anastasia Rowland-Seymour, at Johns Hopkins, said this to me that I began to understand how important my own inner dialogue was to my state of well-being

What is the direct relationship between letting our mind drift — ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, focusing on distressing thoughts, what’s going wrong, what isn’t fair, or what we’re afraid will happen next — and our cellular and physical well-being?

Although we can’t peer inside our cells in real time and see how mindful calm versus a racing mind have radically different health impacts, a new study published in the journal Health Psychology, sheds new light on the question. Researchers at U.C. Davis Center for the Study of Mind & Brain have conducted the first study which shows the direct relationship between using our mental resources to manage ruminating thoughts and stay with our immediate experience — and lowering our levels of the inflammatory stress hormone cortisol.

High levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland, are, as we know, associated with physical or emotional stress. Prolonged release of the hormone contributes to wide-ranging, adverse effects — and are linked to every physical and mental disease imaginable.

Sometimes it helps me to remember what “stress” really is.  Stress is really a euphemism for our thoughts. Our racing, self-flagellating, ruminating, resentful, could-have, should-have, wish-I-had, wish-I-hadn’t thoughts that catch us in their trance. Or what I call, in The Last Best Cure, the “Pain Channel.”

All too often we can’t get out of the Pain Channel’s trance. We can’t turn the Pain Channel off. We keep tuning into what it has to say, and as we do, those thoughts help promote the production of stress hormones and cytokines that are, in turn, linked to higher rates of depression, heart disease, autoimmune disease, you name it.

Other research tells us that in the lab, the negative cellular impact of stress hormones look a lot like the negative impacts of the toxic chemicals I wrote about in The Autoimmune Epidemic.

So, here is my reminder equation.
Stressed State of Mind =  Pain Channel.
Pain Channel = damaging stress chemicals circulating in our body.
Damaging Stress Chemicals = what scientists call the “Negative Floating Brain.”
“Negative Floating Brain” = greater likelihood of emotional and physical health challenges.
Greater Health Challenges = more likelihood of being in a Stressed State.

This is not to say that our state of mind creates disease. That’s far too simplistic.There is so much at play — genetics, diet, environmental toxins.

But stress chemicals certainly add to our “barrel” of factors that work against physical and emotional healing. And even if moving away from the “Pain Channel” and the Negative Floating Brain doesn’t necessarily mean we overcome whatever physical challenge we face — turning down the “Pain Channel” volume can’t help but make us feel better, whatever chronic condition we’re up against. (For more on how I see that, see my OpEd for PBS’s online magazine, Next Avenue, called, “I’m Not Cured but I am Healed.”) (I really think the title should be, more accurately, “I’m not Cured, but I am Healing.”)

The practices that help us walk away from the Pain Channel and the Negative Floating Brain really do make a difference, and they are worth our time and our commitment.

For me, as a science writer, reminding myself of the science every day helps me remake the commitment to meditate, focus on mindful breathing, loving kindness, down dogging, laughter, nature walking…all of it. The science is my guide.

Post-doctoral researcher Tonya Jacobs PhD says that in the above study, researchers taught study participants attentional skills such as mindful breathing, observing mental events, and practicing cultivating benevolent mental states, including loving kindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanimity.

Individuals whose mindfulness scores increased showed a decrease in inflammatory disease-promoting levels of cortisol.

“The more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol,” Jacobs says. She adds that training the mind to focus on immediate experience may reduce the propensity to ruminate about the past or worry about the future, the thought processes that have been linked to cortisol release.

We are all walking around listening to the Pain Channel way too much of the time. And we know that the negative floating brain damages our immune system and our cellular health.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

In hopes that they might prove helpful, here are two upcoming offerings.

The first is being offered by the phenomenal health advocate Elisa Rodriguez, who is launching one of the first The Last Best Cure Virtual Book Clubs to discuss and encourage us all on the journey … I’ll be joining in for a one hour discussion. I’ll also be sending signed bookplates to participants. To learn more, see Elisa’s video here. I’ve spoken with her several times now, and wow, she is just amazing. The beauty of The Last Best Cure Virtual Book Club is that you can join from wherever you are, and Elisa has found a way to make it easy and accessible to all.

The second is an upcoming retreat by my own beloved teacher, Trish Magyari, whose work I feature in The Last Best Cure. Magyari will be teaching a one day “Befriending Yourself” Mindfulness Retreat” on Saturday June 15 at Baltimore Yoga Village in Mount Washington (Baltimore, Maryland) from 1-5pm. Trish is a life-changing teacher. If you can take this opportunity to work with her, do.

I hope to hear from you about your own efforts to stay on the path.  What is working for you today?

 

The Last Best Cure Virtual Book Club Tour

I’ve received a number of so sweet requests to come talk to book clubs who are reading The Last Best Cure, or join in small group chats, and answer questions about both the book and my journey.

I treasure meeting my readers — there is nothing, really, that I love more about what I do than that moment of connection when I meet readers face to face. You all humble me, in the way you meet your own challenges with such grace and dignity and humility and determination.

Yes, women with chronic conditions may be fatigued, but I find my readers to be an extraordinary force of nature.

Like many of you who have chronic conditions, lots of travel can be hard on my system. That, coupled with my keen desire to be fully present on the homefront with my teenagers as much as possible (my oldest leaves for college in the fall!) means I can’t plane hop as much as I’d like to to meet the wonderful groups of amazing women who are gathering to talk about The Last Best Cure from Albany to Chicago to Vancouver. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be there.

So, here’s my offer. If you are planning to read The Last Best Cure for your book club, and gather a group of say 10 women or more who are reading the book, I’ll “drop in” by Skype or speaker phone or whatever works best for you — and we can have that “small group chat.” I’d love to.

And since it’s nice to have signed books, I’ll send signed The Last Best Cure “Book Club Bookplates” to book clubs (like all bookplates, they adhere to the page) so you’ll have author signed copies.

Let me know what you think of my virtual book club tour idea! Any ideas to improve upon this concept? I’d love to hear.  If you reach out to me and let me know you’d like to schedule a date, we can follow up by email.

How We Handle the Wear and Tear of Today’s Stress Predicts Whether We’ll Be Depressed Ten Years From Now

The way we manage our thoughts right here, today, determines how we'll feel -- and whether we'll suffer from depression and anxiety -- ten years from now. The best way to stay on a healthy path? Redirect your negative emotions today by learning to mindfully manage your thoughts.

The way we manage our emotional responses to the stresses we meet in day-to-day life  — to what is happening right now, right here, in our life — predicts whether we’ll suffer from depression and anxiety ten years from now, says a new study in today’s Psychological Science.

Researchers examined the relationship between how we handle daily stress and our mental well-being ten years later. They found that our longterm emotional health has less to do with what happens to us than with how we react to what happens to us.

The better we are at managing our emotional responses and thoughts today — to whatever problem we’re facing at work or at home or with our kids — the better mental health we’ll enjoy ten years from today. The better brain we’ll own.

When we respond with a lot of negativity and reactivity to our day-to-day stressors we’re more likely to be clinically depressed ten years later and experience feelings of “worthlessness, hopelessness, nervousness and anxiety.” We take those negative emotions with us, wherever we go.

These findings, based on a study of 711 men and women between 25 and 74, show that mental health outcomes aren’t only affected by major life events — they are also affected by the “chronic nature of our negative emotions in response to daily stressors.”

We know there are so many ways to manage our thoughts and get off the distress highway — and stay on the path. Mindfulness, lovingkindness meditation, noting our moment to moment habits of mind, breath work, yoga, seeking out acupuncture.

In The Last Best Cure I spent an entire year learning from the best experts on the planet how to redirect my thoughts, calm my mind and quiet my stress response. And every day I continue to learn. Reading studies like these helps me to re-commit to these practices everyday.

Because that’s what it takes. It’s not instant. It takes work. Discipline. But it’s also fun. It’s a relief to step away from our daily wear-and-tear stress-reactions and ruminations. A half-hour spent mindfully breathing or in walking meditation or yoga sure beats a half hour spent ruminating and rehashing the should haves and what ifs that are worrying me today, and it will pay off long into my future.

Don’t we owe ourselves that small but priceless investment in who we are, and in who we hope to become?

Babies Get It, Grade Schoolers Get It, So Why is it So Hard For Us?

christian and claire babies

This photo was taken on the day we brought our daughter, Claire, home from the hospital. My son, Christian, heard her fussing and came over, and held her hand. She quieted down right away, and stared into his eyes. Compassion is innate, and it calms us and increases our joy both when we show it and when we receive it. Kids know it.

Several studies over the past few years have found that kids as young as 18 months old possess deep feelings of compassion.

One study found that when toddlers show kindness to others, it’s motivated by innate feelings of compassion — not just a desire to please the adults in their lives. In the study, when toddlers saw someone in need of help their pupil sizes increased — a sign of empathic concern. After toddlers did something nice for that person, their pupils got smaller. Researchers say this means their kindness came from deep, genuine concern. In fact, toddlers showed greater signs of happiness when they gave away a special treat, than they did when they received one.

Performing truly altruistic acts—acts that involve some measure of personal sacrifice—made the kids happier than helping others at no cost to themselves.

This is the first study to show that altruism is intrinsic to who we are, and is rewarding even to very young kids, and that it makes them happier to give than to receive.

When a behavior is intrinsically rewarding like this, especially at the earliest stages of life, it suggests to scientists that it has deep evolutionary roots.

Other studies on compassion and kindness show that kids prefer other kids who are kind and, contrary to popular belief, being kind can even help kids boost their “popularity standing.”

Researchers asked 400 students between the ages of 9 and 11 to perform three acts of kindness — or choose other easier tasks — over four weeks. Afterwards the kids who showed kindness saw a much greater spike in their popularity, gaining twice as many friends as their counterparts. And they also had more positive feelings about themselves.

Kids said they did simple things like gave their mom a hug when she seemed stressed (always a welcome gesture at my house!), or shared their lunch with someone at school.

But clearly, as we grow up and come of age, and especially when life gets more stressful, or life is hard, our innate sense of compassion goes underground. We compete at work. Drivers gesture angrily on the freeway, and turning on the news shows us that too many politicians and sports heroes choose to treat themselves well rather than others kindly, and that too many young people die in personal or gang violence, or spree shootings. It can seem there is too little kindness to spare.

We face so much stress in our own day-to-day lives and see such callousness around us that we can become a little numb.

And yet, even so, that innate compassion that we had at 2 or 9 or 11 is there, ready to bubble up, if we just call it up.

And even those who’ve faced the hardest of lives can call it up. Researchers introduced a type of brain-changing practice known as compassion meditation — sending kind wishes to themselves, those they love and those they find problematic in their lives — to teenagers living in a foster care group in Florida. These were kids who faced a lot of day-to-day stress and adversity. Their lives were tougher than most of us can imagine.

The foster teens underwent an eight-week loving kindness meditation class, keeping journals on how much they practiced.  Researchers measured their stress responses both before and after.  They also asked the teens to wear an electronically activated recorder that picks up the ambient sounds in a person’s environment – including disagreements, harsh words, altercations.

And here’s what happened: the more troubled teens practiced loving kindness meditation on their own – about four or five times a week  – the more compassionate they became in their day-to-day interactions and the less altercations ensued.  Not surprisingly, teens’ stress hormone levels and inflammatory markers also went down, which we know is critical to improving physical health. Troubled foster teens, living calmer, healthier lives, simply by letting their innate compassion emerge from within for a few minutes a day.

Similar work is going on in high security prisons where, after meditation classes using both compassion and breath as a focus, violence has gone down by twenty percent or more.

Things haven’t changed that much from when we were 2 and 9. We feel better about ourselves when we extend kindness. Others feel better about being with us. We feel less stressed. Life is sweeter all around, for our brains, bodies and cells.

I’ve found that it’s a decisive act to be compassionate — we have to choose compassion in our rush, rush lives. But learning to choose it — along with practicing the other techniques I test drove in my one year experiment to find The Last Best Cure — is a life-changing gift not only to others, but to ourselves.

Countdown Reason # 6: What Stress Does to the Gut, and What the Stressed Gut Does to the Brain

the gut...

Stress harms the "microbiome" in the "second brain" in our gut, allowing bad bacteria to proliferate. And when bad bacteria proliferate in our gut, that directly impacts our "first brain" in our head -- causing us to feel more anxious, depressed, and stress-reactive. But we can help to stop that feedback loop.

Two new studies tell us an interesting story about stress, the gut and the brain.

We have a LOT of organisms in the gut. Cell for cell, we’re largely made up of bacteria. In fact, single-celled organisms, mostly bacteria, outnumber our own cells 10 to 1. Most of these live in our gut.

Any alteration of the composition of good versus bad microorganisms in the gut —collectively known as our “microbiome”—impacts the state of our brain, making us more prone to anxiety, depression and low mood. And that lowered mood makes us more prone to feeling stressed out and reactive… which in turn further changes the composition of microorganisms in the gut…

See the cycle?

The first study appears in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Researchers report that when we are under stress, the bacterial communities in our intestine become less diverse, allowing greater numbers of harmful bacteria to take over and party hearty.

(We’ve pretty much known this for a while, after all, disorders of the gut such as irritable bowel and inflammatory bowel diseases are known to worsen during times of stress. But now we have the science to back up that clinical observation.)

And that leads to the second study I wanted to talk about. It turns out that when bad bacteria are partying in our gut, it not only lowers our overall immunity, it lowers our overall mood. A sophisticated neural network transmits messages from those trillions of bacteria to our brain, exerting a powerful influence on our state of mind.

That’s why scientists have begun to refer to our gut as “the second brain.”

The idea that bacteria teeming in the gut can affect the mind “has just catapulted onto the scene,” say study authors. Our gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of our body’s supply of serotonin, which significantly influences our mood. In just the last few years evidence has piled up that the gut microbiome heavily influences our neural development, brain chemistry, emotional behavior, pain perception, learning, memory, and how our stress system is prepared to respond to life’s ups and downs.

The more bad bacteria in our gut, the more anxious and moody and stressed out we feel.

The more stressed out we feel the more we tip the microbial balance in the gut allowing more bad bacteria to thrive.

Gastroenterologist Emeran Mayer, MD, director of the Center for Neurobiology of Stress at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that given the gut’s multifaceted ability to communicate with the brain “it’s almost unthinkable that the gut is not playing a critical role in mind states.”

THE LAST BEST CURE is a toolbox to  intervene in that stress feedback cycle and help rescue both the brain in our gut and the brain in our head.

“Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: Implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation” by Michael T. Bailey, Scot E. Dowd, Jeffrey D. Galley, Amy R. Hufnagle, Rebecca G. Allen and Mark Lytee; and the brief commentary on it is “The gut microbiota: A new player in the innate immune stress response?” by Monika Fleshner. The article appears in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Volume 25, Number 3 (March 2011), published by Elsevier.