Why Girls Who Face Toxic Stress are More Vulnerable to Adult Illness: The Shocking Relationship Between Being Female, #ACEs, Autoimmune Disease and Depression

Hi All,

This blog is about WHY Adverse Childhood Experiences are a #METOO ISSUE. I want to talk about how and why toxic childhood stress – also as #ACEs — is a #metoo issue of the greatest magnitude. For girls and for the adult women they become.

One thing readers know about the work I do and the books I write, including Childhood Disrupted, The Autoimmune Epidemic, and The Last Best Cure, is that I focus on the intersection of neuroscience, immunology and emotion – while shining a spotlight on WOMEN’s experiences.

Connecting these dots is always an underlying theme in my work. Women, girls, toxic stress, the female brain and immune system, autoimmune disease and chronic physical and mental illness — if you care about any of these, keep an eye out for my upcoming three-part blog series in which I delve into the scientific links between them all.

Today I’m posting the first part of my three-part exploration on Growing Up With Female Adversity: The Female Body and Brain on Toxic Stress.

(For those of you who read this introduction to my three-part series in my heads-up post yesterday, skip down below to PART ONE…)

I’ve written this blog, and am offering it up freely, because I think it’s crucial that we address the unique way in which the female brain and immune system respond to environmental influences, including #ACEs, and how, in turn, this unique female brain-immune response contributes to girls being several times more likely to later develop autoimmune diseases, depression, anxiety disorders, and so many other chronic illnesses.

I’m going to break down for you, in a way no one else has, or will, how and WHY Adverse Childhood Experiences and toxic childhood stress are a #metoo issue of the greatest magnitude. For girls and for the adult women they become.

In it, I’m offering up the term — and hashtag — #FemaleAdversity — to refer to the chronic societal stress girls face growing up. Girls not only come of age with higher rates of #AdverseChildhoodExperiences, including verbal, emotional, sexual and physical abuse, girls also have to find their way to a healthy adulthood and sense of self amidst cripplingly narrow societal expectations regarding what constitutes acceptable female beauty and behavior.

All this is intensified, 24/7, by imagery of effortless female perfection on social media and in media in general. Meanwhile, girls are witnessing the sexual harassment and sexism so many adult women endure. Over time, this #FemaleAdversity can take a toll on girls’ and women’s immune systems, bodies, and brains in unique ways.

The timing for this discussion seems apt, as today we come to the end of #autoimmunediseaseawareness month as well as #womenshistorymonth and enter #childabuseprevention month. A fitting moment to delve into all of these issues.

So, Today, I’m sharing:

PART ONE: Why Girls Who Face #ToxicStress are More Vulnerable to Adult Illness: The Shocking Relationship Between Being Female, #ACEs, #AutoimmuneDisease and #Depression.

To get personal for a moment, the reason I focus so strongly, as a science journalist, on this intersection between neuroscience, immunology, emotion, toxic stress, and being female is, in part, due to my own autoimmune history. I’ve struggled most of my adult life with the lingering physical effects of having been paralyzed twice with Guillain Barre Syndrome. I’ve had a pacemaker since I was 28. I’ve struggled with peripheral neuropathy, chronic neuromuscular pain, thyroiditis, leukopenia and other medical issues throughout my adult life.

But I’m hardly alone in all this; so many of you, my readers, have faced similar and often much more difficult health issues than I have. My own experience is merely what lead me, as a career science journalist, to investigate the intersection of neuroscience, immunology and the deepest inner workings of the human heart.

What KEEPS ME GOING is the way I’ve been moved, time and again, by the hundreds of thousands of female readers who’ve shared with me their struggles, in the face of #trauma, #autoimmunedisease, #chronic illness, #depression.Wanting to help ease that suffering propels ME to uncover new understanding, new answers and insights that can change lives.

The reason I shine an up-close light on how women’s bodies, brains and immune systems are impacted in unique ways by toxic stress and emotion, and other environmental triggers, is because the science in this area is exciting and also under-reported. And the reason this science is under-reported is because it can be complex and hard to unpack in a media era that all too often relies on simplistic, broad-brush headline-centric, click-bait reporting.

If you follow my work you already know that research shows that #ACEs, such as being chronically put down or humiliated, living with a depressed, mentally ill, or alcoholic parent, losing a parent to divorce or death, being emotionally neglected, physically or sexually abused, as well as many other types of toxic childhood stressors, are linked to a much greater likelihood of developing autoimmune disease, heart disease and cancer in adulthood. Having experienced 6 categories of childhood adversity can take 20 years off your lifespan.

That’s because toxic stress changes the way our immune system responds to stressors in the future. When kids and teens experience chronic adversity, inflammatory chemicals begin to flood a child’s body and brain, plunging the body into a state of chronic hypervigilance.

Our genes are ALWAYS in a back and forth dance with our environment. If you’re a child growing up in an environment that is chronically stressful, and don’t have reliable adults to turn to, that meets the definition of toxic stress.

Toxic childhood stress begins to cause changes in the architecture of the developing brain, and it engenders profound epigenetic changes in the genes that oversee the stress response. In fact, Yale researchers recently found that children who’d faced Chronic Unpredictable Toxic Stress (what I term C.U.T.S.) demonstrate changes “across the genome” in genes that oversee the stress response. These changes re-set the stress response to “high” for life.

They also showed changes in genes that play a role in developing autoimmune disease, cancer, depression, anxiety and so on.This correlation is particularly stark for WOMEN. For each category of #ACEs a girl faces, her chance of developing a serious autoimmune disease in adulthood increases by 20 percent. For instance, a girl who faces three categories of Adverse Childhood Experiences has a 60 percent greater chance of developing an autoimmune disease so serious she requires hospitalization as an adult woman, as compared to a girl who grows up without #toxicstress.

For every category of #ACEs a man has faced, his chances of being hospitalized with an autoimmune disease increases by about 10 percent – still a significant and disturbing correlation and one we also need to pay attention to.

We also know that girls face more #ACEs growing up in general. In fact, girls are 50% more likely to have experienced 5 or more categories of childhood adversity. These include sexual and physical abuse, emotional or physical neglect, growing up being chronically humiliated, or growing up with a parent with a drug/alcohol problem or mental illness, or losing a parent to divorce/death.

These higher rates of #ACEs for girls mostly revolve around the fact that girls are physically smaller than men and have less societal power or equality in family life – and are more vulnerable to, and likely to be victims of, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and harassment.

Just think of today’s #METOO movement. It’s all about systemic emotional, sexual, physical harassment and humiliation and abuse based on being in a situation in which men in the culture (and “culture” can include members of your family of origin) are more powerful than you.

We also know that girls who experience 2 or more categories of #ChildhoodAdversity are twice as likely as boys who experience 2 or more types of childhood adversity to develop autoimmune disease in adulthood.

In fact, the relationship between being female, facing adversity as a teenager or child, and later developing an #autoimmunedisease, is so strong it resembles the link between smoking and cancer, or drunk driving and having a car accident.

Again, the more childhood adversity a girl grows up with, the higher her risk becomes for adult disease, and the more likely she is to end up in the hospital at some point in her adult life in order to be treated for a serious autoimmune condition. As a science journo when I saw these statistics I wanted to know: WHY are women who experience childhood adversity twice as likely to suffer from disease as adults, compared to men?

What happens in a girl’s body, in response to #toxicstress, that leads girls to be more likely to be ill as adult women? EVERY WOMAN WAS ONCE A GIRL. So, we should figure this conundrum out, right?

Tomorrow, I’ll try to do just that for you, in Part Two: Every Woman Was Once a Girl: Why We Need to Talk About the Biological Effects of #FemaleAdversity on Women’s Bodies and Brains

If this topic interests you personally, because it speaks to your experience, or because you work with, teach, mentor, or are parenting girls, or if you work in #ACEAwareness or #trauma prevention, sign up for my blog and newsletter now. If you haven’t yet signed up for my mailing list and/or my blog, you might want to now.

(To sign up for my mailing list and newsletter, click on the link below, and see the “Mailing List” subscription box to your right. To sign up for my blog, scroll down on the right hand side of my website’s blog page to “Never Miss a Blog Post and sign up there.)

You can also find me on Facebook or @DonnaJackNak on Twitter.

Female Adversity: The Female Body and Brain on Toxic Stress

Hi All,

Three things I wanted to let you know about: later this weekend I’ll be posting a three part essay about women, toxic stress, and the female immune system — and why this topic matters now more than ever (more on that below!); an update on my next book, The Angel and the Assassin; and upcoming speaking events!

One thing readers know about the work I do and the books I write, including Childhood Disrupted, The Autoimmune Epidemic, and The Last Best Cure, is that I focus on the intersection of neuroscience, immunology and emotion – while shining a spotlight on WOMEN’s experiences. Connecting these dots is always an underlying theme in my work. Women, girls, toxic stress, the female brain and immune system, autoimmune disease and chronic physical and mental illness — if you care about any of these, keep an eye out for my upcoming three-part blog series in which I delve into the scientific links between them all.

I’ve written this upcoming blog, and am offering it up freely, because I think it’s crucial that we address the unique way in which the female brain and immune system respond to environmental influences, including #ACEs, and how, in turn, this unique female brain-immune response contributes to girls being several times more likely to later develop autoimmune diseases, depression, anxiety disorders, and so many other chronic illnesses.

I’m going to break down for you, in a way no one else has, or will, how and WHY Adverse Childhood Experiences and toxic childhood stress are a #metoo issue of the greatest magnitude. For girls and for the adult women they become.

If you haven’t yet signed up for my mailing list and/or my blog, you might want to now. (To sign up for my mailing list and newsletter, see the “Mailing List” subscription box to your right. To sign up for my blog, scroll down on the right hand side of this page to “Never Miss a Blog Post and sign up!)

I’m calling this three-part exploration:

Growing Up With Female Adversity: The Female Body and Brain on Toxic Stress. In it, I’m offering up the term — and hashtag — #FemaleAdversity — to refer to the chronic societal stress girls face growing up. Girls not only come of age with higher rates of #AdverseChildhoodExperiences, including verbal, emotional, sexual and physical abuse, girls also have to find their way to a healthy adulthood and sense of self amidst cripplingly narrow societal expectations regarding what is acceptable female beauty and behavior. All this is intensified, 24/7, by images of effortless female perfection on social media and in media in general. Meanwhile, girls are witnessing the sexual harassment and sexism so many adult women endure. Over time, this #FemaleAdversity can take a toll on girls’ and women’s immune systems, bodies, and brains in unique ways.

So, in this series I’ll be delving into:

Part One: Why Girls Who Face #ToxicStress are More Vulnerable to Adult Illness: The Shocking Relationship Between Being Female, #ACEs, #AutoimmuneDisease and #Depression.

Part Two: Every Woman Was Once a Girl: Why We Need to Talk About the Biological Effects of #FemaleAdversity on Women’s Bodies and Brains.

Part Three: #FemaleAdversity is a Unique Form of #ToxicStress — One We Haven’t Been Paying Enough Attention To — And We’d Better Start Soon.

If this topic interests you personally, because it speaks to your experience, or because you work with, teach, mentor, or are parenting girls, or if you work in #ACEAwareness or #trauma prevention, sign up for my blog and newsletter now.

2. Here, too, is a very brief update about my next book THE ANGEL AND THE ASSASSIN: The Tiny Cell That Changed the Course of Medicine, and Gives us a Radically New Way of Looking at Human Well-Being, which will be out with Ballantine Books (Random House) in Fall 2019. I’m writing as fast as I can! And what I’m researching and reporting on is as promising for human health as it is mind-blowing. I’m happy to say, I’ve already turned in the first 200 pages.

In THE ANGEL AND THE ASSASSIN, I’m on a mission to de-stigmatize brain-related health challenges, and to show how chronic conditions like depression, anxiety, learning disabilities, mood disorders, memory issues, and Alzheimer’s all involve one tiny, overlooked (and all too often, overactive) brain immune cell called microglia, which functions as the “white blood cell of the brain.” These tiny glial cells are in constant dialogue with the body’s immune system, and can be all too easily triggered by physical or emotional trauma, toxic stress, environmental toxins, infections, and inflammation in the body itself. All of these can, in turn, cause microglia to become agitated and destroy brain synapses and circuitry, generating neuroinflammation — in much the same way that rogue immune cells in the body can generate a slow brew inflammatory process that leads to the body attacking itself, as in autoimmune disease.

This truly amazing discovery – and the new understanding that the brain is an immune organ, ruled by these little reactive immune cells called glia — is one of the most revolutionary discoveries in the history of science, and it’s changing everything, including leading to exciting new avenues for treating seemingly intractable life-altering disorders.

Once again, in  The Angel and the Assassin, as in all my books, I’ll be examining what this means specifically for women and girls, who suffer disproportionately from trauma, toxic stress, autoimmune disease, depression, and so many chronic illnesses. Stay tuned!

3. Finally, for those who are interested in knowing about my upcoming events, here are a few of the venues where I’ll be lecturing over the next few months. Both of these events offer CME and CPE Credits for professionals who want to be trauma-informed, learn about ACEs Science, and the latest science on resiliency.

Keynote, Rutgers University DIS[RU]PT TRAUMA Conference, Thursday, May 31st, 9 a.m. – 12:00. I’ll also be offering a break out workshop.

Golisano Children’s Hospital 16th Annual Pediatric Conference, Saturday June 9th, 1:30, at the Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa.

Hope to see you at one of these events!

You can also find me on Facebook or @DonnaJackNak on Twitter.

Donna

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!

Big News Coming! The Next Book!

I’m just about to announce my next book project — which I’ve signed for with Atria/Simon & Schuster. I’m going to be looking for interviewees for this one! So, stay tuned…I’ll be reaching out to you, my amazing, faithful readers.

I'll be looking for readers who want to be part of my next book... I'll announce it soon!

Subscribe to get my blog posts (option on the right) to stay informed and find out more!

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.