Tag Archives: positivity

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.

Countdown Reason # 7: Life Channel or Pain Channel?

Research tells us that although 70 % of our day is relatively good, 28 % of it neutral, and only about 2 % of what happens to us is actually bad, we think about that negative 2 % almost all the time; it’s what we ruminate over as we shower, drive, and fall asleep.[i]

It reminds me of that old saying that we wear 2 % of our wardrobe 90 % of the time. We button ourselves up in our misery cloak a lot.

I think of it this way. For most of us, two different sound tracks are playing simultaneously in our mind. I call them The Life Channel and The Pain Channel. It just depends which one we tune into — and turn up.

The Life Channel is the channel on which uplifting and joyful moments play. It’s the feeling I get when I am braiding my daughter’s hair. Watching my family doubled over laughing at a bad joke at the dinner table. Holding hands with my husband, or my daughter (if she lets me) as we cross a parking lot.

The Life Channel, pure and simple.

The feeling I get when I am staring at the snow covered trees as the sun transforms their icy branches into twinkling silver lights. Or when I am meditating, clearing the mind, focusing on nothing but my breath, and I manage (now and then) to reach that sweet spot of inner quiet, inner smiling. The aha of being half way through a yoga class, and realizing I’m in a peaceful place of well-being as I focus on every muscle and breath that goes into my downward facing dog. The joy of looking into one of my best friend’s eyes and feeling the inner love that’s exchanged in our haven’t-seen-you-in-far-too-long glance, in just an ordinary instant.

The Pain Channel is where we live, however, most of the time. It blares our anger, resentment, fear. Our ruminations over what happened, how it shouldn’t have, what should be happening instead. Our self-doubt. Our regret and recrimination. Our physical pain and fear over any health issues we’re facing.

Sometimes we have to be on The Pain Channel; it’s what wakes us up to deal with difficult situations, make change, take action.

But we don’t need to be listening to The Pain Channel 90% of the time. We just don’t.

We know The Pain Channel doesn’t feel good. We just don’t know how to shut it off. It’s powerful and seductive to get wrapped up in what’s playing on The Pain Channel, especially when we are feeling at our most vulnerable.

We have to have the tools to reach out and turn The Pain Channel off — and turn The Life Channel on.

THE LAST BEST CURE is about having a high-speed connection to dial up to The Life Channel, especially in those moments when we need it most. So we have a real chance at living life on the right track.

[i] it’s what we ruminate over as we shower, drive, and fall asleep: Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Richard Mendius, MD. Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA, 2009.  To see a fascinating talk given by Hanson at Google in June 2010 see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EM45CpeQb4.



Countdown Reason # 8: How Did We Miss This Chronic Disease Epidemic?

Laurie Edwards book
Laurie Edward's excellent book on the history of chronic illness in America, due out in April

How did we miss the chronic disease epidemic now facing America? And why are we so behind in meeting the needs of the 1 out of 2 adult Americans who suffer from them? I wanted to find out the answer to that question.

So I reached out to Laurie Edwards, author of the upcoming book In the Kingdom of the Sick: A Social History of Chronic Illness in America (due out in April). Laurie teaches writing for the health sciences at Northeastern University. She blogs about chronic illness, health care, and writing at A Chronic Dose.

I asked Laurie, “What has caused us to be so late out of the gate in meeting needs of patients with chronic illness, and in utilizing the new brain body science?

Here is what Laurie had to say:

“By and large, patients with chronic illness still navigate a medical system dominated by the biomedical model of disease, where patients are diagnosed, treated, and dismissed. This strategy is only effective with acute illness; after all, chronic conditions are treatable, but not curable. While many examples of a growing shift from this model exist—more centers with integrative care, or technology that allows patients and doctors to better collaborate in care, to name just a few—much work remains.

Another reason we’re slower to meet the needs of those living with chronic illness is that we get hung up on a limited view of prevention – the idea of preventing illness. For many patients who face chronic conditions, prevention is more about slowing down disease progression.

We need to be realistic about what the chronically ill population looks like. It is tempting to focus more exclusively on conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease when we think about chronic illness; after all, the seven most common chronic diseases are estimated to cost a staggering $1 trillion annually.  But this is an incomplete picture. Some 50 million Americans live with autoimmune disease, and a disproportionate number of these patients are women. An estimated twenty-five percent of the population lives with chronic pain and again, women suffer in higher numbers than men.  So many chronic conditions are “invisible illnesses”  – and this invisibility shrouds the physical realities that millions of people live with daily.

The gender gap also plays an important role in why chronic disease has been underacknowledged. Research shows female patients’ reports of pain are taken less seriously, treated less aggressively, and they are more likely to be characterized as emotional or psychogenic. Sex-based research into pain is one step. Already, emerging research suggests differences in the ways men and women perceive pain.

Chronic illness is incredibly complex, and these complexities feed into the delay in utilizing new brain-body science.  As you write in THE LAST BEST CURE, for so many patients, Western medicine has done all it can. Patients live with ongoing symptoms, try all sorts of lifestyle interventions and alternative therapies, and wonder if this is as good as it will get. While many recognize a fundamental mind-body connection, the idea that the brain itself could hold the key to healing is an enormous paradigm shift. Hopefully, science can give us more answers, and increased collaboration between patients and provides can help us put those answers into practice.”

I thank Laurie for her response to my question. I think it’s spot on. We’re late to address the skyrocketing problem of chronic illness in America, for all the reasons she cites. We have much to do. I hope that THE LAST BEST CURE helps us to better understand the emerging scientific answers and to put those answers into practice.

Countdown Reason # 9: It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

graphic from Penguin
Here's a graphic on the growing American Stress Crisis, based on a recent APA study of thousands of Americans

Today I was listening to NPR as I was driving. The discussion centered on new approaches to addiction — and the fact that addiction is now being classified as a “chronic brain disease.” Experts said that 22 million American’s suffer from it. (Add this to the 133 million Americans suffering from a range of other chronic diseases and the tally rises to 155 million Americans facing chronic health issues.)

And guess what one of the successful new treatment strategies for this newly labeled “chronic brain disease” turns out to be? What do practitioners who treat patients with addiction feel is critical for patients if they hope to return to a state of well-being?

“Manage their thoughts,” said both experts being interviewed. The phrase kept coming up: “Managing your thoughts plays a role in recovery.”

Manage the negative Floating Brain.  Monkey Brain. The constant chatter of worry, the laser focus on what’s wrong with whatever is happening, or wishing for something else to be happening. Nursing anger, frustration, fear, anxiety, resentment, regret. Ruminating. Getting caught in those states of mind that are linked to setting forth a toxic cocktail of inflammatory hormones and chemicals from brain to body to cell.

During the NPR show there was a pause for a commercial for an upcoming discussion about another rising health condition, the “disturbing rising rates of heart problems in young people.”

We know that heart conditions are related to chronic and acute stress.

Listening to this I thought we just have to find a way out of this American Stress Crisis and what it’s costing us. We just have to.

In my year-long journey to find a way out, to find THE LAST BEST CURE, I test drove everything I thought might help the 155 million Americans who have chronic conditions. Everything that scientists know activates the healing responses of the brain. So that we can walk away from Monkey Brain, and live with a newfound sense of well-being.

I also wanted to help the 145 million who don‘t face chronic health worries — and who don’t want to.

I put every skill I possess as an investigative science journalist to use in the process. And when I listen to the radio for twenty minutes in the car and hear about the range of pain we face, whether from this emotional struggle or that health challenge, I find myself feeling, very deeply in my heart, how much I want to be part of the change.

I hope THE LAST BEST CURE can help pave the way for change. Because it just doesn’t have to be this way.


Countdown Reason # 10: Turtle Wushu, Anyone?

A week ago I wrote this at the end of a blog on joy, memories and the brain (see Countdown Reason # 19: Why Emotional Memories of Joy Matter so Much):

“I’m going to think of how to make a joy memory today. I’ll let you know how that works out on an icy, windy Friday evening in a house with with two tired working parents at the end of the week and two teenagers.”

I promised I would let you know how that went.

Confession. It didn’t happen that Friday night. We unexpectedly had a house full of 14-year-old girls (who happen to be naturals at making joy happen). And then the week flew by in a blur of activities, work, events, homework, doctor’s appointments, and all that jazz. But this evening things were comparatively quiet and I asked my daughter if she’d help me get “the guys” (her dad and brother) to join us in a game of Turtle Wushu. We’d come across a video of it online and when we watched it we couldn’t stop laughing.

Laughter is really great for our cells, and laughter is joyful. And a joyful state of mind activates what scientists call the “positive floating brain;” those juicy good chemicals that set out from the brain and travel through our organs and cells, helping to protect us from inflammation. Moreover, it protects us from the “negative floating brain,” that state of Monkey Mind — where our inner chatter raps on about what’s going wrong, what we have to get done, what we’re angry or frustrated about, the things we’re afraid of — causing our brain to send forth a constant slow drip of inflammatory hormones and chemicals.

Here's how the game of Turtle Wushu begins...

Okay, here is the video (short at 1:42) on how to play: Turtle Wushu.

(We used small crackers instead of plastic turtles. It was even more fun because the dogs “played” too in hopes of getting the spoils.)

If you have teenagers it can be hard to find a game that everyone wants to play, but we were “all in” at our house for Turtle Wushu. A half hour of chasing, turning, sly maneuvers around the kitchen island, sock sliding across the floor and whirling around the breakfast table, and we were laughing pretty hard. Later, I caught my son and husband playing “Wushu” in the kitchen, just the two of them, laughing.

I got “Wushu-ed” a LOT (aka I kept losing!) so the dogs really stuck by my heels in hopes of getting those flying crackers. But I got something better — a silly and wild half hour with my family, away from homework, dishes, laundry, tomorrow’s to-do list, taxes (argh), and Monkey Brain. And that felt like winning.

Countdown Reason # 14: The Autoimmune Epidemic Was Just the First Half of the Journey

THE LAST BEST CURE will be in stores, on Amazon, Indiebound, and everywhere else in two weeks. I can hardly believe it.

Many of you are fans of The Autoimmune Epidemic (now in its 5th printing!). Which, as you know, talks about all the environmental stressors and toxins we encounter in our lives that add up to inflammation and illness. I call it the barrel effect. Our bodies can handle just so much in the barrel, and then, one day, there is that one more “hit” and it spills over, leading to chronic conditions too numerous to count (well, if we are counting, 133 million adults suffer from at least one chronic condition, and the numbers are skyrocketing). I wanted you to know everything researchers know about how we can decrease what’s overfilling our barrel, both by being aware, and by knowing how to eliminate what we can.

After I finished writing The Autoimmune Epidemic, I encountered a great deal of emerging research on how the chronic and acute stress we feel also acts on our immune systems exactly like a toxin. How our state of mind can overflow the barrel, or, conversely, help to protect the immune system.

To our bodies, it doesn’t matter if the “hit” is viral, toxic, or stress. It looks the same. Stress and anxiety can cause our “barrel” to overflow in just the same way.  And so, I set out to research and write the “sequel” to The Autoimmune Epidemic. I’d talked about how to eliminate all the triggers we could to bring our immune system back to health, and why it was so important to do so.

I felt I owed it to you to talk about the one thing in our “barrel” that is most under out control: reversing the inflammation-promoting agitation, fear, stress, pain and anxiety we all encounter and experience in our lives, which leaks, like a toxin, into our barrel. Thousands of researchers have been studying how to best use scientifically studied methods to do just that. And how to activate instead, the healing secrets of the brain.

I would like to think my last two books form something of a health equation:

The Autoimmune Epidemic      +      The Last Best Cure 

Reclaim Your Body, Your Joy, Your Well-being, Your Life.

The Last Best Cure cover
My new book, The Last Best Cure -- out in two weeks!
cover image
My last book, The Autoimmune Epidemic, 2009

Countdown Reason # 15: YES, True

my holding Christian at the waves at Bethany
My son and I when he was two, deciding how far to brave his way into the waves.

I don’t know why I thought of this today. Maybe because as I walked past my son’s room this morning it hit me, ping (really, I guess the word is pang), how empty his room will be when he leaves for college. Standing there, with my hand on the door, I had a sudden flashback. How when he was very little I made up a song to get him to sleep. It’s a little embarrassing but among the lines were these:

“…know this is true, no matter where you go, no matter what you do, I’m going to love you your whole life through. Sometimes you’ll say I love you too much, sometimes you’ll say I don’t love you enough. But no matter where you go, no matter what you do, I’m going to love you your whole life through…”

(Full disclosure here: part of the reason I wrote my own lullabies for my kids was because I really can’t sing. Really. So, I figured, if a song and the tune are mine, I never have to worry whether I’m singing it right or how off key I might be…)

Sometimes when my son (or a few years later, his little sister) was tired, or cranky, or had a scraped knee, he’d give me one of those leg squeezes that toddlers give you when you’re holding them on your hip and they want you to move in a certain direction. And he’d point and say, “rocking chair!”  I was happy to rock in “rocking chair” because sometimes I got tired and cranky too. And I’d sing our own personal Top 10 hit lullaby, “Know This is True.” It was a kind of mom and babe meditation.

But, back to my story. My son didn’t chat a lot when he was a young toddler, though he had plenty of words. He was just… circumspect. When he started really talking he spoke in thinking-out-loud sentences. I remember once, we were in “rocking chair” and near where we then lived workmen were bulldozing a small forest for a new neighborhood. And my son put his hand on my lips and said, quietly, “Mommy I don’t like the sound the trees make when they hit the ground.”

He always seemed to be listening to the world around him, as if reading a book that no one else could see. One day we were in “rocking chair” and I was singing my made up song, “...know this is true…” and he put his fingers on my lips.

“Mommy, how come it’s ‘NO this is true?’  Is it YES true you’re going to love me, or NO true?”

I stopped rocking. It took me a minute to understand what he was thinking in his little toddler brain. And then I got it. He didn’t understand that I was saying the word “know” instead of the word “No.” And he wanted a little clarification. No true, or yes true?

I brought his face up to mine. “YES true,” I remember saying. “YES true, I’m going to love you. YES true, your whole life through.”

I stood there this morning with my hand on the door of my 18-year-old son’s room, as that memory went through me in a hold-your-breath-and-you’re-back-there-again-in-the- rocking-chair whoosh. I think it came back to me, really, because of what I’ve been blogging about this week. Bless, bless, bless. Gratitude.

YES true. That’s how we love the people we love. YES true, your whole life through. How many people can you bless, bless, bless today (in the grocery store, on the beltway) and say YES true to in your own living room?

Countdown Reason # 16: And Gratitude Helps with Pain

I have a good friend, a dear, dear friend, really, who I’ll call “K.” “K” suffers from an autoimmune disease. In the past five years she’s gone from daily injections of a multiple sclerosis drug that packs difficult side effects to taking no meds at all. She carries the most grateful, compassionate outlook of anyone I know.  I’ve watched her devote herself over the years to exercising more, getting a three-wheeled bike when she realized a two-seater wouldn’t work and toodlling around her neighborhood, building a strong social community, and training herself to think, as she puts in, “on the better side.”

I heard an interview on NPR today with an American vet from the Iraq war who just this week had two new arms transplanted onto his torso at Johns Hopkins — in a first of its kind surgery — to replace the two he lost in Iraq several years ago. He’d also lost a leg. He was amazing. The interviewer asked, “How do you feel?” He said, “I was pretty happy before the surgery, my life was pretty good, but yes, this definitely just makes me even happier.”

Think about that. “I was pretty happy before.” Despite losing three limbs in the war. I suspect his transplant surgery has a good chance of succeeding. Gratitude is not only good for our relationships, it also helps with healing. Studies show it helps us to better deal with pain, suffering, illness, grief and loss. Patients who keep a positive mindset prior to even a relatively simpler surgery, such as total knee replacement surgery, and who “recognize within themselves the ability to ensure that things will be okay,” say researchers, consistently report less pain and disability after surgery and recover faster.[i]  Older people who have a positive take on life are less likely to fall – suggesting that the risk of falling among the elderly is tied to one’s view of the world.[ii]

There are dozens of studies like this. We know it’s true. So why is it so incredibly hard to live, as my friend “K” would say, “on the better side?” I write about that too, in The Last Best Cure. What’s getting in our way. And really, how to get out of our own way.


[i] Public release date: 17-Feb-2011.  Healthy lifestyle, positive attitude can help improve patient outcomes.  American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. [ii] BMJ 2010; 341:c4165 doi: 10.1136/bmj.c4165 (Published 20 August 2010) Determinants of disparities between perceived and physiological risk of falling among elderly people: cohort study, Stephen R Lord, professor et al.

Countdown Reason # 17: Grateful at Home

holding hands with Zen in the woods
I like holding my husband's hand. Maybe that's another way of showing appreciation, like a hug. When we feel quiet, and have no words.

A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology evaluated the relationship between how much partners felt appreciated, and how likely a marriage was to last over the years. They found that appreciation and gratitude between two people spirals up or down; the more a partner shows gratitude, the more their partner shows them appreciation, and so it goes, back and forth, improving the relationship over time. (I don’t really need to describe the downward spiral do I?) Likewise, the more appreciation you show to your partner, the more likely you are to feel that your own needs are being met.

This makes perfect sense to me.  A decade-and-a-half-ago, I worked closely with psychologist and mathematician John Gottman, PhD, who ran what was known as the “Love Lab” in which he observed couples interact. Gottman could predict, almost flawlessly, who would be divorced in five years, ten. His main litmus test: how many positive comments did each partner make for each negative one? The magic number was 5 positive comments to each negative one. Below that ratio, relationships start to break down.

Downward spiral or upward spiral — we have a choice. We humans are not static. Either we’re growing in our ability to interact with the world around us with resilience and grace, and becoming more creative, more alive, or we’re reinforcing our bad habits, becoming more stagnant, less alive both within ourselves, and within our relationships.  We reach the tipping point in imperceptible increments — via the split second, blink-and-you-miss-it decisions we make about how we interact with the people we love.

Other research shows that that 5:1 scale works pretty well with everyone. Gratitude is the superglue in the intimacy bond. And we know, as you’ve read in earlier posts, that when we show gratitude, compassion, and bless, we feel much better about who we are.

I’m grateful to my husband for coming out to join me while I was walking the dogs when he pulled in. For stopping to get eggs. For cutting up all the vegetables for dinner. For clipping me two articles from the newspaper. And these were all just in the last hour. I’m going to post this, and then send a copy to him.

Countdown Reason # 19: Why Emotional Memories of Joy Matter so Much

We’ve learned so much in the course of our lives. Math problems, how to punctuate a sentence, set the table, use an iPhone, hit the right buttons on our blog dashboard or twitter (okay, the latter three are still not so easy for some of us!). But can you remember exactly when you learned how to do each of these? Unlikely.

That’s because our brain stores memories in one of two ways. The first is to file away facts we need. The details we depend on to survive, succeed, thrive. These are called declarative memories. We can declare the facts we know.

But the second way the brain stores memories is through our emotional responses —  in the emotional big moments that matter to us most. That’s why I can remember (and I bet you can too) the time the teacher called you up in front of the class and you didn’t have the right answer; the moment a child was born and first placed upon your chest; the minute you got engaged; the time you and your friend were in tears over a diagnosis, a husband, a child; or the joy of finding out you were expecting, or got the big job. Memories that have signficance in some way to you are emotional memories.

When we need a declarative memory our brain usually retrieves it for us unconsciously and we’re not even aware it’s happening. So we can drive all the way to work without even realizing we made all the right turns. And bing, there we are, in the parking lot. That’s why we work so hard with our kids with their math facts, so they have what they need, easy to retrieve, when they go on to algebra or, later, calculus.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Emotional memories are treated by the brain in an entirely different way than are factual (declarative) memories: the part of the brain used to create, retain, store, permanize and retrieve our emotional memories is called the hippocampus. This is also the area where amnesia occurs, erasing emotional memories but not factual ones (which is why patients with amnesia can still set the table or do calculus).

Because the brain stores these two types of memories so differently, emotional memories are so much stronger, and as we get older, we accumulate more and more of them.

This means a few things. A lot of things. But here are the two most interesting to me. If you learn something new in the process of making an emotional association, you’ll retain it a lot longer. If you really care about a topic or issue in your heart, you’ll be able to keep that information and store it and retrieve differently than if you don’t.

But it also means that the things we are doing today that create our emotional memories — good, chest-swelling memories — will be protective LONG into the future. They are like gifts we pay forward to ourselves and those we love. This is really a good reason to reach for joy moments right here, right now, in your day just as it is. Whatever might be happening around you. Joy is a strong emotion, and we all know when we recall moments of joy it’s a healing balm. I think of joy memories as memories we need.

After reading this study today, I’m going to think of how to make a joy memory today. I’ll let you know how that works out on an icy, windy Friday evening in a house with with two tired working parents at the end of the week and two teenagers 🙂