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Limbic System Retraining
The Limbic system is a switchboard deep in your brain. The switches control your Immune, Hormone, Autonomic Nervous system, Mood, Emotions, Circadian Rhythm and More.
Chronic illness often pushes the Limbic system beyond its limits resulting in “stuck” switches. Generally, these stuck switches result in chronic inflammation, chronic alarm signals, inhibited healing, suppressed immunity, poor digestion, altered microbiome, exhaustion and chronic pain. This all adds up to YOUR problem getting bigger and your ability to resolve the problem getting smaller.
Let’s take a tour through just how one aspect of Limbic System Imbalance can affect your health. When your limbic system is constantly over-aroused, your Autonomic Nervous System will be in sympathetic dominance, or what we often call being in “fight or flight” mode; it results in several physiological responses. One important response is shunting blood away from the gut towards other organs and muscles in preparation for defense or escape. It also results in blood being shunted away from the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), compromising 70% of your immune system. Additionally, fermentable product is left behind in the gut lumen altering the microbiome. The microbiome is a teaming ecology of microorganisms living in and on our bodies but primarily within our gut. The microbiome influences immunity, detoxification, digestion and absorption, helps to manufacture certain vitamins, influences hormone regulation even food choices and mood. Being in this state consistently over time results in poor digestion and absorption. This results in functional malnutrition, impaired immune responses, impaired detoxification, impaired hormone regulation, sub-optimal food choices and mood and sleep disturbances to name just a few things. A dysregulated autonomic nervous system (ANS) resulting in fight or flight is governed by the limbic system.
The limbic system is one of the most primitive parts of the human brain that developed thousands of years ago. It controls many voluntary and involuntary responses to our daily environment. This includes remembering past events, both positive and negative, perceiving threats, sexual satisfaction, developing sensory preferences, making choices, and controlling movements based on past experiences.
Limbic dysfunction can also affect emotions. The scientific and medical communities are aware of the effects that emotions have on our bodies. Research shows positive emotions have the ability to promote physiological and psychological health and wellbeing. On the other hand, negative emotions can wreak havoc on physical and mental health often leading to the development of chronic illness and disease, especially as we age. Emotions are created both consciously and unconsciously in the brain. The brain signals to the central nervous system to release different chemicals, known as hormones, into the body. These hormones can be helpful or harmful depending on how much and how often these chemicals are released. One more aspect of limbic dysregulation is sleep disorders. Most people with chronic illness have poor sleep, disrupted sleep cycles, and poor REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. It is REM sleep when you process memories and disassociate negative emotions from them. If you have impaired REM sleep, you will not be disassociating your negative emotions and have greater negative Limbic responses.
In the next section, we will discuss the structure of the limbic system to further understand how each part contributes to its function.
Limbic System Structure
The limbic system is composed of different structures in the brain, each with their own individual physiological and behavioral properties. It is located on both sides of the thalamus, atop the brainstem, and underneath the cerebrum. The main structures of the limbic system include the hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus.
The hippocampus is a horseshoe-like structure that connects to the left and right hemispheres of the brain. It is associated with forming, categorizing, and retaining memories. One of its main functions is to convert short-term memories into long-term memories by connecting emotions or senses to those memories.
The amygdala are two almond-shaped masses of cells located at the end of the hippocampus in each hemisphere of the brain. These structures regulate the automatic fight-or-flight survival responses to perceived physical danger. It is like a smoke alarm in the brain, and when it is triggered by emotions such as fear, anxiety, aggression, and anger, it signals the body to release stress hormones to help respond to environmental dangers.
The hypothalamus is an integral part of the brain that maintains homeostasis in the body. It is likened to a thermostat in that it receives sensory input from various parts of the body to regulate physiological needs such as hunger, thirst, pleasure and pain responses, sexual satisfaction, and emotional responses such as anger and behavior such as aggression. It communicates to the body by sending signals to the autonomic nervous system which regulates blood pressure, pulse, breathing, and emotional arousal, and by releasing hormones to the pituitary gland which regulates growth and metabolism.
Another important part of the nervous system that works with the emotional aspects of the limbic system is the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) that puts the body into an emergency status known as “fight-flight-or-freeze” stress responses, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which restores the body back to homeostasis from the emergency response and stimulates rest, healing and digestion.
Now that we have an understanding of the main structures of the limbic system, we can begin to learn how these structures interact with each other to create different emotions and physiological responses and the effects of these responses on our physical and emotional health.
Limbic System Function and Dysfunction
In the limbic system, the amygdala and hippocampus work together to determine if sensory stimuli are a threat or not. If the stimuli are similar to memories of stress or trauma stored by the hippocampus, the amygdala generates emotional responses such as anger, fear, and aggression to prevent and avoid any future exposure to such stimuli. These emotional responses then signal the hypothalamus to release hormones to trigger the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). When the SNS is triggered, the body produces the hormones adrenaline and other chemical messengers, which increases the heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow to the muscles, and cortisol, which increases blood glucose to provide the energy the body needs to get to safety or prepare to fight or defend.
This was very useful throughout the evolution of the human species and still is today. However, daily stresses that are not necessarily immediate life or death circumstances, such as rush hour traffic or work deadlines can cause stress responses and an increase in hormones that are damaging to our health.
Chronic Disease and the Limbic System
The human body is meant to live mostly in the parasympathetic (PNS) mode. In limbic system dysfunction, the body is in a constant state of stress, or stuck in fight or flight mode, and does not have the chance to engage the PNS. The body stays in a perpetual state of survival, and functions such as cardiovascular, immune, healing, digestion, and reproduction become inhibited which can contribute to the development of disorders such as diabetes, insomnia, high blood pressure, infections, and infertility.
Many factors can contribute to limbic system dysfunction such as chronic stress, physical trauma, psychological and/or emotional trauma, virus or infections, chemical and food sensitivities, and inflammation to name a few. Mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and addiction are also linked to hyperarousal of the limbic system. The limbic system plays a central role in the regulation of emotions associated with anxiety. Oftentimes symptoms of anxiety will generate a stress response in the limbic system which can be experienced as a panic or anxiety attack. Individuals who suffer from chronic illnesses can develop PTSD and overtime experience damage to their limbic system resulting in hypersensitivity and hyperarousal of limbic function.
How to Heal the Limbic System
An optimally functioning limbic system is able to discern the level of threat in the environment and generate a proportional response to meet that threat. However, with a highly sensitive limbic system, the level of threat is exaggerated, and the limbic system responds with a survival response to protect itself. Individuals with limbic system damage can experience extreme adverse reactions to even the mildest stimuli such as light, sound, smell, touch and electromagnetic frequencies. Limbic system dysfunction is often seen as a “mystery illness,” and those who seek medical attention for it are often left without answers or treatment. Fortunately, in the practice of functional medicine, there are treatments that help reset or reprogram the limbic system. One such treatment is ReBalance to HEAL – our Limbic System Retraining Program.
When people come to me for issues that are related to the Limbic system, their system is so overstimulated that attending to almost anything is impossible. Our Limbic System Retraining Program begins gradually and progresses through six stages that are focused on integrating nutritional, cognitive and behavioral approaches to promote limbic system repair.
In the first stage, we start with safe but very effective supplements to soothe your system. This sets you up for better focus and attention for the rest of the program. Next, we start Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback training (HRV). HRV is a measure of your ANS state. It helps you calm your system and learn what a parasympathetic state feels like, followed by building your own Sensory soothing kit. This is an item or memory to soothe each of your 6 senses. Remember that the Limbic system cannot distinguish between a current, imagined, or remembered event, so the 6th sense, in this case, is Cognitive (Memory, Imagination Emotions, etc.). The foundation of any wellness program is lifestyle, and in the fourth stage, we focus on 5 areas of modifiable lifestyle factors with specific instructions for each area. In the fifth stage, we get you started on a healing a.m. and p.m. ritual to calm your limbic system and to set the tone for your day and night. This also helps build toward deeper techniques we will use later in the program. The sixth stage involves Insight Training based on a Westernized not religious from Zen, called Mondo Zen.
Below is a series of informative articles to help you learn more about our Limbic System Retraining Program:
Stage 1: Use of supplements to soothe and calm the Limbic system.
Stage 2: emWave device and Heart Math to teach you how to find Parasympathetic balance.
Stage 3: Sensory Soothing Kit is a rescue kit to help you when getting overstimulated.
Stage 4: Modifiable lifestyle factors help you build healthy healing habits.
Stage 5: AM and PM Ritual to deepen the practice of stage 2 and prepares you for stage 6.
Stage 6: Insight Training