The most powerful pharmacy in the world is right between your ears! Other than eating breakfast regularly, and eating more fruits and vegetables, the one characteristic that is present in all healthy older people is resiliency. Resiliency is that hard-to-measure quality of adapting to change, shifting with changing tides rather than drowning, seeing the glass half full, or knowing how to turn lemons into lemonade.
Research has shown over and over again that learning to relax is one of the most important keys to long-term health and vitality. Relaxing helps your brain regenerate and renew itself. You need to learn how to hit your “pause button” if you want to heal your brain. But that doesn’t mean sipping a glass of Chardonnay while watching TV or practicing retail therapy. You have to learn how to deeply relax and stimulate your Vagus Nerve.
The Road to Vagus - Your immune cells, your stem cells and all of the other organs and tissues in your body are connected to your Vagus Nerve -- a long nerve that goes from your brain, through your chest and diaphragm, and throughout your body. Your Vagus Nerve is a very special part of your nervous system that helps you calm your mind and turn on a cascade of healing that can reverse depression and dementia and help sharpen your mind -- making old brains young again. It does this by turning off your stress response and activating your relaxation response -- what I call “hitting the pause button” -- which most of us don’t know how to do. Most of us don’t need any help turning on the alarm system. Your stress response gets turned on automatically day after day. However, very few of us know how to calm this system down. We don’t know where our pause button is and we don’t know how to push it. This is a serious health concern, because stress is very bad for your brain.
The effects of stress on brain health cannot be overstated. It shrinks the Hippocampus, the memory center of the brain; reduces serotonin; lowers BDNF (brain derived neutrophic factor), which acts like Miracle-Gro for your brain cells; increases inflammation; increases belly fat; lowers thyroid function; and much more. It is one of the chief causes of cognitive and emotional dysfunction.
But what is stress? Stress is defined as any real or imagined threat to your body or your ego. It means the part of your biochemistry that governs the stress response reacts the same when you are in real danger (for example, if you are about to be run down by an oncoming car) as it does when you perceive danger (for example, if your boss tells you he thinks you are doing a poor job at work).
In both cases, a flood of cortisol and other chemicals, like epinephrine and norepinephrine, is released into your bloodstream. These chemicals send messages far and wide, telling your body—and brain—to get ready for the danger at hand. In the first instance, the stress response is adaptive. It prepares you physically and mentally to move out of the way of that oncoming vehicle. In the second instance, the stress response is worse than useless—your body prepares for real physical danger but there isn’t any. There is only the perceived danger of your boss’s disappointment. The result is that you stew in your stress juices and they poison your body and brain.
If you hadn’t perceived your boss’s frustration as a threat, this response would not have occurred. So how we think and what we believe make a huge difference in how healthy we are. There’s no doubt about it. Optimists live longer and are healthier!
Our sense of control, meaning, purpose and connection in life is one of the most powerful factors that determine our health and well-being. What do you feel connected to? What gives you meaning and purpose in life? Answers to questions like these define who we are, not only mentally, but also physically. We have become so disconnected from feeling relaxed and at peace that many of us don’t even realize we are stressed out anymore. We aren’t awake to the fact that our beliefs have an impact on our health and we don’t realize the foods we eat make us feel even more stress.
- Turning Off the Stress Response - You DO have many options to calm your mind. Here are some other ways to give your brain the loving care that it (and you) deserves.
- Make choices that make your life balanced -- practice saying “NO” to others and “YES” to yourself.
- Get enough sleep.
- Eat whole foods that decrease the stress response.
- Avoid stressed foods. The next time you reach for that industrial packaged food product, or fast food lunch just ask yourself if your food is “relaxed.”
- You might even try some herbs that can balance out the stress response, such as ginseng or rhodiola.
A little time each day for activating the relaxation response can transform deep-seated symptoms that show up as altered mood, behavior, attention and memory. Your brain can thrive. You just have to provide the right condition