Posts Tagged ‘Cortisol’

The Healing Heart

April 12, 2020

This post is the tenth on an essential book by Jeffrey Rediger, M.D. titled Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing. The title of this post is identical the to the title of a chapter in this book. As part of our autonomic nervous system, the part we can’t consciously control, the sympathetic and parasympathetic work involuntarily; we can’t just think our way into the parasympathetic. Dr. Rediger writes, “You can teach yourself to shift into parasympathetic mode by managing stress, eliminating stress, or changing your lens on stress. But once you’ve shifted into it, the parasympathetic needs fuel in order to run. If the tank is empty, you could drop back out of healing mode soon after standing up from your relaxation response exercise. And what fuels the parasympathetic is basically this: love and connection.”

This does not mean that you have to run around falling in love with everyone you meet. Dr. Rediger writes, “moments of ‘micro-connection” can deliver hits of the potent love cocktail, spool up the parasympathetic, and keep it fueled up and running. Our brains release a cocktail of hormones when we experience feelings of love and connection. How exactly this cocktail is mixed (which hormones specifically are dumped into your blood stream) depend on what kind of experience you’re having. Dr. Rediger writes, “Attraction, romantic love, platonic love, and social connection all have their own specific mixture, but most involve some combination of dopamine, testosterone, estrogen, vasopressin, and most importantly, oxytocin. Oxytocin, first isolated in new mothers nursing home babies, is often call “the love drug” because it’s both activated by, and helps to create connection, attraction, love, and bonding.” Beyond helping to make and deepen relationships, it has health benefits. Oxytocin is known to be a kind of anti-stress tonic, countering the effects of fight or flight and stress hormones. It is also both anti-inflammatory and parasympathetic in its effects.

The vagus nerve controls the release of the “love medicine” in our bodies. Vagus is Latin for wandering, and in line with its poetic name, the vagus wanders everywhere through your body. It exits the brain stem at the base of your skull dip in your neck. It runs quite close to the carotid artery. You can get as close as you can to your vagus nerve by pressing your finger to the pulse point on your neck. From the spot under your fingers, it shoots down to your heart and beyond, where it regulates heartbeat and dozens of other vital functions. Should you have any doubts about how deep and rapid the connection is between the mind and the body, the vagus is that literal link between the two—a thick, humming power line that runs from your brain to your gut.

Eighty% of the vagus pulls information up into the brain. The other 20% sends information down into the body. This means that a great deal of sensory information is being collected for your brain and that decisions are then made in the brain and sent out all over the body. It’s a rapid, constantly flowing system (the network of glands that release hormones through all your body, and immune system to constantly adjust and respond to all the collected information.)

Deep abdominal breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. “Even a deep sigh can activate it briefly—think of brushing your fingers over guitar strings, eliciting a rich, vibrating chord that reverberates for a couple of seconds. When you experience feelings of love and connection, it’s like playing a whole song for your vagus nerve. The level of cortisol in your system begins to drop, and your telomerase is allowed to build back up to a healthy, balanced level. If you can keep on strumming those stings and keep your parasympathetic activated, a host of amazing health benefits will follow.”

Neurosurgeon, immunologist, and inventor Kevin Tracey discovered that the vagus nerve appears to be an “inflammatory reflex” that works in the opposite direction of chronic inflammation, to offset or reverse it’s deleterious effects. When activated, the vagus senses inflammation in the body and relays this information to the brain and central nervous system, which the reflexively powers up the immune system, inhibiting inflammation and preventing organ damage. Research is underway to explore the extent to which stimulation of the vagus can prevent or reverse many inflammatory diseases, including, arthritis, colitis, epilepsy, congestive heart failure, sepsis, Crohn’s disease, headaches, tinnitus, depression, diabetes, and possibly other autoimmune diseases. So how do you activate or stimulate your vagus nerve?

Barbara Fredrickson has immersed herself in research on this topic for over two decades. She’s run many studies showing that what truly tones the vagus is small moments of connection—a form of “falling in love,” if you will—with people who surround you on a day-to-day basis, everyone from your husband or wife to children, to the barista you’re getting to know at your corner coffee shop. It can even be a total stranger you meet on the street.

Just as exercise tones muscles, stimulating the vagus tones it in the same way. Vagal tone refers to the ability to rapidly activate the parasympathetic. The higher vagal tone you have, the more rapidly you can recover from stress and relax into healing mode. Just as doing reps with a hand weight tones the biceps, positive emotions like love tone the vagus.

Fredrickson has written a book Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection.

The Role of Humor for a Healthy Memory

June 28, 2019

This post was inspired by a column by Marlene Cimons titled “Laughter can cure your ills? That’s no joke” in the Health and Science Section of the June 18, 2019 issue the Washington Post. She cites the following statement by Carl Reiner. “There is no doubt about it. Laughter is my first priority. I watch something that makes me laugh. I wake up and tickle myself while I’m still in bed. There is no greater pleasure than pointing at something, smiling and laughing about it. I don’t think there is anything more important than being able to laugh. When you can laugh, life is worth living. It keeps me going. It keeps me young.”

Reiner is 97. His fellow funny people: Mel Brooks is 93, Dick Van Dyke is is 93, Norman Lear will be 97, and Betty White is 97, seem to make this point.

Sven Svebak, professor emeritus at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology says, “A friendly sense of humor will bless you with better social relations as well as coping skills, and the reduced risk of dying early. A friendly sense of humor acts like shock absorbers in a car, a mental shock absorber in everyday life to help us cope better with a range of frustrations, hassles, and irritations.”

Norman Cousins asserted that self-induced bouts of laughter (and massive intravenous doses of vitamin C) extended his life after he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, which is a debilitating form of arthritis. Cousins lived many years longer that his doctors initially predicted,

Edward Creagan, professor of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science said, “When people are funny, they attract other people, and community connectedness is the social currency for longevity. Nobody wants to be around negative, whiny people. It’s a drain. We’re attracted to funny people.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter stimulates the brain to release more endorphins. It also helps people manage stress by easing tension, relaxing the muscles and lowering blood pressure. It relieves pain and improves mood. Laughter also strengthens the immune system.

Creagan says, “When we laugh, it decreases the level of the evil stress hormone cortisol. When we are stressed, it goes high and this interferes with the parts of the brain that regulate emotions. When that happens, the immune system deteriorates and becomes washed in a sea of inflammation, which is a factor in hear disease, cancer, and dementia. Cortisol interferes with the body’s immune system, putting us at risk for these three groups of diseases.

The results of a large Norwegian study of 53,556 participants conducted by Svebak and his colleagues indicate that humor can delay or prevent certain life-threatening diseases. The scientists measured the subjects’ sense of humor with a health survey that included, among other things, a cognitive element, “asking the participants to estimate their ability to find something funny in most situations.

Women with high cognitive scores experience a reduced risk of premature death from cardiovascular and infectious diseases. Men with high cognitive scores had a reduced risk of early death from infections.

Ms. Cimons’s article also reported that humor seems to stimulate memories and improve mental acuity in the elderly, especially among those with dementia. Elder clowns are now also helping seniors in residential setting says Bernie Warren, professor emeritus in dramatic arts and the University of Windsor and founder of Fools for Health, a Canadian clown-doctor program.

There are good reasons that humor benefits a healthy memory. This can be thought of in terms of Kahneman’s Two Process of cognition. System 1 is our default mode of processing and is very fast. System 2 kicks in when we are learning something or when we hear or see something that is surprising. A joke occurs when something unexpected happens. If we are surprised and amused, that is due to System 2 processing kicking in. If System 2 does not kick in, then we miss the point and the humor of the joke. System 2 processing is critical for both a good sense of humor and a healthy memory.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Optimal Performance

March 3, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Goleman writes that “the relationship between stress and performance has been known for a century in psychology. It’s called the Yerkes-Dodson Law.” It’s likely that Yerkes and Dodson were unaware of this relationship. They were describing the relationship between motivation and performance. The relationship is an inverted U. Performance is poor at low levels of motivation and at very high levels of motivation. It is at moderate levels where performance is best.

At this point it would be good to review a previous healthy memory blog post, titled “How Our Bodies Respond to Stress.” Two stress hormones are cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). These two hormones are released by our adrenal glands during times of stress, but they serve different roles. Cortisol helps turn sugar and fat into energy and improves the ability of the body and brain to use that energy. Cortisol also surpresses some biological functions that are less important during stress, such as digestion, reproduction, and growth. On the other hand, DHEA is a neurosteroid, which is a hormone that helps the brain to grow. Just as testosterone helps the body grow stronger from physical exercise, DHEA helps the brain grown stronger from stressful experiences. DHEA also counters some of the effects of cortisol. For example, DHEA speeds up wound repair and enhances immune function.
We need both these hormones. Neither is a “good” or “bad” stress hormone. But the ratio of these two hormones can influence the long-term consequences of stress, especially when stress is chronic. Higher levels of cortisol can be associated with worse outcomes, such as impaired immune function and depression. In contrast, higher levels of DHEA have been linked to a reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease neurodegeneration, and other diseases we typically think of as stress-related.

The ratio of DHEA to cortisol is called the growth index of a stress response. A higher growth index helps people thrive under stress. It predicts academic persistence and resilience in college students, as well as higher GPAs. A higher growth index was associated with greater focus, less dissociation, superior problem-solving skills, and fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms during and after military survival training.

It is also useful to remember the posts based on Dr. McGonigal’s book, ““The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.” The key to good stress is that it is interpreted as being beneficial rather than harmful.

The goal is to be at the peak of the Yerkes-Dodson arc. This is the zone of optimal performance. Ideally one wants to experience what Mihaly Csikszenmentmihalyi terms “flow.” Flow represents a peak of self-regulation, the maximal harnessing of emotions in the service of performance or learning. During flow we channel positive emotions in an energized pursuit of the task at hand. Our focus is undistracted, and we feel a spontaneous joy, even rapture.

The flow concept was developed from research where people were asked to describe a time they outdid themselves and achieved their personal best. People described moments from a wide range of domains of expertise, from basketball and ballet to chess and brain surgery. No matter what the activity, the underlying state they described was one and the same.

Goleman continues, “the chief characteristics of flow include fast unbreakable concentration: a nimble flexibility in responding to changing challenges; executing at the top of your skill level; and taking pleasure in what you’re doing— joy. That last hallmark strongly suggests that if brain scans were done of people while in flow we might expect to see notable left prefrontal activation; if brain chemistry were assayed, we would likely find higher levels of mood and performance enhancing compounds like dopamine.

This optimal performance zone has been called a state of neural harmony where the disparate areas of the brain are in synch, working together. This is also seen as a state of maximum cognitive efficiency. Getting into flow lets you use whatever talent you may have at peak levels.”

At this point HM needs to intercede and provide a reality check. Although flow is a desired state, it is rarely reached. Consider that people who have mastered a domain of expertise and who operate at the top of their game typically have practiced a minimum of 10,000 hours and are often world class in their performance. Tellingly, when such experts are engaged in their skill, whatever it may be, their overall levels of brain arousal tend to become lower, suggesting that for them this particularly activity has become relatively effortless, even at its peak.

We have ample opportunity to observe these experts at athletic events. There might be rare occasions where an individual might appear to be in flow, but they are indeed rare. Professional athletes repeatedly fail and make errors. HM does not play golf and has difficulty understanding why others play golf. He does enjoy watching professionals play golf. But it seems like they are constantly making errors and ending up in undesirable areas. If HM could make the money successful professional golfers make, he would play golf. But as a normal hacker, he cannot understand where the pleasure is in the game.

There are times that one sees a skier skiing down the slopes in what appears to be a state of flow. But then he falls and the medics show up to take him off the course.

Goleman does discuss the benefits of regularly practicing methods that enhance concentration and relax us physiologically. There are voluminous healthymemory blog posts on the relaxation response, meditation, and mindfulness techniques. Use the search block on the healthy memory blog to find this posts.

He gets back on track by writing, “Anything that truly relaxes you helps, like playing with kids or taking the dog for a walk, or whatever is going to get you in a relaxed state. The more you can break the cycle of the right prefrontal capture by the amygdala, the more you’ll be to activate the beneficial circuitry of the left prefrontal cortex.

Self-Mastery

February 27, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Self-awareness and self-management provide the basis for self-mastery. Competencies like managing emotions. focused drive to achieve goals, adaptability, and initiative are based on emotional self-management. These domains of skill are what make someone an outstanding individual performer in any domain of performance—and in business an outstanding individual contributor, or lone star.

Self-regulation of emotion and impulse relies on the interaction between the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive center, and the emotional center in the midbrain, particularly circuitry converging on the amygdala.

The prefrontal cortex is the key neural area for self-emulation. This area is guiding us when we are at our best. The dorsolateral zone of the prefrontal area is the seat of cognitive control, regulating attention, decision-making, voluntary action, reasoning, and flexibility in response.

The amygdala is a trigger point for emotional distress, anger, impulse, and fear. When this circuitry takes over, it leads us to take a actions we might regret later.

Dr. Goleman writes, “The interaction between these two neural areas creates a neural highway that, when in balance, is the basis for self-mastery. For the most part, we cannot dictate what emotions we are going to feel, when we’re going to feel them, not how strongly we feel them. They come unbidden from the amygdala and other subcortical areas. Our choice comes once we feel a certain way. What do we do then? How do we express it? If the our prefrontal cortex has its inhibitory circuits going full blast, we’ll be able to have a decision point that will make us more artful in guiding how we respond, and in turn how you drive other people’s emotions, for better or worse, in that situation. At the neural level, this is what ‘self-regulation’ means.

The amygdala is the brain’s radar for threat. Our brain was designed as a tool for survival. In the brain’s blueprint the amygdala holds a privileged position. If the amygdala detects a threat, in an instant it can take over the rest of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, and we have what is called an amygdala hijack.”

The hijack captures our attention and focuses it on the that at hand. If an amygdala hijack occurs at work, we can’t focus on what our job demands. We can only think about what’s troubling us. We remember most readily what’s relevant to the threat, and can’t remember other things well. We can’t learn during a hijack and we rely on over-learned habits, ways we’ve behaved time and time again. Innovation flexibility are not available during a hijack.

Neural imaging has shown that when someone is really upset the right amygdala is highly active, along with the right prefrontal cortex. The amygdala has captured the prefrontal cortex, hence amygdala hijack, driving it in terms of the imperatives of dealing with the perceived danger at hand. We get the classic fight-flight-or-freeze response when this alarm system triggers. From a brain point of view this means that the amygdala has set off the HPA axis (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis) releasing a flood of stress hormones, mainly cortisol and adrenaline.

Unfortunately, the amygdala often makes mistakes. While the amygdala gets its data on what we see and hear in a single neuron from the eye and ear, that’s super-fast in brain time, it only receives a small fraction of the signals those senses receive. The majority goes to other parts of the brain that take longer to analyzedthe inputs and get a more accurate reading. In contrast, the amygdala gets a sloppy picture and has to react instantly. Coleman writes, “It often makes mistakes, particularly in modern life, where the “dangers” are symbolic, not physical threats. So we overreact in ways we often regret later.”

Coleman identifies the five top amygdala triggers in the workplace:

Condescension and lack of respect.
Being treated unfairly.
Being underappreciated.
Feeling that you’re not being listened to or heard.
Being held to unrealistic deadlines.

Here are Goleman’s suggestions for minimizing hijacks. Pay attention. If you don’t notice that you’re in the midst of an amygdala hijack and stay carried by it, you have no chance of getting back to emotional equilibrium and left prefrontal dominance until you let the hijack run its course. It is better to realize what is going on and to disengage. The steps to ending or short-circuiting a hijack start with monitoring what’s going on in you own mind and brain, and noticing, “I’m really over-reacting,” or “I’m really upset now,” or “I’m starting to get upset.” It’s much better if you can notice familiar feelings tat a hijack is beginning—such as butterflies in your stomach, or whatever signals that might reveal you are in the cycle of a hijack. It is best to had it off to the bare beginning of a coming hijack.

And here is what Goleman recommends if we are caught in the grip of an amygdala hijack. First, you have to realize that you’re in one. Hijacks can last for seconds or minutes, or hours, or days or weeks. There are are lots of ways to get out of a hijack, if we can realize we’re caught and also have the intention to cool down. A cognitive approach is to talk yourself out of the hijack. Reason with our self, and challenge what you are telling your self in the highjack. For example, “This guy isn’t always an S.O.B. I can remember times when he was actually very thoughtful and even kind, so maybe I should give him another chance. Or you can apply some empathy and imagine yourself in that person’s position. This might work in those very common instances where the hijack trigger was something someone else did or said to us. You might have an empathic thought: Maybe he treated me that the way because he is under such great pressure.
There are also biological interventions. We can use a method like meditation or relaxation to calm down our body. But a relaxation or meditation technique works best during the hijack when you have practiced it regularly, at best daily. Unless these methods have become a strong habit of mind, you can’t just invoke them out of the blue. But a strong habit of calming the body with a well-practiced method can make a huge difference when you’er hijacked and need it most.

As readers should be aware that the healthymemory blog is a strong advocate of meditation and mindfulness, and there are many healthy memory blog posts on meditation and mindfulness.

How Our Bodies Respond to Stress

June 12, 2018

This post is based on Dr. McGonigal’s book, ““The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.” This is the third post in the series on this book. Dr. McGonigal participated in the following experiment done by Dr. Crum. Participants were hooked up to a variety of devices to record physiological responses that included heart activity, blood flow, sweat, and body temperature. Saliva was also collected to measure stress hormones. Next she participated in a mock job interview that was structured to be highly stressful. Before the mock job interview, study participants were randomly assigned to view one of two videos about stress. One three minute video began by saying that most people think stress is negative, but actually research shows that stress is enhancing. The video went on to describe how stress can improve performance, enhance well-being, and help one grow. The other video, which the other half of the participants saw, starts with the ominous announcement, “Most people know that stress is negative…but research shows that stress is even more debilitating than you expect. It went on to describe how stress can harm your health, happiness, and performance at work.

Saliva was collected to measure two stress hormones: cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). These two hormones are released by our adrenal glands during times of stress, but they serve different roles. Cortisol helps turn sugar and fat into energy and improves the ability of the body and brain to use that energy. Cortisol also surpresses some biological functions that are less important during stress, such as digestion, reproduction, and growth. On the other hand, DHEA is a neurosteroid, which is a hormone that helps the brain to grow. Just as testosterone helps the body grow stronger from physical exercise, DHEA helps the brain grown stronger from stressful experiences. DHEA also counters some of the effects of cortisol. For example, DHEA speeds up wound repair and enhances immune function.

We need both these hormones. Neither is a “good” or “bad” stress hormone. But the ratio of these two hormones can influence the long-term consequences of stress, especially when stress is chronic. Higher levels of cortisol can be associated with worse outcomes, such as impaired immune function and depression. In contrast, higher levels of DHEA have been linked to a reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease neurodegeneration, and other diseases we typically think of as stress-related.

The ratio of DHEA to cortisol is called the growth index of a stress response. A higher growth index helps people thrive under stress. It predicts academic persistence and resilience in college students, as well as higher GPAs. A higher growth index was associated with greater focus, less dissociation, and superior problem-solving skills, and fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms during and after military survival training. The growth index also predicts resilience in extreme circumstances, such as recovering from child abuse.

The key question for the experiment explained earlier in this post was whether a three-minute video about stress could alter this key ratio of stress hormones. The answer was yes. Participants who had watched the stress-is-enhancing video before the interview released more DHEA and had a higher growth index than participants who had watched the stress-is-debilitating video. Dr. Crum concludes, “Viewing stress as enhancing made it so—not in some subjective, self-reported way, but in the ratio of stress hormones produced by the participants adrenal glands. Viewing stress as helpful created a different biological reality.

Fooling Ourselves Beneficially

May 15, 2013

The following bits of wisdom are taken from an article in the April 6, 2013 edition of the New Scientist, “Lost In Translation” by Caroline Williams. The article reports a study1 showing how faking calmness and confidence can not only change the way others see us, but can help us change ourselves. The participants in this experiment were asked to hold either a “high power” or a “ “low power” pose for two minutes. The high power pose was expansive, including sitting with legs on a desk and hands behind the head and standing with legs apart and hands on the hips. The low power pose involved hunching and taking up little space. Then they played a gambling game where the odds of winning were 50:50. The researchers took saliva samples to test for the levels of testosterone and cortisol. Testosterone is a “power’ hormone, whereas cortisol is a “stress” hormone. Those in the high power pose group were significantly more likely to gamble than those in the low power pose group (86% to 60%). Participants in the high power pose group had a 20% increase in testosterone and a 25% decrease in cortisol, whereas those in the low power pose group had a 10% decrease in testosterone and a 15% increase in cortisol. Increased testosterone has also been linked to increased pain tolerance.

Research has also shown that sitting up straight leads to positive emotions, whereas sitting with hunched shoulders leads to feeling down. There is plenty of research that has also shown that faking a smile makes you feel happier, whereas faking a frown has the opposite effect. There is even evidence that people with Botox injections, which prevent them from frowning, feel generally happier. Of course, there are other interpretations for the Botox results.

The New Scientist article ends with an excerpt from one of Madonna’s hits: “Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it, strike a pose. There’s something to it.”

1Carney, D. Psychological Science, 21, p.1463.

Stress and Memory

September 25, 2011

The relationship between stress and memory is complex. A recent article1 provided a discussion of this relationship. It is believed that stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol can facilitate or impair memory. These hormones may affect memory by strengthening or weakening the connections between nerve cells. It is thought that specialized cell-adhesion molecules play a key role in the learning process at the cellular level. These proteins connect two nerve cells and stabilize the synapse between them enabling the transmission of signals from cell to cell. These cell-adhesion molecules play an important role in reestablishing contact between nerve cells. They also help enable the synapses to change strength in response to increased or decreased signal transmission.

Whether memory is facilitated or impaired depends on when the hormones were released. Marian Joels and her colleagues formulated the theory2 explaining this relationship. According to their theory stress facilitates memory only when it is experienced close in time as the event that needs to be remembered and when stress hormones activate the same systems as those activated by the event. So stress only aids memory “when convergence in time and space takes place.” The stress hormones need to be released during or immediately after the event to be remembered. If they are released too soon before the event or a considerable time after, they have the opposite effect.

So their explanation involves two phases. During the first phase, stress launches hormones and neurotransmitters that increase attention and strengthen connections between brain cells forming new memories. In the second phase the cortisol initiates a second process within an hour or so to the stressful event. This second process works to consolidate memories suppressing any information not associated with the stressful event.

Stress does not affect all types of memory. The effects described refer to episodic, or personal biographic memory. Memory of motor skills, such as riding a bicycle, typically do not suffer adverse effects from stress. Stress limits the focus of attention, often overlooking helpful or relevant options. It calls upon strong crystalized memory circuits, limiting access to new or creative options.

1Schmidt, M.V., & Schwabe, L. (2011). Splintered by Stress. Scientific American Mind, September/October, 22-29.

2Joels et al. (2006). Learning Under Stress: How Does It Work? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 152-158.