HOW A DYSFUNCTIONAL LIMBIC SYSTEM IMPACTS CHRONIC ILLNESS
When I first started recommending Annie Hopper’s DNRS (Dynamic Neural Retraining System) 6 or 7 years ago, it was primarily, if not exclusively, in the service of treating patients with MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivities). This program was being taught, by Annie Hopper for the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, and Butch Schrader, MD, who developed LDA, had found it really useful in getting his most sensitive patients started.
I, too, found this program to be of great value in helping my most
sensitive patients quiet down their out-of-control reactive nervous systems
and almost all of them were able to move forward in their treatment after using the DNRS program for 4-6 weeks. As my experience with sensitive patients evolved, I began to realize that limbic dysfunction/inflammation was far more common than I had appreciated, and I started recommending this for more and more of my patients with chronic inflammatory illness.
Specifically, those individuals with mold toxicity, Lyme disease with its coinfections, other infections, other toxicities, and/or viral and parasitic infections. At this point, I have now had somewhere between 150-200 of my patients use this program, and it has almost always been extremely useful. (I can’t say that about very many treatment programs.) Benefits range from good to superb, with obvious improvement noted within the first month or two of practice, and continuing to improve with time.
This has been most dramatic for those who are the most sensitive: those who are “stuck” in a state of reactivity such that virtually anything they take, be it a supplement, medication, even a homeopathic remedy, sets them back for days or weeks, before they can even get back to their compromised situation to try again.
I have found that these highly sensitive patients often need to spend several months quieting down their nervous system, using several approaches (which I detail in my new book, see below), but the most effective has been the DNRS program.
In her excellent book, “Wired for Healing: Remapping the Brain to Recover from Chronic and Mysterious Illnesses”, Annie puts forth a very clear explanation of what the limbic system is, and how it fits into our understanding of its role in contributing to the persistence of chronic inflammatory illnesses. I think it would be helpful to review that information here, so that we can bring this whole concept forward.
What Is The Limbic System?
The limbic system consists of several areas of the brain, namely, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the cingulate cortex and the hypothalamus.
The amygdala is thought of as the fear center of the brain, but actually
all emotion is processed by it. When in senses danger, it sends messages to the body in the form of stress hormones (cortisol) and is intimately related to the autonomic nervous system’s sympathetic “fight or flight”.
The hippocampus is primarily involved with consolidation of memory and creating new memories, and connecting those memories to smell, sound and emotion. Damage to this area may make it difficult to create a safe environment for incoming information or sensations.
The hypothalamus is the control center for all autonomic regulatory activites and links the pituitary gland (the “master” gland, which controls most of the endocrine system) to the nervous system.
The cingulate cortex integrates input from the thalamus with the amygdala and hippocampus and is also connected to memory, learning and emotional processing.
What Does The Limbic System Do?
Annie Hopper describes this succinctly as follows: “The limbic system interprets all of our sensory information, which, in turn, decides how our bodies should respond to external stimuli. The limbic system is also involved in our response to stress, in our emotional responses to events around us, and in our involuntary protective mechanisms (like the “fight or flight” response). It is particularly active when we are under stress or we are feeling anxious or threatened……..when the limbic system is not functioning properly, threat mechanisms can overfire and distort the interpretation of sensory information…which can lead to dysfunction and neurological disorganization.”
What Symptoms Suggest Limbic Dysfunction?
—Increased perceptions of any or all of these: light, sound, EMF, touch,
smell, or taste
—When exposed to smells, or scents (perfumes, chemicals, new carpets,etc.)
patients have an immediate (within seconds or minutes) experience of
brain fog, fatigue, headache, nausea, or neurological symptoms.
—Anxiety, irritability or panic attacks when exposed to specific scents
—Unexplained brain fog or fatigue
—Unexplained severe pain or discomfort
—Heightened sense of smell or taste
—Inability to tolerate many foods or medications or supplements
—Mood swings or difficulties with focus and/or concentration and/or
If all of these symptoms would also suggest, CFS/ME, or fibromyalgia, or seems similar to the manifestations of Lyme or mold toxicity, that would be correct. If this also seems related to our recent discussion of Polyvagal Theory and how a feeling of safety (or lack of it) profoundly impacts our nervous system, that would also be correct.
So, it becomes increasingly apparent that limbic dysfunction in the form of inflammation and improper “wiring” may play a very important role in contributing to the full spectrum of the issues that underlie chronic inflammatory illnesses.
It also becomes increasingly apparent that including the treatment of the limbic system into our plans for our patients becomes an important component of that treatment, especially when our patients are unusually sensitive.
Fortunately, Annie Hopper has put together a wonderful (and do-able) treatment program to quiet the inflamed limbic system, which she pieced together by studying the newest research on neural plasticity (see my previous newsletter on the books by Norman Doidge, MD) Simply put, it is a series of visualizations and exercises which allows the hypervigilant limbic system to quiet down. Patients can access this treatment program by going to her website and ordering DVDs which will take them through the process step-by-step, or going to one of her 5-day workshops. While the workshops are recommended, my most sensitive patients would be unable to tolerate the hotel environments until they had the opportunity to work extensively with the DVDs first. An hour a day of practice is recommended, but many of my most sensitive patients need to start with 10-15 minutes a day and work up from there.
I hope that this brief discussion of the limbic system and how it impacts the health and well-being of our patients will add to your understanding of this component of chronic illness. I suspect we are just beginning to grasp how essential this is, and by addressing it earlier in treatment (when patients are so reactive that their therapeutic choices are limited), and again, later in treatment when the causes of inflammation have been successfully taken care of, I think this will help patients to heal more quickly and completely.