#014 TCF: Stress and the science of worrying yourself sick

ayurveda core four newsletter stress
Stress and the science of worrying yourself sick

Photo by James Watson

Throughout my years in Biotech, I read 1000s of medical charts from cover to cover. By the end of my career, I could predict a patients health outcome months in advance with an incredible level of accuracy.

It wasn’t by reading the labs or adverse events. It was by reading the mental health observations in their Progress Notes.

Did the patient have a positive outlook, were they hopeful about the future, and I don’t mean about their prognosis, I mean were they excited about that upcoming trip to see their grandchildren, did they perceive they had supportive family/friends, a curiosity, a zest for life.

I could compare two patients with identical diagnoses and that section of the medical chart told me more about their likely course than any other section.

Observing this pattern over and over again was one of the main drivers that lead me to study Ayurveda. What was going on and how could we harness some of this “medicine” to help people heal.

In Ayurveda, there’s a concept called Khavaigunya. Khavaigunya simply means a weak or defective space in the body typically caused by past injury, illness, trauma, or familial genetic patterns.

Khavaigunyas are especially vulnerable to frequent or chronic imbalances because they tend to attract ama (toxins) and excesses in the doshas.

As far out as this may sound, new groundbreaking science out of Dr. Asya Rolls lab has identified the actual mechanism that makes this happen. [Sidebar, I cannot express how incredible the work coming out of this woman’s lab is. Remember her name.]

Yes, your grandmother was right, ‘you can worry yourself sick’. But the exciting news is you can also accelerate healing!

In a study published in 2021, Professor Rolls and team showed that not only can the brain make the body sick, but just as the brain remembers people, places, and smells, it stores “memory traces” of the illness and injury. Reactivating that memory is enough to reawaken past immune system responses and elicit physiological symptoms.

Profs. Rolls and her team induced colitis in the mice and then identified which areas of the brain were activated. One main area that was activated was the Insular cortex, the region of our brain responsible for sensory processing and perception; how we perceive experiences and thoughts.

Once the mice had fully revered from colitis the team injected them with a drug that artificially reactivated the insular cortex brain cells. What they found was that the mice quickly developed inflammation in the exact same location of the colon from the previous colitis without any exposure to a pathogen or infection. It was just by stimulating that area of the brain!

How many times have you experienced or gone to the Dr with complaints of an illness, but they can’t locate any infection and all your test come back negative? But you know something is wrong.

The exciting news is that they then ran the inverse of the experiment and suppressed the activity in the insular cortex and found that the colitis symptoms resolved in the sick mice.

With chronic stress and tension seeming to be the currency of most media, how can we apply this information to accelerate our wellbeing and health?

As famed Stanford neuroscientist and MacArthur fellow, Dr. Robert Sapolsky, noted.

We humans activate the stress-response for reasons of psychological factors, and that’s simply not what the system evolved for. If you do that chronically, you’re going to get sick.”

Fortunately, he also gave us scientifically proven simple techniques to downregulate this pathway.

  • Breathing exercises
  • Meditation
  • Reflecting on gratitude and a positive future
  • Walking in nature
  • Cold water exposure: shower or plunge

Yes, you’ve heard these 1000 times. No eye-rolling, please. 😊 But here’s the catch.

Dr. Sapolsky stressed that there are 2 keys to making these techniques work. And they are MANDATORY.

  1. Consistency - must be done 15-20 mins a day.
  2. Must be right for you. Not what’s right for your friend or the latest trend. If you hate meditating, it won’t work, find what works for you. There isn’t a ‘best’ form of breathing technique, it’s the one that works for you.

Sapolsky also wisely added.

‘’there is no scientific data that one type of stress management is better than the other. If anyone tries to tell you they have the perfect technique, guard your wallet.”

Don’t wait for what’s ‘best’, do what’s easiest.

With love and gratitude,