by Julie Genser
Neural plasticity, or cortical remapping, refers to the ability of the brain to form new neuronal networks throughout one’s lifetime, in response to a constant stream of new experiences. This is an idea that has only been discovered and accepted in the last 20 years or so; prior to that scientists believed that the brain’s capacity to form new neuronal pathways was fixed after a critical stage of development in infancy. What does this have to do with biotoxin illnesses (like lyme disease and mold illness) and chemical injuries that sometimes share the overlapping symptoms of environmental intolerance, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and fibromyalgia (FMS)?
Although unequivocal scientific proof remains to be presented (due primarily to lack of funded studies), there is a pretty hefty theory out there that there is a cluster of acquired neurotoxic injuries that can be treated, at least in part, by rewiring around the damaged part of the brain. The idea is that the amygdala (our reptilian “fight or flight” center) and other areas of the limbic system have been damaged by a neurotoxic insult in a way that keeps our brains in a continuous emergency state, on high alert. In this heightened anxiety loop, our brain tamps down our regulatory body systems – including our detoxification pathways and immune responses – so that it can focus on the perceived emergency at hand, ironically making us more vulnerable to chemicals, bacteria, and viruses (which, for some people, might explain why many of us feel like walking toxic dump sites). Secondary symptoms and disease processes are then initiated, confounding the original brain injury. The stress and trauma of our bodies behaving so uncharacteristically, and the fragility and often disappearance of all our support systems (medical, home, family, financial) during our greatest time of need further entrenches anxiety-driven neural pathways, resulting in exacerbated symptoms and, many times, new disease labels.
Our symptom set may differ depending on the brain injury we sustain – among other factors like genetic predisposition, biochemistry, diet, and lifestyle habits – with viral insults commonly presenting as chronic fatigue syndrome, physical injuries (from car accidents, for example) resulting in fibromyalgia, emotional traumas causing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chemical assaults showing up as chemical sensitivity. Yet according to the theory, these are all essentially the same type of injury and current brain retraining programs focused on these types of health conditions utilize the same approach no matter which symptom picture is presenting.
The theory developed out of neurolinguistic programming based therapies like Phil Parker’s Lightning Process, but was developed further by Ashok Gupta (a self-recovered CFS patient) and more recently, Annie Hopper (a self-recovered MCS/ES/FMS patient). Gupta’s Amygdala Retraining™ Program is focused primarily on CFS/ME and FMS but he has made a concerted effort over the past several years to expand the program to MCS sufferers after hearing reports of improvement from patients. Hopper’s Dynamic Neural Retraining System™ addresses chemical sensitivities, but like Gupta’s program, has reported success with many other conditions such as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, anxiety and depression.
The brain retraining exercises are intended to help reprogram our unconscious stress response and calm the overactive amygdala. The theory surmises that once the amygdala is calmed and brought out of a continual emergency mode, those systems (detox, immune, etc.) that were suppressed will now begin to function normally again and the patient should start detoxing heavy metals, bacterial infections, and viruses more effectively.
Some DNRS™ workshop participants have reported the sudden “turning off of a switch” after several weeks, or sometimes only days, of doing the exercises. The “switch” being their sensitivity to environmental factors, including chemicals, foods, molds, EMFs, and other triggers. For others, the results are often more subtle and gradual. There are those who see no significant improvement at all. Gupta himself even reports that 10-15% of people that complete his program “do not benefit at all,” and he has not found any particular type of pattern as to who benefits and who does not. No matter how soon you do start seeing results, it is suggested to do the program exercises for an hour each day for a full 6 months in order to strengthen all the new neuronal pathways.
I first discovered this fascinating theory – that chemical sensitivity might not be about “toxicity,” but about dysfunction in the area of the brain that decides how to react to perceived threats and a resulting sensitization/spreading process – about two years ago. I have since been experimenting with the Gupta and Hopper brain retraining programs myself, as well as many related and supporting therapies – such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), the Buteyko Breathing Method and Lumosity Brain Games. I am not yet healed of my brain injury and subsequent sensitization to environmental triggers, but I feel I am on my way. Please join me on my journey, and hundreds of others, as we explore unchartered territory and possibly pioneer a new approach to MCS/CFS/FMS/PTSD recovery. This blog will introduce many concepts that might be helpful to others on a similar path. It should be noted that there have been a few anecdotal reports of increased anxiety, severe insomnia, bladder infections, exacerbation of PTSD, and other symptoms from doing some of the programs mentioned on this website, which caused those participants to stop doing the exercises. Please listen to your body and proceed slowly and with care. As always, please check with a qualified healthcare provider familiar with your health history and specific symptoms before incorporating any new therapies into your recovery program.
photo: © Sirup | Dreamstime.com