New Focus Part 3: The Reptilian Brain and a Stuck ‘On’ Switch

English: MRI coronal view of the amygdala
English: MRI coronal view of the amygdala (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


OK, so here we are with the next part of the non-ingestive healing methods series. You can read Parts 1 and 2 here if you need to catch up.

During my research, the biggest thing that kept coming up in people with chronic illness, but with hyper-sensitivity especially, was the notion of being controlled by the oldest part of our brains – the so-called ‘lizard brain’. Don’t ask me why lizard, not a clue but I like the sound of it! In essence, it involves the amygdala, a tiny almond shaped part of the brain in the limbic system with a very important task but, unfortunately, it seems it is not very bright.

I am certainly no expert in this so I will just paraphrase some of the learning I’ve done and give you my impressions of what that means for us. I certainly remember all about the limbic system as part of my clinical aromatherapy training; its why essential oils can have such an effect on us as that’s where they affect.


The Thalamus-Amygdala Stress Response

The amygdala basically controls our fight or flight response, how we react to our environment, if you like. That’s fine when we had to be on constant alert for sabre-toothed tigers or other dangers in Neolithic world; it’s no doubt what kept us alive and thriving. But, it’s not so useful when it starts perceiving danger in seemingly innocuous things, like food. Our senses pick up stimuli, translate that to the thalamus in the brain which fires up the amygdala to tell us whether it is safe or not.

It has been described as being like a small child in brain power terms and it’s main job is to learn from your experiences and protect you. The problem is if you have a reaction to something, it becomes primed to see it again as a danger and will react even more strongly and quickly the next time. This is a subconscious act, of course, and one that you are totally unaware is going on.

After a reaction to a specific food or substance (a chemical, a person etc) that hurt you, you understandably feel fearful if you come across it again. The amygdala thinks: ‘Ha, here is that thing again’, has a quick check with the conscious brain, which is registering fear or some other worry about that stimuli, and, unless you consciously tell it it is safe, it will acknowledge the fear and act accordingly, triggering a stress response and telling the body to react in whatever way it sees fit.

That’s all well and good, but the stress response being triggered all the time is harmful to our health as we know. It starts a whole cascade of hormones and body complexes that lead to chronic illness, poor immunity, adrenal fatigue and much more. The muscles tense, digestion slows down considerably, adrenaline is pumped out which heightens the sensitivity of the brain and makes things worse, you release sugar into the bloodstream in case you need more fuel,  etc etc etc. It’s no wonder that eventually leads to illness. It’s basically a state of hypervigilance, if you like, with the stress response switch stuck in the ‘on’ position. The body chemical cascade becomes like a dripping tap and eventually overwhelms the body which is when the symptoms start to show.

In terms of hypersensitivity, the constant stimuli (seeing/smelling/tasting eg food or chemicals) comes in to your thalamus. Your thalamus gets sensitised so everything is magnified, if you like, then the amygdala gets a much stronger signal than it would have, and that is sensitised/hypervigilant too, it checks with your conscious brain which is recalling all the horrible reactions you have had in the past to that or similar stimuli and decides it must be a huge problem for you and you get a heightened/magnified stress response. And on and on it goes. Ugh. Makes sense to me so far.


Don’t forget, too, that there are loads of other things in our daily lives that will trigger a stress response, all of which will probably be magnified. A chronic allergy/sensitivity reaction will do it, as will a virus, toxin or a bacterial infection, for example. A row with your partner, a stressful time at work and, eventually – and I hear this all the time, pardon the pun – a barking dog, a noisy neighbour, even light and temperature will start to become something that makes you feel stressful. Inappropriately angry responses is also another one I see a lot.

Eventually, the body and mind seems overwhelmed: “I can’t cope” is the usual refrain and we worry what the heck is happening to us. That, of course, just feeds more into the amygdala sensitisation and it becomes a vicious circle. Chronic fatigue is often not far behind, unsurprisingly. And this constant firing is the reason why most food or chemical sensitives are so adrenally fatigued; they just can’t keep up with demand.

The digestion becomes affected which eventually will lead no doubt to an inability to absorb properly and onto poor nutrient levels which then makes every system and organ of the body start under-functioning as well as allowing bacterial and other infections like H pylori, candida and other parasites a look in as there’s invariably not enough stomach acid to kill them as there should be. After a while, you start to feel rubbish and get symptoms, you start to worry about how you are feeling and to dread what will happen next and off we are again into the feedback loop into the thalamus and amygdala. Worry causes more worry.

Can you see how this is all starting to fit together?

In effect, we become more and more fearful of our triggers and neuroscientists now believe that those negative thoughts become self-fulfilling; we create neuron pathways in the brain that deepen and deepen, often described as a ‘groove’ if you like, and the more that happens, the more fearful we become. We forget how not to be scared of our triggers.

Gene Methylation Problems

It is thought that some people may have a genetically-programmed issue with the amygdala. The on/off switch is controlled by a process called methylation and we already know that many people have methylation defects. Could that be one of our issues, I wonder? When it is called upon, the amygdala releases a specific protein which triggers a cascade which turns on the genes, via methylation, that control the stress response at cellular levels. This leads to increased inflammation and cellular ageing (evidenced in research by shorter telomeres which, actually, I can now test for).

It seems that when the brain is developing in childhood, it is particularly vulnerable to this process. If, say, the child suffers trauma of some kind or starts reactions to  something, this process of methylation can go awry and disables the genes needed to control the stress response appropriately. We get a stuck ‘on’ switch.

I have to say this stopped me in my tracks. As you can see from my About page, I didn’t exactly have a great childhood. Could there be a link there to my hyper-sensitivity maybe, a reason why I can’t seem to stop it. I – gingerly – delved deeper, so to speak.

Adverse Childhood Experiences


Adverse Childhood Events

I had heard about a study ages ago where researchers were measuring how so-called ACEs (adverse childhood events) affect our future physiology. There is a questionnaire they give and you count how many ACEs you have out of 10. The more ACEs you have, the more likely you are to have future illness. In fact, for every ACE, there is a 20% higher risk of developing autoimmune disease by your middle-age. I counted 7. Oh dear. Apparently, you can have as few as 2 and that is thought severe enough to trigger illness. What chance did I have then with 7?!

The methylation switch has obviously taken place in my case. My amygdala is stuck on.

The Memory

But there was more that fitted with my case, too. Another part of our old brain is the hippocampus. This controls memory and how you deal with emotion. Scientists have found that ACEs and the stress response triggers a hormone that affects the hippocampus and it under-develops. This would then mean a person has poor memory and is not great at dealing with emotions. I suppose that might mean hyper-emotional or ‘cold’ in some way. I am certainly the former – I can cry at anything and feel things, especially other people’s pain, far too sensitively.

Not just that, though, I was told once by a neurologist that I had a condition where my brain had shut off memories that were possibly too painful to bear. I can’t remember now the name of it, if there is one, but essentially I couldn’t recall anything from childhood bar a few scant memories. It has improved over time but not by much. Apparently, especially in adolescence, the brain can ‘block’ the amgydala and hippocampus or certainly dampen their responses down I presume as a kind of coping mechanism. You feel less and you can recall less. Neuroscientists now believe that this is a special form of neuroplasticity where we can change our brains. For me, that means if I did it the wrong way round, I can undo it. Plasticity works both ways. (More about plasticity in a future post in this series.) That gave me hope.

The issue with this is that it is great as a form of protective mechanism; the ACEs are buried supposedly until we are ready to deal with them. But what if we don’t, or, like me I have to say, don’t even recognise them or think about them consciously any more? Remember the dripping tap? The tap is still on, drip, drip, dripping away leading inexorably to illness later on. Apparently, this is likely to trigger by 30s onwards and the most likely illnesses include, wait for it: IBS (yep, my first illness), migraine (yep, my most recent illness and autoimmune disease (which I think is my gums currently). Oh. Bloody. Hell.

I have to say I stopped reading at that point and took a few days to calm down and think it through a bit. I felt a bit shell-shocked. Could my hypersensitivity really go back to the good old days of alcoholism and suicide? As a biochemist-trained person, I found it hard to accept. But then I remembered my promise to accept what answers the universe would throw at me.

One point that soothed me and might help you is that is definitely NOT all in the mind. This is a known process involving genetic methylation and measurable physiological processes. We can’t separate mind from body and I think, maybe, we need to pay more attention to the mind side of things for a bit.


A Link With The Barriers???

The other thing that occurred was that if the problem was basically a protective mechanism gone wrong, would that translate to other, more tangible, protective mechanisms in the body aka the barriers? Ooh, I was proud of that link! It’s not as far fetched as you might think.

Recall that protein released by the amygdala when stimulated? Well, high levels of it are found in the skin of people with skin problems like psoriasis and eczema. That shows the link between our thoughts and feelings and what manifests physiologically on our actual skin. We all know skin conditions are affected by stress, don’t we? Well, why would other, inner, skin be any different just because you can’t see it? (I wrote a bit about this in the last post in this series, if you remember). I theorise, of course, but what if the on switch causing hypervigilance is actually translating into barriers that have become hypervigilant too? I find that kind of a neat conclusion.

Phew. Dynamite stuff. Are you still with me? Is this making any sense for your case? I hope so.

Anyway, it’s one thing knowing that my switch is probably on thanks to the gene methylation changes triggered by trauma, but what do you do about it? Can you unscramble the genes and turn the ruddy switch off?

Well, yes, it seems you can 🙂


Turning It Around

Neuroscientists now know that our brains are pretty fluid, if you forgive the image. We are not set in stone and we can change the hand we have been dealt. It takes effort and time, but it can be done. The aim is to start new ‘grooves’ if you like, move away from the fearful thoughts and replace them with positive ones. That sounds trite, I know, and far too simple, but bear with me; there is a lot of research into this so it is not pie in the sky by any means even though that’s how I first reacted. I am such a cynic!

Not only can we change the brain ‘grooves’, we can change the gene methylation. If we accept that negative events, feelings and thoughts buggered up the gene methylation in the first place, then it is not too far a stretch to accept that positive events, feelings, images and thoughts can do the opposite. Recall that the problem with the stress response being chronically triggered was the cascade of complexes physiologically which leads to illness later in life. Well, we know that when we trigger the parasympathetic response, the body releases a different set of complexes which are healing, protective and cellularly anti-ageing. I want me some more of that!

There has been a huge amount of research into this field and I am not going to go through it; you’ll just have to trust me and go and look at some yourself, although I will, from now on, keep an eye out for studies and post them for you.

Certain practices, like meditation for one, can very effectively stimulate the parasympathetic response and, done consistently, can have a cumulative effect. Mindfulness can help recondition the amygdala response by ‘interrupting’ the process as you consciously tell yourself all is OK and safe. Brain training and repetition can help you build new ‘grooves’ or actually new neuron pathways. Say and do it enough and the amygdala will unlearn the old hypervigilant ways and start to calm down. Going back to that image of the amygdala as a small child, I like to think it is a not-too developed part of the brain there to protect us, but it is totally dependent on what we tell it to do consciously. That gives us an ‘in’ to talk to it, if you like, and develop it in a different way, if that makes any sense.

So, my next task was to investigate some of the healing methods I thought might be most useful to achieve our specific aims. To recap, as I see them, those are:

Build new neuron pathways and let the learned ones wither.

 Interrupt the amygdala response.

 Stop triggering the stress response and trigger the parasympathetic ones often enough instead.

 Encourage correct gene methylation

I’m sure there will be many ways to do that. Obviously, this is highly subjective and is going to need to be based on my experiences and what I need to do, but I will share what I plan to do in the next post for you.

Before I end this mammoth post, I must give credit where credit is due: I got most of this info from separate sources  – materials and books from Lipton, Doidge, Amen, Gupta, Hopper etc and countless websites and blogs. There is a good wikipedia page on the amygdala too here which explains the fear conditioning quite well.

Then, the universe sent me an excellent book which really brought a lot of this together for me. I suggest you read it if this type of thing is resonating with you. The Last Best Cure by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. I was reading her famous book on AutoImmunity and saw she’d brought out this new one in Feb – fab timing! She comes at it from a very science-based point of view, working with mainstream doctors in the US to turn around her own severe health issues. I found it compelling, scientifically-reassuring and very touching. Her aim was to get the joy back into her life and that meant something to me too. Read it.

Ok, the next in the series, Part 4, will be: The Hour of Power! See you there. Hope you found this as fascinating as I did!



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