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1306 NW Hoyt St #411
Portland, OR 97209

(503) 248-1182

Naturopathic Medicine, Neurotherapy

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Blog

How to trick your brain into motivation instead of procrastination

Noel Thomas

206 trick brain motivation

Lack of motivation plagues even the brightest and most ambitious at times, especially when we have so many digital distractions these days. But you can trick your brain into becoming more motivated and it will hardly even notice. You simply need to know a little about the neurology of motivation and procrastination.

A key brain chemical, or neurotransmitter, involved in motivation is dopamine. It also happens to be the key neurotransmitter involved in bad habits and addiction, including digital addictions to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. We need plenty of dopamine to stay motivated and feel good about our accomplishments and ourselves. Otherwise we lapse into procrastination.

Every time you check your Facebook (or smoke a cigarette, gamble, take a drug, or engage in any other addiction), the pleasure center of the brain, called the nucleus accumbens, is flooded with dopamine and hence feelings of pleasure. Dopamine also encourages motivation to continue that feel-good behavior.

This system doesn’t exist simply to sabotage us with Netflix binge watching addictions. We are designed to find pleasure in certain activities that ensure survival of our species, such as eating, love, sex, and having fun (positivity is good for immune and brain health). However, these rewarding pleasures require, to varying degrees, a certain amount of work, attention, and time for modest releases of dopamine.

An addictive habit, however, can release two to 10 times the amount of dopamine a natural one does. In other words, jumping on to Facebook is going to give you a quicker and easier dopamine “high” than, say, building a fire so you can hang out with your tribe and cook that day’s catch.

In an attempt to maintain balance, the brain’s receptors lose tolerance to dopamine so that you get less of a high. However, dopamine has also wired your brain to connect the stimulus with the feelings of pleasure. As a result, compulsion builds with tolerance.

As the compulsion for the bad habit grows, the increased dopamine demand saps your motivation to engage in more positive but less extreme dopamine-boosts. If you have ever gotten sucked into binge watching a Netflix series over taking a walk on a sunny day, you know what I’m talking about.

You also probably know that willing yourself into better behavior often fails you and makes you feel even worse about yourself — dopamine is tied to self-esteem and when yours is running low, so is your sense of self-worth.

It’s not as hopeless as it sounds. The key is to redirect your brain’s dopamine system with baby steps that develop new pathways of communication so you think, feel, and behave differently. This is called plasticity. How? Pick a positive action small enough you know you can accomplish it. Trouble sticking to an exercise routine? Commit to one pushup a day. Wish you would work on that book? Write one paragraph, or even one sentence a day. Want to meditate? Start with one minute, or maybe a few minutes of reading.

The magic isn’t in how much you do, but through the feeling of accomplishment. This sends rewarding dopamine boosts to the areas of your brain that need it the most so positive plasticity can develop. After you have been doing that one pushup or that one minute of meditation, increase it to two, and so on. The goal is to feel a rewarding sense of accomplishment and continue building on that in small, achievable ways.

Symptoms of low dopamine activity include lack of motivation, struggles with procrastination, inability to find pleasure in things you used to enjoy, fatigue, mood swings, memory deficits, addiction, feelings of low self-worth, bouts of rage, and other symptoms.

Low dopamine can have its roots in chronic health imbalances (gut, immune, hormonal, etc.) or in neurological imbalances, such as brain development disorders, brain degeneration, brain injury, or other brain-based mechanisms.

Ask my office functional neurology strategies to help you improve your dopamine activity so you can get stuff done, enjoy life more, and feel better about yourself.

It doesn’t take a blow to the head to injure the brain

Noel Thomas

205 brain injury without concussion

You don’t have to receive a blow to the head to suffer from brain injury. In fact, you can even injure your brain while wearing a helmet. This is because brain tissue is very delicate — the consistency of soft butter or egg white — and floats inside a skull lined with hard ridges. Impacts to the body, falls, and neck injuries are all it takes to injure the brain, especially if they happen repeatedly.

Here are some ways you can sustain a brain injury without ever hitting your head:

Hard falls: When you fall your brain slams into one side of your skull and then the other. People who engage in activities that involve falling and crashing regularly (football, extreme sports, roller derby, etc.) should be aware of signs of brain injury, even if they wear a helmet.

Body slams (such as in contact sports): Likewise, full impact hits to the body knock the brain around inside the skull.

Landing on your tailbone: Although landing on your tailbone results in a sore bum, your brain is also victim to the force sent up the spine.

Whiplash: Whiplash is a double whammy to the brain, which is why car accidents can be so devastating even if you didn’t directly injure your head. Not only does the whiplash send the brain crashing back and forth inside the skull, but the shearing and twisting forces in the neck can also damage the brain stem. The brain stem may look simply like the connection between the brain and the neck, its an extremely important center of brain function. Damage to the brain stem can cause anxiety, insomnia, extreme moodiness, gut problems, autonomic problems, and extreme sensitivity to light, sound, and crowds.

Falls and crashes also damage the fragile inner ear, or vestibular system, which plays a vital role in brain function and integrity.

The reason football players and extreme athletes are making headlines is because repeated impacts to the body and head continually inflame and damage the brain, overwhelming its ability to recover until it eventually succumbs to dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Brain injury increases risk for more brain injury

One of the most prominent signs of brain injury is worsened balance and coordination. Unfortunately, these symptoms predispose a person to further injure their brain due to increased clumsiness. Just one concussion increases the risk of a second by 150 percent. After two concussions, your risk for a third goes up by 300 percent. This is why it’s so important to seek functional neurology and functional medicine interventions right away when you suspect you have injured your brain.

Poor brain health increases brain injury risk

It’s not just how many times your brain slams around inside your skull that matters, but also the general health of your brain prior to injury. This is why some people recover more quickly from injury than others. If you eat fast foods regularly, are deficient in vital brain nutrients — such as essential fatty acids and vitamin D have undiagnosed food sensitivities (especially to gluten), or suffer from hormonal imbalances or deficiencies, your brain is going to fare more poorly after an injury.

Because inflammation in the brain does not have an “off switch” the way it does in the body, brain inflammation is like a slow moving fire that can damage tissue for months and even years, causing symptoms long after the insults. The good news is that for all its fragility, the brain is an amazing organ when it comes to recovery and repair. It will eagerly respond to functional neurology and functional medicine protocols to improve function, dampen disorders, and enhance its overall integrity.

Ask my office how we can help you get back your brain health and function.

Hormones out of whack since your brain injury?

Noel Thomas

204 TBI and hormonesAlthough brain injury symptoms may subside enough for you to return to daily life, trauma to the brain can continue to subtly wreak havoc on how your body functions and feels for month and even years later. For instance, many people notice their hormone function isn’t the same after a brain injury.

Your hormonal command center — the hypothalamus and pituitary gland — is in the brain. Although a head injury may occur in an isolated area, the vast networks of communication across the entire brain mean that damage to one area affects the entire brain. And because the brain runs the body, it only makes sense daily operations of the body take a hit too.

Estimates on how many people suffer from hormone disorders caused by brain injury vary, however, one study of 1,000 patients with traumatic brain injury (TBI) found almost 30 percent had compromised pituitary function.

The hormonal systems most impacted are the sex hormones, growth hormones (which adults need for bone and muscle strength), and adrenal, or stress, hormones. Symptoms range from mild to severe and can surface immediately or months or even years later.

Common hormone symptoms related to brain injury include fatigue, weight gain, low blood pressure, low libido, loss of muscle mass, and amenorrhea. Children may have growth problems later.

More severe repercussions can include Addison’s disease (adrenal insufficiency), diabetes insipidus (which causes intense thirst and heavy urination), or hyponatremia (abnormally low sodium).

How functional neurology and functional medicine can help restore hormone function

Why will two people with the same TBI have two wildly different responses hormonally? In functional neurology and functional medicine, we know one reason is the health of the brain prior to injury. For instance, one person eats a healthy diet, avoids inflammatory foods, isn’t already struggling with depression or anxiety, does not have advanced brain inflammation, and exercises regularly. This person may experience a good and swift recovery after a TBI.

However, take the the person who lives on a pizza and mac-and-cheese, unaware that a gluten and dairy sensitivity are causing immune attacks on the brain. They also drink soda every day, sit gaming or working for hours instead of getting any exercise, and work or live in a stressful, toxic environment. This person likely already has hormonal imbalances and a highly inflamed brain. A brain injury is going to be much more devastating as a result.

Also, hormonal status in midlife can play a big role in how the brain responds to injury as the sex hormones are highly protective of the brain. For the woman or man who experiences a steep decline in hormone production in midlife, their brain is much more vulnerable to damage and slower recovery after a TBI.

You may think hormone replacement therapy is the answer, and in some people it may be, but in functional neurology we look at the various dietary and lifestyle conditions that create hormonal imbalances and work to address those.

We customize rehabilitative functional neurology strategies based on the type of damage a patient’s brain received and pre-existing metabolic health.

We also examine and address the function of related systems, such as the vestibular system, or inner ear; the vagus nerve, an information highway that connects the brain to the organs; and the visual system. Working with these systems, which are so integral to brain function, is a vital to rehabilitation.

If your hormones have been out of whack since your concussion, or brain injury, ask my office how we can help.

Improve brain function and chronic pain through posture

Noel Thomas

203 neurology of postureHave you ever been prescribed physical therapy for a chronic pain problem only to find it returns after treatment? The problem may lie in the connection between your brain and your posture. Your posture actually says a lot about your brain — areas of brain dysfunction can show up as poor posture and injury due to misalignment.

The brain stabilizes the body and works to make movement as efficient as possible without our conscious knowledge. However, various factors can skew the brain’s communication with the body, resulting in poor posture. These include insult or injury to the brain or body, degeneration from inflammation caused by unhealthy diets and unstable blood sugar, lack of brain stimulation from an overly sedentary lifestyle, and chronic repetitive movements and poor ergonomics.

Even just having your eyes constantly in a downward gaze at a computer screen a couple of feet from your face, instead of outside and scanning your environment, can affect the brain’s function in a way that promotes bad posture.

Posture reflects the brain’s interpretation of where the body is in relation to the world around it. It depends not only on vision, but also on the body’s other senses for feedback. The feet are especially useful in helping the body understand its position. In fact, the skin of the feet communicates with a precise part in the brain, the sensory cortex, which then communicates with the frontal lobe and the cerebellum to direct movement and position, including the position of your head.

However, uneven weight distribution between the feet gives improper sensory information to the brain.

Additionally, poor synchronization between the eyes, which we often find with brain disorders, also sends faulty information to the brain. Every area of the brain is affected by input from the eyes.

Even the jaw plays a role in this input. The position of the lower jaw, teeth and tongue, and whether someone breathes through their nose or mouth all affect how the brain interprets center of gravity and posture.

When the brain integrates all of this off-kilter input, its interpretation of your place in the environment is incorrect. As a result, poor posture and movement imbalances are perpetuated.

Eventually, chronic pain can develop due to misalignment. Rarely do patients with chronic pain have even pressure on both feet or eyes that move in synchrony.

However, with an understanding of how these systems work together, many patients experience significant or total relief of chronic pain and other brain-based issues by addressing these imbalances. In functional neurology we stimulate sensory areas, dampen over active areas of the brain, and use rehabilitative eye exercises to help stabilize and synchronize vision. Together these approaches can change the way your muscles contract, your posture, and your movement.

Chronic pain isn’t the only condition helped. Addressing brain-based causes of poor posture and misalignment also helps in autism, Parkinson’s, movement disorders, anxiety, and brain injury recovery.

In addition to using functional neurology, you can better activate the sensory input areas of your brain to improve your posture by walking barefoot, or in shoes that are close to barefoot, doing balance exercises (especially in conjunction with reciting the months of the year or the alphabet backwards), getting up to move around every hour for a few minutes, and spending time outside looking into the distance and visually tracking different targets.

Ask my office for more advice on how to improve your posture and other conditions by addressing your brain health and function.

Autism rates continue to rise, setting new record highs

Noel Thomas

202 autism rising

There was a time many people — who are not yet that old — can remember when autism was relatively uncommon. Today it’s so common special education classes have exploded in numbers many parents have a child on the autism spectrum. Although we’d like to blame increased diagnoses, the fact is overall childhood brain development disorders have been skyrocketing in the last two decades and now stand at a shocking 1 in 14 children. These disorders include autism spectrum disorder, an intellectual disability, or a developmental delay.

According to the National Health Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), rates of autism have been rising sharply:

2000: 1 in 150 children

2007: 1 in 91 children

2010: 1 in 68 children

2016: 1 in 36 children

For boys the most recent numbers are 1 in 28, which is three times higher than girls. This represents an almost 150 percent increase in less than a decade, yet the news has received little media attention.

Although awareness and diagnoses have improved to catch more children, especially girls who have long been neglected due to exhibiting different symptoms than boys, it’s hard to dismiss the surge in other childhood health disorders commonly related to autism:

  • Peanut allergies and nut allergies have increased by about 20 percent since 2010
  • Rates of asthma have grown by almost 30 percent since 2000 
  • Eczema rates have risen between 5 to 17 percent, depending on the ethnic group 
  • Hospital visits for life-threatening food allergies have doubled 
  • Rates of inflammatory bowel diseases in children rise every year 
  • Type 1 diabetes has been increasing at a rate of almost 5 percent a year

What do the ongoing surges of these issues have in common with autism spectrum disorders and brain development disorders? The immune system. Autism spectrum disorders have increasingly been found to have their roots in immune imbalances that can start while the child is still in the womb, thanks to environmental influences that are passed to the baby through cord blood and the mother’s own dysregulated immune system. Because the neurological and immune systems develop concurrently, prenatal immune imbalances predispose a child to an autism spectrum disorder or other brain development disorder.

What is causing so many brain and immune disorders in our children? A Harvard study found autism rates double among mothers exposed to high levels of fine-particulate air pollution in their third trimester. Maternal autoimmunity such as lupus has been shown to almost double the risk of autism in offspring. Mothers can also carry immune antibodies to brain tissue that then go on to target the brain of the fetus for attack, inhibiting proper brain development. Other factors such as older fathers, high IQ, and genetic history also play a role.

Studies link environmental toxins to reduced intelligence and increased brain problems in children beginning in utero, prompting researchers to call it a silent pandemic. Although we can’t change the world, we can reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals in the products we use and the foods we eat. We can also practice functional neurology protocols that reduce inflammation and help continually detoxify the body and buffer it from damage. Ask my office for more information.

A functional neurology look at migraines and migraine relief

Noel Thomas

201 migraines

About one in four Americans suffer from migraines, or head pain that lasts four to 72 hours, in the United States and it’s a leading cause of disability. Fortunately, by understanding how metabolic disorders affect the brain, we can use functional neurology and neurochemistry to help many people with migraines find lasting and significant relief.

Many migraine sufferers feel they miss out on much of their lives. It’s hard to make commitments to social events, concerts, picnics, or other events because they never know when they’ll be felled by a migraine. Many migraine patients are also dependent on one or more drugs to function, and some of these drugs can cause rebound migraines!

When a migraine is coming on or hits, symptoms may include not only pain but also inability to tolerate light or sound, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, numbness and tingling in different parts of the body, visual auras, déjà vu, hallucinations, and more. These symptoms are important clues in functional neurology to help us determine which part of the brain is affected during the migraine. For instance, visual auras indicate an issue in the occipital lobe, which governs vision, while déjà vu signals a migraine affecting the temporal lobe, which plays a role in time perception.

What exactly causes a migraine?

It has long been believed migraines happen when blood vessels to a region of the brain dilate, or enlarge, pressing on nerve fibers around them. However, other research suggests the pain is due not to widening blood vessels but rather extra sensitive nerve fibers surrounding them. Either way, inflammation seems to play a key role in the painful throbbing and pounding. The trick is to find out the underlying cause of the inflammation. This is where functional neurology and functional medicine come in.

Unstable blood sugar. Clinically, we see many cases of migraines significantly improve, if not resolve, simply by stabilizing the patient’s blood sugar. Most Americans are on a roller coaster of blood sugar lows and highs thanks to diets that are too high in sugars and processed carbohydrates, and too low in healthy, whole foods.

For others, they eat too little and too infrequently, keeping their body and brain constantly in a state of low blood sugar.

For these people, eating small bites of protein more frequently throughout the day can help prevent migraines.

Blood sugar lows and highs are highly stressful and inflammatory to the body and brain and a primary root cause to many chronic health disorders, including migraines. The first step in addressing migraine should always be to stabilize blood sugar and follow an anti-inflammatory diet.

Iron deficiency anemia. Anemia is another commonly overlooked cause of migraines we sometimes see clinically. If a migraine patient tests low in iron, sometimes supplementing with iron can profoundly impact migraine symptoms. Of course, you’ll want to address why you have anemia too.

Hormone imbalances. One of the more common, and complicated, causes of migraines in women is a hormone imbalance involving estrogen and progesterone. Hormone imbalances require a comprehensive functional medicine approach to address the reasons for the imbalance — chronic stress, blood sugar imbalances, poor gut health, inflammation, chronic infection, etc. Many women are low in progesterone due to chronic stress, which robs the body of the precursors necessary for progesterone to make stress hormones instead. Other common female hormone issues include excess estrogen, low estrogen, or excess testosterone. Appropriate levels of the sex hormones help regulate the immune system and inflammation.

This is a very cursory overview of some potential mechanisms for migraines, which can be different for everyone. Previous head injuries are another common factor to consider. If you have migraines, ask my office for a consultation.

CTE found in living NFL player but affects many types of people

Noel Thomas

152 CTE in living football player

The first case of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, was identified in NFL player Fred McNeill and confirmed after his death in 2015. However, CTE, which causes brain degeneration and dementia, is not confined just to football players. Anyone whose body receives repeated blows is at risk. This includes boxers, wrestlers, MMA fighters, extreme athletes, military troops, and more. You don’t even have to receive a concussion for your brain to suffer injury and damage from repeated falls, crashes, and body slams.

A recent study of the brains of deceased NFL players showed 110 out of 111 had CTE disease, a bitter pill for a sport that is a staple of American culture.

CTE causes symptoms of depression, memory loss, confusion, anger, loss of impulse control, and overall decline and changes in personality. Many former NFL players succumb to chronic mood, behavioral, and pain disorders that devastates their personal lives. A number have committed suicide.

Diagnosing CTE before death now a possibility

The CTE in McNeill was discovered by Dr. Bennet Omalu, the subject of the 2015 Will Smith movie Concussion,about the NFL’s attempts to suppress Omalu’s CTE research findings.

A former NFL player and top attorney, McNeill started to devolve in his 40s into an explosive, depressed, forgetful, and impulsive man who drove his family into bankruptcy and could no longer hold a job. He died of ALS at age 63.

Omalu scanned McNeill’s brain several years prior with a diagnostic exam he developed that identifies the spread of tau protein clumps on a PET brain scan.

Tau proteins help provide structure to the brain’s neurons so they can communicate effectively with one another. When the brain is repeatedly knocked about, either from direct hits to the head or from crashing around in the skull, tau proteins come loose, change shape, and clump together. Eventually they take on a life of their own and spread to other areas of the brain.

Omalu’s diagnostic exam identifies the pattern of tau’s spread that is unique to CTE. Because this spread of tau clumps is so gradual, it explains why symptoms show up years after the initial damage.

The role of functional neurology in brain health

While scientists are working on ways to prevent the spread of tau proteins that leads to advanced brain degeneration and dementia, functional neurology and neurochemistry offers many hopeful possibilities.

Regulating brain inflammation is a primary factor in protecting brain health. How do you know if your brain is inflamed? Common symptoms are brain fog, depression, anxiety, irritability, anger, memory loss, and fatigue. Brain inflammation also commonly causes gut problems.

Unlike the rest of the body, the brain does not have an off switch for inflammation after an insult. Inflammation can continue as a slow burn through the brain, damaging tissue as it goes. When you throw in repeated injuries through contact or extreme sports, it may never get a break and the damage continues long after the sports stop.

Taming brain inflammation and improving brain health and function requires a multi-faceted functional medicine and functional neurology approach. This includes an anti-inflammatory diet, lifestyle changes, nutritional therapy, and functional neurology rehabilitation that targets damaged areas of the brain.

If you haven’t been the same since your head injury, football days, or extreme sports lifestyle, call for a consultation.

Effects of trauma can be passed genetically on to children

Noel Thomas

151 trauma genes passed on

We are increasingly learning the effects of traumatic experiences on the brain, and now, newer research shows these effects can be passed on to children’s genes. Research of Holocaust survivors showed that compared to control groups, their children exhibited genetic changes that increased the likelihood of stress disorders.

Other research shows post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can be passed on to offspring.

Plus, most trauma survivors are coping with the neurological effects of PTSD as they raise their children, which greatly shapes a child's environment and responses to stress.

In functional neurology, we frequently work with the neurological fallout of PTSD, which can include not only being triggered to re-experience the trauma, but also heightened stress response, sensitivity to light, sound, and crowds, emotional instability, depression and suicidality, anxiety and insomnia, disassociation and numbness, and addiction.

How PTSD manifests depends on the person, and women’s symptoms differ from men’s. Men are more prone to anger and addiction whereas women struggle more with depression, anxiety, and health ailments.

Trauma turns on and off genes in offspring

In the Holocaust study, researchers discovered genetic differences in offspring of survivors. This finding upended traditionally held notions that environment and experience don’t affect DNA in sperm and eggs of parents.

Although it has long been believed conception delivers a genetic “clean slate,” newer science on epigenetics shows that our environment and experiences constantly modify genes, even in egg and sperm.

They found chemical tags on the DNA that regulates stress hormones in Holocaust parents and their children that were not found in the control group. However, they are not sure how those tags get passed on.

Is PTSD inherited?

Studies on whether PTSD is genetically inherited are not yet conclusive, although one study found genetic links in almost 30 percent of European-American women with PTSD.

Understanding how big a role genetics plays in trauma would further understanding of why some people get PTSD when others don’t, and how best to treat it.

Also, researchers point to the fallout for children raised by adults with PTSD, which can perpetuate the disorder.

Functional neurology and PTSD

PTSD causes structural changes to the brain. The disorder shrinks some areas of the brain while enlarging others, keeping a person trapped in a neurological prison of hyper arousal, stress, and fear.

For instance, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex shrinks, predisposing one to extreme fear and anxiety. PTSD also shrinks the hippocampus, the area responsible for learning and memory. On the other hand, the amygdala, the area that governs the fear response, enlarges.

Compromises in these and other areas of the brain result in an easily triggered and over exaggerated fear response that can be exhausting and debilitating to the sufferer.

Fortunately, the brain is very responsive to rehabilitation and PTSD sufferers can find considerable relief without drugs.

In functional neurology, we use specific exercises and activities to dampen areas of the brain that are over responsive to stress and stimulate those areas that can help control the fear response. Contact my office for more information.

Brain inflammation shown to be higher in people with OCD

Noel Thomas

150 brain inflammation OCD

A recent study showed what functional neurologists have long since observed — obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is linked to brain inflammation. Imaging showed brain inflammation was more than 30 percent higher in subjects with OCD compared to the control group.

The study also found the greater the inflammation the more severe the stress and anxiety around avoiding the compulsive and repetitive rituals that characterize OCD.

Inflammation in the brain is similar to inflammation in the body in that it’s necessary to respond to damage. However, unlike the body’s immune system, there is no “off” mechanism for inflammation in the brain. This means once triggered, brain inflammation can continue on unchecked long after the original insult.

Unfortunately, many people unwittingly inflame their brain on a regular basis and don’t know it. This can cause not only OCD, but also depression, anxiety, insomnia, brain fog, memory loss, fatigue, and even addiction. It also increases the risk of dementia.

Some sources of brain inflammation are obvious, such as head injury. Researchers also have discovered that mild and repetitive blows to the body, falls, crashes, and impacts can also inflame the brain, even if there is no direct injury to the head.

However, another source of inflammation is well established in studies but doesn’t seem to be on the radar in the standard health care model. This is inflammation caused by food intolerances, blood sugar imbalances, chemical intolerances, hormone imbalances, leaky gut, poor gut bacteria health, and brain autoimmunity.

For instance, gluten intolerance is linked to numerous neurological disorders, including OCD, schizophrenia, and depression.

These everyday factors not only inflame the brain, they also make damage from head injuries more severe and recovery more difficult.

Addressing brain inflammation to manage OCD

The OCD study is promising for options in the conventional medical model as drug treatments don’t work for about one-third of patients.

Although the study’s authors suggested developing new drugs to target brain inflammation, in functional neurology we know addressing diet and lifestyle factors are essential to taming inflammation.

For most people, this begins with learning which foods cause an inflammatory response. For many people, gluten and dairy are the two most common culprits, but soy, corn, eggs, various grains, and other foods may trigger inflammation. The autoimmune paleo diet is a good place to start.

Likewise, people can develop an intolerance to chemicals, such as perfumes or plastics, that can trigger inflammation, and should minimize their exposure.

Another common area to address is stabilizing blood sugar that is either too low or too high. This usually means avoiding sugar, lowering carbohydrate consumption, and eating meals at regular intervals.

Repairing gut health is essential to dampen brain inflammation as the gut and the brain have close communication with one another. Damaged and inflamed intestines, bacterial and yeast infections, and not enough good gut bacteria are typical areas of concern.

Good hormone health is necessary to keep brain inflammation in check. For instance, estrogen deficiency in women has been shown to worsen outcomes after head injury. Low thyroid hormones also impact brain health.

Brain autoimmunity, in which the body’s immune system attacks and destroys brain tissue, has become increasingly common today and should be screened for with antibody testing.

Lastly, OCD can also arise because of developmental disconnects in the brain that began in infancy. Childhood brain development disorders are skyrocketing these days, and OCD is just one of many brain-based disorders that has its roots in childhood. OCD involves an area of the brain called the basal ganglia and its improper function and connection with other areas of the brain.

In functional neurology we can identify this disconnect and, along with dietary and lifestyle protocols, offer customized rehabilitative exercises to help improve function and dampen or turn off brain inflammation and OCD. Ask my office for more information.

Digital dementia and ADD: How smartphones rewire the brain

Noel Thomas

149 digital dementia

People feel shame and guilt about their smartphone and digital addictions, but the truth is we are simply at the mercy of how profoundly technology shapes the human brain. It’s understandable why digital dementia” — the loss of cognitive function due to excessive digital use, and “digital ADD” are so common today.

As with many great inventions throughout human history, nobody could have predicted such pervasive neurological consequences of the internet, smartphones, video games, and social media. The human brain is so sensitive to manipulation by these tools that one study showed the mere presence of a smartphone impaired cognitive function in subjects, even though it was turned off!

How digital marketers trick the brain into addiction

Although the endless novelty of technology makes it easy for the stimulus-seeking brain to get hooked, digital addiction has also been engineered for commerce and profit.

Boredom, loneliness, sadness, frustration, confusion, indecisiveness — these are inherent to the human condition. However, they are also the bait for digital distraction.

Technology’s “persuasive designers” use human neurology and psychology — strategies taught at Stanford University in Silicon Valley — to exploit the brain’s tendency towards reward- and pleasure-seeking behavior.

Many people are familiar with the rat studies that showed a rat will press the lever that delivers cocaine over the one that delivers food and water all the way to its death. That’s how powerful those neurochemical pathways are once activated.

You’re not getting distracted because you’re a weak-willed or lazy person, you’re distracted because a relative handful of tech elites have mastered the art of manipulating the human brain — by overriding executive function and appealing to primitive impulses — to hook you and profit them.

How digital ADD leads to digital dementia

Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to create pathways of communication. This is what helps us learn new things and turn conscious actions into automatic habits. The constant and addictive neurological rewards technology offers — notifications, likes, autoplay videos, demanded reciprocity on LinkedIn, Facebook marketing that picks up on insecurity and sells you approval — creates negative plasticity. In other words, these distractions wire our brains to function in new, and unfortunately, worse ways.

Distraction and addiction aren’t the only fallouts. Our digital companions also let us download our memory— phone numbers, directions, appointments — thus failing to exercise this vital brain function so that it starts to deteriorate.

Heavy digital use over develops the left side of the brain while neglecting the right side, which is more linked to concentration, attention, memory span, and emotion. Overdevelopment of the left brain at the expense of the right brain can worsen memory and promote depression.

Solutions for tech-addicted brains

We now have entire generations growing up never having known a world without instance digital access. The bad news is research shows the constant use of tech by kids is negatively affecting their brain development.

The good news is the creators of the most addictive aspects of technology are themselves alarmed at the neurological and global effects. Many are also parents now and see the damage that can done to the inherently vulnerable brain.

As a result, these pioneers are now voicing concerns about the ethics of digitally addictive features. Tobacco, alcohol, and even opium and cocaine are examples of addictive substances that were once considered benign and beneficial and have since been recognized as risky and destructive. When it comes to easy outs from the daily struggle that fills so many moments of being human, the brain goes for the quickest route to relief.

Functional neurology for addiction recovery support

Although the most obvious solution to outwitting tech addition is to not use it, that is increasingly becoming less realistic. In functional neurology we can support addiction recovery by rehabilitating the areas of the brain involved in compulsion, obsession, concentration, and memory. Ask my office how we can help rehabilitate the tech-addicted brain.

Functional neurology and the importance of touch for the brain

Noel Thomas

148 neurology of touch

From the moment a newborn is placed on its mother’s stomach, feels the touch of its parents, and roots and suckles to nurse, the stimulation to the brain from this physical contact is laying the foundation for future brain health and function. In other words, the human brain needs regular healthy touch to develop normally.

Studies show children who are deprived of healthy, loving touch in early life go on to be at greater risk for a number of brain-related disorders, including anxiety, depression, low self-worth, a lower IQ, less empathy, addiction, and mental illness. A greater incidence of general health problems is also a common occurrence.

Functional neurology can help rehab the touch-deprived brain

Just as we can rehabilitate the brain of a person who has had a stroke or brain injury, so can we rehabilitate the brain of a person who grew up depressed and anxious from lack of health touch in early childhood.

Lack of touch, physical violence, and sexual abuse in childhood create pathways in the brain that determine the course of its development, and hence a person’s sense of self, emotions, behavior, brain function, and immune function.

This leads to certain areas of the brain being under active, while others are over active. We can use functional neurology rehabilitation techniques to activate or dampen different areas as needed.

For example, functional neurologists may use eye movements to activate or dampen areas of the brain. Scents, such as an essential oil, can be used to trigger a positive cue to rewire the brain in a healthier direction.

Brain exercises that improve function of the inner ear, or vestibular system and the cerebellum, which both regulate balance, can also help relax and emotionally regulate the hyper vigilant brain of the touch-deprived, anxious individual.

These exercises are customized to each person based on how their brain functions.

Everyday ways to rehab the touch-deprived brain

For instance, consciously practicing generosity can begin to rewire the brain in a healthier way and release dopamine and oxytocin, which can help a person feel better about themselves and those around them.

Making time in your schedule to volunteer regularly or to do something for someone else without expecting anything in return is one way to start rewiring your brain. Writing in a gratitude journal for a few minutes once or twice a day is another way to reinforce that.

Retraining how you think is also an important part of this process. Seeing a therapist can help you develop awareness of negative self-talk and strategies to start talking to and thinking about yourself more positively.

Positive social support is also vital as the human brain is designed to operate as part of a tribe. Finding a healthy, supportive group of people to get together with regularly will help fill in the gaps created by lack of early healthy touch.

Simply observing others touch and relate to each other in a loving way can activate these under developed and starved areas of the brain. Someone who grew up touch deprived simply may not be able to immediately give and receive non-sexual healthy touch. One way to begin that rehabilitation process is to be in the presence of it so your brain can create a mirroring process for its own neurology.

Get a massage, foot reflexology, and other forms of safe and healthy touch. If you’re not in a situation to receive touch from friends or family, investing in a massage can help deliver some of the same benefits.

Functional neurology and addiction: Managing brain health is key

Noel Thomas

FNM 147 neurology of addiction

Two people are hospitalized for injuries. After about a month on opiate painkillers, one patient recovers from their injuries, stops taking the painkillers, and goes back to normal life. The other patient recovers from their injuries but can’t stop taking painkillers. Life is never normal again as a full-blown opiate addiction takes over. Why are some people seemingly at no risk for addiction while others are easily sucked into the vortex of dependency? Functional neurology offers some important insights and rehabilitation strategies to help people improve their chances of recovering from addiction.

Childhood learning and behavioral disorders can raise addiction risk

Learning and behavioral disorders, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders have been linked with an increased risk for addiction. Autism spectrum disorder doubles addiction risk, ADHD quadruples it, and ADHD with an above average IQ increases the risk eight times.

The link may be explained in part by the personal and social struggles these disorders invite. However, scientists have also found a connection between the repetitive thinking and behavior associated with these brain-based disorders and the compulsions that drive drug addiction.

Drug use activates an area of the brain called the ventral area, which is involved in motivation, pleasure seeking, and impulsive behavior. However, when drug use turns into addiction, activity then moves to the dorsal striatum, which automates behavior into patterns triggered by cues. This is useful for learning but detrimental for turning compulsions into destructive habits.

Researchers believe people with brain-based disorders are more prone to getting stuck in repetitive patterns. Genetic and neurochemical predispositions in these populations also seem to line them up for an increased risk of addiction.

Sadly, the social challenges this population faces also creates neurological barriers to connecting with others in support groups commonly used for drug addiction. They may experience anxiety in anger in a situation where they are forced to share their emotions, which can be interpreted as defiance.

Functional neurology help for addiction recovery

Although researchers say there have been no studies on how to address addiction in people with autism, ADHD, and other brain development disorders, in functional neurology we see some clear avenues of action.

Individuals with learning disorders, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders often have compulsive and impulsive behaviors, and “perseveration,” a neurological symptom that causes a person to feel stuck in a loop of repetitive thought and behavior. This happens in part when the brain is in an overly primitive state that lacks the checks and balances offered by a properly developed frontal lobe — the area that governs judgment, impulse control, and social behavior.

As a result, a person becomes victim to these primitive impulses without the neurological ability to suppress them.

In functional neurology examination looking at their visual and motor reflexes, we see these issues with impulsivity and poor inhibition confirmed through basic visual and motor responses to varying exam procedures.

We can use functional neurology to support the addiction recovery process by rehabilitating areas of the brain that didn’t develop properly. Regular follow up examinations can measure the progress of rehabilitating these areas of the brain.

We also support the health of the brain through diet and lifestyle interventions that control inflammation, stabilize blood sugar, and address gut health, several factors that profoundly impact brain function.

This is a broad overview of how integrating functional neurology into an addiction recovery program can significantly improve a person’s chances of recovery. By dampening those compulsive, impulsive, and obsessive tendencies so common with brain development disorders such as ADHD, autism, and learning disorders, a person has a better shot at interrupting and diverting the neurological habituation towards drug use. Ask my office for more information.

Functional neurology picks up where standard medicine drops off

Noel Thomas

146 func neuro vs conv med

A teenage girl suffering from multiple seizures a day spends two weeks in one of the top clinics in the world. There she undergoes about $100,000 worth of testing and is seen by multiple specialists, many of whom witness her having the seizures. However, brain scans and EEG testing show no evidence of a seizure disorder and she is sent home with an anxiety diagnosis.

After a functional medicine neurology visit and three weeks on a gluten-free anti-inflammatory diet, plus some supplements to tame inflammation and support brain health, the seizures stop completely. They return only briefly when she goes off her diet during a holiday and eats foods that trigger inflammation in her brain causing it to seize again.

Why would a conventional medicine approach involving tens of thousands of dollars and multiple specialists turn up empty while functional neurology produced a simple solution?

The answer lies within how conventional medical doctors are required to give a diagnosis that conforms to ICD-10 codes. ICD-10 stands for the International Classification of Diseases.

The ICD-10 is a system all medical doctors in the United States are required to use to classify and code diagnoses, symptoms, and medical procedures. It is copyrighted from the World Health Organization and contains about 70,000 different codes doctors must choose from (compared to about 14,000 with the previous ICD-9 version).

And yet with so many disorders to choose from for a diagnosis, physicians were unable to find a proper one for a girl having multiple seizures a day.

Functional neurology fills a large void in medicine

Functional neurology and functional medicine fill a large and ever growing void in the world of conventional medicine — disorders of inflammation. Depending on whether or how health insurance is used, functional neurology in practice is not always required to conform to ICD-10 codes.

In the case of the girl having seizures, it turns out gluten was the primary trigger of her seizures. There is no ICD-10 code for this when test results are negative as hers were, yet people can have extreme neurological reactions to gluten due to a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.

In fact, research shows the tissue in the body most damaged by an immune reaction to gluten is neurological tissue. Dairy is another common and potent trigger.

Gluten and dairy trigger a wide range of neurological disorders, including tics, obsessive compulsive behavior, movement disorders, memory loss, migraines, seizures, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and even schizophrenia.

However, if neurological damage does not show up on approved testing, doctors cannot make a diagnosis. This proves extremely unfortunate for many patients. For instance, about 90 percent of nerve sheaths have to be damaged before the autoimmune disease multiple sclerosis shows up on a brain scan.

In functional neurology we catch the people who fall through these cracks. We are seeing an explosion in disorders related to inflammation and autoimmunity thanks to the many environmental and dietary triggers so common today. Autoimmunity happens when an imbalanced immune system goes haywire and attacks and destroys tissue in the body.

Patients struggling to recover from brain injuries are told nothing can be done when, in fact, research shows nutritional therapy and brain rehabilitation strategies can help them recover their brain health.

People alarmed at perpetual brain fog, memory loss, and confusion are not too far gone to warrant intervention for advanced brain degeneration.

Patients often have a strong intuitive knowing when something isn’t right with their brain health, and there is often something that can be done to improve it, even if that something does not have an ICD-10 code. Although we depend on conventional medicine for the excellent care they provide in acute situations, you do not need to suffer through years of misery and ever declining performance until you become an acute case too.

Ask my office how functional neurology and functional medicine can help you regain back your health and your brain function.

Extreme sports joins football in repetitive brain trauma fallout

Noel Thomas

FNM 145 CTE in extreme sports copy

The suicide of BMX legend Dave Mirra this year has forced an uncomfortable topic to surface — many extreme sport athletes, and the adolescents and weekend warriors they inspire, face a higher risk of long term brain disorders due to repetitive crashes and hits to the head. Suicide rates, for instance, are three times higher in people who have suffered concussions. Other symptoms include mood disorders, bouts of rage, sensitivity to light and sound, fatigue, poor concentration, memory loss, depression, anxiety, impulsiveness, addiction, poor balance, and migraines.

The renegade nature of extreme sports means long term risks of repetitive head injuries are not tracked like they have been in football. From football we have learned that CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head traumas that leads to significant problems later in life. Autopsies of the brains of 94 former professional football players showed 90 of them had CTE.

You don’t have to have a concussion to sustain brain injury. And while wearing the best helmet may prevent a skull fracture, it doesn’t protect the brain from impact within the skull during a crash after catching big air or face planting on concrete. Twisting, rotation, acceleration, deceleration, and damage to the neck, spine, and inner ear (vestibular system) also impact brain function.

A study analyzing emergency room visits during 10 years saw concussion injuries rising steadily in surfing, mountain biking, motocross, skateboarding, snowboarding, snowmobiling, and skiing. Snowboarding was the most concussive activity.

Not only do these accumulated traumas, both micro and macro, progressively damage the brain, they also foster the development of tau proteins and neurofibrillary tangles, the markers of Alzheimer’s disease.

Functional neurology for extreme sports

Functional neurology has treated its fair share of extreme sport athletes. Perhaps one of the bigger tragedies among the sports world is the idea that nothing can be done for head injuries beyond rest.

In functional neurology, we know this is far from the case. Not only do we have patient experiences to back this up, but we also have peer reviewed studies on brain inflammation and brain rehabilitation.

Brain injuries inflame the brain. However, this inflammation may not turn off, continuing to damage brain tissue like a slow spreading fire. Some people suffer more than others from brain inflammation due to their diet, food intolerances, hormone imbalances, blood sugar regulation issues, chronic infection, pre-existing brain development disorders (such as ADHD), and so on. The factors that lead to Alzheimer’s disease are the same factors that respond to brain inflammation, which is why it’s suggested brain inflammation increases the risk of Alzheimer's.

In functional neurology we assess the chemical environment of the brain — it’s nourishment, oxygen, neurotransmitter status, whether dietary or environmental compounds are worsening brain health, and already existing brain development issues.

Also, instead of prescribing blanket treatments for brain injury, we perform thorough examinations to see which areas of the brain are damaged. This includes examining the function of the inner ear, or vestibular system, the fragile system of canals that play a large role in brain function and are easily damaged during impacts. Rehabilitation and nutritional therapy are then customized to target the specific areas of brain compromise.

By quickly addressing brain health after a concussion, a crash, or a series of crashes that seems to have robbed you of “you,” you can significantly rehabilitate your brain and dramatically lower your risk of bigger problems in the future, including suicidality and dementia.

As for continuing in extreme sports, that is an individual decision. In the age of GoPro cameras, high-tech gear, viral videos, and fierce competition for few paying gigs, athletes are encouraged to go bigger, faster, and higher with ever increasing risks.

Baseline testing and repeated follow ups will give you a clear indication of whether your lifestyle is damaging your most vital organ. Also, following an anti-inflammatory diet and other brain health lifestyle strategies give the brain its best chances. Ask my office for more advice.

Why eye contact over stimulates people with autism

Noel Thomas

144 autism lookingin eyes

One of the hallmark signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the avoidance of eye contact with others. This is typically interpreted as social avoidance or indifference. But the truth is, people with autism need social connection just like the rest of us. It’s just that things such as eye contact cause their brains to short circuit from too much activity. People with autism say eye contact is stressful and uncomfortable, and some even say it “burns.”

Harvard Medical School researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have been investigating this phenomenon and discovered neurological clues to what makes eye contact so stressful for people with autism.

Their main finding was the inability to make eye contact does not mean lack of concern or interest in other people. Instead, eye contact over stimulates areas of the brain responsible for reading emotions in other people’s faces.

This area of the brain is called the subcortical system and is the layer beneath the cerebral cortex, the folded outer layer of the brain that plays a role in consciousness and thought.

Direct and sustained eye contact and emotional facial expressions of others activate the subcortical system to respond. This development begins in infancy as the newborn instinctually orients to human faces. But for the person with autism, these avenues of connection over activate the subcortical system and raise stress levels.

Using an MRI to scan autistic brains

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure how different brains respond to facial expressions.

In both subjects with autism and the neurotypical control subjects, being able to freely choose to view facial expressions activated the subcortical system in similar ways.

However, the results varied quite a bit when both groups were constrained to viewing only the eye area of faces. Looking at the eyes of happy, angry, and neutral faces over activated the subcortical region in subjects with autism. This over activation was especially heightened when looking at the eyes of scared faces.

The researchers hypothesize autism creates an imbalance between networks in the brain that perform activating and inhibiting functions in the brain.

In a neurotypical brain, balance between these two systems maintains a calm equilibrium.

This imbalance creates a neurologically triggered aversion to both eye contact and facial expressions and thus abnormal development of the social brain.

Additionally, newer research shows we can see early signs of autism risk in newborns — these babies’ brains struggle with reading faces and making eye contact well before they are old enough to exhibit more obvious signs. This further inhibits proper development of social interaction.

Neurologically appropriate ways to connect with autism

This study shows why behavioral therapy techniques that force a child with autism to maintain eye contact can be extremely stressful and neurologically inappropriate.

The researchers suggest a more effective and less triggering approach may be gradual habituation to eye contact over time to gently strengthen and relax the over active subcortical region.

In functional neurology we use many techniques to identify areas of imbalance in children with autism and gently rehabilitate those areas. Functional neurology frequently produces significant improvements in quality of life in these individuals. Ask my office for more information.

Why childhood autism, ADHD, Tourette’s, and OCD so common

Noel Thomas

FNM 143

Does your child have ADHD, autism, Tourette’s, OCD, dyslexia, learning disabilities, or another brain-based disorder? Or are you having second thoughts about conceiving because the risks of giving birth to a child who develops autism, ADHD, or other brain development disorders is so much higher today?

Some couples today are choosing not to have children because the risk of autism, ADHD and other disorders is so much higher today. Autism and ADHD rates continue to rise and ADHD now affects 11 percent of children. Research shows environmental and lifestyle factors influence childhood brain development and many cases can be prevented prior to conception if parents tend to their immune health.

Environmental and lifestyle influences on genes


A parent’s diet, physical activity, stress hormone levels, immune health, and exposure to environmental chemicals can affect a child’s brain development beginning in utero.

This is called epigenetics—when environmental factors influence gene expression. It doesn’t mean genes are mutated, but instead diet and lifestyle determine whether genes turn on or off. If we turn off the genes for healthy brain development in the mother or the father before conception, those genes can pass on to the children in the turned-off position. Researchers have been able to trace this in up to 11 generations.

Simply improving the maternal diet before pregnancy can alter gene expression in the offspring and their susceptibility to certain diseases for up to four or five generations. Epigenetics means couples can reduce the risk of giving birth to a child who will develop a disorder by choosing dietary and lifestyle factors that favor healthy brain development.

Using functional neurology to help children’s brains


We can also positively influence genes after the child is born by removing inflammatory foods, supporting good nutrition and brain health, and activating specific areas of the brain to recover missed stages of development (such as learning to crawl) in functional neurology.

Early childhood milestones are vital to proper brain development and meeting them too late, too soon, or not at all is typical for many children with autism, ADHD, and other brain development disorders. Functional neurology is yielding unprecedented results in these arenas.

Dropped connections in the brain

The human brain is divided into two hemispheres that work together. It is the ability of the human brain to fire in both hemispheres simultaneously that distinguishes us from other species. The slightest disruption in the timing of this firing can have devastating affects on brain function. In autism, ADHD, Tourette’s, OCD, and other brain development disorders the brain is extremely good at firing short-range connections within one hemisphere of the brain, which may make a child gifted in particular areas, such as math.

However, we see poor simultaneous firing of long-range connections between the left and right hemispheres. This poor long-range firing is also evidenced by a smaller than normal corpus callosum in children with autism, the bridge between the left and right hemispheres across which communication travels. This poor long-range firing can begin in utero or during the first few years of life due to epigenetic influences.

The left brain is responsible for math, sciences, and language, whereas the right brain is responsible for art, creativity, and social skills. Brain disorders such as autism and ADHD are left brain dominant issues, which explains why a student might do well in school but have no social or relationship skills.

As a result of this lopsided stimulation, one side of the brain may become over developed while the other side never catches up to normal, which makes communication between the two sides difficult. It’s like a brand new computer trying to communicate with an old, outdated computer.

Imbalanced development of the autonomic nervous system, which governs our “fight or flight,” “rest and digest,” or “freeze” mechanisms is another factor that affects the development of the brain. These imbalances can be seen as early as in newborns by a practitioner who understands early brain development.

In autism, ADHD, Tourette’s, and OCD, we see a left brain that is overdeveloped compared to a weaker right brain. This explains why these children have unusually strong skills in some areas and unusually weak skills in others. Dyslexia or learning and processing disorders are examples of right brain over development. Researchers have been able to identify these imbalances by looking at how different areas of the brain vary in size, electrical imbalances, and concentrations of blood flow.

Although this is an overly simplified explanation, it introduces you the concepts of how subtle imbalances early in life can lead to significant brain disorders as the child matures.

Ask my office for advice on how functional neurology can help you improve your child’s brain before you even conceive, or help rehabilitate your child’s brain if you suspect a brain development disorder.

Is being stuck in “fight or flight” wrecking your health?

Noel Thomas

FNM 142 sympathetic stress

When something stressful happens, our body goes into “fight or flight” mode, pumping out stress hormones, raising blood pressure and pulse, and shunting blood away from the organs and towards the limbs. When the stress is over, a healthy body bounces back and returns to normal.

Unfortunately, many people are stuck in fight-or-flight mode. This is especially true in people dealing with a chronic health or brain disorder, as their health itself is a chronic stressor in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle.

The autonomic nervous system, which runs such bodily functions as digestion, heart beat, breathing, etc., consists of two arms:

  • The sympathetic system, also known as the fight-or-flight system.
  • The parasympathetic system, also known as rest-and-digest system.

When you're in a life-or-death situation, you don't need to digest, detoxify, or regenerate cells — duties for the parasympathetic rest-and-digest system. The priority is simply to keep you alive. Once you’re safe, the parasympathetic system kicks back in.

The problem is modern life has many of us on hyper drive, in what feels like an ongoing attack. This keeps us in sympathetic mode longer than we should be.

Causes of chronic fight-or-flight mode

It’s not just daily stress that can keep a person stuck in sympathetic mode. It could be stress from the past that has been hardwired into your brain, a concept referred to as negative plasticity. The neuron pathways in your brain have become highly efficient at stress so it takes less and less to trigger a stress response.

The most common example of this is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. It can also come from long periods of overwork and sleep deprivation that have essentially trained your brain to be agitated all the time, even though your health is being sacrificed.

Signs of chronic sympathetic stress

Signs you are stuck in sympathetic mode include problems with sleep, anxiety, blood sugar issues (even with a blood-sugar-balancing diet), sexual dysfunction, brain fog, memory issues, fatigue, difficulty recovering from exercise or stressful events, getting sick easily, and chronic pain.

Chronic sympathetic stress not only creates negative plasticity, it also damages the gut lining, leading to intestinal permeability, or leaky gut. This allows undigested foods, bacteria, yeast, and other pathogens into the bloodstream, where they trigger inflammation. This chronic inflammation is the foundation to many health maladies.

Getting out of chronic sympathetic stress mode

The most obvious first step to managing sympathetic stress is to address the cause of stress. The cause can be metabolic, such as chronic infection, blood sugar issues, hormone deficiencies, inflammation, or undiagnosed autoimmunity.

Or it can be lifestyle, such as a toxic job or relationship, not sleeping enough, or taking on too much to do and never taking time off.

Another commonly overlooked cause is a brain-based disorder. The less healthy or more degenerated the brain is, the less able it is to dampen sympathetic stress.

If you suffer from brain fog, memory loss, poor cognitive skills, and lack of brain endurance, you may also find you’re often in fight-or-flight mode.

Problems with your vestibular (inner ear) system or cerebellum, both of which play a role in balance, can cause chronic sympathetic stress because the brain is constantly feeling unbalanced.

People may also have issues with the basal ganglia — which acts as the gas and brake pedal of the brain — that keeps them chronically stressed out. These are just a few ways in which a brain-based disorder can contribute to sympathetic stress.

In functional neurology we look at all facets of health to help you unwind sympathetic stress. Sometimes the issue can be as simple as removing certain foods from your diet that are inflaming your body and brain, gluten being the most common.

Other times it takes a neurological exam and some sleuthing to determine whether the issue is brain-based. Often it is a combination of metabolic and brain-based causes.

Ask my office how we can help get you out of chronic sympathetic stress and into a more balanced neurological state that includes plenty of restful and restorative parasympathetic activation.

Those strange functional neurology exam tools…

Noel Thomas

FNM 141 func neuro tools

When you go for your first functional neurology exam, you’ll likely encounter exam procedures and tools not found a conventional doctor’s visit. Although high-tech equipment isn’t necessary for a functional neurology exam, it can help the practitioner perform a more thorough evaluation.

For the patient, the functional neurology exam may include wearing strange goggles, being spun in a chair, following dots of light on the wall, and standing on a platform that records your micro-movements.

Whether you’ve had a brain injury, or are struggling with poor brain function or other brain-based disorders, all of these tests can help identify problem areas and direct customized rehabilitation.

Videonystagmography (VNG)

Videonystagmography (VNG) is an exam procedure that involves wearing infrared goggles to video record the movement of the eyes in response to various movements and tasks (such as being slowly spun in a chair, head position changes, following a visual target). This test detects abnormalities in the vestibular system.

The vestibular system, which involves the inner ear, eyes, and brain, tells you where you are in space. It plays an important role in keeping you stable and aware of where you are in relation to the environment. Poor vestibular function also plays a role in anxiety, irritability, and mood instability.

The vestibular system is fragile and easily damaged from head injury, falls, whiplash, or blows to the body. Common symptoms of vestibular problems include poor balance, dizziness, motion sickness, and anxiety.

By examining the movement of the eyes in both darkness and light and in response to various movements and stimuli, VNG testing can determine whether symptoms are coming from the brain, the vestibular system, or both. Knowing this helps the functional neurologist create customized rehabilitation techniques that target specific areas of dysfunction.

Computerized Dynamic Posturography (CDP)

Computerized dynamic posturography (CDP) involves standing on different types of surfaces and following simple instructions (such as look left, look right, look up, close your eyes). This testing measures how you respond to different balance challenges, which identifies areas of the brain not functioning properly.

Gait Analysis

Gait analysis simply involves having the practitioner observe your gait when you walk. You may be asked to challenge your brain while walking by counting backwards by sevens or reciting every other letter of the alphabet. You also may be asked to walk by placing one foot directly in front of the other, touching heel to toe, to make balance harder. Your walking stance, arm swing, posture, and balance all give clues to areas of brain dysfunction.

Metabolic Assessment

Your brain can only be as healthy as its internal environment. Your diet, lifestyle, stress levels, hormone balancing, gut health, blood sugar, and more all play a significant role in your brain health and function.

We also use your symptoms to assess the activity of the neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that relay communication between neurons. For instance, low serotonin is involved in depression and low dopamine in lack of motivation. This is also called functional neurochemistry. Functional neurology is a multi-faceted discipline that includes brain assessment and rehabilitation in total health care. Ask my office for more information.

All those “non-concussions” add up to brain injury

Noel Thomas

FNM 140 repeated blows to head

You don’t have to have to receive a concussion diagnosis to have an injured brain. Small but repeated insults to the brain — falls, crashes, whiplash, being near explosions, landing on your tailbone — damage brain tissue. Even if the head is not directly hit, a blow or jolt to the body causes the brain to bang around in the skull and sustain damage.

Each insult may not be severe enough for a diagnosis on its own, but added together over time they can cause long term problems and raise the risk of dementia and other brain-related disorders.

Some immediate symptoms may be obvious, such as headache, feeling of pressure in the head, changes in vision, or dizziness. Some are less obviously related, such as increased irritability, anxiety, moodiness, fatigue, sleep problems, or lack of focus. But it’s also possible to have no symptoms at all despite damage to the brain.

The standard health care model does not assess the brain when addressing blows to the body. For instance, with whiplash the neck is cared for or with a back injury the back is addressed. But potential damage to the brain is ignored.

Each insult to the brain causes inflammation. Unlike the body, the brain’s immune system does not have an off switch and inflammation can go on for weeks, months, and even years, especially in a brain environment that is unhealthy or when injuries are repeated.

Over time this inflammation damages and destroys brain tissue, leading to declining brain function and an increased risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders.

Health of the brain before trauma matters greatly

Additionally, if your brain health is poor to begin with, your brain is going to fare much worse from a minor trauma than if it were healthy.

Researchers call this “diminished brain resilience.” This means the brain’s general health is compromised and thus less resilient to any traumas it may sustain. This explain why one person can bounce back from a head injury while another person disintegrates physically and mentally after a head injury of equal severity.

Factors that can diminish brain resilience include junk foods, too much sugar, not enough whole foods or vegetables, unhealthy fats, blood sugar that is always too high or low (or swings between both), food sensitivities, chronic inflammation, hormone deficiencies and imbalances, sleep deprivation, high stress, being sedentary, and many more.

Basically, the standard American diet and lifestyle is brutal for the brain, and sustaining a brain injury with this kind of poor support means you will fare much worse than you need to.

Functional medicine basics of eating an anti-inflammatory diet, maintaining a healthy gut, and tending to the health and balance of your entire body is the best way to not only better protect your brain in the event of an injury, but also help it recover from past injuries.

Functional neurology is a great way to identify and rehabilitate the areas of your brain most affected. Functional medicine addresses the health of the body as a whole, which supports the brain. Ask my office for more advice.

How a “leaky brain” raises your risk of dementia

Noel Thomas

FNM 139 blood brain barrier

It has been a hundred years since a Nobel Prize winner discovered the thin barrier that surrounds and protects brain. Since then, we’ve learned this mesh of tightly joined cells, called the blood-brain barrier, is highly selective in a healthy person. It allows the transport of compounds back and forth through an intricate transport system while keeping out most everything else in the blood stream that can damage the brain. This includes heavy metals, toxic proteins, pathogens, and red and white blood cells.

Accelerated aging + Inflammation = Leaky Brain

Now, scientists have discovered that brain degeneration weakens the blood-brain barrier and causes it to “spring leaks.” This is especially true in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with learning and memory. This discovery adds to the growing evidence that diseases of aging such as dementia and Alzheimer’s are sometimes linked to what functional medicine practitioners call a “leaky brain.”

Researchers studying the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease have found significant amounts of compounds in the brain that a healthy blood-brain barrier should have kept out.

Since not every aging person develops cognitive impairment, scientists theorize that the leaks are more extensive in some people than others. They also believe that some other phenomena, such as inflammation or pathogens, may be involved.

Most research points to inflammation. Recently, biologists in the UK found that a molecule called microRNA-155, which is elevated in inflammation, creates gaps between the cells of the blood-brain barrier. They also found that the same molecule is elevated in inflamed brain areas of patients with multiple sclerosis.

Even brain conditions such as depression, anxiety, brain fog, and various neurologic symptoms are linked to body-wide inflammation, which often starts in the gut.

Leaky Gut, Leaky Brain

A “leaky gut” allows bacteria and toxic molecules to pass through an overly permeable gut lining into the bloodstream. This causes inflammation throughout the body, and a leaky brain is often one unfortunate consequence.

Other inflammation triggers that contribute to a leaky brain are gluten sensitivity and similar food intolerances, out-of-control blood sugar, and too little thyroid hormone. Injury directly to the brain itself, such as in concussion, can also spark inflammation that damages the blood-brain barrier.

Repairing leaky brain with functional nutrition

You can protect your brain in part through various functional medicine strategies. This includes supporting the metabolic health of the brain by managing blood sugar, supporting gut health, addressing infections and toxicity, and following an anti-inflammatory diet. Nutritional compounds that support repair of leaky gut also help repair leaky brain, as do compounds targeted at quenching brain inflammation.

Brain-saving nutrients include:

  • Precursors to the “master antioxidant,” glutathione, or absorbable forms of glutathione such as s-acetyl-glutathione
  • Essential fatty acids, particularly DHA 
  • Fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K 
  • Probiotics 
  • Prebiotics

Ask my office about whether leaky gut and leaky brain may be playing a role in your brain-based symptoms.