Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Stress Is More Likely To

imgresOf the many curious things that I’ve come across as an information-junky, I find it especially fascinating when ancient wisdom seems to mirror modern scientific knowledge. It makes me wonder what observations an early human must have made in order to put into words something that would take millennia for science to prove. Case in point, the link between disease caused by stress and ancient writings from one of Israel’s early kings.

In a book called Psalms, found both in the Torah and the Bible, the beloved King David is credited for writing seventy-three of it’s one hundred and fifty chapters. His writings, which include songs, poems, and prayers, describe a wide range of human emotions, from joy, gratitude and praise, to desperation, fear and anger. The psalms of David tell about his life including precarious circumstances he finds himself in, like hiding from people who are out for his blood, and especially, his steadfast yet complicated relationship with God. Nevertheless, David writes:

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones. (Psalm 17:22)

 and,

 When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder, my words became daylong groans. (Psalm 32:3)

Here’s what’s interesting about these passages (besides the fact that they rhyme!)- David is describing painful emotional states, (i.e. broken spirit, perhaps pointing to sadness, and I kept it all inside, possibly meaning stuffing down or hiding one’s feelings). Then, he describes how these states are bad for the bones- they dry them up and turn them to powder. Interesting! In these passages David is linking painful emotions to the degradation of bones. So what does this all mean?

Now, I’m no expert on human physiology but here are some basics on hormones and stress. When we experience stress the hormone adrenaline is secreted, followed by cortisol (cortisol is the one we’ll be looking at here). These hormones are meant to help regulate the body during the fight or flight response, which is a good thing, however, the experience of stress on a regular basis makes for elevated levels of cortisol in the body, which is really a not-so-good thing. The reason is because cortisol triggers bone mineral removal and blocks calcium absorption, which ultimately decreases bone cell growth and therefore decreases bone density. No bueno.

So why does this happen? When the body is under stress, it needs to focus on survival and so it will shut down other functions and focus it’s efforts on things like sending blood to muscles and vital organs in order to flee or fight off the stressor. Ironically, a twenty-first century stressor for a person like me is likely to be something non-life threatening, like being cutoff in the parking lot at Food 4 Less or the sound of my cat Curry crying for my attention.

So, why is this interesting? It’s a curious thing that some of our more painful emotions can trigger the release of stress hormones. And, if in fact high levels of stress hormone lead to greater risk for diseases of the bones, then it’s even more interesting that this condition was described so early in history by way of the historical figure, King David. Not to mention yet another reason to focus on destressing. Spa day, anyone?

Here’s what I’m not saying: science proves that the bible is true! I’m not saying that. I think that there are metaphors and stories and myths and legends and truths in the pages of this holy text that can be life changing when applied; and I also think it’s cool that there are layers of understanding within its passages that perhaps we and it’s original writers never saw coming.

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Have you found curious overlaps in science and spirituality? Share them here!

On Neurotrophic Factors and the Good Wolf

Werewolves_of_OssoryFood.

Aaah, yes. The cornerstone of any important gathering, holiday party, birthday celebration, office meeting… you get the picture. The sites, smells and tastes of a favorite dish are liable to make anyone smile and hum with delight.

But what about food for thought? Literally.

A few months ago while reading my physiology textbook, I came across a passage that gave me a stroke of insight. In its dense scientific jargon, the passage described the survival mechanism by which neural pathways in the brain are maintained- via neurotrophic factors secreted by neurons and glial cells (i.e. cells of the brain).

So to back up a moment beginning with neural pathways, what are they exactly and why do I care whether they survive?

I like to use running water as a metaphor to describe these pathways, which are in essence, the physical connections between neurons in the brain.

Think about water flowing down a stream on a hillside. The stream, although perhaps a lovely find, is likely narrow, shallow and weak. Not much to see here!

Now imagine a river- it’s wide, deep, and depending on the time of year, contains waters that are dangerously strong.

Each person’s brain is a network of neural pathways. Neurons (the basic functional unit of the brain) make connections with other neurons to create these pathways (you can also imagine this network as a web). These connections give us the ability to use language, remember names, drive cars and think all of the tens of thousands of thoughts each of us has in a single day.

As described with the running water metaphor, some of these pathways are very weak. Have you ever tried to sing along to an old favorite tune, only to find yourself mumbling the lyrics in perfect pitch? The reason for your butchering is due to pathways that, although still survive, are very weak. You can think about it as a sort of neuronal atrophy.

Following that same logic, think of something that you do on a daily basis, for example driving your route to work. The neural connections here are strong. So strong that you probably don’t even think about what you’re doing while you’re doing it.

So, if using language, remembering names, and how to get places in a car are things that one values, it’s safe to say that the survival of these pathways is important; and if their survival is dependent upon neurotrophic factors, I’d better get me some of those!

Now that we’re familiar with neural pathways (what they are and why they’re important) lets learn about the neurotrophic factors that feed and sustain these pathways. And in the true spirit of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, we must begin with the origin of the word, neurotrophic.

Neuro comes from the Greek word neuron, which means sinew and is defined as “the parts of a structure… that give it strength and bind it together.” Next, trophic comes from the Greek word trophikos, which means to nourish. And lastly factor, is a “circumstance or fact that contributes to a result or outcome.”

Do you see where this is going?

Our brain cells secrete chemicals that literally FEED (and therefore strengthen) the trillions of neural connections in our brains! The same connections that empower you and me to do all of the things we do, everyday.

Can you even? Because I can’t!

You might be asking yourself, how is this practical information? So what if my brain releases chemicals that helps it survive? I kind of already knew that!

 And maybe so!

Which leads me to my final point… my stroke of insight.

Many years ago I heard a Native American story, called Two Wolves. In the tale, a grandfather tells his grandson a story about the human condition. He described that within each and every person there is a war that goes on- a war between two wolves. He told his grandson that one of the wolves is angry, bitter, jealous, ego driven and unforgiving while the other is loving, kind, compassionate, honest and faithful. The boy pondered this for a moment and resigned to ask his grandfather, “which wolf wins?” And the grandfather, in all of grandfathery wisdom, replied, “the one you feed.”

So what does this all mean?

The way I see it is, when a person sets out to make a change in their life, whether it be breaking a bad habit or developing a new perspective, real sustained change happens at the level of the brain; it happens at the level of neural connections. We have to feed the good wolf (i.e. constructive habits, healthy perspectives, etc.) in order to strengthen the connections we want, and starve the connections that we don’t.

How do we create new neural connections in order to facilitate change at this level? By experiencing things that are novel! How do we strengthen healthy neural connections that already exist? By continuing to do and practice the things that work for us!

Our brains change when we break out of our routines and tweak them, just a tad. We can’t change our brains by thinking “positive thoughts”, but we do so by practicing the habits, qualities and characteristics that we desire to have come naturally to us.

So there you have it. Neural connections are important. Their survival depends on being fed. Some of our neural pathways are weak (because we don’t use them) and others are strong (the ones that we use everyday). We can create new, healthy neural connections by trying new things and strengthen existing connections by continuing to use those pathways.

What’s our job?

Practicing the habits that we want our life to be about. Because after all, which wolf will win?

The one you feed.

 

 

How Muscle Cells Give Insight to Human Behavior

DepolYou’ve undoubtedly noticed the stark contrast in political and social views prevailing in our country today. It seems that gray is no longer the new black, but that black or white is the new black.

Black or white. Left or right. This side or that. Not either or, but just, or.

This observation made me think about what it might take to depolarize what seem to be two very different, very opposing sides (and whether that’s even possible). This thought then led me to think about things in nature that undergo the process of depolarization and what benefits derive from it. Allow me to explain…

Have you ever tried doing a bicep curl? Specifically, the kind where your fist is gripped firmly around a double-double cheeseburger while watching your bicep contract and perform a glorious act of gross motor skill, lifting the burger every so gracefully toward your face hole? I mean, mouth.  (insert veggie burger if vegan or something else if you don’t live in California 🙂 )

Do you know what is happening at the cellular level?

The muscle cells of your arm are undergoing a process called depolarization!, causing your bicep muscle to contract! When a cell depolarizes, it becomes more positive (this is measured in millivolts, by the way) and when the need for the contraction ceases, positively charged ions exit the cell (making it more negative), and the cell repolarizes back to its resting state.

And so− depolarization means action. Movement. Getting stuff done! Which got me thinking that the only way that the citizens of our nation will ever gain traction and create real change is by agreeing to disagree with people who have very different, very opposing views. (And because I don’t have the energy to explain that I don’t mean that this applies to racists or misogynistic or fill in the blank, please just know that I mean meeting in the middle on things that are reasonable to disagree upon, and be okay with it.)

Now, going back to the cell metaphor, what would happen if that same cell went into a state of hyperpolarization, becoming even more negative (i.e. below it’s resting point)?

The answer? It would take an even greater stimulus to give the cell enough steam to create the action potential necessary to create a contraction.

Now, this is not to say that any of us are at risk of our cells entering and staying in a state of hyperpolarization! But I simply want to use the metaphor of a cell in action (depolarized) and a cell that is, well, insensitive (hyperpolarized), and relate it to the way in which the world around me seems. When I say world, I mean my world (America).

My world has become hyperpolarized- a bit numb and in a state of unrest. Which leads me to beg the question, what can be done about this?