“…what you really need to translate for people — those for whom Western medicine has done all it can — is this: all the science is pointing to the fact that your brain is your last best cure.” – Anastasia Rowland-Seymour, MD, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, Johns Hopkins (in a quote to author Donna Jackson Nakazawa).
Have you reached the limits of what conventional medicine has to offer you? Then, as it was for award-winning journalist and author Donna Jackson Nakazawa, your brain might be your last best cure.
It certainly was for me. I was doing everything right but still my recovery had stalled. I had made so much progress, but something was holding me back.
Or to be more precise, my past, and my inability to navigate the present without an overwhelming stress response to everyday, unremarkable, events.
I noticed something odd…
I wasn’t the only one. It seemed that almost ALL the women I came across in forums and those who wrote to me for help, had some kind of trauma in their past. While common sense tells us that trauma and stress can cause illness, I wanted to know the why of it. And then Donna’s book dropped into my lap. She not only serves up the science behind the trauma/immune disorders in women (and men), but offers well researched, irrefutable scientific evidence, showing us that we can change our brains and take charge of the course of our illness, or at the very least, how to tune out of the “pain channel” and into the “joy channel”.
Since reading this book, the dietary changes I have made (lowering my inflammation bucket) have had all the more impact on my overall health and I feel better than I ever have before.
If you are only going to read one book on healing or just one book this year, please make itThe Last Best Cure. It will change your life.
Donna’s book, the Last Best Cure, documents her year-long quest to heal herself, aided by Anastasia Rowland-Seymour, her wonderful MD at Johns Hopkins, and shares the groundbreaking neuroscience on how mind-body therapies such as meditation, yoga and acupuncture awaken the healing potential of our brains, change our biology, and revitalize our cells and our health.
Read the transcript…
Thank you very much for joining me today.You are an award-winning science journalist and author of The Last Best Cure, a chronicle of your year-long journey to investigate the ground-breaking neuroscience on how meditation, yoga, and acupuncture awaken the healing potential of our bodies. Just a little bit more information on you: Donna has appeared on The Today Show, NPR, ABC News, and her work is featured in Time Magazine, USA Today, Psychology Today, The Washington Post, Glamour Magazine, and many others. The question is, where do you find the time?
Do you want to include in there raising two teenage daughters? Where do I find the time? I think I spoke to this before you were recording. One, I might turn around and say the same to you. The truth is that twenty years of working with women and chronic illness, writing books, I’ve come to find that women in this community who have been impacted through family, be it parents, children, spouse, and so very often themselves since autoimmune diseases affect women at three times the rate as men, are blazing forward to change the world on eight cylinders and often we function on fewer than your average person, but we are out there trying to make change and do more. And often, why is that? I’ve thought about this and I think there is a particular spunk in the woman who has been felled by autoimmune diseases and gotten up to fight another day, even if she can only get up to fight every other day. I have a phrase for it. I call it, “women not interrupted”.
Excellent; love it!
So I am a woman not interrupted and you are a woman not interrupted, and what gives us the fuel to do that may be a little bit of what we often hear…Life is touched by suffering for all of us at sometime in our lives and when you are a woman who meets suffering sometimes inside your own body that may keep you from living to the fullest of your potential in mid-life and in the best years of life, you can begin to question that in a really profound way. Women are impacted by autoimmune disease often in the prime of their lives. In their prime living, loving, child-making years. At a time in our history when so much is available to women to do so much more than fifty years ago, so it doesn’t surprise me that women who have something to say passionately find themselves touched by this unique form of suffering in their own bodies in the prime of life would not want to be interrupted. So it isn’t to me so much a matter of time, as it is a matter of using the time that I have well.
Hmmm. Absolutely. Do I sense that there is a book in the making on this? I’d love to read it.
There’s no book called “Women Not Interrupted”. I could be sitting there five years ago quite ill and had read some woman giving that answer and said, “Oh well, excuse me! I just guess I don’t have your energy.” The truth is, there is so much that I don’t get done. For instance, I hear from hundreds of people who want me to do little interviews or write blurbs or do a press guest blog. I can’t do all of that. I hear from my publisher that I should be traveling around the country and speaking to everyone who will gather two or more and converse and blogging and tweeting and I can’t do all of that. I can write, I can advocate, and I can raise my family.
I think that’s more than enough and thank you very much for doing all of those. I can’t tell you how much this book has impacted my life. I advise absolutely everybody that I come into contact with to read this book.
Oh, I love you. Thank you. As I’ve just said, I’ve failed miserably on the PR end and I do hear about it, so when I meet someone who says that, I feel so much gratitude because I cannot be the legs on the ground carrying the word. I can’t.
For those who haven’t read your book, and for those, I recommend that you run out immediately following this interview and buy the book. Please tell us a little bit about your condition and what you did when you reached the limits of what conventional medicine had to offer you, if you did.
So, I have had, luckily, the greatest doctors. I say that because the work I did on “The Autoimmune Epidemic” which is the book that I did before “The Last Best Cure”, I worked with so many women who had the worst of care. For those who know the statistics, the average woman spends four years seeing six doctors before she gets an autoimmune diagnosis despite the fact that autoimmunity has increased three times in the past 20 – 30 years, especially among women. It also affects women three times as often as it affects men. So, there has been a big disconnect in the medical community. I’ve been working really hard on that as have so many of my peers to bring an awareness to that. With that said, because I am a medical journalist, a science journalist, and a health/science advocate, who lives near Johns Hopkins and has friends there, I was able to get a pretty good diagnosis pretty quickly, fortunately for me, through a neurologist to save my life. This was a really incredible physician that said there was just so much that could be done when one has face paralysis and demyelination which is the loss of the nerves, the wrapping, the myelin sheath that wrap around the axonal nerves. When that re-grown several times we are not exactly like our peers; we’re different. Each time I was less able to recover fully and I found myself at a point where despite having had the best care, I really was having trouble functioning and just getting up the stairs. So I have a husband and two children, an aging mom, and aging in-laws and a busy life and I just couldn’t keep up with the normal day-to-day. There was really just a moment as I think there so often is when we make a decision in life to try to live differently. I was just lying down at the top of the stairs. It had taken me a good amount of time to get up there. I would often just get halfway up, sit down, take a rest. I had gotten the laundry basket up in between doing some interviews and doing some writing. I was just lying at the top of the stairs and watching my family run around me as if this was the most natural thing in the world. My daughter was calling for a piece of clothing and I was telling her it was in the laundry. My husband had lost his wallet which is not that unusual frankly, and I did everything that a woman does from the floor. That was just as far as I could get in a moment. No one thought anything of it. That’s what my life had become. It had become pushing too hard on the cylinders that I had, but also living in a place where everything was about kind of grinding forward rather than living with joy and I began to feel that illness had become what I termed in my mind as “the joy thief”. I had another way of looking at that; that I was so busy managing and monitoring “will my leg get up this step, I can’t really make it up this step, I need to lay down before I fall down in front of people and that won’t be good”, the sheer fatigue, pain, and fear… you know, fear… how long can I go on like this. What’s coming next? When will the other shoe drop? I had spent seven years in and out of hospitals and I began to feel that my whole life was on what I called “the pain channel” constantly, the little bleating fears coming in, you know “oh gosh, my left leg is twinging up and down. Do I need to call my doctor? Is that going to be gone in the morning”, to “wow, my son is in this incredible event tomorrow and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to go or will I be too busy throwing up because one of the ramifications of Guillan Barre were a lot of bowel issues that made it very difficult for me to judge where I could be day-to-day. I wanted to get on “the life channel” and I just so deserpately wanted to taste that sweetness. It seemed I could only tune into it in very small moments and I had a moment where shortly after lying down on the floor, I was braiding my daughter’s hair and it was wet and she smelled so sweet and she was chatting on about her day. Some part of me was aware of research that had come up on my work in the autoimmune book about a new field called “psychoneuroimmunology”. That is really the relationship between our thoughts, our neuro or brain immune function and that the two are really inextricably linked. I wanted to find out more about it. I guess that’s really the instant that this book was really born, but then serendipity stepped in. Within a few days, I was in the office of a new doctor which I had not asked for. Mine had moved to Massachusetts to go to Mass General and she had put me in the hands of another doctor at Hopkins with my internist. When I met her, she asked me a question and that question pretty much changed my life. That was: “Did anything happen in your past that might have led to everything that you are experiencing now?”
So many people would kill to have that kind of experience and others might be a little incredulous you know, “why would a doctor ask such a question?”, but you actually found research that confirmed something. When I first became a member of all of these mast cell related forums, people were talking about their childhood trauma as if, “well yes, it’s the cause of my present stress, but this has nothing to do with my illness”. Then, the more and more women I found had this same traumatic background and I just thought this can’t be a coincidence, but it was never something I followed up on. It was just incredible to read your research so please tell us about it and the role of childhood trauma.
Well, it was really shocking to me when she asked that question. She is now the director of internal medicine and integrative health at Johns Hopkins and at that time she was a new internist there. I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me. I looked at her with all my science journalist, key not speaking at scientific conferences and just said, “What are you talking about?”. Then she began to break it down for me and she said, “Well, what do you know about psychoneuroimmunology?” I basically said, “Well actually…” and that was the serendipity part of it which I am learning to appreciate more as I get older and older… “I actually have been doing some research in that and I’m really interested because we are in this new, deep understanding of how our state of mind impacts the release of different hormones and neurochemicals that absolutely and categorically determine our cellular function moment by moment and second by second. Now this was three years ago and the research was just starting to come out and in the past three years it has absolutely exploded. So I said, “Now, I can join you on that, that I get, but why are you bringing up my childhood?” She said, “It may just be and it looks to be as if much of that future immune response is imbedded in experiences that happened early in life.” What researchers have long called “early stress programming”. We know and we accept for instance that if a mom smoked during pregnancy that child will have a different health outcome in 50 years. We know and we accept that if certain illnesses happen very early in childhood, certain high fevers which reset the tone of the brain, things will be different for that child 50 years later. Or if the mother had a flu or virus at particular weeks in pregnancy that will have a great impact. It can cause a change in the tone of the brain-immune function so that it can impact later outcomes such as autism and schizophrenia. We’ve accepted that. What we hadn’t looked at and had not accepted is that early stress, childhood adversity can cause an over or hyperactivity of the HPA axis. So that’s your hypothalamus in your brain sending a message to your pituitary which sends a message to your immune system and your adrenals and to your endocrine system. So your immune system and your hypothalamus and your pituitary is talking now directly to your endocrine system so that you will express a certain level of stress and inflammatory bio-markers that are related to every disease that we have from depression to autoimmune disease to cancer. That dial, once it’s turned up, is set through a shift in genetics, known as epigenetics, which is how our experiences affect how our genes express themselves and that happens when you are a kid. That is what my next book is about, exploring that relationship between early life stress and early childhood adversity and long-term health outcomes with a great emphasis on what the science is telling us and moreover what we can do about it as adults to get back to who we really are.
What can we do? What is it that you did?
Talking about “The Last Best Cure” because the next book is called “Childhood Interrupted” and I’m working with a bunch of people on what we know about that relationship and what we can do about it much more specifically. At the time I was undertaking “The Last Best Cure”, my new doctor and I, Her name is Anastasia Roland Seymour (check spelling), agreed to go on a one year journey together. She had sent me home and said “Read up about this. You’re a science journalist. Really what you need to do is translate for people that when Western medicine has done all it can, as it has for you, their brain may be the last best cure.” Armed with that challenge, I did some research and came back to her and we decided to challenge each other really. She had never had a patient who was willing to go through a one year journey with her and I had never had a doctor who was willing to go on such a journey with me. She took 17 vials of my blood. So much that I had to leave and go drink a gallon of water and come back.
I hope they gave you a cookie afterwards!
You know, I can’t have a cookie. I can’t eat gluten.
There you go. Wise woman!
They did offer me graham crakcers and orange juice, but I’m just not that type of person so… I took a gallon of water. She tested for every inflammatory and chemical marker possible and activity in bone marrow since one of my issues has been a chronic bone marrow issue and gosh, I began a year doing everything that the research supported as being able to change our inflammatory bio-markers. The research was most supportive of meditation, mindfulness, which is part of meditation, but a very distinct part of meditation. It’s very different than just sitting there focusing one’s mind on their breath and it requires training, the best training of which is available through a program called “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” and “BSR”. Also yoga has been shown to really change the neurotransmitter activity in the brain to be less stress reactive. Breathwork which we know helps to shift the “stress now” system as I call it, or the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. Those are the two arms of our stress response. One is that fight or flight feeling, the sympathetic nervous system, you know you’ve got a fight, flight, or freeze. It’s that feeling you probably had in childhood when bad things were happening.
Oh yeah, and in adulthood, because it doesn’t stop until you do something about it.
That’s right. That’s the dial that I talked about getting turned on. So when that “stress now” system or that sympathetic dial is turned up in childhood, it doesn’t go down. You are just there doing it over and over all your life long. So, how do you turn that dial down and get it back on to what nature intended which is the parasympathetic nervous system. I call that the “purrrr now” system.
And I love that!
Because we all want to purr right?
We really don’t want to be in fight or flight.
Nature intended for us to return to a state of homeostasis or this parasympathetic nervous system or the “purr now system”. Our bodies were intended to return to that state where we are like a cat licking our paws. We don’t when we have had a stressful life. We don’t return to that because we’ve undergone epigenetic shifts and shifts in our hormonal makeup and in our neurobiological makeup that make it very difficult.
Absolutely. Do you believe it is possible to address the underlying issues just through supplements or do you see it as an approach of just involving more of the avenues that you explored in combination with other things.
My answer to that would be that disease is multi-factorial. So we know with autoimmune disease, we’re looking at environmental toxins, we’re looking at what I call the greatest internal toxin which is self-created stress, or non-self-created stress, which is biological stress that may come from the past that we don’t even recognize. Either way, it is interior toxicity as opposed to exterior toxicity. So if that makes sense… we have these things that we breathe and taste and touch that are toxic and I wrote a whole book about that, “The Autoimmune Epidemic”. We also have things that we think and latch onto emotionally and that we have experience through no fault of our own that creates shifts in our bio-chemistry that are interior toxins. That is a good way to distinguish. Then we have our food source and supplementation, so those are things that we take in that may be for it eating a lot of velveeta cheese on a white hamburger bun, that’s going to be a very different hit to our immune system than if we were drinking kale smoothies. So I think that is pretty well understood, although I have to say, when I wrote “The Autoimmune Epidemic”, the idea of food as a toxin was really difficult for people to understand. So it is multi-factorial. We also have to add in our genetics, where we live and how much sun-light we get, and I could go on and on. With that said, recovery is also multi-factorial. I have dealt with thousands of women with chronic diseases professionally and personally through my work, my books, through my readers, through talks, through conferences and I would say that the key to healing is usually an open-mindedness about combining many different factors toward healing. So is it a bad idea to think about a supplement? Well, let’s look at Vitamin D and omega 3. We know that those are really good for women with autoimmune disease. The studies are repeated and robust and pretty definitive that if you are a woman with autoimmune disease you want to be thinking about vitamin D and omega 3. The specificity for all of the different supplements out there for all of the different diseases is more than I personally can keep up with.
Yes, it’s crazy.
I have a cautionary bias because of my work as a science and health researcher and reporter and that is that I have all too often seen the supplement of the day turn into the supplement you don’t want to touch 3 or 4 years later. I see this constantly in the research so I am cautionary about it. I like to see 3 to 4 years of research on something and have it all come back pretty much saying the same thing. That is not to say that people don’t want to look and see what is happening out there and what is new, but simply in my realm, I would never think that supplements are enough for one reason that every story of healing is usually involving a story of re-seeing, a story of how you see your illness, everything that led to it and that often includes for people with autoimmunity where there is a stress reactivity, how you respond to the world and I am not convinced that a supplement can alone can do that for us.
You talk about the mentality behind healing. I have read so many books on healing and while it believed that it was possible to heal some of the most truly horrific conditions, for some reason, I think because of the way they were written, or the lack of credentials on the part, what I considered to be solid scientific credentials of the people writing the books that there was always this doubt in the back of my mind. Well, maybe it works for people that were gullible enough to believe it, maybe, you know that kind of thing, journalists, scientific background, very research oriented. This is why your book really blew me away. You had the credentials. You had the science. You did the research. Somehow it just suddenly legitimized everything for me. It opened me up to the healing process. I cannot believe since reading your book, I’ve healed at an astonishing rate.
I’m so happy! You just made my day saying that because that is my intention to open the reader up to what is possible driven through the lens of real science.
Exactly. What do you say to people who don’t believe that healing is possible or that they can’t do it or you know, what’s okay for that person might work for them, but not for me. Or, they’re not as sick as I am. What do you say to these people?
I say that, number one, being cured and being healed are two different things. So I would never say to a colleague in a wheelchair, and I’ve been in a wheelchair and I understand the magnitude of that in a visceral way. I wasn’t in a wheelchair for a day. I was in a wheelchair for half a year. So I understand where we are sometimes and so I would never say to someone who is in a wheelchair with Rheumatoid Arthritis or Multiple Sclerosis or from an accident or a trauma, “Oh well, you have the potential to get up and out of that chair just by reframing the way you think your thoughts and your psychoneuroimmunologic response and by getting to that purring feeling of being a kitty cat you’ll be…. No!” Please stop me! I would never go there because we are all in a different place and there are types of damage in the body that are very very difficult and in some cases impossible given where we are with the science to reverse. I certainly hope that one day we are able to work with stem cells and other increasingly understood treatments for people in wheelchairs, and not just to focus on wheelchairs, I’m just saying that I can’t give my book to people and expect that it’s the whole picture. Nor would I. I would think that it would not have the dignity and understanding of our humanity that I think I have. So with that said, I believe in healing as opposed to being cured and I believe that whether or not one finds one’s self in a radically different place, physically…. I think you will when you engage in “The Last Best Cure”, when you understand that your brain is your last best cure, I think you will find yourself in a radically different place physically. Will that mean that you are cured? Well, healing and being cured are two different things. Healing is really about where we are in our mental space. Healing is coming to a place where we are back on the life channel. Healing is about experiencing our moment to moment life with a thread of joy that carries through so that we are here in the present so that we can see what’s good. Our brain isn’t focusing 24/7 on tapes of fear, anxiety, resentment, rheumanation. When you think about it, what is stress? You know, stress is really our thoughts. That is what stress is. There is some really interesting research the neuroscientists in Dilbert has done on comparing the happiness of people who are lottery winners with the happiness of people who are in wheelchairs. It really is about one’s state of mind. So I don’t say that any situation is something you can wrap your brain around it and feel happy about it. I can tell you lying at the top of the stairs with my children stepping over me was not a happy place to be and it would have been really tough for you to give me my book at that time and tell me, “Hey! This will help you get up off the carpet and see your life differently.” It isn’t that simple. It’s about a journey toward replacing the way in which your brain sends forth what I call either the “negative floating brain”, all those neurochemicals that course through the body and do cellular damage, or the “positive floating brain”, all those neurochemicals that course through your body and help to repair cellular damage. It is a process of engaging in that with faith and compassion for one’s self. There’s a reason why it’s a 300 page journey. It’s really complicated and it requires often really stepping back and doing a hard and engaging look at how you view yourself, yourself in the world, your illness, your interactions with people around you, your interactions with your past, and your interactions with your own mind. Did I answer your questions?
Yes, you did indeed. One of the ways we can alter our perception of symptom intensity is in my experience, meditation. Could you share some of your findings and personal experiences on that?
Sure, so meditation is really the place where the science is so profound on shifting moment to moment experience on pain and chronic illness and the work going on is really deeply moving to me. I spent a lot of time with researchers who for instance were working with meditation and people who had been in chronic pain with Rheumatoid Arthritis for many many years and the ability to learn to focus on one’s breath, return to one’s breath, be mindful of one’s emotions so that when we are able to see and observe our experience, when pain is present in our experience and when we are simply able to do this very simple thing of naming it as pain and saying to ourselves, “that’s pain” and allowing the pain to come into our experience, name it, here’s what happens in the brain: the fear centers of the brain that are trying to keep us from really experiencing the pain are lighting up and sending more stress hormones and inflammatory chemicals throughout the body which increases our pain response. In meditation and through mindfulness when we are able to name the experience, the simple act of naming the experience causes the information coming into the amygdala, the amygdala quiets down. What happens when the amygdala quiets down? We send fewer stress hormones and chemicals through our body. So that is just a very small and tiny example of how this feedback loop is set in place. So that the more time that we practice and learn how to sit in meditation and experience the benefits of mindfulness, the more we are decreasing the inflammatory response that is leading to the symptoms themselves.
Wow. I can speak for myself. Uncertainty of any kind, not knowing what is happening… I think you talked about it in the book, identifying. I think the fear comes from the brain trying to work out whether we should be scared or not and just generally just meditation has worked to take the fear out of any situation, any uncertainty of will this symptom develop into something worse? Am I going to be able to get out of bed tomorrow and work? It’s just been completely life changing. For you, what was the most powerful tool you’ve explored in your year-long journey and writing the book, well in healing yourself and writing the book?
So first of all, like you, I am science-driven. So what I always come back to with that question is that for me the grounding in the science is curative itself. To know that the science is in this place where we are seeing thousands and thousands and thousands of people achieve a greater level of healing through these very easy, non-harmful, no side effect treatments. If you can call meditation, yoga, mindfulness, breathwork, all of this, if you can call it a treatment. It is to me very empowering because I know how to sift good research from bad research and non-replicable studies from replicable studies. So for me that was very empowering and to be able to look at tools that stood up to that scientific rigor. For me, meditation, mindfulness (which again is the act of learning how to observe and name one’s experience) to be a traffic cop in my own brain so that I can say, “Wow, this is a thought thread that’s looking like it’s going to lead to lost half hours that isn’t going to be very productive and you’re going to feel really bad, really scared, and really afraid.” So, mmmt… mindfulness: that’s fear, that’s worry, this is anxiety. Return to the breathwork. Well, here’s what’s so fascinating about the breathwork. In pharmacology we have a pill for almost everything that the “stress now system”, remember the sympathetic nervous system does. That’s fight or flight or freeze. That’s the system that was established through any early adversity as being a little too profoundly active and leads to inflammatory response. So we have a million pills for the “stress now system”. I don’t knock pharmacology because there is no question that for many people SSRI’s and anti-depressants are invaluable. I’ve seen it save lives. I am not negative about that. Having said that, we’ve developed a great many pills to help quiet down the sympathetic nervous system and keep it functioning in a way that will be less harmful to us. We have never created a pill to up the performance of the parasympathetic nervous system which is that “purr now system”, which is how nature intended us to be when there is no fight or flight threat.
That’s a very good point.
Yet there is one thing available to us in our own toolbox that will allow us to put the parasympathetic nervous system into place and to have it become active over the sympathetic nervous system. So in this case we are not shushing down the sympathetic nervous system or the “stress now system”, we’re actually bringing the parasympathetic nervous system into dominance as nature intended and that is the breath. That is learning to work with the breath best taught by many mindfulness teachers and meditation teachers. It is the ability to wake up at 2 in the morning with a symptom you don’t like, get your body and mind to focus on the breath. There are many tricks to do this one of which is simply to put your right hand over your belly and your left hand over your heart and focus on nothing but the rise and fall of your breath. It takes usually about 14 seconds to break the sympathetic nervous system. I like that because I think any of us can focus on our hands on our belly and our hands on our heart for 14 seconds.
I have to tell you though that in the beginning 14 seconds would have been a lot for me.
Yet you did it. Did you not?
Of course, but I had honestly been meditating since I was 18 on and off and I never felt anything like I did after I read your book and knew the science behind it and understood conclusively, I found some more research about meditation and mast cell disorders in general and how it affects us epigenetically. I needed that, but once I had that, absolutely, I did it.
I’m glad you said that because there are Tibetan breath techniques where you exhale really rapidly three times after you begin to inhale and so I write about that in the book and I would ask your listeners and readers, “You know, have you ever been really worried about something and then you sneezed?” And for just one thread of a second, 1/1,000 of a second you had to come back and remember what you are worried about?
That is what breathwork does. It affords you this space, this pause between the thing that worries you and the potential for momentary freedom. In that freedom, our cells shift. When our cells shift in that freedom on the neurochemical basis, here’s the really powerful and beautiful thing: we begin to change the brain. We begin to rewrite how our brain functions so that all that damage, whether it’s from childhood, or years of adult illness, or we’ve developed a reactivity and fear pattern that’s been damaging to our body, we change it back. The brain is wonderfully plastic. We used to believe that the brain was immune-priveleged. In other words you couldn’t really shift the immune tone of the brain or the brain-immune function, but now we know that we can. You can rewrite that and change it back. For me to see the results of that in the scientific literature, to look at the brain scans of that happening, to talk to the researchers who are doing it and doing it specifically in the field of chronic illness, hey! I’m going to give that a go
There was some exciting news in your book regarding meditation overall particularly related to aging about the length of our telomeres.
Absolutely. So, telomeres are measured by something called telemorase. Telemorase is an indicator of how long the caps are and how robust the caps are at the end of our DNA. If you think of a shoelace and a shoelace usually has a little cap on the end of it, telomeres are like those caps on shoelaces. They keep our DNA kind of healthy and young, supple and great. Like a shoelace when it begins to fray at the ends it is less so and over time your shoelace needs to be thrown away, well our DNA is kind of like that. As we age, our telomeres weaken and fray and eventually our cells die and we die. So it is a sign of aging and stress when telomeres are shortened. In a very well-known study, it’s been found and repeated since that meditation will lengthen and strengthen our telomeres as shown through our levels of telemorase. So no one can actually go in and look at your telomere length, but they can look at your telemorase which is a good sign of your telomere activity. So the science comes in through these various threads in many different ways and each way leads to Rome which is that our brain is our last best cure.
Absolutely. I went on a meditation retreat to be able to teach people in my community.
Again, it was inspired by your book. I was on it for one week and I was sleeping maybe three or four hours because I wasn’t used to the schedule of waking up at 5:45 in the morning, but I tell you what, after 5 hours of meditation daily for a week, I did not look like I hadn’t slept, my skin was smooth, I felt young and at the end of the course we were given an Oxford study questionnaire which was asking about how we perceived our life and our past, were we happy, our level of mindfulness. I was quite surprised that I scored very very low. At the end of the course we did it again and my score had doubled. My satisfaction with my past had doubled. I mean, nothing has changed in my past, but my perception of it and that was mind-blowing to me.
What I would say is that lines up perfectly with the research which is when we look at people that have the ability and the techniques to meditate and shift their experience through their perception of their experience we see profound changes in their biology. The understanding in perceived stress lines up perfectly with everything you and I have been talking about this hour. That is that we all have had traumatic experiences. We’ve all had difficulties and we all face them everyday. You can be driving in traffic and somebody behind you is just honking crazily and your whole stress reactivity goes into play because that will set you off most especially if you had early stress in your life and your stress response is set on high. You can get a bill in the mail for something that happened medically a year ago that you thought had already been paid and whatever. It goes on and on all day long. You know your teenager says and does something to you that makes you feel unappreciated or unloved and you wonder. It goes on and on. You have a fight with your spouse and we know from research that this gives you a 5 times greater chance of developing a cold in the next week. So it goes on and on. The interlacing between our stress hormones, our stress reactivity, and our physical state. Yet, if you take that same person and the car is honking behind them and they are able to be that observer in their mind, that traffic cop, and say, “that person must be having a really difficult day and I can’t pull out in traffic now or I will kill myself and my family by doing so, I hope the day gets better for them.” It’s gone and what happens with the observer, the interior observer, that mindful companion, that traffic cop in our own mind, by having that and working on it and making it a part of our day-to-day practice through meditation and mindfulness is that it’s able to stand upon the mountain top and send the stressors away in such a way that we just don’t engage and the stress response doesn’t rise. The teenager comes in and rolls their eyes and is hungry and slams the refrigerator door and your thinking, “wow, I just drove you all over to your poetry competition and to the grocery store to get your favorite fruits and I don’t deserve that”. Instead the observer stands there when you have trained the mind and says “wow, it’s really tough to be 15 when you have 3 exams tomorrow in today’s stressful world”. I was 15 and I know what that feels like. I also know that in 90 seconds, this mood of hers will probably be gone. And you know what? It’s gone. You’re not in your story. You’re able to stay out of your story, return to your tricks, your toolbox, your breath, your rapid exhales, your naming of your feelings, your mindfulness, your walking meditation. Go and pet the dog, whatever is in your toolbox and all of a sudden life turns around and meets you in a far better place. The people that you could have had a rant about are turning around and hugging you instead. Or as my kids once said to me, “Mom, you yell a lot less than you used to.” And I’m not a yeller.
That’s lovely. In your book, “The Last Best Cure” you have a plan at the end of the book and share with people how they can create their own healing plan. Obviously I highly recommend that people run out and buy your book now. Are there any quick tips just to round everything up that you can share with us now?
I think that we have run through some of them. I also really encourage people to get involved in community classes and I tell them that for two reasons. I give a lot of talks and meet a lot of people. I think that you came to “The Last Best Cure” with a history of having tried a lot of these things and so you were ready to kind of hit the ground and go to a meditation retreat and give it a go. You don’t have to sign up with a guru or anything like that. I wouldn’t recommend that and I certainly haven’t. I think getting involved in some community classes in almost any yoga studio these days or almost any community center or certainly in any hospital are very affordable; 6, 8, 10 or 12 weeks of mindfulness based stress reduction courses. The reason I say that, that is not to say that my book won’t get you to a better place, but the reason I say try to also augment that with some community classes is because I think we learn better in groups. I think also when we’ve had a lifetime of hardship, stress, adversity, chronic illness, pain, it is very important that we have some kind of community support system where we are going every Tuesday night and there are people in our situation and biologically our mirror neurons kick in. Our mirror neurons are these really cool things that without our conscious words allow us to be next to other people who are learning what we are learning and we just learn it better and deeper. So when you went to that meditation retreat, by sitting in a room of people who were doing what you were doing, you were actually learning it better and deeper and more deeply. One trick I would say is that if this all seems overwhelming to you, get the book because it’s $12.00 on Amazon, get a used copy. I don’t care. Get it from the library. As I said, I’m not the promotional person I probably should be. Download it on Kindle. I think it’s $11.00. For heaven’s sakes, it’s worth the how to guide at the end and just for that. So it’s like two lattes at Starbucks. Grab the book and read the book and sign up for an MBSR and yoga or meditation class. Do these two things and in 6 months you will be in a different place.
Just before we go, I want to remind listeners of something you’ve said. I’m often told by people that they are too ill to even meditate or do yoga. In your words, it takes about 14 seconds to disrupt a negative thought process, to completely reset the way that we are feeling at that moment and it starts with as little as 14 seconds.
Thank you for that reminder. That’s so beautifully said. Let’s remember that meditation does not have to be 40 minutes sitting on the floor in a cross legged position. I will leave your readers with the fact that for me it requires a hard backed chair, a prop under my feet so that my legs won’t go numb, wiggling my legs every three to four minutes so they won’t go numb because of my neurological damage, a prop behind my back because of some of my neurological stuff. So, you know what, it can be done if you give it those first 14 seconds and you reach and establish for yourself that sweetness of freedom from your fears and thoughts, you begin to return to that place again.
And I want people to find that place. I want them to find mental release, but moreover, cellular release.
I’ve been speaking with Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of “The Autoimmune Epidemic” and “The Last Best Cure” both available on Amazon, Kindle, and in hard copy. As I said a couple of times already, I highly recommend it. If you are only going to read one book on healing or just one book this year, please make it this book. It will change your life. Thank you, Donna.
Thank you. Great talking to you.
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