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Hello, and welcome to the Wellness Mama Podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com. And this episode is all about neuroplasticity, maintaining the ability to learn as we age, and the neuroscience of the stress response and our nervous systems. And I’m here with a personal friend of mine, Dr. David Rabin, who is an MD and a PhD. He’s a neuroscientist, a board-certified psychiatrist, a health entrepreneur, and an inventor. And he’s been studying the impact of chronic stress in humans for more than a decade. He’s also the co-founder and CMO at Apollo Neuro, which has developed the first scientifically validated wearable technology that actively improves energy, focus, relaxation, and touch therapy that signals safety to the brain. We talk a lot about that particular aspect of that today, but as well as many strategies we can all do at home and at no cost to signal our nervous system that it is safe and how, even if we don’t feel stressed, if our nervous system is getting the signal that it’s not safe, how this can keep us in fight or flight and keep us out of rest and digest, can impact our sleep and our focus, and so much more. Dr. Dave is probably one of the smartest people I know, and he’s always fascinating to talk to. So let’s join him now. Dr. Dave, welcome back. Thanks for returning to the podcast.
Dave: Thanks so much for having me. It’s always a pleasure to be here with you.
Katie: Well, it’s always so fun to have a conversation with you, and I’m excited for our topics today, especially I think these are very relevant to moms and families, especially, and we’re going to get to get really practical in some of the solutions to this. But to start broad for the context for this conversation, I would love to talk about nervous system health in general. We’ve heard the terms fight or flight, rest and digest. These are, of course, referring to parts of the autonomic nervous system, but I would love your explanation of these as base terms before we jump into the nuance and the specifics.
Dave: Sure. And these terms are really important to understand. I think, you know, my specialty in neuroscience is really around translational neuroscience, which means how do we take these incredible discoveries that we’ve had in the field over the last 50 years and, or longer, and actually translate them into things that everybody can use and that can really change all of our lives. Otherwise, what’s the point of spending all those hundred billion dollars on research, right?
So I think that one of the most amazing things we’ve learned over the last 50 years is about, as you said, the autonomic nervous system, the fight or flight, or what we call the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system, and then the rest and digest recovery part, which is called the parasympathetic nervous system that’s governed by the vagus nerve, which a lot of people have been talking about more lately because vagus nerve activity is required for our bodies to settle down and to enter recovery. And that is activated by safety.
So when we, safety being meaning we, no threats to our survival, no threats to lack of food, we have plenty of food, plenty of water, plenty of air, and plenty of acceptance by our community and no predators around, right? That’s like actual safety in the ancient, evolved survival sense of humans and animals. And then of course, in modern-day society, we have other issues that we think about a lot around safety, like financial safety, and legal safety, and spiritual safety, and that kind of thing. In general, the autonomic nervous system runs in the background to regulate our breath and our heart and our lungs and our bodies’ function in terms of survival and recovery so that we can protect ourselves and get to safety when we’re in the presence of an actual survival threat, which is one of those four or five things I mentioned earlier, things that could actually kill us. And then once we get to safety, to redirect all available blood flow back to our recovery nervous system, our, everything from our creativity brain, our empathy and emotional brain, our digestive system, reproductive system, immune system, sleep and rest and recovery systems, right? So all of those systems are systems we don’t want to be active in getting resources when we’re running from a bear or out of food or out of water or air. But we really want those to be active when we’re safe and recovered.
Katie: That makes sense. And it’s been talked about before, but I think there’s this idea in modern society, we don’t often encounter that metaphorical tiger that’s going to chase us. However, our nervous system can be getting the message that we’re not safe from a lot of other signals, especially in modern society. So I would love to just high level touch on some of those because I think often we can get lost in the idea that like, oh, I don’t feel stressed, therefore I’m not stressed. And that nuance of just because you don’t feel stressed, your nervous system might still feel stressed. So what’s happening in those situations?
Dave: So the simplest way to understand it is what’s happening in those situations is overstimulation. So too much information coming in in the form of light, sound, noise, construction, responsibilities. Children screaming and demanding our time, work demanding our time, existential threat of news, international things going on that are not in our immediate circle but are still scary and overwhelming. And so, it’s really that overstimulation that’s a combination of everything that’s coming in that is not actually an immediate threat to us. But it is something, they are things that are, that can be scary or overwhelming that get confused for actual survival threat.
And our bodies evolved to perceive all threat as threat, which means that regardless of whether it’s an actual survival threat or whether it’s a perceived threat, like too many emails or too many responsibilities or too much news, we still do the same things in our bodies, which is we take all of our available blood flow and we send it to the heart, the lungs, the skeletal muscles, and the motor cortex and fear center of our brains to get us out of a potential predator actual survival situation. But we all know when you’re stuck in traffic, when you’re answering emails, when you’re in a meeting and somebody looks at you funny across the room, none of those are actually situations where your survival is in jeopardy, right? So it’s critical for, that’s where meditation, mindfulness, yoga, breathwork, Apollo, and other tools come in because all of these mental and emotional tools and techniques help us train our minds to remind ourselves that this thing that’s overwhelming me right now is not an actual survival threat. So I can settle down, be in the moment with what I’m doing, and redivert all of my resources back to my recovery nervous system that allows me to feel better and be more resilient and recovered, like digestion, reproduction, immunity, creativity, empathy, sleep, and all the stuff that actually matters when we’re actually not under threat. Does that make sense?
Katie: It does. And it seems like with the influx of all of those things you mentioned in the modern world that our nervous system can perceive as threats, that cultivating the ability to downshift into parasympathetic is an actual skill that we need to devote intentionality to in today’s world because that influx of inputs is not going away. So let’s talk about…
Dave: It’s getting worse.
Katie: Yeah. So let’s talk about…
Dave: And so it’s never been more important to do that stuff, to train ourselves to do those techniques. And it starts with our children, by the way. The sooner we teach our kids to just focus on your breath, the sooner they learn to self-soothe, and the sooner they start to automate their own ability to think through these challenging situations of overstimulation we’re all facing. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.
Katie: No, that’s such a great point. And I think perhaps one of the strongest foundational skills we can give them is understanding and ability to help regulate their own nervous system. And I also know as a mom that often it seems like our nervous system tone sort of sets the tone for the whole house and that kids feed off of our energy very often. So let’s talk about some of those practical strategies for downshifting our nervous system to letting our bodies know that we’re safe, to maybe stimulating the vagus nerve. What are some of the things we can do and teach our kids to do?
Dave: It’s a great question. And I love talking about this because this is where we can make a real dent in our health and well-being of not just ourselves, which is, of course, where it starts, but with our families, right? And that extends out to everyone that comes in contact with us.
And so the first thing, I break this down into six things. The first and most important is intentional breathing. So when we think about what breathing is and what we’re all taught it is as children, myself included, we were taught, even in medical school, we were taught that breathing just happens and the body regulates it on its own. It’s autonomic or automatic. And it’s true, it does. But if you look at what the medical literature says is normal breathing, which is basically the rate that most people breathe at when they come to be measured in the doctor’s office, it’s like 12 to 24 breaths per minute. And when you actually look at what 12 to 24 breaths per minute is, that’s stress breathing. Because when we enter calm states, meditative states, and by directing our attention to our breath, which is what we call intentional breathing, that’s where we actually say, I’m going to take control of my breath right now and just pay attention to it and choose to breathe in and choose to breathe out. Rather than just letting my body do it automatically in response to the environment, what you’re doing is you’re taking control of one of the most fundamental parts of our body’s ability to interact with the environment by choice, right?
And so that does two things. It, number one, brings our breath rate into a more recovery-based rate, which is not 12 to 24 breaths per minute. It’s actually closer to five to seven breaths per minute. And when we enter five to seven breaths per minute, our heart rate slows down, our blood pressure comes down, our thoughts start to slow down, and we feel all this within as little as three to five minutes. And we can feel tension starting to leave our bodies from our shoulders, our back, our legs, wherever we store tension. And it just almost immediately puts it in a place of feeling calm, centered, and in control, which is like the core basis of flow and mindfulness and meditation techniques. That’s where it all starts. So that’s numero uno, most important thing that we can do ourselves is just saying, without thinking about any technique, just being, just directing our attention to our breath. And breathing in intentionally because we chose to for filling our lungs as much as we can, and then breathing out and emptying our lungs as much as we can each breath, and just doing that for two to five minutes, as often as we can remember. And then I can get into the other five key things that are all related if you want me to go there next.
Katie: I would love for you to quickly though, if we become intentional about our breathing, does that over time influence our normal autonomic breathing response as well? In other words, like I think my respiration at night is like 11 breaths per minute. If I get intentional with breathing, can I slow down my breathing even when I’m asleep?
Dave: Absolutely. And you’re because as we train our bodies to be in a more calm or parasympathetic or vagal dominant recovery state, then that permeates into all parts of our lives because we’re showing ourselves that we can get ourselves into a state of calm wherever we are.
And that’s how Apollo works, right? It’s sending the soothing vibrations at that rhythm of our ideal breath to our bodies and then it, with sound waves. And then the sound waves remind our bodies to enter that five to seven breaths per minute state on their own for those of us who never learned how to do that. So that’s, so yes, the whole, and the whole idea is practice makes mastery, which is what all of our, all of our parents told us growing up, practice makes perfect, right? But it’s really mastery because there’s no such thing as perfection. So Eric R. Kandel won the Nobel Prize for this in 2000, showing that by practicing these techniques like intentional breathing, that we actually teach and retrain our minds and our bodies to enter those states all the time, even when we sleep.
Katie: Awesome. Okay. So yeah, let’s go into the other strategies as well.
Dave: So the other strategies are very similar in that they are all intentional. So intention is important. It’s directing our attention to and our energy into the task. And they are: movement, intentional movement. Taking control of our movement at any moment. That could be like stretching or it could be walking or exercise, dancing, et cetera. Soothing touch, whether we give it to ourselves or we consensually interact with soothing touch with another, a loved one or somebody we trust. Soothing music or intentional listening, which is including listening to, choosing to listen to something because we want to, and also choosing to produce sound. So singing is a very powerful way to increase recovery in the body and help us enter those natural breathing rhythms. And the last two are intentional nutrition. So a lot of stuff that you talk about, right? Being thoughtful about what fuel we’re putting into the super high performing vehicle of our bodies. That is the highest performing, most fancy vehicle and thing we will ever possess in our lives in this life, treat it like it’s the fanciest car you’ve ever had, right? That’s the way we need to be respecting our bodies with the nutrients we put into it. Intentional nutrition and thoughtfulness about what we, what fuel we’re putting into the engine. And the last one is intent, is sleep and rest.
And so if you, if we think about those six things and, and focusing on teaching or, you know, focusing those, you know, doing those things for ourselves and then teaching our kids to do it from a young age, then they learn one of the most important, two of the most important skill sets that we can teach any human being, which are number one, or three, three, three things. One, the mind and the body are connected, not separate. What happens in here unfolds down here. And what we feel in here unfolds up here. There’s no separation.
Number two, most important thing we teach our children or that any human being is we are in control of our attention. Our attention is the gateway into our consciousness. If we allow the environment to choose what we pay attention to, then we’re going to be at the whim of the environment. If we learn to control our attention, then we can, which Jim Kwik talks about and many other people talk about, right? That’s how we actually take control over our lives and feel more in control all the time, which effectively results in minimal anxiety throughout our lives and maximal feelings of control. So the more in control we feel, the more we pay attention to things we feel we are in control over, like our breath, like our movement, like the other things I mentioned, touch, music, listening, et cetera, the more in control we feel and the less anxiety we feel.
And the consequence of that, those first two things, is the third really important thing we teach people, critical thing, which is to self-soothe, right? So it’s when we feel uncomfortable in any situation, just recognizing it, being aware of it, not judging it, not trying to avoid it, just noticing it and asking ourselves, right? Inquiring, why am I feeling this way? And trying to like understand ourselves by understanding and diving into that discomfort is actually a way that, it’s the best way that we grow as human beings.
Katie: Well, and you mentioned the Apollo. I will make sure I put a link to that in the show notes so people can learn more about it. I know you have a tremendous amount of educational information available as well about these to go deeper on all of these topics. But I also want to make sure we have time to talk about the term neuroplasticity because this one has, I feel like, gotten more popular lately, but it’s still maybe not well understood. And I think if I’m remembering correctly, it used to be thought that our brains were sort of static or that we didn’t have the ability to regenerate brain tissue or to learn after a certain age in the same way. And it seems like this has been largely proven not true. But I know also I got to see your recent course about neuroplasticity, and I’m fascinated by this. So to start off, can you define neuroplasticity for anybody who’s not familiar with the term and then maybe give us some strategies to improve that?
Dave: Yeah, absolutely. And this is one of the most important topics of our time in terms of things that we can pass down from neuroscience discoveries to the rest of the world, which, as you said, you know, it’s dispelling this idea that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Right. We learn for our entire lives. And neuroplasticity is really like the neuroscience term for learning. And it means it really encompasses three things, which you don’t really need to remember for this, but just so you understand that those three pathways of neuroplasticity are what we call synaptogenesis, which is the most common, which is the building of, and the creation of new networks between our neurons and our brains. So building more connections between existing neurons and neural cells. That’s how like we make memories, for instance. Number two is neurogenesis. So it’s the making of new neurons, which was shown by a number of folks, including one of my mentors in my graduate training, Dr. Sally Temple, who was one of the first people to show that older animals and people still make new neurons in their brains. And number three is a very important discovery. And number three is neuro regeneration. So it’s actually the repair of old and dying neurons. So those are the three ways that we, three categories of neuroplasticity, which is actually what’s happening in the brain as we learn new things.
Katie: That’s fascinating. And I’m glad to hear that you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks. What does this mean for our kids, especially? I would guess there’s this tie-in with the stress response. So if we’re in fight or flight, we’re probably not learning new things very easily. We’re probably not very neuroplastic, but are there strategies to improve that? Are there nutritional things that can help? How do we increase our neuroplasticity even as we get older?
Dave: So I think the main takeaway from all of this is, again, going back to what we started talking about in the beginning of our conversation, which is this idea of safety unlocks recovery. And part of recovery is learning, right? And when we feel, when we’re under threat or our bodies perceive, our bodies and minds perceive ourselves to be under threat, even if it’s too many emails or too much stimulation, it’s not actually a survival threat. If we, when we’re in those situations of chronic stress, we’re not learning. We have tunnel vision. And our attention is focused on, like, fight or flight responses, not, not learning new things because when we’re under threat or we’re under chronic stress, our, our autonomic nervous system actually, purposefully decreases resources to learning new things because new things are unfamiliar to us. And things that are unfamiliar are accompanied by this overwhelming idea of uncertainty and the unknown. Right.
So if you think about like, why is why is it so hard to change an old habit when we’re stressed out? And why is it so easy to go back to the Häagen-Dazs and Netflix? Right. Or the fast food? It’s because those things, even though they’re not good for us, are familiar. And so when we’re under threat or feeling really stressed out, we tend to go back to those things because we’ve learned an associated familiarity with those things. And neurologically speaking and evolutionarily speaking, familiarity brings safety, a sense of safety along with it, even if it’s not actually helping us feel better, right? And unfamiliarity or newness, learning new things brings with it a sense of uncertainty because they’re new to us. And uncertainty is scary. Adding additional uncertainty to our lives is scary when we’re already overwhelmed and stressed out, right?
So our body opposes, biologically speaking, our bodies oppose learning new things when we are under threat or stress. And so that’s why helping kids feel safe and adults, anybody, but, but especially with children who are much better, much, you know, they’re even more neuroplastic than adults. So they can learn more quickly. They can learn, you know, much more rapidly and helping kids feel safe to learn, safe to make mistakes, right? Cause they don’t know they’re, they’re new to this, right. And safe to explore nonjudgmentally, safe to discover things about themselves, safe to ask any question without making them feel stupid, right. It’s these little things in addition to the safety techniques that I mentioned earlier with the breathing and the movement and all this stuff that they know that, that they’re, they’re like in a safe place to learn. And when we reinforce that for our children, all of a sudden, learning becomes fun for them, right. It becomes fun and it becomes something that they self, they drive themselves towards because it’s so rewarding and discover, like when you when we teach people how to learn properly again, you know, going back to Jim Kwik because I’ve just seen him this week. He is so passionate about this because learning is the freedom to discover who we are. Right. And what we’re capable of in this life. And so if we can help ourselves feel safe enough to do that, all of a sudden life gets really, really fun and exciting. And discovery is like one of the best parts of being alive.
Katie: Yeah, and I think kids are our best teachers in that if we let them be because they are so natural at it. But that’s such a great point. I’ll, of course, make sure that that course on neuroplasticity is linked in the show notes because I think it’s fascinating. And there’s so much more in there than we can cover in this. And I know we’re going to get to do another episode where we’re going to get to go deep on creating that safety and that nervous system regulation for the whole family. But I also want to briefly make sure we touch on Apollo. And, of course, I will link to that as well. But can you just briefly explain how it works and how it can be helpful? I know I use it with my kids as well, but how it can help with that nervous system regulation.
Dave: So Apollo is a wearable technology that we developed that I mentioned earlier out of my research at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Psychiatry, where we were trying to understand what we were talking about earlier, which is this fear response, this sympathetic fight or flight response, and why so many of us, especially, so many of us even who are even healthy, just living busy lives, but also especially those of us who suffer from chronic mental illnesses or have been diagnosed with a mental illness really struggle with, and why, and how the nervous system is impacted by that, and what stress does to our biology, not just to what’s going on up here.
And so as we started to discover that in the lab, we realized there’s a lot of commonality between the way the research that had been done in animal models and the way they respond to stress and the way that humans respond to stress. Even if we go back surprisingly, like hundreds of millions of years, that ancient animals’ nervous systems are responding to stress and safety in a very similar way that we respond to stress and safety. And so when we start to understand that, this is again from Eric Kandel’s Nobel Prize winning work in 2000, we actually start to learn a lot about the hard wiring of the body, right? And what, like the rules we can change, the things we can change about ourselves and the things that we’re born with and they’re stuck that way, right?
And so through study of those pathways, we figured out that most of us, when we’re overwhelmed, when we’re stressed, when we have a mental health diagnosis, our bodies are in a state of constant threat all the time. We feel just constantly threatened. Even just having too much stuff going on around us, like too much noise, too many emails, too many responsibilities, too much traffic, all of that is increasing activity in our stress response system. And again, this makes it hard to learn new things, hard to be creative, hard to be empathetic and sensitive to our friends, family, coworkers, hard to focus, hard to sleep. It makes absorption of our food worse. It makes our general gut health worse. It makes our reproductivity worse and very challenging. The biggest cause of reproductive issues in men and women is anxiety. So this is a real issue. And our immune system gets messed up, right? So we get sick more often when we’re stressed out.
And so what we figured out was that, that we could take soothing sensations, like the feeling of soothing touch, like getting a hug, or holding a purring pet. And that actually has a biological impact on our bodies that almost automatically, within as little as two to five minutes, just like breathing, nudges the body into a calm, relaxed, meditative state without us having to do anything. It just does it. And that we evolved to do that because all ancient mammals also a hundred or 200 million years old since the first mammals have all used soothing touch when they nurse their young, when they first are born until they can take care of themselves. And that’s non-verbal, right? It’s just hug, breastfeeding, right? It’s nearly instantaneous, and it requires no effort to receive that safety from the mother. Right.
And so that from understanding those evolved pathways, we said, okay, well, what if we could put that feeling of soothing touch, or at least a component of it, into a wearable that you could take with you everywhere. And so we figured out how to do it, that long story short, with sound waves that are at the specific rhythm of our ideal breath pattern, which is about five to seven breaths per minute. And then when you deliver that soothing sound waves to the body in the form of the Apollo Wearable, which you can wear anywhere in your body, I’m wearing it on my ankle right now, it’s about the size of an Apple watch. And when you deliver that rhythm to the body, the body says two things. I feel safe enough to feel this so I can’t be under threat. And so that increases vagus nerve activity, which increases recovery in our bodies and sleep and our ability to feel safe in our own skin and feel clear, present, and focused.
And number two is it nudges our bodies into our ideal breath rhythm of five to seven breaths per minute and away from our stress breath rhythm, which is 12 to 24 breaths per minute. And so those two combined can relatively, rapidly increase the states of recovery in the body and vagus nerve tone, not just in the moment, but also over time to the tune of 30 to 60 more minutes of sleep a night, concentrated in deep and REM sleep, which is leaps and bounds better than any pharmaceutical sleep aid, and increased heart rate variability and decreased resting heart rate and dramatically reduced stress and feelings of calm, focus, and energy. So that is the tool that we developed at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s been available since 2020 that we’re excited to share with the world.
Katie: And like I said, I will link to that in the show notes for people listening on the go. Hopefully you’re taking a walk in the sunshine, but all of those links will be at wellnessmama.com. And Dr. Dave, you’re always so fascinating to talk to. I always learn so much. Thank you so much for your time and being here.
Dave: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Katie: And thanks as always to all of you for listening. And I hope you will join me again on the next episode of the Wellness Mama Podcast.
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