738: Nervous System Health and Regulation for the Whole Family With Dr. David Rabin

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Nervous System Health and Regulation for the Whole Family with Dr. David Rabin
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The Wellness Mama Podcast
738: Nervous System Health and Regulation for the Whole Family With Dr. David Rabin

I’m back again for part 2 of this series with my friend Dr. David Rabin. Not only is he an MD and PhD, but he’s also a neuroscientist and the Chief Medical Officer for Apollo Neuro, a wearable that signals nervous system safety.

Last time we talked about the importance of our stress and nervous system response. This time we’re delving into how to create a home environment that helps nurture our bodies into a restful state. Dr. David gives a lot of practical tips, especially for parents and kids.

We talk about the lighting in the home and how this affects our nervous system, plus the best kinds of lightbulbs to have. Dr. David also gives his evidence-based thoughts on screen time for little ones, and why even some kid’s shows may be detrimental to younger kids. Plus he validates my houseplant addiction since it helps me stay connected to nature, another one of his big tips for a healthy nervous system.

We discuss the true cause behind depression and a few simple things that are proven to reverse most cases. And so many more tips for having a calm, happy home and kids. So let’s join Dr. Rabin!

Episode Highlights With Dr. David Rabin

  • What to do if you feel stuck in fight or flight
  • Things you can do to help your home feel safe for your nervous system
  • Strategies for creating a calm and soothing environment in our homes
  • How screens are stressful to the nervous system
  • Why he says one of the most dangerous things you can do to a young child is hand them a screen, especially one that’s unlocked
  • How screens can short-circuit kids’ learning to self-soothe
  • Certain lighting that is abrasive to the nervous system
  • Fascinating study about depression that shows it’s not genetic and the things we can do that help the most

Resources We Mention

More From Wellness Mama

Read Transcript

Child: Welcome to my Mommy’s podcast.

Hello, and welcome to the Wellness Mama podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com. And this episode goes deep on the topic of nervous system health and regulation for the whole family, including some very specific strategies you can do to set your home up as a nervous-system friendly environment for yourself and for your kids. And I’m back with my personal friend, Dr. David Rabin, who is both an MD and a PhD. He’s a neuroscientist, a board-certified psychiatrist, an inventor and entrepreneur, and the CMO of a company called Apollo Neuro, which has a wearable that helps signal nervous system safety. And this is definitely a focus of this episode. Like I said, we go deep on the topic of creating a safe home environment. And a lot of strategies we have control over that we can do with ourselves and with our children to create not just a calmer home environment, but also to signal our nervous systems that they are safe and to teach our kids the skill of self-soothing and regulation at a young age. There’s a lot of tips in this episode. He gives some very practical advice that you can do completely free at home. And I also can now say that a neuroscientist has validated that houseplants are good for you because they bring an element of nature in. So I’m considering my houseplant addiction neuroscientist-approved, but there’s many, many practical tips beyond that in this episode. So let’s join Dr. David Rabin. Dr. Dave, welcome back. It’s always a pleasure to have you here.

Dave: So good to be with you, Katie. Thanks so much for having me again.

Katie: Well, as you know, the majority of our listeners are parents, and I’m really excited to learn from the perspective of a neuroscientist and a psychiatrist today how we can create sort of optimal nervous system environment in our homes for our kids and the strategies we can use to create sort of parasympathetic nervous system activity in our houses. Because as a mom, this is a big topic and one that makes a huge difference. And so I think, to start broad, I think a lot of people, especially moms, feel like they’re very stuck in fight or flight. And we talked in our previous episode, I’ll link to that in the show notes, about autonomic nervous system and sympathetic versus parasympathetic. Seems like many moms especially are stuck in that fight or flight phase. And you gave us some strategies in that episode, but I do think in the home, the mom sets the tone for everybody’s nervous system. So if a mom knows she’s overwhelmed and stuck in fight or flight, what can we do to start creating patterns of getting out of that?

Dave: So I think the first thing is, based on what we were talking about in the last episode, it’s fight or flight and threat most commonly for us, because we don’t often have, thank goodness, real survival threat issues around us most of the time these days, is the threat, feeling of being threatened and stressed, is coming from overstimulation. So too much stress coming at us too fast, too loud, right? And too many responsibilities and too much to be concerned or worried about.

And so the number one thing that anybody can do for themselves is, in these situations, especially moms, is just take a few minutes to yourself, right? Pull yourself out of that environment where you’re constantly taking care of everyone or everything else, which is a big thing that moms end up in, that’s it doing, right? And take time every day, even if it’s just five minutes or 10 minutes or 15 minutes, doesn’t have to be a lot of time, but that’s time where nobody else is allowed to get your attention. You have no other responsibilities other than to just be there. No phone. No videos, maybe a little bit of music if you like, but not any other incoming stimulation that is anything that could possibly stress you out. It’s really, it’s like just a little bit of a break.

And as we start to do that, especially when we combine those breaks with breathing, especially intentional breathing like we were talking about earlier, that starts to show us that we can feel calm in stressful situations and that we are really like showing ourselves self-gratitude and self-love and taking time out to do that because we work really hard and we deserve to feel good about ourselves and our family and everything that we’re doing because that’s the point, right? We do these things to feel good and to share joy with our friends and family. And so it just kind of grounds us in that mindset. And then that radiates out to everyone else in our family and our children and our community. So taking that time and just recognizing we deserve that break is critically important.

Katie: Yeah, I often say the simplest things are often overlooked because of their simplicity but can make the biggest difference. Same with in our past episode, how you talked about breathing, intentionally breathing. I know we do it automatically all the time, but just having some intentionality around our breathing actually can even shift our breathing while we’re sleeping or at other times of day as well. And it makes sense that even these little, what seem like insignificant changes, that we can have and habits that we can have can actually over time really compound and change how our nervous system feels. And I know for kids, especially in moms, we often spend a lot of time in our home environment. And I’m curious if there’s anything we can do in our home to create an environment that is actually nervous system supportive, whether it be with lighting changes at night, whether it be with reducing clutter. Are there things from a neuroscience perspective that we can do in the home that actually help our nervous system feel safe?

Dave: Oh yeah. So think about safety like the way we think about safety as children, right? And think about stress like overstimulation, too much input, right? Too much, too fast, too loud. Let’s like break it down that simply. So, to help us feel safe and recovered, we need to feel soothed. And we deserve to feel soothed, right? Like we actually deserve calm in our lives. We deserve soothing sensations. Like the smell of chicken soup or getting hugs or holding pets or listening to soft, gentle music, right? So like surrounding ourselves and our children with these things are critical, critically important. So the kinds of things that really help our kids with that are just having more soothing things around, right? And less fast, loud things.

So let’s start with like eliminating the fast, loud things. And then I think the soothing things will become really apparent. So the things that we often don’t realize that we’re surrounding ourselves and our children with that are promoting stress and promoting anxiety and, you know, discomfort long-term and sometimes in the short term are screens. Portable screens, right? As a psychiatrist who has worked in the ER, psychiatric ER with children for quite a while, I can tell you one of the most dangerous things to do for young children is to hand them a phone or a tablet, and especially one that’s unlocked that they can do or watch anything on. That is really, really important to note. And the reason why is because if you are a child and you feel restless, uncomfortable in any way, and you learn that the way you can get out of that situation is by doing this, right, or this, and literally having at your fingertips anything that you want, right, then you’re not going to learn the natural ways to get there. You’re not going to learn the natural ways to calm down because why would you learn a natural way to calm down that takes any amount of work if you can just do this or this, or just put on a movie that just completely takes away any, it’s a distraction. They’re not learning how to self-soothe. That’s one of the, again, as we were talking about in the last episode, self-soothing and attention control and what we call discomfort tolerance is one of the single most important things we teach our children. So eliminate screens. And, or eliminate screens as much as possible.

And it’s fine to have kids exposed to movies and to certain kinds of TV that’s educational and that kind of thing. But, you know, I, one of the things that I’ve learned from working with children and mothers a lot over the last few years, my, my, my good friend, Anna actually, you know, brought up to me recently, who is a mom of two is that the speed of what we show our children, whether like in video movies, et cetera, is really, really important that it matches their developmental age. Right. So if you, so the way to think about that is when you’re one, like two, three, four, five, six and you’re still in that phase of getting incredible amounts of joy from simple things in life, like running in a field and hanging out with trees and natural things, right, that are very simple and gentle and slow, right? If you hand screens to those children at that age or that worked or put them in front of the TV and you play like, you know, Maleficent or one of those like Disney movies where it’s just like you know, 120 frames, like rapidly switching from one scene to the other. And like, it’s just, you know, CGI like crazy. Right. And just over, it’s overstimulating. And when kids get exposed to that kind of content too early in their mental, emotional development, it’s too fast for them. And what happens is they then try to go back to the field with the flowers, and they’re bored and they go back to their stuffed animals and they go back to the things that simple things that used to give them joy and they’re bored. And like a, like a drug, they start to crave that fast overstimulating sense, sensation and, and they lose the elegance of the simplicity of life. Right.

And we’re all going to have to, we’re all going to, that’s all going to fade a little bit for us in general. But the goal is that we learn in a path, how to you know, relish and savor the elegant simplicity of life as long as we possibly can, because that’s where most of the beauty of life actually is. Right. And so going back to like that two, three, four, five, six, seven age range, the great shows for those kids, Mr. Rogers. Right? Mr. Rogers, slow, slow cartoons that are talking about like really, really simple concepts, like picking fruit or like doing like simple things, not a lot of fast-moving animations that are bilingual cartoons, right? So you have like the same cartoon in English and then they watch it again, exactly the same in French or Spanish or some other language. They start to build the association between I’m watching the same thing I was just watching in a different language, and it starts to help them learn in a very thoughtful way.

And so it’s starting with things that are slower and more gentle that matches their developmental age. And I think those two things also then start to apply to other things, the kind of music they listen to, no heavy metal for children, right? Play classical music, play like slow jazz, play things that are simpler and easier for them to take in that are not super complex rhythms and, and really fast, loud kinds of music, play them, you know, and lighting, right? As you were saying earlier. Eliminate fluorescent lighting from your home, whether you’re an adult without children or you’re a parent with children, eliminate fluorescent lighting from your home because that white light is like almost caustic to our, our, our sense of feeling calm. It’s like abrasive to the body and the mind. And so, so, you know, have more warm lighting around, more soothing lighting around. And, and, you know, now they make these cool multicolored light bulbs that you can change lighting texture, tone, and, and vibe of your room, which aren’t required, but even just having more warm yellow, like, light rather than bright white, harsh, cool light is really effective to just creating soothing environments for us and our kids.

Katie: Yeah, I think that makes a huge difference. One thing I do as a mom is we have sort of different lighting in the house. The overhead lighting is like a broad spectrum, gentle on the eyes, daylight type bulb because that’s overhead and that’s what we would get outside during the day. But at sunset, there’s timers and those all go off and then just lamps with that gentle, warm nighttime lighting come on. And it’s amazing. Kids are so much more responsive, I think, but how I see them get calmer when the lighting goes down, when the environment gets more soothing. You also talked in our first episode about soothing touch. And I think as parents, you explained how this is wired into us as mammals. But are there any specific strategies we can do with our kids to take advantage of soothing touch, especially maybe before bedtime or that can help their nervous system calm down and reset?

Dave: Yeah, absolutely. And I would put soothing touches are really interesting because it is so hardwired into us to help us feel safe, especially slow, gentle touch, like gently rubbing the back, rubbing the belly, and being held, right? Like these are very calming for, again, not just for humans, but for animals too, right? And so that is stroking hair slowly, right? These are all millions of years old calming techniques. So doing those kinds of things before bed or when we want our children to feel more calm, those are really, really important. And we should all be doing them with our kids, even as they get older, not just when they’re infants and babies, right? But when they get older, we should continue to give that kind of loving, gentle support of safety to our kids. Because sometimes we don’t have the words, right? And that’s okay. And sometimes the words that we have, our kids don’t understand. So touch is this incredible nonverbal communication of safety that allows kids to instantly feel present and safe in their own bodies and their own skin.

And I think one thing that’s important complement to that, just on the realm of, we haven’t talked about yet, that’s in the realm of natural things we can do with our kids during the day is expose them, rather than screens, is expose them to as much nature as possible, right? Because nature is in of itself safe. And being in nature, being around trees, being around plants, being around animals and a safe environment, pets and things like that, all of these things help to, their like relatively low-intensity stimulation that is at a pace that kids can, young kids, can really like benefit from and it helps them feel safe and connected to their environment it helps them feel that, that excitement of discovery when they find new stuff right and they learn new things about themselves about the world and it’s just a really like, you can’t go wrong with giving kids like a safe environment to experience nature in as much as possible.

Katie: I truly think one of the best things I’ve done with my kids is create the habit of morning sunlight where we go sit on, we have these cozy chairs on the patio. And now I’ve noticed my older ones, even the ones who get up before I do, will go make some herbal tea and sit on the front porch and just be in nature. And I think, or bonus points, that they go for a walk, but I think that habit will serve them so well in their life. And I also love that you mentioned the nature element and plants, because I’m going to take that as my houseplant addiction is now neuroscientist approved. And I’m going to lean into that even more. But it does seem like we instinctively crave nature as humans. Like there’s something to the beach, the forest. We like want to go to those places.

Dave: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, those, those are some of those powerful experiences we have as human beings are connecting with each other and connecting with nature, and they are equally important and not, they’re, one’s not better than the other. They’re equally important to our health and because we are beings that are, you know, we often forget that we are one with the environment around us, but just like we were talking about some of these rules in, I think the past, the last episode, like the mind and body are connected, right? The idea that the mind and body are separate is long proven to not be true.

So if we accept that rule, that the mind and body are connected, the next rule that neuroscience and science at large has taught us over the years is that we are also not separate from nature, right? We can’t survive as human beings without the environment. Right? We need it. It is the, it is the environment, the external environment, that connects to our internal environment that facilitates our survival. And unless we live in harmony with that environment, with the world around us, including each other, but for this purpose, speaking about nature, right? Unless we are in harmony with nature, we will not have a world that will sustain human existence for very long. And we’re seeing this unfold today, right?

We’re seeing the challenges with climate, you know, the world heating up and environment and all these things that are making the world, for lack of a better way to describe it, less hospitable for humans, right? Less hospitable for life. And so our connection with nature and the recognition that for us to be healthy means to have a good relationship with nature and a strong relationship with nature, which means understanding that we’re intimately and irrevocably interconnected. We’re not separate. The separation is an illusion. Right. The separation is an illusion. And it’s important to acknowledge that we can feel separate at times. That’s important. And it’s okay. It helps us to, for example, conduct scientific studies. We have to separate ourselves from what we’re studying to do science. That doesn’t mean that in reality, we’re actually separate. It means we’re all part of this thing, this whole experience, this adventure of life together.

Katie: And statistically, we’re spending less time in nature and less time with other people than we have in the past. So those are great things to be intentional about. I would also love to get the neuroscientist perspective on things like nutrition and movement because I know in our first episode, we talked briefly about how those are safety signaling factors as well. And I know even if you don’t feel mentally stressed, if things are entering your body that your nervous system perceives as harmful, you still could be having that stress response, even if you wouldn’t say you feel stressed at the moment. So what are some ways we can use nutrition and movement patterns with ourselves and with our kids to signal safety?

Dave: So I think the most important thing, there’s two ways primarily that we can do these things and focus on movement and nutrition. So the first part is about control. So if we, there are only so many things that we can really control in our lives. And most of the things we can’t, right? We’re surrounded by all the stuff we can’t control in general, including oftentimes our own children, right? Or the way that we think and feel. So what the six things that we talk about that are effectively the things that remind us that we’re in control of our lives, which are immediately stress and anxiety reducing are intentional breathing, movement, touch, listening, nutrition, and sleep. And the reason why all those six things work so well to help us stay healthy and calm and in a good place nervous system wise is because they help us feel in control and control is safety and certainty, right? So that’s number one.

Number two, is that decades of research has shown, and particularly more recently has shown that what we put into our bodies is absolutely critical to how we feel and how regulated our nervous system is. Meaning that we want that for everything, from everything from energy to our microbiome functioning, to the way we absorb our food, to how well we sleep, to lots of other things, to our allergies, right? To our allergies and the way our immune system functions. So in general, we want to try as best as possible to, and the evidence supports this, to eat locally grown within like ideally like 100 miles radius or 150 miles radius of where you live, ideally. Because that helps you get, when you eat food that’s grown locally, you build up antibodies to and reduce allergies to things that are in your environment that grow naturally around you. That’s why raw honey from where you live is so good to eat because we build, that helps prevent and address seasonal allergies. And that’s been known for probably hundreds of years. So, that is local, organic, meaning non-contaminated, not pesticide, herbicide, fungicide contaminated food is probably that is stuff that our body well tolerates, right?

So for me, I’ve learned over the years, I’m very severely intolerant of dairy and milk and cow’s milk, cheese, cream, et cetera. So even though I like it, and even though it might be locally grown and organic, I know that I can’t put that in my body because my body does not respond to it well. And that just required me to just ask, how am I feeling after I put this in my body? And when I realized after a while that it was very much ungood, I eliminated that from my diet and my energy level and my clarity of focus and many other parts of my life, like sleep and just general overall functioning got like, went up by like 25% within six months. I mean, it was a huge change, like dramatic. And so, so that is the nutrition part.

And then the movement part, I think I’ll just sum up with this recent study that came out last July, which is fascinating, which is a what’s called an umbrella study from University College of London. That was a study of it’s like a meta what we call a meta-analysis of meta-analysis. So it takes all the studies that have ever been done that that meet pretty much all the studies have ever been done on depression in this particular case. And they said, what is the evidence across all of these studies for either the genetic hypothesis of people are born with a neurochemical imbalance that’s measurable in the body versus, which is what many of us were taught that’s causing the depression versus the, diet versus exercise versus trauma, right? What has a more significant relationship to people actually having depression and recovering from depression? Is it the genetics and the neurochemical imbalance? Or is it how much we move, how traumatized we’ve been, how much stress we’ve been under, et cetera?

And what the study finally proved to our community that is so fascinating that many of us who work in this space have known for a long time is that that it’s not genetic. You’re not born with depression. You’re not born with a neurochemical imbalance in over 99% of people probably who were ever diagnosed with depression or any mental illness. It’s not genetic. In probably over 99% of people. Okay, so that’s the first takeaway.

Second takeaway is that the most likely reason for people to develop depression or mental illness, including PTSD, is unresolved traumatic events, right? Having past experiences that were challenging and we perceived as threatening that were not, where we did not feel safe and where we were not supported after. Right. That’s basically the modern definition of trauma. That is, if we have those kinds of experiences or more than one of those kinds of experiences, especially when we’re not given support afterwards by our community, like where you’re blamed for what happened to you, that is one of the single fastest ways that increases our likelihood of developing mental illness.

Number three, most important message from this study that was so fascinating is one of the single best ways to treat mental illness like depression is exercise and movement, right? That single thing, activity of just intentionally putting our energy into doing some exercise, like 30 minutes of moderate heart rate increase exercise a day. That could be a run, a bike ride, a little bit of like aerobics, weightlifting, or even a walk is enough to treat your depression as effectively or more effectively than an SSRI antidepressant. That is incredible, right? So movement is like, fundamentally important to the way that we think and feel and, and maintain our health on a lifelong basis. And we couldn’t be more important to prioritize with our kids.

Katie: So brisk walk in nature might be one of our best medicines and it’s available to all of us and it’s free. So I think that’s a huge key takeaway for sure. And I know that we are running out of time for today and we’ve done a whole past episode on the trauma piece and even got into the psychedelic research a little bit. So I’ll make sure that’s linked as well. But briefly, I know that Apollo is also a sort of a cheat code for nervous system regulation. So can you just briefly explain what it is? And I will make sure it’s linked in the show notes as well.

Dave: Yeah. So we were talking about soothing touch earlier and kind of surrounding ourselves with soothing stimulation. And I think the short of it is that the unfortunate reality for all humans is that we just don’t get enough soothing touch, right? It’s just, that’s just the nature. That’s just the way things are for many of us right now. And we need more of it. You know, we’re supposed to get like eight minutes of hugs a day. Can any of us remember the last time we got eight minutes of hugs? I certainly don’t. So that’s, so you think about how important touch is to helping us feel safe and helping us enter into a recovery state. It literally is the fastest path to unlock our recovery, healing and healing parts of our bodies and vagal nerve, increased vagal nerve tone and help us sleep, which is the core of all of our recovery and, and get good, deep, restful, restorative sleep.

So to make up for this, in an attempt to make up for this deficit in, in safety in our bodies, we thought, well, what if we could create a wearable form of touch that doesn’t substitute for touch, but for all of us who don’t get enough of it, it just gives us a little boost of soothing touch that we can take with us through the day. And so the Apollo Wearable came out of my research at the University of Pittsburgh and the department of psychiatry. And we launched it in January of 2020, that my wife and I worked on together and put out together. And it’s a wearable that delivers soothing vibrations to the body that are sound waves that are a gentle up and down wave rhythm, but that is between five and seven breaths per minute. It naturally helps us get into a state of five to seven breaths per minute, which is restful recovery, meditative breathing, which is ideally the breath rhythm we’re supposed to be at all the time, unless we’re actually running from a lion and or exercising. And that, that rhythm is a rhythm that almost immediately like within as little as three to five minutes increases vagus nerve tone, increases recovery, nervous system activity, and helps us feel calm and safe within our own bodies. And it works really, really well for those of us adults who are stressed out and overwhelmed, and it helped works for sleep and focus in particular. And it works really, really well for kids to help them learn how to self-regulate. And so, and it’s safe for all because it’s, it’s just sound. It’s, it’s literally music that we figured out how to compose for the body using the latest neuroscience and the latest neuroscience discoveries. So that tool is now available as a consumer wellness product. And it, it really, really helps. And we have lots of kids around the country and moms, moms are actually our biggest users, which is really exciting. And, it lots of kids and moms who are using it for improving sleep, improving feelings of control and being centered, helping teach them how to breath, how to self soothe when most of us haven’t learned that as kids when we should have, nobody’s fault, its just often our parents didn’t know and schools didn’t know how to teach us that and they didn’t consider that important back then. And it really just helps retrain us when we haven’t learned how to get there on our own to now get there on our own over time, which is really exciting.

Katie: Well, like I said, I’ll make sure that link is in the show notes. If you guys are listening on the go, that’s all at wellnessmama.com. Dr. Dave it is always a pleasure. I’m so glad we got to finally catch up again. And thank you for sharing so much wisdom today.

Dave: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you so much, Katie.

Katie: And thanks as always to all of you for listening and sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy, and your attention with us today. We’re both so grateful that you did. And I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of the Wellness Mama Podcast.

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

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About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


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