How PTSD changes the brain to cause symptoms

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It’s not uncommon for many people, even doctors, to brush off PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a make-believe disorder. But it’s far from the fabricated psychological complaint some make it out to be. Researchers have used brain imaging to discover PTSD causes identifiable changes to the brain.

Though war veterans garner the most attention for PTSD, the disorder also affects those who have suffered childhood abuse, sexual assault, near death experiences, attack, witnessing violence, and other forms of trauma. In fact, more women than men suffer from PTSD.

PTSD causes a wide range of symptoms that are both emotional and physical in nature. It affects the ability of people to develop healthy relationships, grow in life, and meet their needs. People with PTSD often feel drained from constantly having to cope with ongoing and easily triggered fear responses.

PTSD brains structurally different

It’s not an unwillingness to change that anchors PTSD, but rather structural brain changes. PTSD shrinks some areas of the brain while enlarging another, all in a circuitry that keeps the person in a state of constant fear and hyper arousal.

For instance, brain scans show PTSD sufferers have reduced volume in the hippocampus, the area of the brain on either side of the head responsible for learning and memory.

This causes sufferers to have difficulty distinguishing between past and present memories and experience extreme stress in an environment that resembles that of the original trauma.

Another area that shrinks is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in the inner frontal area of the brain. This area regulates negative emotions in response to stimuli. This explains why PTSD sufferers respond with extreme fear and anxiety to stimuli related to the original trauma.

In the meantime, an area of the brain called the amygdala increases in size and becomes hyperactive with PTSD. The amygdala is in the center of the brain and involved with fear responses. This causes anxiety, extreme stress, and panic in response to stimuli associated with their traumas.

These three areas of the brain form a circuit that, in a healthy brain, is able to respond appropriately to various situations. However, in PTSD, the compromised function of the hippocampus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex fails to adequately dampen an over active amygdala.

The result? A brain that is easily startled and triggered into an over reactive fear response.

Rehabilitating PTSD with functional neurology

Now you can see why PTSD makes a person feel out of control when it comes to fear, turning the nervous system into a prison of almost unending stress that affects almost every aspect of life.

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

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

Your gut bacteria can play a role in anxiety and PTSD

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New research has found a link between gut bacteria and anxiety — the diversity and quantity of your gut bacteria can affect your anxiety levels. Scientists believe this could play a role in treating PTSD, or post-traumatic stress syndrome.

In the study, researchers subjected mice to stressful conditions until they showed signs of anxiety and stress: shaking, diminished appetite, and reduced social interaction. Fecal samples showed the stressed mice had less diversity of gut bacteria than calmer mice who had not been subjected to stress.

When they fed the stressed mice the same live bacteria found in the guts of the calm mice, the stressed mice immediately began to calm down. Their stress levels continued to drop in the following weeks.

Brain scans also showed the improved gut flora produced changes in brain chemistry that promotes relaxation.

These biomarkers, according to researchers, can indicate whether someone is suffering from PTSD or is at a higher risk of developing it. Improving gut microflora diversity may play a role in treatment and prevention.

The role of healthy gut bacteria in the military

Because about 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from PTSD, the military is interested in the potential of influencing gut bacteria to manage and predict the risk of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Enhancing gut microflora may also help submarine crews who go for long periods in confined spaces and with no daylight.

How to improve the health of your gut bacteria for anxiety, PTSD, depression, obesity, eating disorders

The quality and diversity of gut bacteria, or the “gut microbiome,” has been linked to not only anxiety, but also depression, obesity, eating disorders, autism, irritable bowel syndrome, and many other common disorders.

In other words, if you want to improve your health, you need to tend to your inner garden and make it richly diverse and bountiful. Although we’re still a ways off from a magic-bullet approach, there are many ways you can enrich the environment of your gut microbiome:

Cut out foods that kill good bacteria and promote harmful bacteria: Sugars, processed foods, processed carbohydrates, alcohol and energy drinks, fast foods, food additives, and other unhealthy staples of the standard American diet.

Eat tons of fiber-rich plants, which good bacteria love: All vegetables but especially artichokes, peas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, as well as fruits. Either way, eat a large diversity of veggies on a regular basis instead of the same thing every day.

Use probiotics: Live, “friendly” bacteria that bolster your gut’s population of healthy microbes. Read the label to make sure they are high in live bacteria. Dietary fiber nourish these friendly probiotic bacteria. This combination of pre- and probiotic support is vital for healthy gut bacteria.

Eat fermented foods: Sauerkraut, kimchee, kombucha, and yogurt contain live microbes, and can also help boost the probiotic content of your digestive tract. Not all fermented foods have live cultures so make sure to read the labels.

Protect your existing gut flora: Medications, age, health status, and stress influence your gut microbiome. Eating a fiber-strong, gut-friendly diet and supplementing with probiotics and fermented foods is one of your best strategies for supporting gut health, a healthy mood, and stress resiliency.