Your brain is such a complex and fascinating organ. It controls all your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. One particular part of the brain has gained a lot of attention in recent years, especially for folks dealing with health issues. I’m talking about your limbic system.

Your limbic system is responsible for regulating your emotional responses. This is fascinating in itself. What’s more interesting though, is that you can retrain your limbic system. Yep, you can retrain your brain!

Limbic retraining is a powerful technique that helps to rewire neural pathways in your brain to ‘unlearn’ and overcome chronic pain, fatigue, anxiety, and other chronic emotional or physical health complaints. This powerful strategy can play a critical role in your recovery, creating lasting improvements in your overall health.

If that sounds good, keep on reading. We will explore the science behind the limbic system and limbic retraining. I will offer some simple and actionable techniques to improve limbic system health and achieve greater health and happiness. Let’s get started.

 

brain scans

What Is the Limbic System

Your limbic system is a group of structures in your brain that control various bodily and brain functions, behavior, and emotions. It is found on both sides of the thalamus, which is a part of your forebrain. You may think of the thalamus as a processing center. It helps to transmit information to the cerebral cortex, which is the largest part of your brain and also an information hub responsible for your higher-level processes, including decision-making, reasoning, intelligence, memory, language, personality, and emotion.  The limbic system translates emotional experiences into memory.  This is a critical function of the limbic system and the main reason we need to “re-train” it.

Your limbic system can also affect your endocrine system, which is essential for hormonal health. It impacts your autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the “automatic” functions in the body, such as your heart rate, circadian rhythm, breathing, sleep cycle, thirst, digestion, and hunger. Disruption of the limbic system can impact your memory, emotions, and physical health, including sensitivities and pain (1, 2, 3).

 

Parts of the Limbic System

Your limbic system has several parts, including (1, 2, 3):

  • Amygdala: Your amygdala is a pair of almond-shaped neural structures found on both sides of your brain’s temporal lobes. It is responsible for long-term memory, emotion, food intake, and controlling fear response, anger, aggression, and anxiety.
  • Hippocampus: Your hippocampus looks like a seahorse. It, too, comprises a pair of structures found on the two sides of your brain. It’s responsible for long-term memory, including spatial memory and spatial reasoning.
  • Hypothalamus: The hypothalamus is another small structure also shaped like an almond. It is found in the diencephalon region of your forebrain between the thalamus and brainstem. It connects the brain and the spine. It’s important for sensory information, such as smell and taste, hormone production, and regulating sleep, internal heat, hunger, blood pressure, and other functions.
  • Basal ganglia: The basal ganglia are a group of nuclei found on the two sides of the thalamus. They are responsible for autonomic functions, including eye movement, pleasure responses, and internal reward.
  • Cingulate gyrus: The cingulate gyrus is a part of the cingular cortex of your brain, and it wraps around the corpus callosum. It helps to process emotions and decisions related to behavior and communication. The corpus callosum enables information to be transferred back and forth from one side of the brain to the other.
  • Fornix: The fornix is a bundle of nerves. It helps to transport memory-forming neurotransmitters supporting memory.
  • Dentate gyrus: The dentate gyrus is part of the hippocampal formation. It’s critical for memory formation.
  • Parahippocampal gyrus: The parahippocampal gyrus is a gray matter cortical region surrounding the hippocampus. It helps the formation and retrieval of memories through sensory information.

 

Functions of the Limbic System

Functions of the limbic system may include (1, 2, 3):

  • Emotional responses
  • Memory
  • Response to sensory information
  • Sleep and dreams
  • Appetite and eating behaviors
  • Social cognition
  • Motivation
  • Addiction

 

Limbic System

Problems Related to Limbic System Dysfunction

Limbic system dysfunction may affect your body in various ways. It may lead to or worsen the symptoms of chronic physical and mental health issues, including but not limited to the following (1, 2, 3):

  • Anxiety
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Other mental health issues
  • Chemical sensitivities
  • Electric hypersensitivity syndrome (EHS)
  • Food sensitivities
  • Chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS)
  • Mold illness
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Migraines and headaches
  • Dysautonomias
  • Chronic pain
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and chronic digestive symptoms
  • Adrenal fatigue
  • Limbic encephalitis
  • Seizures
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Korsakoff’s psychosis

 

woman with limbic system dysfunction

Causes of Limbic System Dysfunction

There are a variety of issues that may disrupt the normal functioning of the limbic system leading to limbic system dysfunction. These factors can keep your body in a continuous emergency state on high alert, compromise your immune system, detoxification pathways, and other regulatory systems in your body. Staying on such high alert increases the risk of infections, illness, chronic pain, chronic health issues, and mental health issues.

Potential causes of limbic system dysfunction includes:

  • Chronic stress
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Viral, bacterial, or fungal infections
  • Physical, psychological, or emotional trauma
  • Chemical exposure
  • Mold toxicity
  • EMF exposure
  • Immune system dysfunction

 

What Is Neuroplasticity

The main idea behind limbic system retraining is neuroplasticity (4). The term neuroplasticity comes from the words neuro and plasticity. Neuro is short for neurons, which are nerve cells that serve as building blocks of your brain and nervous system. Plasticity refers to the ability to change. Neuroplasticity refers to your brain’s ability to change, adapt, and form new neural pathways throughout your life as a result of various experiences.

Your brain can change, reorganize, and grow neural networks. These changes may include structural changes from learning and functional changes due to damage or repair. These changes allow your emotions, behaviors, pain levels, experiences, and overall health to change.

Limbic system retraining uses the principles of neuroplasticity to retrain your nerve cells and create new neuropathways. For example, your body may be used to reacting to a certain food or chemical with skin rashes, tummy aches, headaches, or other physical symptoms. Limbic system retraining aims to show that you are safe and create new neuropathways to react to these triggers differently.

 

yoga class

How to Retrain Your Limbic System

How can you retrain your limbic system for better physical and emotional health? Here is what I recommend:

Reduce Stress

Chronic stress can increase inflammation and have a negative impact on your brain and mental health (5). Reducing your stress levels and learning how to manage stress better may help to reduce inflammation, decrease anxiety, and improve brain and mental health. I recommend practicing meditation, breathwork, guided relaxation, visualization, and gratitude. Journaling, reading, arts and crafts, time in nature, moving your body, and listening to music can also help to reduce stress and uplift your mood.  Remember you may not be in control of your external environment, but you ARE in control of your responses to things.  It is hard to change your responses to stressors, but it is an essential part of the healing journey,

Improve Your Sleep

Daily restorative sleep is essential for brain health. It may help to reduce brain inflammation and support brain health. Poor sleep may lead to poor attention, reduced problem-solving skills, memory issues, low mood, and stress (6, 7). I recommend getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep at night, especially if you are healing with chronic issues.  Avoid stress, heavy foods, and electronic use before going to bed, and support your sleep with a supportive mattress, comfortable bedding, blackout curtains, or a sleep mask.  Consider blue blocker lights and glasses, too!

Move Your Body

Moving your body and regular exercise can increase blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain. It may support new brain cell growth and neural connections. Exercise may help to improve brain and mental health and reduce the risk of neurodegeneration (8, 9). I recommend moving your body throughout the day and exercising 5 days a week.  Be sure to make any evening exercise gentle, like restorative yoga!

Laugh More

Laughter is the best medicine, according to an old saying. Laughter may also help to reduce stress, stimulate positive feelings, support the release of endorphins, improve anxiety, create a feeling of safety, and boost your energy (10). Seek out social situations that bring you joy and laughter. Try laughter yoga. Watch a funny video or a comedy. Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself.

Support the Release of Endorphins

Laughter is a great way to release endorphins, but there are also other options. Dancing, hiking, power walking, other forms of exercise, getting a massage, having sex (yep! ;-)), eating healthy food, meditation, taking a bath, playing or listening to music, singing, and acupuncture are some great ideas to try. Endorphins help to improve your mood, decrease stress, and lower pain (11).

Notice, Trust, and Be Present

When you feel stressed or threatened and notice a fight-or-flight-or-freeze response in your body, just simply notice what’s going on. Be aware of your emotions and your body’s reactions. Don’t judge. Don’t run away from your emotions, either. Just notice and acknowledge what’s happening. Interrupt your stressed-out or anxious brain by telling yourself that you trust that things will work out. Tell yourself you are safe. Turn to your breath. Inhale and exhale deeply and slowly while staying present in the moment (12).

Get Into Flow

A ‘flow’ state is when time stops. You are fully immersed in whatever you are doing. You are fully present and joyful. Getting into a ‘flow’ state can help to increase positive feelings, boost mood, reduce stress, and increase well-being (13). Have you ever had that experience when you lose track of time doing something that you love?  That’s flow!  Getting into this state differs for each of us. Some options include meditation, walking in nature, running or other kinds of exercise, writing, arts and crafts, coloring, playing music, other creative activities, and reading are great options.  Do something that captivates you and you will find yourself in the flow in no time!

Positive Healing Affirmations

Using positive affirmations related to healing, physical health, and mental health can be incredibly helpful (14). Speak in the present tense. “I’m okay.”, “I’m feeling better every day.”, “I’m healing.”, “I’m overcoming.”, “I’m strong.”, “I feel energized.”, and “I’m safe.” are all great affirmations to try. Notice how positive they are.  Be sure to avoid any negative language in your affirmations.  Rather than saying, “I am not in pain.”  say instead, “I am healing and my body is functioning well.”  Get creative. Come up with your own and choose what speaks to you.  YOu may need more than one!   Repeat these throughout the day.

Activate Your Vagus Nerve

Your vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your entire autonomic nervous system, running from your brain stem, through your neck and chest, to your abdomen. Stimulating your vagus nerve can help to reduce stress, increase a feeling of safety, boost mental health, and improve physical health (15). In this article, you can learn more about the vagus nerve and my tips for stimulating your vagus nerve.

Reduce Toxin Exposure

Environmental toxins can increase chronic inflammation, chronic symptoms, and chronic health issues. They can seriously impact your brain and mental health and increase the risk of memory issues, trouble focusing, fatigue, brain fog, depression, anxiety, and more (16, 17). I recommend reducing your exposure to environmental toxins. Use a high-quality HEPA air filtration system indoors. Choose purified water over tap. Use natural, organic, and homemade cleaning, personal hygiene, and beauty products over conventional ones. Reduce the use of plastics. Stop smoking (or don’t start!).

Address Chronic Infections and Mold Illness

Since your gut and brain are closely connected, chronic gut infections, such as Candida and other fungi, parasites, including protozoa and worms, viruses, and bacteria, including small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), can impact your brain and mental health (18). Chronic viral infections, such as the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), varicella zoster, or long haul syndrome, as well as mold illness, can also increase chronic inflammation and impact your brain and overall health  (19, 20, 21, 22, 23). Testing for and addressing underlying chronic infections and mold toxicity with the help of a functional medicine practitioner can be critical for your limbic system health here.

Support Your Brain Health Through Nutrition and Supplementation

You are what you eat. It sounds like a cliche, but your nutrition impacts your physical and emotional health. Following an anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense, whole foods diet full of greens, vegetables, herbs, spices, sprouts, fruits, and organic animal protein may help to support your nervous system, thus your vagus nerve (24). You may also benefit from supplementation. Vitamin B12, other B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids are all important for stress relief and neurological, brain, and mental health (25, 26, 27, 28, 29). Since your vagus nerve, brain, and gut are closely connected, you may also benefit from taking a daily probiotic supplement (30).

Try a Limbic Retraining Program

There are a number of neuroplasticity-based therapies that help to rewire your brain and retrain your limbic system. These programs aim to help you to reprogram your unconscious stress response, get out of fight-or-flight mode, reduce stress, create safety, and  improve overall health. Some popular retraining programs are the Gupta Amygdala Retraining™ Program (ART), Dynamic Neural Retraining System™ (DNRS™),  , ANS REWIRE recovery program, Buteyko Breathing Method, and Lumosity Brain Game. Other possible options that may help include the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or tapping, Brain Tap, Heart Tap, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), somatic therapies, and psychodynamic therapy. You may also benefit from working with a therapist or counselor trained in limbic retraining and polyvagal therapy (31, 32, 33, 34, 35).

 

spring flowers

Next Steps

If you want to improve your health, I welcome you to schedule a functional nutrition consultation with my nutritionist, Sarah. Visit our store for products.

And stay tuned for more information to help you uncover the root cause of your health issues, improve your nutrition, repair your body, and regain your health naturally.

You can schedule your consultation for nutrition support with Sarah here. The Spring Center is now open — we are accepting new patients. If you are ready for your healing journey in partnership with me and my amazing team, please visit our website to learn more  here.