Heartbreak is a universal experience, that often touches all areas of our life, including our health and wellness. This week Dr. Arezou Babri ND joins us to discuss the science of heartbreak and the physical impacts it has on our body.
Episode 95: The Heartbreak Hotel
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Welcome to Supplementing Health, a podcast presented by Advanced Orthomolecular Research. We are all about applying evidence based and effective dietary lifestyle and natural health product strategies for your optimal health. In each episode, we will feature very engaging clinicians and experts from the world of functional and naturopathic medicine to help achieve our mission to empower people to lead their best lives naturally.
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[01:10] Dr. Nirat Nibber: Hello everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Supplementing Health. I am your host Dr. Nirat Nibber. Today we have a very exciting guest, someone I know very well, my colleague Dr. Arezou Babri. She is a naturopathic doctor and has well established a podcast called The Sovereign Soul and deals a lot with understanding the connection between mind and body and translating that for the public and her patients. I am very happy to have you here. Welcome Dr. Babri.
[01:45] Dr. Arezou Babri: Thank you Dr. Nibber for having me.
[01:48] Dr. Nirat Nibber: Today we are talking about something that is quite topical especially given that this is the month of love, something that is pretty universal, and that is the science behind heartbreak. Heartbreak in itself is this very universal experience. This is something that you have a unique understanding and take on. What drew you into studying and exploring this topic?
[02:16] Dr. Arezou Babri: Just like you said that is exactly it. It is such a universal and relatable topic and because every single person has experienced some form of heartbreak in their lives, I believe that there can actually be a lot of beauty found in heartbreak in terms of the level of growth that it offers and the deeper level of connection that it allows with others. What really drew my attention to digging deeper into the human experience of heartbreak were two things actually. One being the number of patients that I was seeing in a clinical setting for various other concerns who would always open up about the devastation and level of trauma that they experienced after a breakup, divorce or loss. I was beginning to see the impact it was having on people both emotionally and physically. I wanted to be able to offer these patients a transformative approach to their healing. The second reason was my own personal journey. After experiencing loss myself, I remember the very first thought that I had was that I wanted to heal and be whole because I didn’t want any person in my life including future friendships and people who were already in relationships to meet a broken version of me. Instead, I wanted them to meet the whole version of me. Funny enough, over the years as I continued to explore this healing journey on my own, I realised that the most important person in my life that I wanted to be whole for was actually myself. That is what really got me started on this whole story.
[03:47] Dr. Nirat Nibber: That is amazing. You have touched on some really powerful concepts like the concept of self-love, the concept of healing from trauma, and trauma itself. In your podcast, The Sovereign Soul, you speak so much to this mind body connection instead of parting them out into “the body having its symptoms”, you have helped patients understand that connection. Can you give some insight into what is the mind-body connection for those who aren’t really familiar with the concept?
[04:20] Dr. Arezou Babri: That is an excellent question. Essentially what it means is that our thoughts, feelings and beliefs have a direct impact on our biology. The more we learn about the human body, the more examples that we have of this mind-body connection. We now understand that our brain and physical body are constantly communicating through this bi-directional pathway. Every region of the brain is responsible for different bodily functions. Some examples of this would include the brain stem which supports our breathing, heart rate, our sense of wakefulness and sleep. The limbic system which is commonly known as the emotional brain helps to regulate our behaviour, body temperature, blood sugar regulation, blood pressure and hormone levels and also very importantly the fight or flight response which is really our stress response. Something that I really focus a lot on, and practice, is the gut brain access. This is another really brilliant example of how the microbiota within our digestive tract can significantly impact our mood and mental health. Really more specially related to today’s topic, we now understand that our thoughts can cause physical symptoms within the body. An example of this would be replaying past hurts and traumas which can cause all sorts of physical symptoms, it would be like experiencing the situation all over again in real time. Then the reverse is true as well where our physical symptoms can also impact our mental and emotional health. This is where we see a lot of people who deal with chronic pain who then end up developing depression and anxiety as a result of that pain.
[05:59] Dr. Nirat Nibber: Which is incredibly complex and can almost feel overwhelming because you are connecting so many different systems and so many different feedback responses. Obviously, you spoke to the gut-brain connection being a little more of that key mediator. What specifically is happening in the nervous system when we are experiencing a trauma?
[06:28] Dr. Arezou Babri: Great question. I am actually really happy that you referred to it as trauma. Most people don’t really see it from that perspective. If you were to look up the word trauma, you would find that it includes any situation that causes either physical, emotional or spiritual stress or harm. This can be any event that your body or mind perceives as a stressor. Whenever a stressor arises that we are not adequately equipped to deal with, we experience trauma. It becomes like a scar on the body, and this is why people get flashbacks of certain situations, they have repetitive dreams about scenarios that they have experiences, they develop anxiety and so on and so forth because your subconscious mind is constantly trying to resolve a problem that it feels was left unaddressed.
[07:16] Dr. Arezou Babri: More specifically in the nervous system, heartbreak in particular is actually referred to as stress cardiomyopathy because the stress of heartbreak can cause loss or damage to cardiac muscles. Our brain registers the emotional pain of heartbreak in the same way as it would physical pain. What happens at the level of the nervous system is that when we experience any stressful event such as grief, guilt, anxiety, embarrassment and even shame, the stress response kicks off and we have at the level of the hypothalamus a release of a hormone called corticotrophin releasing hormone which then triggers the posterior pituitary to release adrenal corticotropin hormone which then signals that adrenal cortex to release cortisol and cortisol is what most people are more familiar with. This initiates the fight or flight response and now we see that numerous studies that shown that individuals who are experiencing grief have persistently elevated cortisol levels which can cause physical systems within the heart including a racing heart, high blood pressure, inflammation and even atherosclerosis. Really what that is showing is that chronic repeated stressors which include unresolved trauma or PTSD cause dysregulation in this hypothalamic pituitary adrenal access and we eventually end up with a dysfunction within various organs as well.
[08:43] Dr. Nirat Nibber: I think what you are saying is that every trauma is experienced in that way or is there a grading to the intensity of that trauma or the type of trauma?
[08:55] Dr. Arezou Babri: That is such a good question. Here is the interesting part. Our brain doesn’t know the difference between a real or perceived threat so you can literally think yourself into a stress response. It would definitely go through the exact same mechanism but what I find that people get trapped into is almost like you strengthen those muscles and every stressor that comes about you immediately fall into that stress response without that adequate navigation and being able to pull into your conscious mind and pull yourself out of the situation, if that makes any sense.
[09:28] Dr. Nirat Nibber: Absolutely. I really appreciate that you said that because a lot of times patients are coming in and downplaying an experience as though it is in their head particularly when they are talking about mental and emotional traumas. I think that you just hit the nail on the head that our thoughts and behaviours are all integrated and it impacts every other system. You spoke to the nervous system, and you spoke to how it physically impacts your heart with heartrate. How do hormone endocrine immune function – how does that get impacted?
[10:12] Dr. Arezou Babri: That is such a great question. Cortisol in particular, shifts cellular processes away from long-term metabolic processes and more toward survival and homeostasis. We have a suppression of catabolic and immune function. This is why most people get sick when they are under heightened stress because physical or emotional stress in the body causes inflammation, our body can only focus on one fire at a time and inflammation is quite literally a fire that the body is trying to put out. Through this mechanism, other systems tend to pay the price. A few really relevant examples would be the steroid pathway which is the pathway responsible for all of our sex hormones and how this is impacted by stress is that the bodies demand for cortisol ends up stealing the precursor hormone for progesterone and therefore our progesterone production suffers.
[11:05] Dr. Arezou Babri: This is why we see the link between stress causing irregularity in the female menstrual cycle including heightened PMS symptoms as well. Furthermore, to bring in another system, cortisol can also inhibit the production of thyroid stimulating hormone from the pituitary gland, so this leads to partial suppressant to the main hormone produced by the thyroid gland as well. Really what I see, and I am sure you see a lot, most notably with the stress response is that it is a full body biochemical response through initiating these pathways and we really end up depleting a lot of really essential nutrients that are often used as building blocks for other pathways in the body. What happens is that people end up in this state of depletion and they start to exhibit signs and symptoms of reduced capacity to cope with stress, insomnia, restlessness, fatigue, mood dysregulations, exhaustion, cognitive impairment, headaches, appetite changes. Really what patients are coming in for are these symptoms but maybe not connecting them to the fact that it is this downward spiral effect of a long-undressed stressor.
[12:20] Dr. Nirat Nibber: If this is a whole-body system causing it or that multiple systems are impacting it then I think it stands to reason that to rectify or the heal would also be a whole-body approach? Where do you start with patients? How do you start that healing journey?
[12:41] Dr. Arezou Babri: I love that. It really honestly, after years of practice, I really have learned that it is patient specific and it depends on their readiness for healing. If they are willing to explore other avenues – obviously, when patients usually come in, they are looking for a more naturopathic approach where they want to help weave together a story. When we put that story together for them it could look like a treatment plan where we are implementing lifestyle changes, dietary changes, supplementation to more specifically help with the state of depletion. I think it is very necessary at that stage of the game. Then if they are more so open to it, we can begin to explore the whole mind-body connection so implementing spiritual practices. I really feel that is where a lot of people can take control and charge over their lives because it all comes down to you. You are not really doing anything external; you are changing the chemistry of your body within, and it is completely under your control.
[13:46] Dr. Nirat Nibber: Which is a very empowering moment for patients, when they make that switch and start engaging in some of these practices for that deeper healing. You mentioned supplementation, diet and lifestyle. I imagine that they are going to look very different for every person but when we are specifically talking about heartbreak and heartache, are there specific approaches that you are taking?
[14:20] Dr. Arezou Babri: Yes, that is interesting. Usually, it depends on the presentation of symptoms. I will look to see – what I have noticed overtime is that stress impacts everyone differently. It is almost like people have different organ affinities. For some people it might manifest as a headache. For some people it might manifest as fatigue. I look to see what system is being impacted and finetune the treatment plan in terms of supplementation from that perspective. Then implementing the lifestyle factor, let’s say, for instance, in terms of implementing mind-body connection practices, if someone is really artistic, we might incorporate that into it. If someone feels like they need movement, then we mind incorporate that into it. It doesn’t just look like journaling or meditation for everybody. It is very different and there is such a wide array of therapies that I feel that you could reach for.
[15:13] Dr. Nirat Nibber: That is a great point. We had a podcast earlier when we were discussing certain types of self-care. A big theme that kept coming through was that self-care will look different for everyone and sometimes it does need to be structured and disciplined and sometimes it needs to be about letting go. Often times it is where are you on the spectrum of healing. One aspect of that personalisation and individualisation of healing is as we have talked about the nervous system and how the nervous system is functioning and how it responds. Why do you think more people are susceptible to the extreme physiologic changes? You touched on the fact that some people have different organ propensities but is there a genetic piece? Is there something at our core that makes people react so differently?
[16:12] Dr. Arezou Babri: I love that so much. It is brilliant because I think the answer to that is multifaceted. It really comes down to our emotional resilience, our lifestyles and how we perceive stress. I actually talk about this on one of my episodes on my podcast in that there are a few studies that have shown the negative emotions of people in Western cultures where they show higher levels of pro inflammatory cytokines, including IL-6, because what the studies have concluded is the link between negative emotions and Interleukin 6 was more so specific to Western cultures where negative emotions were perceived as problematic while in eastern cultures negative emotions were more easily accepted so there wasn’t that inflammatory response that was taking place. In my opinion it comes down to how well we take care of both our body and mind and additionally how we perceive the experiences that we go through. I think an important part of all of this is community. Really when we feel the most supported by those around us is when we tend to recover from adversity much more quickly and effectively.
[17:27] Dr. Nirat Nibber: Community. I think that is a really interesting discussion. I want to pivot to another aspect of healing that has been examined more and more in the last 20 years. That is the concept of the endocannabinoid systems. This is often researched in relation to CBD and cannabis use. The system itself as a whole-body system seems to be linked with emotional regulation and has been studied with PTSD. We also see that research with calcitonin in PTSD and results of these alternative therapies coming up. Can you speak more specifically to the endocannabinoid system and what you have learned from the research there?
[18:23] Dr. Arezou Babri: Absolutely. For those who aren’t familiar, essentially the endocannabinoid system is the signalling network that promotes homeostasis in the body. What that means is that the ECS helps to regulate effective communication between cells as well as helping our internal processes remain stable as our environment changes. The main role of the ECS is in resolving inflammation, regulating our immune response and emotional state along with pain regulation as well. With regards to PTSD the ECS regulates neural functions related to trauma and trauma-based memories and repetitive stress exposure reduces the endocannabinoid levels in the brain which can cause a disruption in our ability to stop the stress response. That impacts our adaptive mechanism to stress. It is like a self-regulating harm reduction system, if you will. It can be negatively impacted by poor diet and a lack of exercise. There are a lot of really awesome ways that we can help to support this system. As you were saying there is so much research emerging in this realm because in the grand scheme of things it is pretty new so you can begin to explore supporting this system through exercise, weight management, stress management and then limiting toxin exposure as well.
[19:50] Dr. Nirat Nibber: I like that you said it is this self- regulating system. One of the earlier studies that I was looking at likened it to that first response of setting up a perimeter when there is an accident so holding everything at bay so that you can initiate and start that healing process. You have spoken to the fact that lifestyle factors really impact this system. Are there any specific recommendations of what people can start doing right away to have a robust endocannabinoid response?
[20:30] Dr. Arezou Babri: I would say out of the things that I mentioned, I am really personally drawn to exercise myself because of the massive impact that it has on my overall mental health. I think that if you begin to establish healthy coping mechanisms that is a really fantastic way to strengthen that muscle, so your natural predisposition is to fall into that state of comfort and that helps to support other systems in the body that are really trying their best. I really liked that analogy that you used. They are trying their best to work for us and not against us. In helping support the bodies in the way that we can I think would be optimal. I would focus on stress management through establishing practices that are a part of your day-to-day life so that when a stressor does arise you are not meeting it for the first time. You have established the foundation effectively enough that it is like second nature, you know exactly what to do with it.
[21:32] Dr. Nirat Nibber: I love that. It is training. We often talk about physical training but that mental training for exposure – I think what gets forgotten is that a lot of our responses for stressors or trauma is protective. Someone once talked about thanking your body for having that response and moving past it especially when it is not the response that you need at that time, or it is making things worse. It is often there to help.
[22:07] Dr. Arezou Babri: I think you nailed it. I feel like the more I learned in terms of the biochemistry of the body the more appreciative I was of the body. Sometimes I’m like “oh my gosh, there are so many cells that are working so hard to keep me alive.” Sometimes I put my hands on my heart and I am like “thank you for beating.” It blows my mind because it is such a beautiful mechanism that is quite literally trying to keep you alive. All you have to do is give it the love and support that it needs but that looks very different for everyone.
[22:43] Dr. Nirat Nibber: I think that is a beautiful note to end on. Thank you so much. I think this is very illuminating and hopefully a helpful insight for anyone who may be dealing with heartbreak or dealt with heartbreak in the past and is looking for tools to move past it. Where can our listeners find you?
[23:04] Dr. Arezou Babri: Through social media would be the easiest. There is my website, www.armaitiwellness.com. If you guys want to reach out, I am pretty decent at responding to whoever reaches out. Yeah, social media or my website would probably be the best way.
[23:28] Dr. Nirat Nibber: And of course, people listen to The Sovereign Soul podcast which you can get on any of the podcast platforms. Thank you again so much Dr. Babri. This has been an absolute joy.
[23:40] Dr. Arezou Babri: Thank you Dr. Nibber for having me.
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