We live in a world of threats and triggers. This causes our brains to go haywire, setting off our amygdala in that fight-or-flight response. We then become stressed and anxious, which affects other areas of our lives. How do we retrain our brain to reduce this anxiety? In today’s episode, Whitney Lauritsen is joined by Ashok Gupta of the Gupta Program to discuss how we can navigate through the stressors in life. Ashok dives deep into the brain with Neuroplasticity Brain Retraining and how we can treat illness through neuroplasticity. He also locates the amygdala as it relates to what it does to our unconscious fears and responses. He answers why we have a chronic overload of insomnia and sleep issues, how devices impact our emotions and distract us from processing, and how anxiety, depression, and insomnia correlate with social media. In this world that is in a constant state of stress and busyness, more than ever, we need to learn how to calm down our nervous system. Ashok shows us the value of holistic, integrated medicine. He guides us to move from resistance to meditation, recommending spending time in nature as a number one solution. He talks about the gap of insecurity that exists in our society and how to discern what is soul-enhancing and soul-crushing. Plus, Ashok talks about long COVID immune responses, using Game of Thrones to explain our immune system. Let us cleanse our minds of mental dirt and live according to human nature in terms of human connection. Join this jam-packed episode to train your brain to do that and come back to balance.
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Neuroplasticity Brain Retraining: Reduce Stress, Anxiety, And Sleep Issues With Ashok Gupta
This is one of those episodes in which it’s hard to choose a starting point because I have so many questions for our guest, Ashok. We are going to be talking a lot about neuroplasticity, which is a subject matter I haven’t touched upon often enough. It comes up in some ways with these ideas around chronic illnesses I have touched upon.
Happiness and health are the main topics of this show in general. I have talked a little bit about COVID, which is likely to come up in this conversation because Ashok is a long COVID researcher. Here we are in 2023, there are still things that I don’t understand about that. I would love to learn about that as well.
Chronic illness is something that feels like a bit of a mystery to me. Given that I don’t have a medical background, there’s a lot I don’t understand beyond myself. Even within myself, I have a lot of confusion. I would love to begin with the amygdala, which maybe sounds like a big jump from something a little simpler and more commonly understood like health, happiness, and illness. Amygdala seems to play a huge role in your work, Ashok. I would love to start there for somebody to give them a basic understanding of the amygdala in case they don’t know what it is at all and where it is in the brain.
First of all, thank you for inviting me to your show. It’s an absolute delight to be here. The amygdala, there are two of them. They are essentially brain structures that sit behind the eyes in the limbic system part of the brain. That part of the brain, our limbic system, is generally what we would describe as the more unconscious part of the brain, especially dealing with our protective reactions to our environment, but also our emotional reactions are all stored in the limbic system.
The amygdala specifically is dealing with detecting threats, especially fight or flight responses. In psychology, it was seen as PTSD might be stored in the amygdala and other fear responses and phobias would be stored in the amygdala, but they have realized that the amygdala is also responsible for the pain gateway as well in terms of how we perceive pain and our danger response to pain, and also potentially involved in the immune system as well.
This is fascinating because we as human beings in our modern society have this very reductionist in medicine of, “Go to a hospital. This is the separate immunology department, physiology department, and psychology department,” but the brain doesn’t differentiate between threats or potential triggers. It treats it as one package with one brain structure coordinating all of those different responses, which is why holistic medicine and the idea of integrated medicine is a more powerful concepts in my mind because that’s the way our brains and our bodies work.The brain doesn't differentiate between threats. Click To Tweet
That opens up a lot of questions. This was a perfect way to begin. It makes sense. I will dive into some of the elements I can relate to on a personal level. I have been thinking a lot about fight-or-flight response. I started telling you about my journey with figuring out sleep. I have been wondering based on my symptoms, which are mostly sleepwalking and panic. I often wake up with my heart racing or I wake up thinking a dream was real. It does feel like I’m in this fearful state of trying to run away.
I have literally tried to run away from some dreams and done that through sleepwalking, and it’s the question I keep bringing up to medical professionals. It’s something that I often ask my therapist about. Now, it seems like maybe the amygdala is playing a role in my experience. For somebody who is experiencing fear, whether it’s like me or coming up in different ways, is the amygdala the first place to focus on?
There are many fear centers in the brain, but the amygdala is a centralized point for fear and also for anger responses as well. There’s another area of the brain called the periaqueductal gray, which is further down in the brain. That part of the brain is also linked heavily to the amygdala. Both of those areas are our unconscious reactions to our environment.
The way to think about fear is when we experience a fearful situation or a fearful person that we might be afraid of, or we are anticipating something in the future, what happens is when we experience that, our brains are designed to process that. Through self-reflection and other activities talking it out with somebody, we are able to process our fear response, and that helps the fear then reset itself and come back to a normal state.
Let’s say a fear from our past has not been processed, or we might be experiencing repeated fear for whatever reason. We may be having a very stressful period in our lives, and sometimes it’s not stress. It’s a very busy period. What can happen is those unconscious fears are not being processed. What will happen is the brain will attempt to process our fears at night, which is why in modern society, we have a chronic overload of insomnia, of people not getting enough sleep, and not getting enough deep sleep, which is then causing and contributing to anxiety and depression in the general population.
One of the reasons for that is our devices. Rewind back several years ago, we weren’t spending that time on tablets and phones. In the last several years, we spent a lot of time on our tablets and phones. Whenever we have uncomfortable emotions or we are going through challenges, we use our phones and tablets as a distraction device from processing those emotions. Not only that, when we reach for our devices, those devices themselves do not allow our nervous system to calm down. They engage our nervous system and create more fight-or-flight.
Put on top of that, we know the inevitable comparisons that we make with other people when we are on social media, and it becomes a toxic mix of overstimulation of our nervous system, which then interrupts sleep and plays out at night. I have seen this time and time again. I’m not diagnosing what you have, but I’m describing some of the common things from people who experience insomnia.
I feel like that must be very relatable. Something else I have spoken a lot about is changing my relationship with devices. This 2023, I have made a conscious effort with that. For a while, I was off social media for about 99%. I was only using it on occasion for some work-related things. I decided to integrate LinkedIn specifically. I have been using that a little bit more, and it’s amazing to watch me go back to some old habits. I thought for a few months I’m going to be changed. Social media isn’t going to tempt me at all, but I got lured back into LinkedIn. I wasn’t using LinkedIn that much in the past, but I’m lured back into that social media experience. You are right. The comparison side of it is so strong.
Spending months away from most social media helped me notice it more where I’m able to connect my emotions to some of the things that I’m seeing like the times that I don’t feel so good because somebody is posting about a great event or career-related, which can be a big trigger, like somebody’s success they are sharing. It is hard not to fall into that comparison trap. It’s hard not to struggle with self-worth and self-esteem. Even after this conversation with you, I’m thinking I want to go back to that period of limiting it because it doesn’t seem to be worth the cost of usage.
It’s very open and vulnerable for you to share those thoughts, and that’s exactly what we see at the clinic time and time again, which is that the ultimate fear we all have is that we are not good enough and we are not loved. They call that the fear of rejection and the fear of failure. Those fears are proxies for fear of abandonment.
When we were back in our tribal days and our caveman days, the ultimate fear and survival instinct was to not be abandoned by a tribe because if you are abandoned by a tribe, you cannot survive. Therefore, wanting the tribe to approve of you, love you, not reject you, and for you to feel that you are a worthy contributor to the tribe was very important.
Fast forward to the modern day, suddenly we are not comparing ourselves to 100 people who might live in our tribe. We are comparing ourselves to millionaires, billionaires, and beautiful actresses and models. We are comparing the worst feeling we have inside about ourselves against the best 1% that everyone else is portraying.
That gap becomes what we call the gap of insecurity or fear. That fear, as it starts developing within us, there are little micro-doses of that insecurity that we keep experiencing day after day, which then impact our unconscious. It becomes very subtle. We don’t even notice it. It’s not like someone said you are worthless or you are rubbish. No. These are little micro-events that keep accumulating in the unconscious, which then interrupt our levels of happiness and our levels of sleep.
That’s why we see that over the last several years, if you look at graphs of anxiety, depression, and insomnia, they have all increased at the same time as mass social media became available on phones. It was a direct correlation. That’s why our attitude to social media and the way that we use it and the way we use devices is incredibly important for our health and well-being.
I’d love to touch upon some more of your recommendations for that because it’s hard to get away from social media. I know at least your team is using social media for your business. A lot of people do that, whether it’s themselves directly or somebody working with them. They are using social media to market. That’s something I’m, on a side note, very curious about because we have gotten to this place where social media feels like an important way to either sell something or connect with somebody. “What do we do instead if it’s not there?” That’s been a big question for me. I’m curious for you, how do you find balance? Are you looking for other avenues? What’s also your relationship with social media personally versus professionally?
For us, we have some guidelines that we give to our patients and I live by, which I find very useful. The first thing is this. What is our usage or what is our attitude to social media? Are we using it for something that is soul-enhancing or soul-crushing? What I mean by that is in life, we can use not social media but so many different things around us like our social life and the way that we watch television. Are we using it as a mindless distraction? Are we using it to fill time where it’s a mindless distraction and passive entertainment, and we are using it to compare ourselves to others? If we use it in that way, what we are doing is it is naturally triggering our nervous system and insecurities. Therefore, it can have detrimental effects on our mental health.
However, like life in general, if we are using social media as growth enhancing or soul enhancing where we are looking to learn something specific or we are learning to connect with someone specific, if we have a goal or an outcome in mind, then it’s more life-enhancing because it’s a specific goal. That’s the thing. Is there a specific goal I have that is life-enhancing? Am I using it in a mindless way and therefore all the detrimental effects can then come?
That’s one way of differentiating our usage. Secondly, limiting the time that we spend on social media. There are now even apps out there that automatically lock your social media after 10 or 20 minutes, but those things aren’t going to work because I know people who get those apps and then switch them off because they are addicted.
It’s like a crack addict. If you have got a crack addiction, you are not going to suddenly lock it in a drawer. You are going to unlock the drawer and get it out of the drawer. In the same way, those things that generally I find don’t work, but what works is building that awareness of, “I’m now gone into the mindless state rather than the mindful state around my social media. I don’t want to stop and shut that down.”
That’s also about having to remind us we only do ten minutes of random surfing at any one point in time rather than just it becoming continuous or endless scrolling. Can you put time limits? Can you build that awareness within yourself, and can you make sure that you have other activities in your life that then substitute for passive scrolling?
Speaking of other activities, what I noticed when I deleted the apps from my phone months ago was that in itself was easy. The decision to not use it felt relatively easy because I had that awareness you are mentioning, but what was challenging was the way my brain seemed to react. It felt like I was going through withdrawal.
I remember asking myself, “What do I do now given that social media has given me so many dopamine hits?” You mentioned this. It’s something I would do sometimes mindlessly, but sometimes I was aware I wanted a boost and I wanted the fix. I would go to social media because I knew there was at least a chance it would make me laugh or I would learn something new, which would give me a little boost of satisfaction. I would feel connected, meet someone, or I would get that wonderful high of seeing that I got likes or comments on the content I was posting.
When I removed all of that, the question became, “What do I do instead?” What are some activities that can help people step away and work through that period of withdrawal where it seems like very few things in life, aside from going to the casino, which there’s a direct correlation between how social media is built and things like slot machines? They are designed to be addictive. When you remove the stimulus, what do you do instead?
The first point here is that there doesn’t need to be necessarily a dichotomy. There is a safe way of using social media and using screens which can be life-enhancing. You still get the positive fix without the downside. It doesn’t become a dopamine withdrawal exercise. It becomes something that is moderated and used in a healthy way, but let’s say people do think, “I’m an all-or-nothing person.” Certain addicts in certain ways become teetotal or nothing. It’s not going to work as a halfway house.
What I advise is we start living according to our human nature in terms of more human connection. This is the most important thing. First of all, substituting screen time with people for real-world experiences. That’s enhancing our social life, meeting more people, and doing more activities together. That’s quite obvious.
Secondly, it is looking at our self-growth and self-knowledge through different avenues. Therefore, that’s probably more reading, more self-development, self-improvement workshops, meditation retreats, and all of these things where we are learning but it’s more in a social environment where we feel connected to those around us.
Thirdly, a program of regular meditation. I believe what that does is that balances out some of the more addictive aspects of the brain and makes it less likely that we can become addicted in the future and can balance out dopamine and endorphins. Meditation is a universal tonic as it were for many different aspects of mental health. It is not for everybody but for most people. Things like that can also help, but my number one is communing with nature.Meditation is a universal tonic for mental health. Click To Tweet
Nature has such a healing effect on all of these systems in the brain. This is now where it can get woo-woo, but there’s an energetic aspect to it. We know that people be in a forest, ocean, or being in mountain, their physiology calms down immediately and powerfully. They start feeling happier. Their physiology and immune system get boosted. Therefore, there are vibrational energetic effects that happen when we go into more natural environments is that’s something else that can support us when we are having a cold turkey withdrawal from our screens.
I feel lit up by learning that advice because I did notice that when I cut out social media, I wasn’t truly all or nothing because there was still some usage happening. I suppose I might be in that category of people that does better when it’s a bit more all or nothing because moderation can be tricky for me. It feels simpler, and I wanted it to feel back to basics. What I did with all the extra time I gained back, which was several hours a day, was start reading more. I would agree that reading more filled me with so much fulfillment. It is the learning and the growth I was doing, and reading non-fiction. I started reading fiction, and that felt stimulating for the creativity side. It filled the entertainment gap that social media might have left.
Spending time in nature, I couldn’t agree more. A few years ago, I started visiting more national parks in the United States. That has made a huge difference in my life. I started aiming to take a hike every day. I live in Los Angeles. We are in Southern California. We have a lot of areas to hike, but we still are in a big city. I had to start to be very intentional about going to find nature to be around more trees, dirt, less pavement, and cars.
I couldn’t agree more with some of the things that you said about how much of a difference it’s made in my mental health in a week of doing that consistently and noticing how my anxiety has decreased. My curiosity and connection have increased. I also have opportunities to connect with people a little bit differently because when you are in nature, there’s a different dynamic that happens than when you are out on the sidewalk or on social media where it can feel like everyone’s moving so quickly and it feels a bit more transactional. When we are in nature, there’s a different relationship that we have with ourselves and other people.
Nature is healing. For the vast majority of our evolution, we would be living and communing with nature. The idea of living in a concrete jungle is a very modern concept. Therefore, the mental challenges that then come as a result of that are very modern challenges. I would advise walking in nature. 30 to 40 minutes of walking in nature, forest, beach, or park even work wonders for your mental health far more powerfully than even antidepressants. Also, regular meditation. Getting some physical exercise as well can also be amazing for mental health, and reducing screen time. All of these things can be very powerful.
Would you say that there is a big difference between walking in nature and doing more of a traditional meditation? Would you consider that time in nature a type of meditation?
It’s a type of mindfulness, but I wouldn’t say it’s a substitute for meditation. I see many modern teachers talking about, “We can go and do a walking meditation.” That’s as good as a sitting-down meditation. I acknowledge that as a viewpoint, but it’s not something I agree with. Those are not substitutes and they have different experiences for the brain. Nothing beats sitting down with your eyes closed and training. It’s a training of the mind to be able to not be reactive to your thoughts but observe your thoughts. No other experience can substitute for that.Nothing beats sitting down with your eyes closed and observing your thoughts. Click To Tweet
I love the passion that you have for that perspective. I want to hear more about that because I struggle with sitting down to meditate. I know I can do it. It’s much easier for me in a class setting. For instance, I have been to a lot of meditation classes, and it feels simple for me under the guidance of a teacher to sit down and follow the instructions and go through it, but I have never been able to consistently meditate on my own at home.
This brings up an important thing in going back to awareness. I think a lot of us know what to do or what we can do. We get a lot of advice on health. It makes sense on a logical level, but implementing it can feel like a struggle. It’s not that I don’t have a place to meditate. It’s not that I don’t have the time to meditate. It’s not that I don’t have a plethora of tools that I have either learned or I could pull up on my phone ironically and listen to a meditation track. It’s doing it consistently. That’s tough for me. How does someone like me get into a practice with that resistance?
The first thing here is that often when we say we can’t get into the practice, what we often feel is that, “I need to be meditating and I need to have an experience.” That’s a bit like going to the gym and thinking, “I want to have an experience.” Realize that it’s a training course for the beneficial effects to come. You could be sitting there at home meditating, and it’s supremely uncomfortable.
Your body aches. You have got all these thoughts and emotions coming up and you are sitting there thinking, “I can’t meditate. This is not working. It’s agitating me.” This is because often meditation has been talked about incorrectly in the modern world I find where it’s recognizing that meditation is not about having an empty mind. If you suddenly close your eyes and you have no thoughts, check your pulse. Are you still alive?
Meditation is more about training. It’s training to become an observer. When you close your eyes, you will experience a huge amount of turmoil. Your experience of thoughts, emotions, and distractions. The difference between meditation and normal experience is that, in meditation, you suddenly become aware of it. You are like, “My mind is pretty busy. I’m having another thought,” and accepting all of it.
That might happen during the first few meditations that we do at home by ourselves. Eventually, as we train ourselves to become the observer, we no longer add fuel to the fire. The thoughts are like a fire. The more you have thoughts about the thoughts, the more you fuel the fire. The more you are the silent witness to say, “Lots of thoughts,” that’s fine. Accept all of that.
That fire burns out and you start experiencing some of the glimpses of that stillness. That might take you a week, a day, two weeks, or a month, but it is worth it because it’s training your mind to be the observer and less reactive to your thoughts and emotions. What happens is you start experiencing what some people see as the goals or the outcomes of meditation where it’s more of that still mind.
The reason people experience more of a still mind in a group setting is because there is a group effect of meditation that when you are meditating, you are benefiting from the channel that your neighbor has opened up to that oneness. Rather than you creating that channel yourself, you have got 50 channels in that room and you are all benefiting from that collective meditation. You can recreate that at home with that patience, doing it every day with that patience, even if it feels uncomfortable.
In terms of a habit, it is just saying like brushing my teeth or having a shower. Every day I clean my body of physical dirt, but every day I’m accumulating mental dirt from worries, anticipations, and arguments. That mental dirt is not going anywhere. It’s accumulating until we get anxiety and stress. Instead, let me cleanse it from my mind every day. With meditation, it’s saying that twenty-minute slot each day, I’m going to have a regular slot, and for most people, I find it has to be the morning because once the day starts, it is very difficult to plan it. It is having a morning routine that is sacrosanct, which says, “Whatever happens in my day, this is my thing.”
I call it the hour of power in the morning. We all need the hour of power. The hour of power that I use is I wake up and have a big glass of water that might have some lemon or some cucumber in it. Make it alkaline. I have a big glass of water in the morning, then straight off that glass of water, I will then exercise. I will do my cardio for 20 to 25 minutes. That’s my cardio time.
I then shower and do my process of yoga, breathing, and meditation. If you don’t want to do yoga and breathing, that’s fine. Do a few minutes of deep breathing followed by that sacrosanct twenty-minute meditation. I know that energy-wise, emotion-wise, and happiness-wise sets me up for the day. I believe everyone on our planet can benefit from an hour of power, which is that hour dedicated to our self-care.Everyone on the planet can benefit from an hour of power and self-care. Click To Tweet
Once we get that out of the way in the morning, then we don’t need to think about it for the rest of the day, and it’s already pre-trained our brain to be centered and calm. I would advise everybody to find that twenty-minute slot, which becomes your regular habit. That’s the only way it’s going to happen. Say to yourself, “It doesn’t matter seven days. Five days a week, I’m going to have that twenty minutes of me time and have a trust that, over time, that will have incredibly beneficial effects,” because we are very transactional.
We want benefits straight away. “I’m doing this. What’s the benefit?” With meditation, it is like brushing your teeth. You are not going to notice the benefits straight away, but over time, you are going to have good, healthy, and strong teeth. In the same way, you are going to have a good, healthy, and strong mind with that regularity.
I have heard advice like that before, but there’s something about the way you are saying it that’s hitting home for me. Maybe it’s the stage that I’m at now in my life. That’s an important thing too. It is the context in which we hear things or the readiness that we have. I can apply it to my experiences of taking daily walks and noticing how much that’s impacted me. It hasn’t been nature. The nature side of it is relatively new, but since November 2022, I have been taking daily walks. I started off doing a walk. My beginning stage was I’m going to leave my house and go outside. I would like to walk for 30 minutes because I wanted to get in that minimum amount of movement each day.
I remember the resistance. Outside my door, it’s concrete. There are trees. They are around, but I think of the roads and the sidewalks. I wanted to go walk on a trail, but that felt hard to drive somewhere or plan out where I was going to walk in nature. The beginning stage for me was walking out the door, aiming for 30 minutes, and seeing what happened. Reflect back on how much of a difference that’s made over the past months that I have been doing it is helpful for me thinking about meditation because I can look back and see how I overcame the resistance, how I was able to develop a habit, and how it became a non-negotiable for me over time.
In order to make it a habit, I had to be committed to it in the very beginning. Now it’s very easy for me. I take a walk every day. The way you are phrasing this, the training element of it is helpful because I don’t know if I have ever looked at meditation as training or as similar to exercise. I have been looking at meditation as a bonus or as a nice to have not a must-have.
I would say that it is a must-have in our modern society. With the levels of stress and stimulation that most people have, I don’t know how people survive without it. It’s such a must-have. Therefore, I encourage everybody to develop that regular practice. Sometimes we have to do something and we don’t see the results straight away.Meditation is a must-have for the level of stress and anxiety in your society. Click To Tweet
Often the things that are beneficial for us, it’s the initial discipline but we see the benefits down the line. For most things that are bad for us, we see the benefits straight away. Instant gratification is often something that isn’t necessarily good for the longer term. If we look at it that way, then we make that investment. It’s like you invest in a company. You are not going to see the results straight away, but you know that over time you are going to see those benefits.
That’s useful context, too, because that’s why social media has become so addicting. There’s so much instant gratification. Even though many of us have become aware of how it doesn’t make us feel good, the pull of the gratification is so strong for most of us, myself included, that I can overlook all the downsides over and over again unless I become very conscious of it.
That does seem opposite to meditation, which I think meditation is amazing and I know I feel good, but it’s that long-term habit-building process that makes me think, “I will keep putting it off. Maybe I will only do it when I’m in a class or something.” That’s been my mindset. I feel inspired and very curious now to see what would happen if I did look at it as that must-have and must-do training process and equated it to a lot of the other experiences I have had with health. Speaking of training, I know your specialty is neuroplasticity brain retraining. I’d love to hear more about how you define brain retraining.
We help people with different conditions. Overall, what we have talked about so far is people in the general population, preventative healthcare, and how they can improve their health. We specialize in treating people with chronic conditions or chronic illnesses like long COVID, fibromyalgia, ME and Chronic Fatigue syndrome, and mold illness, these mysterious illnesses that mainstream medicine find very difficult to treat.
We base it upon this idea of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the idea that our brain is very flexible, malleable, and changeable. They thought our brains have this factory setting from our childhood and they are pretty much fixed for the rest of our lives. In the last several years, we realized that the brain is very flexible. It’s constantly rewiring itself. All those neurons can change and therefore this new industry of neuroplasticity. Specifically, we believe that a lot of illnesses are based upon are caused in the brain rather than the physical body.
To give an example of this, I always start with the biggest question of why we are here. We could answer that from a philosophical perspective what we are here for hours and hours, but let’s start from the scientific perspective. We are here because this brain, physiology, and this nervous system have evolved over millions of years from plant life to single-cell organisms, invertebrates, vertebrates, reptiles, mammals, and human beings.
This nervous system and immune system are designed to ensure survival. We are survival machines. We adapt to our environment. Our DNA contains all the survival instincts of all the previous generations of species. Did you know that we share about 40% to 50% of the same DNA as a banana, which I find incredibly fascinating? Our DNA incorporates a lot of the DNA of reptiles and other mammals as well.
As we survival machines, the brain cares more about survival and passing on our genes to the next generation than it does about our health and well-being. Let’s take the example of COVID. Along comes COVID, a very terrible virus. When we contract that virus, most people’s immune system switches on. Their defense system switches on, fights off the virus and the immune system resets back to zero.
In some cases, if our immune system is weak, then what happens is that the immune system gets switched on. Let’s say we have been stressed out or are feeling vulnerable. We know from psycho-neurology that our immune system is lowered when we are stressed out. We are weak and vulnerable, and the virus comes along. Now the immune system switches on to fight it off, but the immune system is less effective because of our stress. That doesn’t have to be emotional stress. It can also be physical stress as well.
Fighting off the COVID-19 infection takes longer than perhaps it would normally. Finally, we fight it off. Imagine it’s left a legacy in the brain. The brain becomes traumatized by that experience. I don’t know if we have fully fought off the virus. Any situations or experiences that are similar to what I experienced whilst I had the virus could indicate that the virus is still here. Every time we re-experience that, let’s re-trigger the immune system and the nervous system.
Now, even though the original virus is fought off, the brain is in this traumatized state where it continues to trigger the immune system and the nervous system, creating the symptoms in our bodies. Most of us don’t realize that the symptoms we experience from an infection don’t come from the actual virus or the bacteria itself.
The vast majority come from our own immune system fighting it off. Our immune system gets overstimulated chronically in the background, which then leads to fatigue and exhaustion, pain, and the ongoing inability to concentrate like a cognitive ability. Memory goes. We then also experience potential physical pain in the body. We have breathing difficulties, anxiety, and depression. All of these come from an immune system and a nervous system that is overreacting and over-defending. I can share with you a little analogy that brings us alive. Are you a Game of Thrones fan by any chance?
I am, indeed.
For those reading, you might be a Game of Thrones fan. If not, let’s take a classic fairytale. Imagine you are Queen Whitney, and you are the queen of your kingdom and your castle. You have generals which are your Army and Navy. Those are your two main defensive systems. Your Army is your nervous system and your Navy is your immune system.
The invading army comes over the hill. That’s the COVID-19 infection. Your kingdom has been under stress because there’s been a drought. There have been less resources available in the kingdom. The Army and Navy are a little weaker. They fight off the invading army coming over the hill. They fight it off valiantly. They fought it off but they only managed to fight it off and took heavy wounding.
They come back to you as the queen and say, “We only managed to fight off the virus. We need all the resources of the kingdom now to make sure the kingdom doesn’t fall. We need the wheat, corn, and iron. We need everything.” All resources now from the body get channeled to the immune system and nervous systems, the Army and Navy.
What they do is become overreactive. Even if a child walks over that hill, they are so traumatized from the war that they start sending off lots of arrows and all the military machines to defend the kingdom, but what all that does is once again use up the resources of the kingdom. There’s no energy left for happiness, playfulness, and all the other things that we want to do in life apart from defending our systems and surviving.
That’s what I believe is happening in a plethora of different conditions like long COVID, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and even pain syndrome. Many people, especially in the US, there’s a whole opioid scandal where people get localized pain syndromes. They are taking opioid medication which is numbing the system, but then the system over-responds, and those pain networks get traumatized. They keep stimulating and therefore people become more and more addicted to their pain medications.
Once again, many pain syndromes are due to this overstimulation and over-defensiveness on the part of the body, even mold illness and food sensitivities. We treat a lot of people with food sensitivities. These are all trained responses. What’s fascinating is that neurological research has pinpointed where this is happening. It’s happening in the insula and the amygdala.
The amygdala we already talked about in terms of defensive responses, but the insula is a small part of the brain that sits between the limbic system and the conscious mind or the cortex. One of the purposes of the insula is to take in incoming physiological data from the body, interpret it, and then create the appropriate response. That includes the immune system.
Neurological research in animals has found that when we have an immune reaction, it gets stored in the insula waiting for the next situation. Even if we are not physically threatened, our immune system can be triggered. They have demonstrated this in animal studies where some animals were given substances that triggered Inflammatory Bowel syndrome in their stomachs or inflammatory bowel disease.
They did that a few times, and what they did was they found the electrical signature in the insula and the rat came back to normal. They then triggered the insula with the same electrical signature. They were able to create inflammatory bowel disease in the guts of these rats, even though there was no external trigger, which was the first demonstration that showed that the insula is where we store our previous immune reactions.
Therefore, by that being retriggered, we may be overstimulating our systems. Brain retraining is where we retrain the amygdala and the insula parts of the brain. The retraining would be the generals coming to Queen Whitney and saying, “We are under threat. We are under attack. What are we going to do?” You then say, “I acknowledge that in the past situation, we were in danger, but now the danger is over. We are safe. There is no incoming army. You can stand out and relax.” That is brain retraining. It’s the prefrontal cortex informing the amygdala and the insula and all other parts of the brain that we are now safe and there’s no further danger. Those systems calm down and reset, and then we get health back to our bodies. That’s how brain retraining works.
You have sold me on it because without knowing this about me, in addition to the sleep challenges I have had and food sensitivities, it has felt like a big battle for me for years. I have gone to countless doctors and done so many tests. I got allergy testing out of curiosity again. I don’t have any allergies aside from dust mites. I don’t have food allergies. I asked the doctor, “Why am I having all these reactions if I’m not allergic to these foods? Why is my body acting as if it doesn’t want them in my body?”
There’s a difference between allergies, intolerances, sensitivities, and all of that, but now I’m looking at it a little bit differently after what you said and very curious because no one’s ever spoken about it that I have heard in that sense. I wonder if it’s all connected. Is there something in my body that feels like it does have to defend so much, whether it’s when I’m sleeping or when I’m eating food? If brain retraining can help address that, I will try it.
It absolutely does. There are two types of what we call over-defending. There can be a generalized over-defending, which is the nervous system and immune system continuously triggered and they can be very specific responses. As an example, one person has hay fever and the other person does not. They share the same DNA. You get this in twin studies. Yet why is one person reacting and the other person isn’t? It’s because the brain has learned an over-defensive response. They learned it out of nowhere.
In 99% of these responses, they are overreactions or over-defensiveness to our environment. If we understand that, we can reset it by training the brain to come back to balance. We have had people use this for food sensitivities, intolerances, and even things like hay fever and mold illness. We are training your brain that those substances are safe.
In your particular case there, what we can also find is that it may not come up on allergy testing or sensitivity testing, but we still feel we are sensitive. What happens there is if we are overstimulating our nervous system continuously in the background as well as our immune system, that shifts the delicate balance of good and bad bacteria in our gut.
It also tightens the gut, which makes us more sensitive to things that are generally sensitive in the population. They tend to be foods like wheat, dairy, sugar, and all the things that we love. When you go to a shop, let’s say a 7-Eleven, 90% of the stuff in that shop is basically dairy, wheat, and sugar reconstituted in different packages. Those three foods are the ones that I believe our guts are the most sensitive to.
What we will find is that when we are generally overstimulated, not only intolerances to that food but potentially intolerances to other foods as well. When we calm the overall system at a general level, our digestion heals and then we are able to digest those foods, but there can be specific foods the brain has learned to be defensive towards. That’s where our brain retraining can support those specific reactions.
You nailed it once again because those are the top three foods I avoid. I haven’t eaten much gluten or wheat in the past years, and dairy on a plant-based diet. It’s been many years. Also, sugar, I’m on a low-carbohydrate diet now and I feel so much better. My food reactions have diminished with that combination, but there are still things there to your point.
It has felt complex. I’m amazed at how most of the doctors I have seen have not known how to address it. I’m curious. Your knowledge seems a bit rare in the medical system, but is that something in the US? Is it because it’s relatively new like you mentioned before? In the past several years, you saw so much development. There’s still a lot of catching up to do in the medical system.
This is a very new area of medicine, and we believe it’s the future that neuroplasticity will be the new growth area and the new way that we treat so many different illnesses. We hope in 5 to 10 years’ time, when you go to your doctor with one of these illnesses, rather than them going through a plethora of tests and doing this and doing that, instead, they will prescribe brain retraining because it will have an evidence base behind it.
The reason that this is new is because medicine relies on measurements. Therefore, it’s all about what we can measure. We can measure physiological reactions in the gut. We can measure enzymes and inflammatory markers. Those are things we can measure. Therefore, we have always assumed that those reactions at the physiological level are where we need to intervene.
The brain has always been this black box. We don’t understand the brain. It’s like the central processing unit of the computer. It’s the little chip in there. To open up that chip and look at all the little capacitors in there is virtually impossible. With modern technology, we are now peering into the brain and going, “There’s a huge amount of activity that’s going on that we don’t understand.”
Now through brain scans and these interventions, we realize a lot of illnesses show very unique signatures in the brain. If we could target those signatures and retrain those signatures, maybe a lot of modern illness has its root in the brain and therefore we could do something about that. Therefore, these new techniques that have been developed, we have been at the forefront of that, and now it’s all about the scientific evidence.
We have been running our clinical studies and finally published one of the first randomized controlled trials that were published a couple of years ago on Fibromyalgia Pain syndrome. It found that after an eight-week intervention, in the control group, there was no impact, but in the Active Gupta Program group, there was a 40% reduction in fibromyalgia scores.
There was a halving of pain, anxiety, and depression and a 50% increase in functional capacity in eight weeks. That’s some objective clinical evidence we already have for fibromyalgia and we are doing further clinical studies for other illnesses as well. As we develop the evidence base, then more doctors will start appreciating this and start prescribing it to their patients.
Already we have a lot of functional and integrative doctors incorporating it as part of their overall package of interventions. This is a relatively new treatment. I’m excited because it’s gaining ground. Neuroplastic is a hot new topic, especially in pain syndromes. Recognizing that the way we have been treating all of these illnesses has not been effective in the past.
I’m curious for somebody who’s reading this and can identify with some of these chronic illnesses, maybe they have them, or a loved one does, or they are curious about this. Maybe they want to learn more about meditation training and want to take the next step. Given that it’s not fully embraced by most doctors and medical professionals yet because it might be early on, if you are like me in finding that the doctors are seeing or are not aware or embracing this, what is the next step, and how do you advocate for yourself? Is it as simple as signing up for the Gupta Program that you offer?
People can come to our website at GuptaProgram.com. There they can sign up for a free trial. What that gives them access to is lots of videos. We have lots of free meditations that people can experience as well. You don’t even need to sign or pay for anything. There are lots of free resources that people can use. If they then find that, “Yes, I do have a chronic illness. Yes, I could benefit from this thing,” then they can join our full Gupta Program. There they will have access to lots of video sessions and audio exercises where all the brain retraining exercises are there, and a very loving and supportive community where we talk about the idea of social learning. You are learning with other people and getting that mutual support. We want to make it easy for people.
Until we get the large-scale phase three medical trials, we offer a one-year money-back guarantee on our treatment. People can go in. They can use it for up to a year. If they notice no benefit, no questions are asked. They can return it and get their money back and use it for something else. That’s how confident we are that people will benefit.
We’d love for people to try this whole new area and also recognize that it’s gaining traction now. A few years ago, our program or similar program, people haven’t heard of it, whereas now it’s becoming more and more mainstream. A lot of doctors are prescribing on the side if they can’t do it formally through their insurance companies.
I would love for people to play with this, practice it, and see the incredible benefits that people can get. What we have had is people with long COVID. Within weeks, people have been able to get 80% to 90% health back. For other people, it’s taken a number of months, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that as long as you are committed to brain retraining, then it can have a massive impact over a short period of time.
I’m curious about being committed because, first of all, I’m very interested in doing it myself. It sounds interesting. Something like this is easy for me to commit to. There’s somebody else in my life who could benefit from this, but that person struggles with commitment. They struggle to sit down and follow a regimen.
For someone on that end of the commitment spectrum, how can they get themselves into this? I mentioned my own resistance, but I’m also somebody who once I see the benefits, once I feel inspired and curious, I will try it and I will give it my best shot and likely fall into a habit, but there seems to be a lot of people who struggle getting started.
They will come up with excuses. They don’t have as much perhaps internal intrinsic motivation and accountability for themselves. You mentioned your community, but perhaps they are maybe used to more traditional medical interventions and they like having a doctor in a doctor’s office tell them what to do. How could they get started with this program? I’m trying to think of a number of people I can recommend it to and encourage along the way. I feel a little bit lost on how to get them to do the things that are going to give them long-term benefits.
The first thing there is good news is we now have an app. Now most of us are so used to using apps. That means that it’s instantly available in your pocket. It’s not like you have got to think, “I need to log onto a website and figure it out.” It’s all there available. All the exercises, I guide people through as well, the meditations and the brain retraining.
You can click a button and you will hear my voice. I take your point that many people need to almost work in a community or a group. Something that we are setting up, which is very new is called Daily Gupta Size. What that is that every day, wherever you are in the world, there’s a Zoom call that you can tune into. One of our instructors or coaches takes you through, first of all, the meditation and healing and then secondly, the brain retraining.
What that means is that if you are not someone who can sit down with a course and start watching the videos, and figure it all out, it doesn’t matter. Someone can hold your hand every day and you have that regularity of brain retraining. We know that a lot of people are going to find that incredibly powerful because it’s not just listening to something, but you can see everybody else. You have got that community and friends now that you are making that community, and you got people supporting you. That’s something that we are going to be starting soon and that will solve that dilemma.
That sounds so wonderful. I appreciate how much intention and also legitimacy you are putting behind all of this through the studies and the psychology of how people work. That has to be part of this because as I have said from the beginning of this episode, there’s a lot of information out there. There’s a lot of advice when it comes to our health, our mental health specifically, but applying it can feel like a big challenge.
I would say to the readers, since I intend on trying this, if anybody wants to have a little bit of accountability with me, maybe we can form our own little group and that can be beneficial too. Is there a loved one in your life that you talk to or see regularly? Can you do it together? I think that can make a world of a difference knowing that you are not alone and maybe that in between before you get connected to a community like yours.
There are lots of ideas for moving forward, and I appreciate the way that you think through all of these things and you talk about them. I feel very inspired and curious. I’m very curious to see if this would work for someone like me. Maybe I can be a testimonial. This is my before. I will give it a try and I will follow up on my after. I’m curious. Lastly, how long do you think it takes to start to see results? If I am going to embark on this sometime soon in early to mid-2023, when could I expect to see some shifts in things like food sensitivities and sleep?
It is so individual. The reason we don’t give a timeline is because then that sets up an expectation in the mind and a person thinks, “I have failed.” Whereas they might have been on the cusp of retraining. Some people notice benefits within literally days. For some people, it takes weeks. Sometimes it takes months. Wherever we are on that scale, it is less about how long it’s going to take because when we have these things, we don’t care when we are going to get well. We just want to get well. It’s more about that continued commitment to doing the retraining. We even say reinspiration, reinspiring ourselves every day to do it because when we have a commitment and we drop it off for a week, then we think, “I failed,” there’s no point doing it, but we say, “No. Reinspire yourself each day.”
It doesn’t matter if you have had a gap. Get back into practice. Train your brain. Any training that you have done in the past still counts and accumulates. We call our program a six-month program in the sense that we want people to commit no matter what happens for a minimum of six months, and some people get better from food sensitivities or COVID within weeks. For others, it will take a few months. Otherwise, some minorities might take 5 or 6 months to see improvements, but it is so worth it to keep going no matter what.
That’s helpful context too. You are right. The timelines can be tough and we do have a tendency in our society to judge ourselves so much and have shame and frustration, and the comparison that we mentioned, but maybe this is an exercise and letting go of all of that and being present at the moment, experiencing those benefits, letting go of that timeline of results, then being able to step back one day and look at all the progress you have made.
I have witnessed that through something as simple as walking every day. I will keep the audience posted on my own journey with your program. I’m very excited. I feel like I have some hope. Thank you for giving me hope that there’s something different that I can try for myself that can improve my life in some significant ways that I have been struggling with for many years.
Get in touch with Ashok now and take the next step for yourself. He’s put together a wonderful team of people to help you and hold your hand to guide you along the way. Thank you so much for being here for me. You have answered some wonderful questions and spoken about it with so much clarity and confidence. That’s been wonderful to know. I appreciate all of your time.
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. It’s been wonderful.
That concludes this episode. Bye for now.
- Ashok Gupta
- Gupta Program
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