Do scents, sounds, or movements really annoy you? Are you finding it harder to think? Does your brain just get tired?
I attended Dr. Datis Kharrazian’s PhD master class on neuroinflammation a few weeks ago and had planned on writing about how our brain cells get way too overactive and become too sensitive. Then, I got an email where he wrote about the same thing, so I won’t even try. Here it is in its entirety:
The neurons in our brains communicate by discharging small messenger chemicals called neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Each neuron has an energy threshold, defined as the amount of input needed to cause it to act.
When a neuron is at rest (which is not often), it has what is called a resting membrane potential that determines how close it is to threshold, or in other words, how little or how much stimulation will cause it to fire.
If a neuron’s resting membrane potential is far from threshold, a great deal of input is required to make it fire. If it’s close to threshold, it fires much too easily.
Neurons also adhere to the all-or-none principle: They either respond completely or not at all. If a neuron is far from threshold it may never get enough input to fire. For example, the human brain is not stimulated to threshold by the frequency of a dog whistle, so the sound does not stimulate our hearing pathways as it does in a dog.
Trigger Happy Neurons
Unfortunately, many people’s neurons do not get enough oxygen, glucose, or stimulation. This causes them to degenerate and move either too far from or too close to threshold.
Being far from threshold is less common, such as someone who needs to turn the volume ever-higher on their iPod in order to hear music.
What I see most often in my clinic are patients whose neurons are too close to threshold. Any type of stimulation fatigues them, and symptoms of neurodegeneration develop.
One good example is tinnitus, that annoying constant ringing in the ears. Many factors can cause tinnitus, but neurons that are close to threshold are one explanation—the auditory neurons are so easily triggered they process noise that isn’t even there.
How do we deal with this problem? While one might think avoiding the stimulus—in this case, noise—would be the best option, that’s not always true.
For example, some people with tinnitus can bring the neurons back to balance by using a hearing aid. The hearing aid actually acts as a form a normalizing therapy for touchy neurons by gently stimulating and exercising them back to normal reactivity. As they strengthen, the resting membrane potential is no longer close to threshold, and they no longer fire in the absence of sound.
Another example is sensitivity to smells. A patient of mine suffered from incontinence and day-long migraines when she smelled certain scents; simply walking past the perfume counter at the store was a trigger.
Her neurons responsible for processing smell had degenerated and fatigued to the point that any input overwhelmed them and caused them to fire when they shouldn’t.
The solution was simple: I had her buy a kit of essential oils. First she used those she could tolerate to train her brain into smelling them at a closer and closer distance from her body. Once she could tolerate these oils at close range, then she began working on the less tolerable scents and gently re-trained her brain to tolerate them as well.
Resting membrane potential explains why some chronically ill patients are overly sensitive to certain inputs such as strong scents, bright or flashing lights, or loud sounds. It can also explain intolerance to many foods and supplements.
So many of their neurons are so close to threshold that any stimulation at all fatigues them and symptoms of neurodegeneration develop. When the neurons fatigue, so does the body. For many of my patients, getting to the root of brain dysfunction is the key to relieving chronic exhaustion.