In this episode, we discuss:
- How Annie’s health journey inspired her to start DNRS
- The limbic system and neuroplasticity
- What causes limbic system impairment
- How to tell if you have a limbic system impairment
- How DNRS works
- Retraining your brain with the acronym IMAGINE
- The difference between DNRS, psychotherapy, and mindfulness
- How you can try DNRS
- Dynamic Neural Retraining System
- DNRS self-assessment questionnaire
- Wired for Healing: Remapping the Brain to Recover from Chronic and Mysterious Illnesses, by Annie Hopper
Hey, everybody, it’s Chris Kresser. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week I’m really excited to welcome Annie Hopper as a guest. She is the creator of the Dynamic Neural Retraining System, a top-down, self-directed neuroplasticity-based approach to rewiring chronic illness disease patterns in the brain.
DNRS, the Dynamic Neural Retraining System, is something that I’m using increasingly with my patients in the clinic, with remarkable results in many cases. And I’ve talked about neuroplasticity and some of the other underlying scientific concepts behind this system on the show recently. And I think you’re really going to enjoy learning about this new approach to addressing certain chronic conditions. So without further ado, let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Annie, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much for joining us.
Annie Hopper: Thank you so much for your invitation, Chris. It’s a pleasure to be here.
How Annie’s Health Journey Inspired Her to Start DNRS
Chris Kresser: So I always like to start with the backstory. So many of the guests that I interview on the show have their own journey and their own reason for ending up where they are. They’ve been on their own health journey, and I would include myself in that group. And I know from reading your book and just knowing a little bit about your story that you came to your interest in neuroplasticity and the development of the Dynamic Neural Retraining System through your own health journey. So tell us how that all got started.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, sure, Chris. So just like so many other people, I have my own health journey, and that’s exactly why I got into this business, just because I was sick and looking for answers. So at the time when the illness started, I was working in Kelowna, British Columbia, as a core belief counselor, and I also was the author of a newspaper column called “Emotional Rescue” that I wrote weekly.
And I was known as an expert in emotional wellness and was interviewed on the radio quite a bit at the time. And I was working one on one with people and also facilitating group workshops about personal development, development, and so forth. And unfortunately, I moved into an office where my office actually shared a wall with the janitor supply room where they held all the really harsh industrial chemical cleaners for the office. And the building actually had mold in it too, so I was completely unaware that I was being exposed to really heavy-duty chemicals on a daily basis and mold.
And even prior to working in this office about six months earlier, I was in a motor vehicle accident that left me with a form of cervical whiplash that looked like, almost mimicked symptoms like Parkinson’s, with this neurological shake in my neck. So anyway, slowly, while I was working in that building for about five months, I started to develop symptoms of chronic joint and muscle pain and insomnia and anxiety. And one thing that I noticed was I was increasingly becoming sensitive to chemicals in my environment and in particular anything that had a scent to it, so, including people’s everyday personal hygiene products, any kind of perfumes or colognes or laundry detergent or fabric softener or cleaning agents that people would use to clean their homes. And it didn’t dawn on me that my sense of smell was changing. I just thought that everything else was changing. And my favorite saying used to be, “That stinks. Can’t you smell that?”
Chris Kresser: Right.
Annie Hopper: I’m, like, I could not believe that other people could not smell the same thing that I was smelling, because perfume no longer smelled like perfume. It smelled like some kind of toxic bug spray, and it felt like I was being poisoned by things in my environment. And it just, yeah, it just felt like science fiction. And so, yeah, so my sensitivity started to increase. I got more and more symptoms.
And as it got to the point with chemical sensitivities that if someone was doing their laundry and they happened to have laundry exhaust floating by in the air and I walked by that, I would go into convulsions. Or if someone walked by with perfume, same thing. And it would take me days and days to recover. So navigating my world became just really difficult. So, I ended up isolating a lot because of that because I could no longer go out into public. And if I did, I had to wear a mask and I had to be really careful about exposures. And on top of that I had a chronic pain condition, and at the very end, towards the end of this illness journey, I also developed electric hypersensitivity syndrome, which meant that, you know what that means, I became sensitive to everything—wireless, cell phones, electronics, everything. So it meant that I could no longer even talk on the phone.
It was just, yeah, just science fiction-like. So you can imagine during this course of illness that I had gone to see a lot of different specialists. And although some of the treatments, both allopathic and alternative, and although some of the treatment seemed to help temporarily, nothing was really lasting for me. And I would always kind of go back to that ground zero starting point again. And unfortunately the illness just progressed and got worse instead of getting better.
So what I recognized for me, and even when I was developing this heightened sense of awareness for my sense of smell, it dawned on me that there was something wrong with the way that my brain was filtering information. And so I started to research the brain. So that’s where we’ll start, is just kind of looking at the past and what actually happened during the course of the illness. And it got so bad to the point when I developed electromagnetic sensitivities that I actually became homeless. And not because I didn’t have any money, but simply because my body, my brain were reacting—
Chris Kresser: No safe place.
Annie Hopper: There was no safe place. According to my brain, literally, there was no safe place. So, yeah, I ended up camping and living on a broken-down houseboat, and life became really interesting. Yeah, so, that’s kind of the backstory.
The Limbic System and Neuroplasticity
Chris Kresser: Yeah, and I’m curious what led you to the insight that this might’ve been a brain filtering problem rather than strictly an environmental problem? Because that’s not necessarily, that was not the dominant paradigm view, certainly within the community of multiple chemical sensitivity and EHS. So do you have a sense of what led you down that path?
Annie Hopper: Yeah, well, I think it was just really a process of deductive reasoning. If it’s not a detox problem or it’s not this problem, then what else could it be? And it made sense to me that my brain just wasn’t processing information properly. Because I thought, well, how come somebody else can walk down the laundry detergent aisle of the grocery store and not go into convulsions?
Chris Kresser: Right.
Annie Hopper: There’s obviously something really wrong with my nervous system or the way that my brain is interpreting sensory information. Plus my senses had changed. They had completely heightened. So I was looking at, I started to research what made sense to me is to research the area of the brain that’s responsible for sense of smell. And that’s what led me to the limbic system.
And also looking at, I was looking for what was the common denominator in all of these illnesses because it seemed to me that even though they’re expressing in multitudes of different ways—and yes, environmental factors were a part of that and could have caused the initial injury—it seemed to me that my brain just wasn’t functioning properly. Not only sensory perception was distorted, but also my ability to think, and cognitively I was very, very impaired and communication was really difficult.
Stringing a sentence together was really difficult. And I thought so, it’s more than just an environmental issue. It’s a brain issue. It’s a cognitive issue, it’s a central nervous system issue. There’s something at the root of this that is causing so many symptoms on many different levels, whether that’s neurological, endocrine, immune system, gut issues. So I was looking at research that had already been done on the brain in a lot of overlapping conditions like chronic fatigue, like fibromyalgia, like chemical sensitivities, like depression. And I found that the common denominator was this over-firing of threat mechanisms in the limbic system.
So when I started to look at, “Oh, okay, hang on a second, this makes sense,” that I also started to study the latest researchers in neuroplasticity. And I came across a book called The Brain That Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge.
Chris Kresser: Norman Doidge, yes.
Annie Hopper: Yeah. I’ve talked to him a number of times since then, and anyway, he was researching the latest neuroplasticians of our time and looking at all of these so-called other incurable illnesses and how they were being, how people were recovering through this new tool with neuroplasticity. And really, neuroplasticity simply means the brain’s ability to change.
So it was in reading one of the chapters of The Brain That Changes Itself, and Dr. Norman Doidge was talking about Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, who is the guru of OCD. And he was talking about why, what happens in the brain with OCD. And there’s a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus, and when that gets stuck, it leaves people with this feeling of contamination. And they can’t actually move from one thought to the next. And he was describing how he would get people to do these self-directed exercises and give them brain scans when they came in and then give them exercises to do and do the brain scans afterwards. And how he noticed that the brain was actually changing structure and function through self-directed neuroplasticity.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, amazing insight.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, yeah. So—
Chris Kresser: Go ahead, please.
Annie Hopper: Sorry about that. But even though I didn’t have OCD, I felt like there’s something wrong with my brain. It just feels like it’s stuck. And I recognize that a lot of my thought processes, emotional processes, behavioral processes, and my body’s reaction was all about survival. That I just kind of surmised that this flight, fight, or freeze mechanism in my brain was stuck. So my thought was, well, if this part of the brain is stuck, what if we get it unstuck? And would that resolve symptoms of illness when we get that unstuck. So it was a good question to pose, and that’s how it started.
Chris Kresser: Right. So this is the double-edged sword of neuroplasticity where we … the insight, which is our life experience can change the structure and function of our brain as adults, which was a new idea. That’s, I think Dr. Doidge refers to it as the greatest shift in our understanding of the brain in the last 300 years. I’ve heard him make that comment.
So on the one hand, the structure and function of our brain can change in ways that don’t serve us, as it was the case for you. And being in that office, exposed to mold and toxic chemicals. But the upside of neuroplasticity is that we can, through various top-down and bottom-up techniques that we’ll talk more about later, changed the structure and function of our brain in more positive ways.
What Causes Limbic System Impairment
Annie Hopper: Absolutely. And yeah, I just wanted to go back to something, Chris. Anything can cause limbic system impairment. When you think of forms or different forms of trauma, so whether that’s viral or bacterial or chemical exposure or mold exposure or emotional stress or psychological stress or excessive EMF exposure, it could be a number of those things that actually culminate together to create the perfect storm to create limbic system impairment.
Chris Kresser: And this is also, goes in along with more updated understanding of trauma. I think historically trauma was understood as limited to kind of an extreme event that could cause like a PTSD-level type of syndrome. But of course, it’s not black or white. There’s this whole spectrum of trauma. And nowadays in the scientific literature, I certainly see a much broader understanding of trauma and the various traumas that we all experience and how they can accumulate in ways that you describe to change the function of the brain.
So one of the things, Annie, that I want to kind of clear up right off the bat is the difference between what you’re talking about, we’re talking about here, and the idea of psychosomatic illness that is just where the patient is just kind of imagining what’s going on. Because of course this was used for so many years to diminish and in some ways belittle people who had conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and IBS and fibromyalgia and electric hypersensitivity. But what you’re talking about is very much not that.
So let’s, if we could make, clarify that for some folks. Because I think there’s often some confusion when some people first hear about neuroplasticity and these ideas.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, that’s a really good question. And this is not a psychological illness at all. And two points about that. It’s not a psychological illness and it’s not the patient’s fault. They didn’t do anything to create this illness. It’s not their thoughts or their feelings that are creating the illness. There has been a real brain trauma.
So we know that mold, for instance, mold can be extremely toxic. And we have all kinds of brain research out there that shows how it affects the brain and how that injury, that absolute injury can affect the structure and function of the brain. So we know that the illnesses are not made up. There’s a real injury happening. There’s a real toxic injury, mostly, happening for people. And that that’s affecting not only the body and the capacity of many of our different systems to function properly, but it’s also affecting the brain structurally and functionally. And the brain goes into this really innate, protective, flight-or-fight mechanism. And it can be as a reaction to the actual trauma itself or it can be because any of the neurons along that neural pathway within the limbic system become damaged or injured in any shape or form.
And I think this goes back to what does the limbic system do. So yeah, the limbic system in the brain is basically a series of structures that are located within the midbrain that are known as our “feeling and reacting” brain. So it really discerns or it really filters the billions of bits of information that are coming to us at any given point in time and categorizes that information into two very distinct categories, safe or unsafe. And if you have had some form of injury to this area of your brain or you’re in a maladapted chronic fight, fight, or freeze response, then you can imagine that stimuli that would be normally categorized as safe might be starting to be categorized as unsafe.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the patient did that themselves. This is an actual brain trauma or brain injury that is causing that. And is that cause, does that have effects on the rest of the body? Absolutely. I mean, when you think of the brain being the control center of the entire body, if your brain is not functioning optimally, then you can imagine that it’s going to send messages for your immune system to be on alert, for your endocrine system to change as well, so you’d be releasing all kinds of different hormones that are related to this fight, flight, or freeze response.
So it has a top-down effect on all systems of the body. So by no means is this in your head at all. In fact, it’s really dangerous and so disrespectful to even suggest that this illness is in the head. Because it’s not. It’s a brain injury. It’s a toxic injury. It affects so many different systems in the body.
Chris Kresser: Right. Or I sometimes tell patients, if it’s in your head, everything else is in your head too. Because there’s no experience that we have that’s not mediated by the brain and there’s nothing that happens in the body that’s not controlled by the brain. So it’s such an important thing for people to understand. And we have this whole field of psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology—got to be one of the longest words in the English language—that has been dedicated to studying this for the past, for several decades now.
But unfortunately this understanding has not yet trickled down into the mainstream consciousness about health and disease. And I think as a clinician myself, it’s so, this understanding of the limbic system, which you’ve been instrumental in getting out there and having these approaches that we’re going to talk about to actually work with these conditions is so important. Because there’s, my view is there are so many people who have a condition that’s at least partially characterized by limbic system impairment, if not mostly characterized by that.
And yet there’s very little support for people who have these conditions in the mainstream medical paradigm just because the awareness of how they work and what to do about them is still pretty low.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, yeah, I would agree with you wholeheartedly. And we’re trying to make our mark as much as we can around that. We have two research studies taking place right now. One is an observational study that was conducted by McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. They looked at 100 participants. It went through the five-day DNRS interactive training program and followed them for one year looking at standardized and validated observational studies to measure differences in symptomatology. The results of that study will be published soon. So I’m looking forward to that.
And the other one is a study coming out of the University of Calgary and we’re only entering stage II of that study, where we’ll be looking at doing functional MRIs and various different testing biomarkers on people that have chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, or multiple chemical sensitivities and see how the brain is changing and also how different markers in the body are changing as the result of rewiring the limbic system function. So, yeah, I mean, it’s a really new idea, and goodness knows how long this is going to take to transfer it into the mainstream medical system. But you know, like you, we know that it can’t happen soon enough.
Chronic illness can cause lasting changes in your brain, but the Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS) can help you rewire your brain and truly heal. Check out this episode of RHR to learn more about DNRS. #wellness #chriskresser
How to Tell If You Have a Limbic System Impairment
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. So let’s talk a little bit. You’ve already touched on a few different conditions, MCS and electric hypersensitivity, fibromyalgia. What characterizes a limbic system impairment? If someone is struggling with health issues, how would they know or how would they suspect that they might have a limbic system impairment? And then as a corollary, what conditions have you found to be typically associated with a limbic system impairment?
Annie Hopper: Both great questions. So first of all, I would say that there is a questionnaire that’s located on our website, and it has 29 questions, I believe. I’m just looking at it right now. And they’re just kind of a general self-assessment questionnaire, so, looking from cognitive symptoms to sensory symptoms to pain symptoms, all of that.
So, kind of, here’s an example of some of the questions:
- Do you experience brain fog or inability to concentrate or focus?
- Do you suffer from low energy?
- Do suffer from chronic joint or muscle pain?
- Do you have a heightened sense of smell or taste or are you sensitive to foods or light or sound?
- Do perfumes or chemical products give you a headache or make you feel nauseous and lightheaded?
- Do you get noticeably irritable, anxious, or upset when you’re around specific stimuli?
So, there are a number of different questions there that people could look at to really say, “Oh, hang on a second, yeah. I think I might have this.” So looking at different symptoms on multiple different levels—cognitive, emotional, psychological, and physical.
And in terms of the actual illnesses that we have seen that benefit from the program, it’s interesting because as we, I think this is the 11th year that I’ve been teaching the program. And more and more people are reporting great results from rewiring limbic system function. And even illnesses that I didn’t even know at the beginning would be affected.
But here are some of the most common ones:
- Multiple chemical sensitivities
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Chronic Lyme disease
- Food sensitivities
- EMF sensitivities
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Chronic pain
So there’s about 10 that are really common, and I’ve probably missed something. Did I say electric hypersensitivity syndrome?
Chris Kresser: EMF.
Annie Hopper: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. I would add to that … I mean, what’s interesting for me is I treat a lot of patients with very complex chronic illnesses. And I think we could separate them now into two very broad groups. One group is the patient who comes in, they go through the whole Functional Medicine process and they get better. And it might take a while and it might require a few different interventions, but they make steady progress and they get there.
Another group of patients is a patient who all of the treatments that we would expect to work do not work. Or they can’t even tolerate the treatments because they’re so sensitive to the supplements or the other things that we’re using to do the treatments. Or they get better for a short period of time and then they snap back, almost like a kind of gravity-like mechanism. Which I know is not always the case, but I often suspect limbic system impairment in our group of patients. Because it’s almost like, well, we know it probably is like, that there’s an entrenched pattern in the nervous system.
And that is keeping, that’s what’s producing the symptoms and even the downstream dysfunction. Like, imagine a patient has SIBO, bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine, well, the gut is just a big bundle of nerves and is part of the nervous system. It’s been defined as a completely separate nervous system. And so if someone has a chronically activated fight-or-flight response, that’s going to interfere with the motility of the gut and the cleansing action of that peristaltic wave which keeps bacteria from growing in the small intestine.
And so even if we give that patient antibiotics or we treat them for SIBO and we haven’t addressed that pattern, it’s just going to come back. And I often have found myself wondering if this is why the recurrence rate for SIBO is so high—because we’re not addressing the real underlying cause in those situations.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, I would agree with you 100 percent there. And I think that’s a really great diagnostic or discernment, to say okay, is limbic system impairment involved in this? Because if they are not getting better or they get better for short periods of time and then keep regressing, then yes, I would suggest that the underlying nervous system dysfunction has not been addressed yet. And I think that’s a really great discernment and I would agree with you 100 percent.
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How DNRS Works
Chris Kresser: Great. So let’s talk a little bit about the Dynamic Neural Retraining System, which is of course the approach that you developed. I mean, your first step was to have the insight that this was a limbic system impairment, in your personal case. And then of course, the next step was for you to start figuring out, “Okay, if that’s the case, how can I use my brain to reverse this brain issue?” And so, yeah, tell us a little bit more about, maybe a little bit about your own path to the discovery there. And then how the system has evolved and what the basic approach is.
Annie Hopper: Sure. So, yeah, in terms of my own recovery, I had to really look at, I became a very, I was already very skilled at watching my own internal patterns—my thought patterns, my emotional patterns, my behavioral patterns. It was part of my work before I suffered from limbic system impairment. So that skill set came in very handy when I was being my own guinea pig. Because what I recognized for myself was not only was my body in this hyperreactive state, reacting to everything, but I just thought back and really looked at my thought processes.
And what occurred to me is that my brain was stuck in this trauma response. Because a lot of my thought processes were about survival and safety. And even though, yes, I was in a highly stressful situation, I also recognized that I was no longer the person that I used to be. I turned in—and prior to this, I was this happy-go-lucky, really bubbly, make-a-new-friend-everyday person—and I turned into this completely-terrified-of-the-world-and-everything-in-it person who was completely shut down. And the only thing that I was thinking about most of the time was about my survival. What I also noticed was emotionally was that I didn’t have access to joy anymore, which is really interesting. Because again, I was a very happy and happy-go-lucky kind of person.
And certainly, situationally, I can understand how I would be preoccupied with health and trying to get better. But even more than that, I noticed that I couldn’t access positive emotional states anymore. And that was kind of curious for me because I thought, “Wow, I know that I’ve had really great things happen in my life. So surely, I should be able to a) remember one, and b) be able to elevate my emotional state.” And what I noticed is that my brain just kept going back to episodes of trauma from the past, even though I had completely resolved those issues. So it was like the brain was in this trauma response and it was just like a kid in a candy store looking for more trauma to focus on.
So yeah, it was just really interesting. My thought patterns were around past trauma or protecting future trauma, but also my emotional state was really around … I only had access to emotions related to the survival response. So fear, worry, anger, just kind of emotions like that. And then really looking at my behaviors as well. So I thought, “Okay, if this isn’t a brain injury or brain trauma that is affecting my brain in this certain way, how do I go about changing those patterns, given that I might have the capacity to do that within myself? To self-direct those changes.”
So I was looking at the work of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz and the work of Dr. Ramachandran, who talked about imagination of the brain, and looking at how I could use those tools to actually change that brain patterning. So it was a surprise to me that I found a way to actually decrease symptoms. And it happened for very small moments in time. Like, I would do specific exercises that would include visualization and elevated my emotional state, and for a prolonged period of time I would notice that my sensory perception would change slightly. And when my sense of smell started to normalize, I knew that I was onto something. Because none of the other treatments that I had tried were able to. It was the only thing that I recognized that changed my sensory perception, especially to sense of smell. So I just started to use myself as a guinea pig and go from there.
But definitely, so, the program itself involves some visualizations, involves small movements, it involves speech. It’s not really hard to do, but I came up with an acronym to really think about what the neuroplastic principles are for limbic system rehabilitation and as it relates to the Dynamic Neural Retraining System.
Retraining Your Brain with the Acronym IMAGINE
Annie Hopper: So, the acronym that I developed is called IMAGINE. So the I stands for intentions, so that we have to realize that when we’re in limbic system rehabilitation, the intention is not to necessarily decrease symptoms right away, although that will happen when the nervous system resets itself. But we need to turn our focus away from symptoms and onto moving energy towards doing brain rehabilitation exercises that will change the limbic system. And that will, of course, like you said, have a downstream effect on many different systems of the body.
The M stands for motivation. So we have to have the willingness and the motivation to become an active participant in the healing process. Too much of our medical system has largely placed the patient in a passive role, where they depend on other people or outside interventions. And this is something that’s really self-directed and done by the person. But it has to be done on a daily basis for a minimum of six months to strengthen those alternative neural pathways. So that’s the M.
A stands for awareness and association. So we have to become consciously aware and redirect all thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and physical symptoms that are related to limbic system impairment. And we also have to become aware of unconscious protective mechanisms that the brain can be operating from. For instance, like in MCS, the fight-or-flight protective response may have been appropriate with the initial chemical injury. But the brain’s unconscious association to small amounts of chemicals as life-threatening that might be in some laundry products is not an appropriate response.
So, looking at how the brain has been affected here and also changing our associations. Because I think once we become sensitive to a certain stimuli, then … Well, for me, once I became sensitive to chemicals, I started to research everything that I was sensitive to. And then it made common sense that I’d be reactive to these products, considering how carcinogenic they might be or how toxic they might be. So that’s truth number one, right? We know that there are a lot of toxic agents or toxins in the environment. But the truth number two is that the brain can become impaired by trauma, and our focus is really to focus on that truth number two, is about rehabilitation of the brain.
So, changing, so that led to having to change my associations with things. So instead of saying, “Perfumes are all poison and this is toxic” and really spending my energy and time focused on how toxic the world is, I had to really change my thinking and go, “Okay, you know what? That is true. But for the purpose of rehabilitating my injured limbic system, I’m going to have to focus on something else entirely and something that preferably brings me joy.” So that was kind of a 180 considering that I’d been living in survival.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, and so important based on Donald Hebb’s insight, neurons that fire together wire together, right? So you understand that the more we run a certain pattern or association, the stronger it gets. And in order to shift it, we have to create a new one and then run that one a lot more than the old one.
Annie Hopper: Exactly, exactly. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not environmentally aware, it just means that I need to change my brain programs.
Chris Kresser: Yes, yes.
Annie Hopper: Or brain patterns. So thanks for the clarification on that. G stands for gains. So while we’re undergoing limbic system rehabilitation, it’s really important to consciously focus on our gains no matter how big or small they are because we have this innate negativity bias, meaning that we are naturally wired to notice potential threats versus what we can appreciate or what’s going good in our life. So with limbic system impairment, this negativity bias, becomes magnified. Because you can imagine, if the threat centers of your brain are firing too rapidly and too often, that is obviously going to affect this negativity bias.
So it becomes really large and magnified. So we also have to recognize that the recovery process in limbic system rehabilitation can be gradual, and it’s not necessarily linear, it’s not necessarily a linear process. So that means sometimes that symptoms will ebb and flow during the recovery process, but we always want to keep in mind that overall goal of, “Okay, hang on a second. I’m rewiring the limbic system. Even though I might be symptomatic one day, it doesn’t mean that I’m not in the process of rewiring the brain.” It’s like watering a plant.
Once you have that focus in mind, you say, “Okay, if I am doing the exercises in the correct way and I’m implementing them on a daily basis and I’m doing this for a minimum of six months,” then your brain actually has no choice but to make those changes. But I always use the analogy just like watering a seed. You don’t … look, if you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every day to say, “Hey, are you growing yet? Are you growing?” You water that seed and you give it all the nutrients it needs and then you trust that those pathways are forming.
I stands for incremental training. So, incremental training is a form of neural shaping that strengthens new neural pathways while desensitizing old neural pathways. And that might involve slightly triggering a reaction to create a heightened neuroplastic state within the brain, which makes it easier for the brain to change. So what we do is it could be through small exposure therapy or some other form of trigger. But, and it’s not necessarily important to know what all of your triggers are, having said that. But if we can trigger the brain slightly, it actually activates neural pathways that are at play with the neural pattern itself.
So we can redirect all the real estate that’s involved in that reaction in that moment of time and move those neural pathways into a healthier pattern. So it’s actually, we take advantage of the fact that somebody might be reacting.
Chris Kresser: Right. And just for the listeners who might be less aware, I’ve talked a lot about neurotoxicity and approaches to chronic pain on my website. These are very similar mechanisms that are used by people like Dr. Moskowitz, who’s just across the bay from me, who are using these top-down self-directed neuroplasticity-based approaches to treating chronic pain. So it’s really fascinating and encouraging to see what’s possible when we’re able to redirect our brain in new ways.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, I mean, the results that we’re seeing speak for themselves, actually. But I just wanted to get back to IMAGINE for a second, because I only have two more letters to go through. So N stands for neurological and emotional rehearsals. So it’s a form of visualization that chemically blocks the threat mechanism to create a healthy emotional set point in the brain. And what that does is it moves the neurochemistry associated with the stress response.
So cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, or we’d call that CAN, c-a-n, to DOSE chemistry. And DOSE chemistry is d-o-s-e. It stands for dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins, to move the brain and body from a state of survival into that state of growth and repair. So we say kick the CAN and get your daily DOSE. And yeah, it’s really quite incredible.
And the E, finally, the E stands for environmental awareness. So recognize toxins in your everyday environment, an environment that may be contributing to ill health, from the products that you put on your body to the food that you eat to the products that you have in your home. Decreasing your time on the computer and really setting yourself up for a really great, healthy neurorehabilitation experience.
Chris Kresser: That’s a great acronym really. It brings to light all of the various approaches and tools that you have put together in the DNRS system. And I’m always struck when I talk to patients about this, like I said earlier, how these people like Norman Doidge and Michael Moskowitz and all of the pioneers, Donald Hebb was talking about this, what was back in the 40s or the 50s that he, I think, had coined that saying “neurons that fire together wire together.” So this has been around for, these concepts have been around for quite a long time. But what I really appreciate about DNRS is how you’ve put them together in a way that is actionable for a person to be able to utilize these tools. Because I think I’ve been aware of these areas of science for probably two decades. I wrote back when I was studying integrative medicine and still in school, I wrote a paper on the placebo, or self-healing, response.
And we talked about a lot of these same pathways. But—and I’ve read tons of books about this and read studies on neuroplasticity—but it was elusive to figure out how to actually put those concepts to work in a way that people could access them and actually make a difference in their own health instead of it just being an interesting theory or understanding of how things are working in the brain. So I’m really grateful to you and for the work that you’ve done in putting this all together in the system.
Annie Hopper: Thanks, Chris. It’s really my honor to be able to do this. I made a promise to myself when I was suffering, that if and when I found a way to recover that I would share that with the rest of the world. And this is part of my promise. And I’m just so thrilled that more and more practitioners are seeing the positive impact of neural retraining with their patients. I just got back from attending a conference, the ICI. Well, actually, it’s ISEAI, which stands for International Society for Environmentally Acquired Illnesses.
Chris Kresser: Yes, I know many of those clinicians from my work in the environmental illness world; it’s a great group.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, it’s a great group. And Dr. Robert Naviaux was a speaker at that conference.
Chris Kresser: Yes.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, he wrote papers—
Chris Kresser: On the cell danger response.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, on the cell danger response.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Annie Hopper: And we were talking extensively. I had dinner with him one evening, and I was talking to him about the cell danger response and how that relates to limbic system impairment and the brain’s context of safety. And when there is no context of safety, of course, it’s going to affect the body down to a cellular level.
Chris Kresser: Yes.
Annie Hopper: And so, yeah, he was really excited. On Sunday I spoke for half an hour and just kind of gave the highlights of what we’re doing and showed a video testimonial, some of the people that have gone through the program and are recovering. And he was just lit up. He was just like, “Wow, this is amazing, the fact that you can show people how to do this. And there’s a step-by-step process.” It’s quite exciting.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. It’s very exciting because, I mean, Dr. Nathan, Dr. Ackerley, and so many of the other clinicians are there. Myself, we’ve been treating people with environmental illness for many years and we know that the standard approaches can be helpful in some cases certainly, but in many cases, they are either not helpful at all or they’re not helpful enough. They’re not enough to reverse the condition. And just in our practice alone, I mean, I first learned about DNRS from a patient. And as soon as I heard about it, I was on checking out your site and learning more about it. Because that’s where I learn the most, is from my patients.
And I’m always looking for new tools and new things that can help people recover. And this, we were seeing situations where people … Mold is a great example because we’ve done a lot of work in that area. Somebody would get exposed to a significant amount of mold. It would develop chronic inflammatory response syndrome, or CIRS, and we would go through the whole protocol. We would remove them from exposure, we would use binders, we would restore their detox capacity, and they would get better. But then all it took was another mold exposure to send them right back into that whole cycle again. And it’s really hard to avoid mold completely, especially in certain parts of the world, unless you’re going to go live in a tent in the desert for the rest of your life. It can be pretty limiting to live with that high sensitivity for mold.
And then when we started to use, recommended DNRS to a lot of our patients who had CIRS. We had some patients that had gone through the whole thing, the whole Functional Medicine pantheons, so to speak, and had not improved to the degree that we wanted them to. And then within six months, in some cases sooner, some cases a little longer of doing DNRS, they for the first time in, like, 15 years of trying to figure out their health problem were finally starting to see some significant progress.
So and that’s been true not just for mold and environmental toxins. It’s been true, we had one patient who had chronic diarrhea for her entire life. She never, to her memory, had had a normal bowel movement and normal digestive function. And we went through the whole, every test you can imagine. DNA, PCR, stool testing, SIBO breath testing, urine testing, everything, and gave her lots and lots of different treatments. And she just, she would start maybe to seem like she was getting better and then it would just snap back. That snapback mechanism we talked about earlier. And then after I think just three or four months of DNRS, she started having normal bowel movements for the first time in her life, which was just pretty amazing.
And for me, the way I understand that is, like, when you turn off the fight-or-flight system and you engage that rest-and-digest mechanism, the parasympathetic, that’s then what creates the environment that is possible where, like, a healthy gut microbiota can develop. And the body is pretty good at taking care of itself once the conditions are right. So I’m particularly fascinated with it for a lot of the digestive and G.I. issues because I think the nervous system has kind of been the missing piece in a lot of people’s, in a lot of the way that we treat that, even in Functional Medicine.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, absolutely, Chris, I would agree. And I mean, of course, it just brings a huge smile to my face when I hear about recovery stories. And yet we have so many different recovery stories on our website and real people that are suffering and have recovered from a myriad of different conditions. Like you said, whether that’s gut issues or immune system issues or sensory sensitivities or food sensitivities or chemical or mold, etc. And I think there’s something that I’d like to talk to is this whole, like you said, the whole issue of avoidance, right?
Chris Kresser: Right. Yeah.
Annie Hopper: It’s impossible to create a perfect place.
Chris Kresser: No, no.
Annie Hopper: We can’t walk around the world in a bubble. And so, for everyone who’s sick, they’ve already tried that and they try to manage their life through avoidance, and that works up until a point where maybe you can try to decrease the number of times that you have exposure. But it’s pretty impossible to do unless you live in the desert. And even then.
Chris Kresser: And even then, there are consequences to that choice.
Annie Hopper: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: Like you pointed out in your own experience. You can start to feel very isolated and alone and your options for work are limited. Your whole life just gets smaller and smaller. And then you, it’s kind of a cascade because then you start, there’s more likelihood for depression and all of those negative, the CAN chemistry starts to really fire.
And you’ve also mentioned in your book that, and this is also kind of a tragic irony, is that avoidance itself can actually perpetuate the cycle. Because neurons that fire together wire together. So we avoid something because with the thought that it’s going to harm us, that fires that neural pathway that’s already developed and reinforces it.
Annie Hopper: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: And this is not to blame anyone for avoiding things that harm them. Of course, that’s just basic human nature.
Annie Hopper: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: Or even animal, any animal would do that. So I’m not suggesting that avoidance was not the best strategy that we knew at the time. But I’m just pointing out that it kind of can backfire on us in that way too.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, absolutely. And anything that we fire with fear, any kind of emotional charge that we have with something is going to strengthen the neural pathway and the association associated with that stimuli. So, yeah, when we approach the world from a place of fear, then it really does strengthen those neural pathways that are at play in one big system impairment. And like you said, it’s not their fault, and they’re not, this is a brain trauma.
And in order to move from that place of avoidance into being able to be around things again takes a neural rehabilitation program in order to do that. You just simply wouldn’t go from “Hey, you know, I can’t go anywhere” to “I’m just going power my way through this and I’m going to go everywhere.” It doesn’t work like that. You actually have to rehabilitate the injured brain in order to be able to specifically go around substances again.
So it’s a very prescribed neural rehabilitation process that we’ll get someone from that place of extreme avoidance to being able to live in the world again as a healthy person. But again, even when we’re living in the world as healthy people, we still make environmentally aware choices and decisions based on that.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. Yeah, and that’s the flipside of what we said earlier. Just as this is not a psychological condition where you’ve just talked yourself into being sick, it’s also, you can’t just talk yourself out of, you just decide one day, “Okay, I’m no longer sensitive to chemicals,” or “I’m no longer sensitive to electricity or EMF,” or “I’m no longer sensitive to these foods.” You have to actually do the brain retraining in order to shift the pattern. Because it’s not just in your imagination.
Annie Hopper: No, exactly. I mean, there’s a real threat mechanism that’s gone rogue in the brain that’s causing this downstream effect of symptoms in many cases. So we need to rehabilitate the brain in order for it to not be sending those downstream messages to the immune system, to the endocrine system, to the gut, whatever. So, yeah, it’s not simply just changing your mind about something.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Annie Hopper: It’s not a program about positive thinking or denial or even denial about symptoms. It’s actually about acceptance that your brain is actually involved in the actual illness, and that doesn’t mean your thoughts. That the structure of your brain, which is just another organ just like your heart and your lungs, that the structure of your brain is involved. And the way that your brain works is involved in these groups of illnesses. So we’re just really looking at, “Okay, so if the brain is involved, how do we address the brain?” And this is one of the ways to address the brain component.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I love that you clarified this. This is not just positive thinking. And at the same time, it does invite us to shift more of our attention to what is going well and to cultivate more positive emotions. Because in the same way that if you associate something with fear, it’s going to strengthen that neural wiring that happens there, positive emotions have also been, any kind of strong emotion, including positive emotions, tend to strengthen the neural connections.
The Difference between DNRS, Psychotherapy, and Mindfulness
Annie Hopper: Absolutely, absolutely. And a couple other things that I just thought of as you were talking. It’s important to focus on positive emotions so that that can lay the groundwork for helping the brain to rewire itself. But also forms of typical psychotherapy and why they might not be recommended during the rehabilitation process. Because you can imagine if a brain is stuck in trauma that going back and talking about past traumatic events would not necessarily be helpful for someone who’s already suffering from limbic system impairment.
In fact, talking about past trauma can actually reinforce the neural circuits that are at play with the impairment itself. And so, yeah, we don’t want to go to trauma at all. We don’t want to go to anything even associated with trauma, really. And the other thing that I wanted to say was, the differences between what we do in meditation. Because maybe the bigger umbrella might be mindfulness, but it’s in a very, very different way. And we know that meditation can be really helpful and it’s a really great tool and it helps a lot of people. And we know that meditation helps to restructure the brain in very specific ways.
But, and what we do is quite different from meditation in the sense that with many forms of meditation, we step into that curious observer and we emotionally distance ourselves from our thoughts or emotions and what’s happening. And we just let it go by and not become attached. With limbic system impairment and rehabilitation, we step into that curious observer, but we recognize those thought patterns or emotional patterns or behaviors that are associated with the impairment itself. And when we recognize it, we don’t simply let it be.
We actually actively step in and redirect the thought, redirect the emotion, the behavior in order for the brain to actually take a different pathway. So it’s again, it’s not about denial. It’s about really repatterning the brain in moment to moment, in every moment during the day, but specifically during the rewiring process as well.
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. And a lot of these approaches are being used for depression now. Like Rick Hanson’s work, his book Hardwiring Happiness is really based on a lot of these similar ideas. And I know a lot of psychiatrists are increasingly getting interested in neuroplasticity as a way of rewiring depression and anxiety. And I know DNRS is also helpful for that as well.
It’s really cool for me to see these insights coming from different places and being applied in different ways. And I do think that there’s a very quickly growing level of awareness about the importance of neuroplasticity and understanding health and disease. And then how we can apply it to actually reverse disease and improve our quality of life.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, yeah. And I’m really excited to be in this position, to be a leader in this field and also to watch how many thousands of people are recovering. It fills me with joy that I can’t even express, and I’m really hopeful for our future and that the medical system really starts as well pay attention. And also that we start to recognize illness sooner rather than later, so that we can prevent years of suffering and, of course, relationships and money and all of that stuff that goes with being sick.
How You Can Try DNRS
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much again for this work and everything you’re doing to help people to recover their health with this approach. And where can people learn more about DNRS?
Annie Hopper: Yeah, they can go to our website, which is RetrainingTheBrain.com. Again, that’s RetrainingTheBrain.com. And I wrote a book in 2014 called Wired for Healing: Remapping the Brain to Recover from Chronic and Mysterious Illnesses. That can be found on the website as well. And actually we offer the program in three different formats.
We have a 14-hour instructional DVD that’s available, and also that program is now available online. So there’s a 14-hour instructional online program that people can do if they don’t have DVD players. Because they’re going to be a thing of the past now. We have to stay up with the times and technology.
So, and the other way that the program can be accessed is through our five-day interactive training seminars. And those, we hold those throughout various places of North America and Europe. And they can be found on our website as well. So we go to different resorts or retreat centers, and for five days people are completely immersed within this neurorehabilitation process. And you can imagine that we vet our likely locations really well. So, of course, we try to make them as environmentally aware for people that have sensitivity issues or food restrictions, that kind of thing, because we want to make sure that we set up the healthiest kind of environment for success in the program. So those are the three ways that the program can be accessed, and also the book Wired for Healing.
Chris Kresser: And then you also have DNRS coaches, which I very much recommend to my patients who we refer to DNRS. Because change is hard. Any kind of change. Changing your diet, adopting a new exercise routine. But changing entrenched brain patterns is particularly hard, I think. Because they are habitual and they feel very familiar.
When you start to change them, they start to feel, that would feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar. And I think it’s, without support, that can be very challenging. I’ve just noticed with my patients, the ones who get coaching and support and have a support network, their whole family is on board in supporting them in their DNRS practice, they get better results.
Annie Hopper: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: And it makes sense to me why that might be the case.
Annie Hopper: Well, yeah. It’s like, any kind of change in your behaviors, right? Everybody knows, yeah, I should exercise every day. But maybe it’s going to take you a personal trainer to get you motivated to go to the gym, to do the exercises that you need to do. So yeah, there’s huge value in hiring a certified DNRS coach.
So these are people that have gone through the program, that have recovered from chronic illness and have been extensively trained in supporting people who are implementing the DNRS program. So regardless of what your expression of limbic system impairment is or however that’s expressing, the coaches will be able to, our certified coaches will be able to guide you through the program and to really point out any kind of stumbling blocks you might have or create some clarity or provide next steps for your rehabilitation process.
Also, we have a free online community forum. So anybody that purchases the program, whether it’s DVD or online or they attend the five-day interactive training seminar, all of those people have access to our free community forum. And I don’t know how many members are on there. But it’s something along the lines of 5,500 people.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I’ve heard it’s very active, and my patients who participate in it say that it’s also a really great source of support.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, I mean, it’s just this huge library of information, of people that have recovered from the program, people that are reporting their victories, and I think that if you can get your family involved in your recovery process, it’s really great too.
So maybe give them understanding of what it is that you’re going through by getting them to read the book Wired for Healing or going to the website and seeing the science behind what this is. Because it’s really important that, yeah, I mean, if we can, we want to have supportive people in our environment that are really engaging with us in a positive way during our rehabilitation process.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, the more support we have the better.
Chris Kresser: I agree and I think, I love your book. My audience, I’m very science-minded and have an evidence-based approach. And when I first saw DNRS, I have a little confession to make here.
Annie Hopper: Sure.
Chris Kresser: Before I really kind of understood the basis for it and had read more about it, if you look at the video testimonials without any of this understanding, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to have you on the show, they can almost seem just fantastic. Too good to be true.
Annie Hopper: Right.
Chris Kresser: Especially people who’ve been sick for such a long time and they’ve all often been gotten their hopes up for something. And like, “Oh, I did this and I recovered.” And they’re understandably skeptical and tired of hoping and then having their hopes dashed. And if you look at some of the testimonials with all of the things that people have recovered from and you don’t have an understanding of the scientific basis for this system, it can seem almost too good to be true.
But then when you learn about neuroplasticity and the limbic system and limbic system impairments and how the brain is the control center for optimal health, and how limbic system impairments affect the nervous system, the endocrine system, the immune system, then it starts to make sense how all of these conditions, which have not been seen as being related, are very much related under this umbrella of limbic system impairment. And for me, and I think for many of my patients, understanding the science behind it helped open their minds to the possibility and to really kind of accept the amazing results that people are getting and to really actually give them hope for the first time, in some cases for many years, if not decades.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, yeah. Well, and it’s a, thank you for saying that. And yeah, it does seem too good to be true at the beginning. Because you look at those video testimonials and you’re like, “What? How can that even be possible? I’ve been sick for 20 years and I’ve seen every specialist known to mankind. And surely if they didn’t know, then this can’t be true.” But it’s really looking at almost from a different paradigm and really looking at how the brain is, like you said, the control center for optimal health.
So we’re really impacting the brain through this program and it has a lot of downstream effects. So I’m just really grateful to be in the position to help people move out of that cycle of illness. But also, I wanted to mention the spectrum of illness because I think that unfortunately by the time that people find out about us, sometimes they’re way into, like you said, some of them have been sick for decades. So when you’ve been sick for decades, you really build a, it really is hard to have hope when you’ve been sick for that long. And but this is an entirely different approach. So for those people who have been sick for a really long time, I would say don’t lose hope and give the program a try.
And I think that people would be really pleasantly surprised by the results. And the brain has no choice but to change if you give it the right instructions and the right way to rehabilitate. So yeah, I’m just super thrilled, and thank you, Chris, for talking about your patients that have really benefited from the program as well. Because certainly if you had not that experience from your patients, it would be hard to believe.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Annie Hopper: But you’ve seen it first-hand.
Chris Kresser: I’ve seen it first-hand. Absolutely. So it’s amazing to have this as a resource to recommend to others. And I think hope is really what it comes down to for so many people who’ve been in the situation as you just mentioned, for decades or years, and they’ve tried so many different things. And they have, in many cases, lost hope.
And just having the understanding that you can take control of some of these conditions and the symptoms by rewiring your own brain I think is really empowering for a lot of people.
Annie Hopper: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: So thank you so much for coming onto the show and again for the work that you’ve done. And we’ll put all the links you mentioned in the show notes of the episode. And good luck to you, and I’m excited to see what the study results will show.
Annie Hopper: Well, thank you so much, Chris, for having me on the show. And thank you for all of the important work that you’re doing with people too. I’m just so impressed with the work that you’re doing and that you’re recognizing that limbic system rehabilitation can be part of the bigger puzzle for so many people. So thank you, and it’s been my honor to be on your show. Thank you so much.
Chris Kresser: You’re welcome, Annie. Take care and good luck.
Annie Hopper: Yeah, you too. Thanks. Bye.
Chris Kresser: Bye.
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