In episode #109, we ask, what if you could optimize the health of your brain and mind? Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk joins us to discuss just that! Tune in to learn how to improve your cognitive function, maintain mental clarity, relieve stress and in doing so – protect yourself from age-related cognitive decline.
- Why not all stress is bad and how to optimize eustress and minimize distress
- More about neuroplasticity and key tips to optimize your brain function
- What can we do when stress stays and doesn’t go away for long periods of time?
The Guest – Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk is Co-Director of the Healthy Brain Program in Colorado and is the coordinator of the rehabilitation and trauma treatment programs. She is also a neuropsychologist in Ontario, Canada. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham in England (Psychology, Neuropsychopharmacology) and has authored numerous papers in the areas of psychology, neuropharmacology and neuroscience in areas as diverse as cerebral palsy in children, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and the effects of neurotransmitters on behavior. She has completed two postdoctoral Fellowship positions in Neuropsychology (Royal Ottawa Hospital) and one working with neurologically impaired children (Department of Education and Science, UK Government). Dr Rusk Co-founded the Memory Loss Clinic in Ottawa, Canada. Dr. Rusk gives public lectures on the subject of health psychology, behavioral aspects of medicine in aging and neuropsychological aspects of death and dying. She has led educational seminars and is a group facilitator in aging well and brain health. Dr. Rusk is a co-founder of the Death Café in Boulder County and currently serves as Community Health Education Director at The Grillo Health Information Center. She is trained in ACRM Cognitive Rehabilitation, Brainspotting, EMDR, PACT and several other treatment approaches. Trained by Dr. Dale Bredesen and the Institute for Functional Medicine in using an integrative approach to working with cognitive decline, Dr. Rusk thinks this way when she sees her patients. She incorporates these strategies into her resiliency approach to cognitive health. She believes that calming the nervous system and building emotional resilience can be achieved through trauma resolution and a mindfulness-based approach to brain health.
Dr. Jill Carnahan is Your Functional Medicine Expert® dually board certified in Family Medicine for ten years and in Integrative Holistic Medicine since 2015. She is the Medical Director of Flatiron Functional Medicine, a widely sought-after practice with a broad range of clinical services including functional medical protocols, nutritional consultations, chiropractic therapy, naturopathic medicine, acupuncture, and massage therapy. As a survivor of breast cancer, Crohn’s disease, and toxic mold illness she brings a unique perspective to treating patients in the midst of complex and chronic illness. Her clinic specializes in searching for the underlying triggers that contribute to illness through cutting-edge lab testing and tailoring the intervention to specific needs.
Featured in Shape Magazine, Parade, Forbes, MindBodyGreen, First for Women, Townsend Newsletter, and The Huffington Post as well as seen on NBC News and Health segments with Joan Lunden, Dr. Jill is a media must-have. Her YouTube channel and podcast features live interviews with the healthcare world’s most respected names.
A popular inspirational speaker and prolific writer, she shares her knowledge of hope, health, and healing live on stage and through newsletters, articles, books, and social media posts! People relate to Dr. Jill’s science-backed opinions delivered with authenticity, love and humor. She is known for inspiring her audience to thrive even in the midst of difficulties.
Dr. Jill 00:13
Well, good afternoon, everyone! Live from Costa Rica today. You get [to hear] not only me from Costa Rica but one of my favorite people in the whole wide world, Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk, whom I will introduce in a minute.
Dr. Jill 00:25
Today we’re going to be talking about—for sure, her favorite topic, and one of my favorite topics to talk to her about—optimizing brain health and optimizing stress levels and neuroplasticity. She will explain everything. As you can see, I am miles away. I’m trying to reduce my stress by staying for a week here in Costa Rica and doing a little work. But, lots of adventure and rest and relaxation. We’ll talk about how important that is for the brain as well.
Dr. Jill 00:53
Let me quickly introduce my beautiful friend and colleague, Dr. Rusk, and then we’ll get right in with the program. Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk is the Director of the Healthy Brain Program and the coordinator of cognitive rehabilitation and trauma treatment programs at the Brain & Behavioral Clinic in Boulder, Colorado. She has completed a Fellowship in neuropsychology while studying new treatments and strategies for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and has authored peer-reviewed papers in the areas of psychology, neuropharmacology, and neuroscience. More recently, she trained extensively with Dr. Dale Bredesen at the Institute of Functional Medicine in using an integrative approach to treat the root cause of cognitive decline and dementia.
Dr. Jill 01:31
Her personalized approach to brain health coaching and incorporating lifestyle practices like meditation and trauma healing inspires others to build emotional resilience and optimally live long—optimal longevity plans. She supports the earliest initiation of mental wellness and a healthy brain and lifestyle and envisions a time when dementia is a rare occurrence. I love that. So, welcome, Dr. Rusk. I am so glad to have you here. I am so glad we could have the time to connect even across the many, many miles [between us]!
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 02:01
Dr. Jill 02:03
Yes. And as many of you know, maybe you don’t, on the outside, she’s a dear precious friend of mine. So, this is a special time that we get to connect on multiple levels. So I’d love to start off with your story. I want to talk about stress and neuroplasticity and all these topics, but tell us a little about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Why did you get into neuroplasticity?—because the story behind the why always matters, as far as motivation to do what you do.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 02:30
Yes, I’ve seen you do that with other people and it’s really compelling. Actually, as you ask me about my story, I’ll have to say to everyone who’s watching that as we tell our story and we understand our story, we begin to weave a kind of a quilt of who we are, who we are becoming, who we were, and who we really want to be. I don’t even know if you actually know my story, and I don’t know if I have one story; I have many stories. But integrating stories is a very important part of stress reduction and trauma healing—just to say that. So a big part of my own work and my own life’s journey has been weaving the pieces of my story together that have been fragmented or not incorporated into my understanding of who I am. So thanks for asking. But I’m sure you ask your other speakers the same wonderful question.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 03:30
I was a very, very anxious child. It was only later in life that I realized that my seemingly normal and healthy childhood was actually fraught with occurrences and a history that didn’t resonate well with my nervous system. Thank God, I had amazing parents. Again, things that happened inside my home were very stressful. I think a lot of the people watching this will resonate with that. We had wonderful, loving parents—many of us, hopefully. But if there’s that lack of attunement or lack of resonance with our family environment or with our primary caregiver or caregivers, then our nervous system sometimes doesn’t rest or develop the flexibility that it needs to develop in order to be able to face some of the adversities, challenges, or stressors that we normally meet in life. We don’t develop that flexibility because that kind of consistent safety experience or our ability to actually come down off of the stressor doesn’t necessarily happen.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 04:40
As far as my particular story goes, I was a very anxious child and I used to have a lot of panic. So, I wouldn’t want to eat. I remember that the doctor gave me medicine to get me to calm down. [It was] like knockout-type drops that caused me to really collapse into a nervous system response that settled me, but it also shut me off.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 5:09
At the age of 11, I remember my father saying to me, “Is everything okay?”—right before bed. I said, “Daddy, it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. I know I’m not supposed to feel this way.” The good thing is, we all know, everyone who’s watching this has a sense inside of how it could be, and how it should be. But sometimes, that sense of what it is to be free and calm and joyful is so hidden that we forget about it. But children know it, right?
Dr. Jill 05:48
Oh, yes! I love this story! You’re right. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard [it]. It’s so powerful, though, because it also shows the qualities that make you such a great clinician and teacher. It’s that intuition, that ability to see things that other people don’t see. You started by seeing it in yourself and being able to articulate it. A lot of 11-year-olds might feel that way, but to be able to say those words in that clear way to your father, to me that’s profound. It shows the ability to not only sense this thing that’s happening but be able to bring it out and tell your father at that age. That’s amazing.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 06:25
Good point. Part of the relational success there is what you’re pointing out. The other part of the relational success is that my father listened. That doesn’t always happen very often [when one is] growing up. Throughout our entire adulthood into our intimate partnerships later in life, we say something but we don’t feel the person feeling us; we don’t feel the person hearing us. So he heard me and I promptly ended up with a wonderful psychiatrist. So, I think I’m going to say her name; she wouldn’t mind. Anyway. She turned out to be a very famous Belgian pediatric psychiatrist, who mentored me, sheltered me, protected me, and softened [me]. Every single Monday I would go to her office. She was a soft and very nervous system-regulated person. It turns out I really needed that relational piece, because I don’t remember one thing she said to me. So many of us, as you know, need that consistent relational co-regulation assurance that’s consistent.
Dr. Jill 07:40
Yes, oh I love that.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 07:41
So I had that. I had that for a year. Do you want to hear a really beautiful story? Most people don’t know this story. This year, when I returned to Montreal, I met with a clinician who said that this woman who had been my psychiatrist at 11 years old was still alive at 95—[she’s] turning 96—and she had just retired. So I found her, I met with her, and we chatted. Next time I’ll show you a picture of her.
Dr. Jill 08:10
Oh my goodness, I love that! Amazing, amazing, amazing!
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 08:14
She worked as a pediatric psychiatrist until she was 95, touching the nervous systems of children everywhere.
Dr. Jill 08:25
I mean, really, that’s amazing—over all those years. Wow.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 08:29
I just wanted to personalize this for anyone who’s watching it now. I’m imagining that there was someone or a moment in everyone’s life, [for those] watching this, that didn’t have to be a parent—it could have been a gym teacher or a guidance counselor. I’ve heard that from my patients. It’s like, “It was that one person,” [or] “the aunt I used to see on holiday celebrations, who saw me, who heard me, who loved me unconditionally.”
Dr. Jill 08:58
Yes. And sometimes, depending on your family system, the parents are loving and wonderful but busy with other children or other concerns.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 9:05
Dr. Jill 9:06
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 09:08
So, just for everyone to kind of take a moment. It can be an ancestor, someone who has passed already—someone who looks upon us with benevolence, kindness, and in a loving way and soothes our nervous systems.
Dr. Jill 09:22
Yes, it’s so important. I love that that changed part of your trajectory, to have that experience. Because obviously, you have always had the insight and some of the talents and gifts that you bring to your work now. But that shows that even as a child, you were very insightful and thoughtful. Like I said, the articulation is mind-blowing to me.
Dr. Jill 9:41
So let’s shift just a little. One of the big topics that has been affecting both your patients and mine is stress. And stress is this big vague term; it’s almost overused. Talk a little about: What is stress? What’s the difference between good and bad stress? And then, we’ll go into what we can do about it.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 10:00
Okay, good. So, I want to talk about the different subcategories of stress because stress has a really bad name. We all associate it with mental health issues now. Thank God people are starting to make that connection. We associate it with physical health issues. When we work with people who have a chronic illness, that’s an important component. And indeed, when we talk about stress in the common nomenclature now, we use the word stress to really mean distress.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 10:39
And I want to talk to you now about eustress. It’s the positive stress that gets us up in the morning. We don’t want to get out of bed, but we do want to do the things that we’re meant to be doing that day. So, we get out of bed with a feeling of, “This is a little bit uncomfortable, but I’m motivated.” So, eustress is motivating, it’s adaptive, and it’s important for building our capacity for resilience. I guess I want us to all start to use the word stress and translate it for ourselves in a way that’s more positive because I actually want stress to be reframed as motivating as well. I feel it in our bodies and in our minds as something [like]: “Okay, I’m a little bit uncomfortable. I am being stretched,” which is what I like to talk about with my patients [about]. Know the difference between a stretching of capacity and distress. Get a sense of what that difference is for you. The stress that’s associated with illness and challenge is the stress cycle we actually don’t come out of—the distress cycle, really.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 11:57
Hormesis is something I want to talk about as well, and it’s a biological term that I’m sure you’re familiar with in medicine. It’s a conditioning. Our cells get conditioned with a little bit of stress. We work towards something and we build capacity for a marathon by tearing muscles and stretching them. And I’m sure you know tons about the biology and biochemistry of that. But know that this capacity to build capacity is an important part of developing a flexible and strong, resilient nervous system as well.
Dr. Jill 12:36
Yes, we actually wouldn’t be able to do what we do or live if we didn’t have stress. It’s kind of like gravity being able to make the muscles work, right? And I’m reminded as you talk, maybe now six to nine months ago, I went on another climb. It’s scary stuff, even if you’ve done it before. I remember walking with my guide and he said, “Are you nervous?” and I said, “Well, no, I don’t think so, but I’m excited.” And I remember thinking: “I think I chose to say that. I was probably a little bit nervous, but I told myself I was excited because it feels the same.” And it was a wonderful climb. And I was a little nervous, but at that moment, I wasn’t registering the nervousness as much as the excitement. But talking to you and knowing the truth about it, I wonder if I was just telling my system it was [something] other than it really was. I think there were both.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 13:26
No, but I think it’s good. I think what you’re pointing out, the sentence you said, “I experienced it,” is indeed physiologically the same. It can be the same. But that’s, of course, different than chronic stress, right?
Dr. Jill 13:41
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 13:43
I know that we’re wired for transient stress that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Those physiologic curves that then take us down, bring us up to a peak [where] I need to take action and I need my autonomic nervous system to really move me out of this potential car crash or out of being yelled at or a threat experience. That keeps us safe. We want that system to be really flexible. We want the ups and downs.
Dr. Jill 14:20
We need it, don’t we? I know you have so much you can tell us about this, but with the pandemic, we’re still somewhat in it but out of it for the most part. But what just happened to all of us was the threat to ego, sense of control, all the classical markers of Hans Selye and his stress system and what causes stress, which is our novelty, unpredictability, threat to ego, and sense of self.
Dr. Jill 14:43
Those things happened, and they were sustained. Talk to us just a little bit about the sustained stressors, like what most of us just went through and the lack of an ending. So [for example], someone who’s experiencing a chronic medical condition that doesn’t change. You probably have better examples than I [do]. But I think with the pandemic, a lot of that was sustained for a long time. Even when we thought it was going to end, it didn’t quite end and then it came back. Now we’re living with a new normal. But to me, that sustained stress is very different. What do we do in those situations? Or how can we have better coping mechanisms with sustained things that are changing our world?
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 15:18
The pandemic is particularly interesting. I happened to have done a study over the period of the pandemic with a wonderful international volunteer organization of professionals who study stress. We develop and offer stress-coping strategies for children, families, and educators. So we’re working with that very vulnerable population of young people whose nervous systems are being formed. We asked the question, “What were your best coping strategies?” It was an interesting study because everyone around the world was experiencing the same components of fear.
Dr. Jill 16:05
Yes, but the magnitude was so different than anything else. There are wars and things that are occasional. Really, unprecedented, almost.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 16:14
So there’s also a beauty to it that nobody talked about. Inside of the fear, inside of the unpredictability that you’re talking about, there was also a shared common humanity. Believe it or not, that was incredibly resourceful for people to know that we were all experiencing a similar type of distress. And when we share distress like that, it softens the blow for all of us.
Dr. Jill 16:41
It’s like the classic, “You’re not alone”—that simple phrase. So many of us go on thinking that we’re the only ones that are experiencing this painful trauma or painful illness. Not that we want anyone else to experience it, but when we know, “You’re not alone,” that alone… And that’s what you’re saying, right? You’re saying that the fact that we knew that we weren’t experiencing it alone was helpful to our psyche.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 17:05
That’s right. That’s exactly right. When people were connected to that overall sense of, “We’re in this together,” it was a buffer for that stress. But, just to summarize the findings from 12 countries… We just published it. It’s a very small preliminary study, and we’re extending our reach. Hopefully, we’ll have about a thousand subjects in the next survey. But what’s beautiful is that we got information from participants from 12 different countries. And what you said was true. People really found that being in contact and being in connection were the primary resources. The other thing that was really resourceful for people was taking a walk. People reconnected with nature all over the world in a whole different way.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 18:01
I think that’s partly why the climate emergency and the climate crisis have risen to the top as quickly as they have. They’ve always been [an issue], but I think people were more one-to-one connected with the rhythms of nature and [had] gratitude for nature in calming their nervous systems. That was such a primary resource. That doesn’t surprise you, I’m sure.
Dr. Jill 18:22
No. My jaw is dropping. It doesn’t surprise me, but I hadn’t really thought about the… Climate change is clearly accelerating and the conversation is finally becoming what it should be. But I never thought about that possible connection to the pandemic and people being in nature and actually realizing this beautiful, precious resource that we have—one of our most precious things—is being destroyed. So I love that you make that connection, because I hadn’t thought about it. But it makes absolute sense that it would be that way.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 18:50
People felt the stillness; people heard the waves; people listened to the trees; people saw dolphins in Venice. People saw things they had never seen before because nature had become much closer as a resource for us. Hopefully, that was part of the impetus.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 19:07
But I want to speak a little bit about this persistent stress, which we call distress. This consistent stress really does tax the nervous system. I want to mention some things that people can really relate to. Consistent and persistent stress can happen in a bad work environment. Consistent and persistent stress can happen in an intimate partnership. It’s sometimes barely perceptible, and sometimes it’s very obvious. Sometimes it happens with raising children who are challenged and parenting. It happens in many different contexts. But it’s good to know when we’re in those situations where our nervous system—I don’t want to use the word relaxed, I want to use the word safe because I think people often don’t even know when they’re relaxed and when they’re not relaxed—[is] in this heightened [state] above baseline; not relaxed.
Dr. Jill 20:11
It’s so funny that you say that. Case in point, I went to a pilates class this morning and she said, “What do you like to do?” And I said, “Well, I like to move. I don’t like to slow down too much.” She said, “Well, that’s exactly what we’re going to do, then.” You need that if you don’t like [to slow down]. By the time the class was over, I was like, “Oh, that was wonderful!” The best thing I could have done for my nervous system. But I didn’t recognize the need for relaxation. I was like: “Let’s go. Let’s go do something!” Probably those people who are usually busy, moving like myself, need the calming [state].
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 20:50
It’s nice to picture it like our nervous systems are elastic bands, wanting that level of flexibility.
Dr. Jill 20:55
Yes, exactly, the flexibility. That’s a great, great way to say it.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 20:59
Sometimes you think that it’s supposed to be [a certain way]. Often, patients misunderstand. What does it mean to have a calm nervous system? I actually don’t think calm nervous systems are particularly healthy. A calm nervous system means that we are understimulated, we are depressed, we are not engaged in life, not connected, and not challenged. Those are actually—since we haven’t talked about brain health—all things that are not good for brain health. So this is a connection, right?
Dr. Jill 21:39
I want to go into neuroplasticity. That is your thing. You’re such an expert on that. Many people have heard the term, but what is neuroplasticity?—first. And then, let’s talk about how we can keep our neuroplasticity, and how we can maintain it.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 21:55
I want to talk about that. Going back to your other question—I promise I’ll come back to this one. If I don’t mention the word ‘loneliness’—you asked me about the stress of the pandemic—then I have not honored all of the root causes of the mental health issues. Fear and loneliness were root causes of a lot of the physiologic challenges—neurologic, immune, hormonal—that we’re seeing now. So, I want to talk about loneliness as a threat. Loneliness is physiologically and neurologically experienced as a threat to the nervous system. We are meant to belong. So that’s why people in my study and in other surveys found that this reconnection with others, whether it was a Facebook Live with you, whether it was meeting with me on another platform—it doesn’t matter what it was, in person or not in person—satisfied that nervous system, the need for belonging.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 23:02
So [back to] your other question [about] neuroplasticity. We have this incredible capacity—inherent, natural, endemic, endogenous, so deep in us—this great capacity for our nervous systems and our brains to change, to be flexible. Everyone who hears the term ‘neuroplasticity’ thinks it’s a new term. I’d like to tell you all that it’s not a new term. When I was a neuroscientist 40 years ago, we talked about how one dose of haloperidol—when I was working in animal models—changed the dopamine system for a very long time. That is neuroplasticity too.
Dr. Jill 23:49
Yes, true. We forget because trauma causes neuroplasticity too.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 23:55
The earliest neuroscientist [was] Cajal. We were talking about neuroplasticity 100 years ago. So I just want to say it’s not a new term. I know some people talk about it as [being] new [but] it’s not. I think what we’re knowing now is that we can optimize our health, our cognition, our longevity, our happiness, and our minds. That’s the best hack. A lot of people do biohacking. That’s the best hack—engaging neuroplasticity optimally.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 24:26
But there’s positive neuroplasticity and there’s negative neuroplasticity, Dr. Jill. I also want people to know that there are internal and external influences too, which modify, moderate, and change neuroplasticity. So let’s start with negative neuroplasticity.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 24:48
Negative neuroplasticity—many of those factors happened during the pandemic. The pandemic was not good for nervous system flexibility. Some of the things that are under the category of negative neuroplasticity are being solitary and being alone, being afraid, and being stuck. You know that frozen state we talk about in the nervous system? A collapsed state—stagnant. That means not learning, not being stimulated. So, of my patients who were looking to optimize brain health, many of them slipped back. If they pulled back and I didn’t see them regularly during the pandemic—
Dr. Jill 25:31
Did you see some decline with this?
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 25:33
Oh, my God! Patients who stayed with me and who were really on top of it—their sleep schedule was good, they were working with their stress, they were staying connected [by] doing groups—[those] people did really well during the pandemic. And actually, with people who weren’t in fear or frozen states, they were able to tap into, I found, very, very deep resources inside.
Dr. Jill 26:07
I agree. I love that you’re saying that, because I think—
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 26:05
It was so positive for some people.
Dr. Jill 26:12
Yes, it was really a transformational time for all of us, some negative transformations, some positive. But, I don’t know of anybody who was unchanged by it, that didn’t have some catalyst for the change in their life. Again, some of it [was] very negative, a lot of it [was] very positive. But I think you’re right. I don’t think there was a big divine plan with this or anything, but I do believe that there’s purpose and meaning in everything and I know we share that. And if there was a greater purpose and meaning, it was a catalyst, wasn’t it? It was a catalyst for change.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 26:45
That’s right. Even now, just to be able to reflect back on “What did we learn?”—a lot of us learned about grief, and a lot of us learned about fear. I was particularly moved—this is a little tangential—when I was working with a pediatric neuropsychologist yesterday and talking about the nervous systems of children who were being formed during this pandemic and how parents related to their children around fear, around loneliness, around buffering kids. I think that’s really important, even now, with children.
Dr. Jill 27:29
This is kind of a tangent for me, but it makes me curious as I hear you. Obviously, research on Holocaust survivors has revealed the effects of stress on unborn children and their parents. What do you think we’ll see in the next generation or so of babies that were born or conceived during this pandemic? Do you think we’ll see an effect on that generation in any way?
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 27:52
There’s no doubt. Rachel Yehuda’s work with Holocaust survivors showed sometimes stuck, sometimes low, sometimes high cortisol. [inaudible] is associated with chronic stress or trauma. I love talking about the epigenetic piece. I also love talking about the ancestral trauma piece that’s inherited in a way that may not yet be measurable. And I make some assumptions about the ancestral inheritance that we all have.
Dr. Jill 28:25
We may think about it as a generation. I know you would know more about this than I do. But clearly, it can be transgenerational or multi-generational, right?
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 28:34
Yes, that’s the inherited piece. I want to share a really beautiful piece of research that was done and has continued to be done in Montreal—by some very wonderful neurophysiologists, social psychologists, and neuropsychologists—on the Montreal ice storm. Studies were done. I think the Montreal ice storm might have been about 10 years ago in Montreal, where the city was blanketed in a thick coating of ice. I don’t know how many days it lasted. I’m going to say a month—a long time. McGill University did a huge study looking at women who had been pregnant during the Montreal ice storm. I’m sorry because I wasn’t planning on talking about this. I haven’t review it; let’s look it up because I’ve studied it before and talked about it in other talks. [They found] incredible long-term changes in children of mothers—[including] cortisol levels, DHEA changes in HPA axis—who were pregnant during that ice storm. So, you asked me about the pandemic. Were children affected? Yes, even if they were in utero.
Dr. Jill 30:06
Yes, it has to have an effect, and we’ve seen in the past that it does. But, it’ll be interesting to see the next generations, how that affects… Now, the other thing is that neuroplasticity means that it can change.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 30:18
That’s right. And if we just name the things that parents can do, the things that we can do that we know are common to both brain health—positive neuroplasticity—and stress resilience… They may seem obvious, but there’s data on each of these points. We create stress resilience when we engage these aspects of positive neuroplasticity as well, which makes sense. They are all things that we can do. We can insert calm into our day. I’m not saying that we need to be calm all day; I don’t think that’s healthy for our nervous system. We can move our bodies every day. We can have a written down ritual or routine every day, which I think is important so that these things get slotted in every day, even if it’s for 10 minutes or an hour. So, moving and grooving, keeping our bodies moving in a happy way [is beneficial]—not because we’re forced to.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 31:22
There’s some data on when we exercise, our attitude and thoughts about engaging with our muscles change our physiology too. So [we’re] keeping our attention on why we’re doing what we’re doing, that we’re building positive neuroplasticity, nourishing our bodies, nourishing our gut. We haven’t even talked about the gut-brain axis and how important and pivotal that wisdom center is in our body. Basically, tending to our wisdom center—nourishing our gut, nourishing our heart, nourishing our brain. Think about those as generative wisdom centers that all engage neuroplasticity depending upon—
Dr. Jill 32:08
And we forget, we think that it’s all in the brain. But you’ve just brought up a great point because in the functional medicine model, which you and I both use, it’s about really engaging all the organs and connecting the heart and the brain, and the brain and the heart, and the gut and the heart—all of this goes together. So I love that. And I love that because even for me, it’s a reminder. As you well know, sometimes I work these days at the clinic and I barely stop for food, but that nourishment really is a part of what sustains me and [gives me the] ability to think clearly and do what I do. It’s a good reminder for all of us.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 32:38
And sometimes it’s simple. Sometimes, working with our nervous system means, “I’m feeling a little jittery, I’m really not clear in my thinking.” We forget about something simple like: Hydration alters cognition.
Dr. Jill 32:51
Absolutely. In fact, at this place I stay at, the little nightstand has a [reminder] that basically says: Drinking so many ounces first thing in the morning is good. Of course, I know that; I teach this. Having the little reminder—it’s like, “Oh yes, I know that!” But I needed to hear that. So, every morning I’ve been drinking a very large glass of water before I get up.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 33:22
And so often in the work that we do, we get into the weeds around the particulars—the biochemistry or the detoxification—and sometimes we forget, just inserting ritual and routine into the day can be very soothing for the nervous system, to create a ritual for the nervous system. That includes sleep. We haven’t talked about sleep yet. But I like to talk to my patients about preparing for sleep when it’s daytime—not creating a sleep ritual right before you go to bed, not just talking about sleep hygiene, but actually making sure we wake up at the same time every day and using an aura ring or some of the other devices.
Dr. Jill 34:02
Yes, it’s so important. I just love that you’re saying that because it’s such a simple thing and yet so [many don’t realize the benefits]. We both talked about how, with our patients, getting them to sleep well is probably the first and most important thing we could do. [Yet] we don’t think about it with neuroplasticity. But clearly, sleep may be the most important thing for cognition, you could probably say—
Dr. Ilenen Naomi Rusk 34:21
That’s right. And I want to talk about electrophysiology now. But, we need to talk about the experience of—there are brain waves varying—having varied brainwaves throughout the day.
Dr. Jill 34:35
Yes. We can’t have all deep, we can’t have all REM, we need variation.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 34:38
That’s right. So [it’s about] being able to create flexibility in that system too, which I hadn’t planned on [discussing]—it just came up. But, we want flexibility and connection; having meaningful connection and becoming aware of: Who is it nourishing to be with? Who do I feel safe with? Who do I feel healed by? So, in my road map, “The Brain Health”, I have like a little map, which you can actually find on my website; I think I have it there. It’s all of the different functional medicine components that contribute to brain health and optimized cognition. The ones we talked about today, really, are stress resilience, we just touched on sleep, we touched on digestion, nutrition, nourishment, and emotional resilience. But all of those other things are very important components of brain health too. Healing trauma—we really didn’t talk about healing trauma. But building stress resilience gives us a great baseline with which to heal trauma.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 35:53
It’s very hard to heal… We can do a lot of our own trauma healing at home. I used to be someone who said: “You have to see a trauma psychologist right away. Don’t do anything else.” But now we want to be able to take on some of the building of stress resilience and building of resources, building allies like we talked about at the beginning of our conversation. Who’s an ally for me? And just begin to [understand]: “What it feels like in my body to feel okay, to feel safe.” That’s the beginning of trauma work.
Dr. Jill 36:26
It is, isn’t it? Just like you said, the safety and finding those connections and people that [we can connect with is so important]. Our friendship is one of those places. We’ve talked before, but it’s just an amazing place where we can go analytical or whatever place we want to go to. It’s a beautiful place of support and unconditional love.
Dr. Jill 36:43
So, [we’re at] our last couple of minutes or so here. I wanted to ask where they can find you. So in a second, we’ll give the website. If someone’s listening and they’ve maybe felt distressed, which we clarified, and they’re feeling overwhelmed, they’re feeling anxious—unless you’ve not been watching the news, we know what’s happening; every day there’s—
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 37:06
Dr. Jill 37:07
So much suffering and so unbelievable, unprecedented. What would you say to someone out there who is struggling with distress? You’ve given them practical tips. What’s one final hopeful thing you might say to them?
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 37:23
I know we have to stop in a minute. I really feel like mind wandering and getting a hold of our minds is something we haven’t talked about. But, we let our minds wander and become the CEO of our lives, and we often walk through our day unaware that we’re being controlled by thoughts that are anxious thoughts, or memories coming back that are trauma patterns we haven’t been aware of. I really still want to suggest to people that there are things to do at home.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 38:04
It’s PTSD awareness month; I just found out. Start to recognize if there are patterns in your own life. Walk through every day noticing: When is there distress? Is it with a person? Is it with the job that I’m doing? Is it an activity that I’m doing? Try to find fun and creative [activities]. It might sound simple, but I think you yourself know the value of fun, pleasure, creativity, drawing, music…
Dr. Jill 38:37
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 38:38
Engage in pleasurable activities and start to recognize what it feels like to do something that’s peaceful, pleasurable, and calming. Notice your thoughts. Take a moment. Take one minute, or take five minutes every hour during the day.
Dr. Jill 38:59
Yes, they could set an alarm.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 39:02
There are so many wonderful apps like Calm or Insight Timer that can remind you on the hour.
Dr. Jill 39:11
To breathe or check in.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 39:13
Check in with your thoughts. Check in with your breath. I love going to breath first, because there’s so much we can play with [when it comes to] breath. We can activate a sympathetic arousal response or we can totally settle with breath. So breath is a fun thing to play with to create flexibility and get to know the flexibility and the nervous system that I’ve been talking about with you today. So I love breath, connecting with breath, and taking that minute or five minutes to just notice [a change]. I’m letting my mind wander; I’m going to connect with breath and let my thought wander off like a cloud in the sky. Whatever visual works for you. The cloud in the sky; the ‘I am the sky’; my thought is the cloud moving by. We can get still enough.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 40:02
If we had longer, I’d do a practice with your viewers right now, but we don’t have enough [time]. Even right now, you and I can do it together. We can just both settle and we can both get to the bottom of our breath on the exhale. We can create just a moment of space and we can attend intentionally to a breath. It takes us out of the business, right?
Dr. Jill 40:33
Yes. And what a beautiful way to end, because it’s something everybody can do. You don’t have to have special training, and you can practice and you can experiment. Granted, there’s a lot you can do with someone who’s trained like you, but it’s very, very simple and very practical. So, where can people find you? Give us your website so people can look up information.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 40:53
Yes, sure. It’s ilenenaomirusk.com and on Instagram it’s @dr_rusk. I think you’ll probably have it on your—
Dr. Jill 41:05
Yes, I will link it up to wherever you hear this.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 41:07
And I have a lot of blogs. I love for people to learn about their nervous systems, brain health, and a functional medicine approach that includes trauma healing and trauma release. I think that’s really important. Because it just happens to be PTSD awareness month—
Dr. Jill 41:24
Yes, such a perfect time. That’s why I said, we’ve had kind of a crazy day. Maybe you didn’t. I had a little crazy day today, but I’m so glad—
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 41:31
We both did.
Dr. Jill 41:34
Thank you for your time today and your wisdom. We will definitely come back and do this again.
Dr. Ilene Naomi Rusk 41:39
I can’t wait!
Dr. Jill 41:40
Thank you, all listeners! Everywhere you watch this, you will find the links that we just gave out, and we’ll talk soon.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.