AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. HUBERMAN ON THE PROBLEMS OF OUR TIME AND HOW WE SHOULD DEAL WITH THEM
The tools we use are critical in times like this!
Huberman: My lab was really obsessed with what affects our mind and body. The reason for this is that we all want to wake up in the morning rested and motivated to tackle the challenges ahead. Sometimes you have to be quiet and listen, sometimes you have to drive hard. We want to fall asleep easily at night and also be able to concentrate.
Question: So mental and physical states really determine what we call successful performance in life. And we’re talking about success from a broad perspective, ranging from purely financial, professional, and also relational, emotional, etc.
What defines the states of the body and mind?
Huberman: I asked myself this question about a decade ago, and it’s like a mind-body contract to be aligned in a certain way in order to achieve a common purpose at that moment. This may be to meet the demands of listening or the demands of empathy and aggressively pursuing the goal we are currently striving for.
We wanted to know how we can influence our state of body and mind. As we may know, people currently do things to achieve certain mental and physical states, such as: Drink caffeine, exercise, meditate, etc.
However, all of these activities have a rather indirect effect on the system responsible for our states of mind and body, and that is the nervous system (which includes the brain, spinal cord, and the connections between the brain, spinal cord, and spinal cord).
I do not differentiate between body and mind. When we talk about states, they are one and the same. However, there is a contract. The mind cannot be in one place and the body in another place when our goal is to align our state with a certain action or state of mind. There has to be congruence.
If we really want to be efficient in getting the mind and body into a desired state, we have to follow what I call the contract. So the tools that science has revealed to us obey this contract of communication between body and mind.
Question: To put a little stress on the nervous system, why can someone “sleep” for 7-8 hours and still wake up when the nervous system has not recovered, especially with regard to persistent stress?
Huberman: In the short term, stress is good, and I am saying this because I hope it will relieve people of the concern that there is an increase in stress levels. Stress is created to be cyclical in our lives, but we don’t want it to be chronically high or low.
Humans and our nervous system are well equipped to deal with current events (pandemic, protests, etc.). What we should really be concerned about is chronic stress.
I firmly believe that everyone should have at least two types of tools for stress relief. First of all, we need real-time or online tools for stress. One of the things my lab was obsessed with is creating tools that we can use to quickly calm our nervous system down.
Question: Is meditation a real-time tool?
Meditation is a terrible real-time stress management tool because when you and I are in the middle of a stressful interaction, I can’t run away to meditate so I can calm down. So we need tools that are fast and can work for us at the moment.
The other type of tool we need are the “offline” tools that raise our threshold when we encounter stress. This is like raising our lowest point when a stress response is triggered.
Question: What real-time tool have you been working on?
The real-time tool we’ve worked on a lot is based on the neural science of breathing. During sleep, and sometimes during the day, we all do what is called a “real sigh”, we inhale and then we inhale again before we exhale long. We do this subconsciously, and the reason breathing happened so is that we have neurons in our neck that evaluate the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream and lungs. When this is balanced, the neurons force the sigh. However, we don’t really have to wait for this unconscious reset to happen as it usually occurs well into the stress cycle. So I recommend that people who want to calm down quickly and in the moment should keep breathing in through their nose and then slowly exhaling through their mouth.
And just repeating this once or two, or sometimes three times, will quickly put someone into a more relaxed state. It’s important to note that it will always take about 40 seconds for your heart rate to drop. The neural circuits that control the heart work a little slower than those that control the lungs. So we shouldn’t expect our heart rate to drop immediately when we perform the breathing pattern just described.
For people who have difficulty breathing through their nose due to congested sinuses, it’s okay to make the “real sigh” through your mouth.
One more thing that I haven’t spoken about publicly because the discovery was from another lab, not mine, is about the gut microbiome and the importance of maintaining a healthy gut microbiome for a healthy mind and body. There is new research showing that we have a nasal biome. This microbiome in our nose is where beneficial bacteria called lactobacillus reside.
When we breathe a lot through the nose, the lactobacillus multiplies in the nasal biome, keeping the nasal passage healthy and improving immunity.
Q: So there are many reasons for you to double inhale through your nose and long exhale through your mouth while you are going through your day feeling stressed. This is a real-time tool for you. What’s the science in it?
Huberman: The science behind this is that when we inhale twice, we inflate the bags in our lungs and fill them with air. This pushes carbon dioxide out of our blood into the lungs so that it can be removed when we exhale. Inhaling is not just about taking in oxygen, it’s also about responding to the sensors in our brain that detect that carbon dioxide levels have risen. Stress increases carbon dioxide levels, and the “right sigh” lowers carbon dioxide levels, so our mental and physical stress can decrease. To the best of my knowledge, this is the fastest way to relieve stress.
I want to emphasize that the tools we are talking about focus on using the body to control the mind. It is very difficult to control the mind with the mind. Let us remember the contract between mind and body; The body provides a lever with which we can influence the mind so that both are in sync. Telling yourself to calm down won’t work because you failed to keep the contract. We appeal to a stressed mind to calm down, but we have not paid attention to the body, which is also suffering from stress.
Question: What about tools for managing long-term stress?
Huberman: That brings us to what I call offline tools. These are tools that we can use to better manage stress and here we are going to talk about two types of tools.
There is this debate in the self-help and psychology community about whether we need to teach ourselves how to calm down or whether we need to practice having a higher limit on what we consider stressful.
It turns out that these are two different approaches to dealing with the same problem. Things like mindfulness meditation, yoga nidra, and other such practices teach our nervous systems to relax and we will find it easier to sleep. Most importantly, they make it harder to create stress in us. There is actually scientific evidence to back this up, as such exercises have been found to reset our serotonin, dopamine, and other biochemical substances that determine our mental state.
However, there are other activities that can make us less prone to stress. This includes “super-oxygenated breathing”, in which we inhale and exhale 25 large breaths in quick succession and then hold while we hold our breath. Why does it work Exhaling this quickly releases adrenaline and if we remain calm despite the adrenaline levels in our system, we raise the upper limit for the next time a potentially stressful event occurs.
This is like driving on a bumpy road for the first time. It’s unsettling because we’ve never seen anything like it. However, if we are on these roads several times, we go along with the bumps because we are now used to them and they no longer burden us. The same goes for exercises that raise your threshold for what we call stress.
For people suffering from chronic stress, you might want to ask yourself whether you are doing things that will lower our stress levels in the moment or those that will raise the bar for what our minds and bodies consider stressful things.
Personally, as soon as I wake up in the morning I do a yoga nidra exercise, it is a deep relaxation session that involves intention, I focus my mind and I swear I come out of feeling that my state of mind and positive attitude are changing has changed a lot. There is a lot of data to support Yoga Nidra as a practice for restoring neurochemicals in the brain. So I highly recommend it. It’s free, fast, and falling asleep first thing in the morning or at night when we’re having trouble falling asleep is a great exercise.
But I also do a super-oxygenated breath log about five days a week. Advanced warning; High-oxygen breathing should not be done near water or while driving as it may make us feel more excited.
Question: How is superoxygenation breathing done?
Huberman: It’s about taking a deep breath and then exhaling briefly and then repeating the deep breath and exhaling briefly about 25 times. By the twenty-fifth time we will tingle, and frankly, a lot of people are not going to feel good by that time. We will feel that this is challenging us. But then we can breathe out for a long time and just sit there for 15 to 30 seconds until we feel the impulse to breathe. But don’t force it.
What happens to most people is that the first lap doesn’t feel good, but the second lap makes you feel alert and calm, and the third lap we report that we feel damn good. However, we also say, and the preliminary results of our ongoing research confirm this, that the stress threshold is raised so that the next time something stressful happens on the news or on our minds, you can stay calm in the storm.
This is an intentional burden on us so that we can better deal with stressful situations should they ever arise.
Question: How is this exercise related to neuroscience?
Huberman: What interests me in my laboratory how to create a unified theory about how our breath influences the states of mind. These can only be understood by looking at the proportions of carbon dioxide and oxygen, the levels of neurochemicals, etc. However, all people are interested in getting the tools to achieve the mental states they want!
The thing is, parts of the brain are constantly communicating with each other through neural connections. Chemicals known as neuromodulators, such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, roughly group several areas of the brain into segments. These are usually 4-6 areas, like the circuit to focus, another to relax, etc.
Much emphasis has been placed on each area of the brain, but the reality is that different areas work together to create a certain effect. The neuromodulators are the connections that bring these different parts together like strings on a piano.
Question: Is there a proper way to breathe when we are sighing properly or breathing with oxygen?
Huberman: In fact, there is no science that says abdominal breathing or breathing without moving the ribs is superior to any other type of breathing. A nervous system is connected to the diaphragm, and this is the only organ that we can specifically control. We cannot control our liver or spleen, for example, but when we regulate our breathing, we have an enormous impact on our body chemistry. So let us consider how we breathe from time to time and reap the benefits of resetting our mental state.