The limbic system is not something that is often discussed, nor is it as widely known as other systems in the body. However, this small but important set of structures in the brain are in charge of many of the body’s most basic and high-level functions. Unfortunately, when it is not working properly symptoms may arise that are varied, widespread, intense, and quite confusing. It takes a trained eye to be able to see the effects of an over- or under-active limbic system, and functional medicine is leading the way in recognizing, treating, and healing limbic dysfunction.
What are the limbic system structures, and what does this system do?
The limbic system is located in the brain, including much of the inner, middle part of the brain just above the brainstem (1). Because knowledge of this system is rather new, there is some debate about which parts of the brain are included, but the hippocampus and amygdala are the most widely agreed-upon with other areas of the brain undoubtedly involved as well (2). The included structures support a range of functions, including (1, 2, 3):
Evaluating and processing emotion, as well as emotional reactivity and response
Determining threats and preparing the body for the fight or flight response
Memory consolidation and recall, especially about emotions
Emotional reaction to pain
Regulating aggressive and combative behavior
Sense of smell
Some motor behavior (including voluntary and involuntary movement)
Because the limbic system supports so many key functions that humans need to survive (emotion, behavior, learning, and long-term memory), the limbic system is also called the emotional nervous system (1). It is also a possible explanation for the link between emotions and physical responses, e.g. how stress can lead to hypertension or emotional distress to digestive upset (1).
What happens when the limbic system is dysfunctional?
Limbic system dysfunction can affect all of the processes listed above, which can have incredibly far-reaching consequences. Dysfunction, whether from genetics, trauma (physical or emotional), underlying health issues, toxicity, illness, inflammation, or other physical factors, can cause a number of symptoms, including (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6):
Strong reactions to mild stimuli from sounds, light, fragrance, touch, stress, etc.
Various digestive issues
Mast cell activation
Low energy, chronic fatigue
Anxiety, fear, and anxiety disorders
Low motivation, depression
Brain fog, disorientation, memory loss, and disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s
Changes in behavior, such as disinhibited behavior, increased anger or violence, or changes in mood
Over-, binge-, or emotional eating, as well as other forms of appetite dysregulation
Substance abuse or dependence
Changes to sex drive
Seizures, epilepsy, or movement disorders
The Problem with Limbic System Dysfunction
Because the extent of damage and dysfunctions of the limbic system are still being discovered and studied (and even the structures that make up the system are still yet to be agreed upon!), it often goes underdiagnosed. However, underdiagnosis is not only attributed to its novelty. It can be difficult for practitioners to determine the root cause of symptoms given that limbic system dysfunction can result in such a wide range of symptoms, and so can present as any number of combinations of physical, psychiatric, cognitive, and/or behavioral symptoms (6). Patients are often offered a number of other treatments to help the wide-ranging symptoms, while the root of the issue goes untreated. This is so unfortunate, because so often limbic system dysfunction is able to be treated (6)!
Limbic System Retraining Programs
In order to treat any dysfunction, especially one involving the brain, it is critical that the patient and their physician work together to compile as much information as possible. The physician will take a full health history including any injuries, illnesses, and family history, as well as past travel, and will likely perform tests that may cover a variety of functions. Once it is determined that the symptoms are not arising from other sources and that it could be limbic system dysfunction, then treatment will move forward.
Functional medicine’s primary focus is on treating the root cause, while simultaneously alleviating symptoms in order to give the body as much relief and energy toward healing as possible. Limbic system retraining programs are some of the most effective treatment options available, combining a number of different mindfulness and therapy-based approaches which help to improve brain plasticity and allow it to respond differently to stimuli. Not only will we work with you to find the right program to help treat your limbic system, but our team will also work with you to find the right supportive lifestyle to help ensure its effectiveness.
Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS)
DNRS is a brain-function centered program that focuses on increasing neuroplasticity. It functions based on the premise that disorganization of neural networks that occur during trauma to the brain can cause mechanisms within the limbic system to fire at both inappropriate and rapid timing, leading to lowered body function and the number of dysfunctions listed above (8).
The program focuses on healing both limbic system impairment and chronic stress response. Its purpose is to “rewire” the brain by affecting both brain structure and function. DNRS integrates cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based cognitive restructuring, emotional restructuring therapy, neural-linguistic programming, behavior modification therapy, and incremental training (which is a form of neural training). The goal is to switch the body out of fight-or-flight mode and into a normal parasympathetic state, which allows the body to rest, heal, repair, and grow (8). Many people have found relief from multiple chemical sensitivity, chronic fatigue syndrome, electric hypersensitivity syndrome, fibromyalgia, long-COVID, and more from DNRS (11).
The Gupta Program
The Gupta program shares some similarities with DNRS in that it is a mindfulness-based health program for chronic conditions that focuses on neuroplasticity. The program helps participants to retrain the brain, reducing hyper-reactivity, over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, and hyper-arousal of the body that can cause symptoms and secondary illnesses (9). The basic concepts of this retraining involve psychoeducation, physical exercise, mindfulness, and cognitive-behavior therapy, all of which work in tandem together to be a mind-body approach (9). The Gupta program’s study shows significant reductions in functional impairment and mental health disorders like anxiety and depression, as well as improvements in psychological flexibility, clinical severity, and quality of life (9). Many patients and practitioners have also seen great success from this treatment for other conditions, such as chronic fatigue, sensitivities to chemicals and mold, fibromyalgia, pain syndromes, IBS and SIBO, long-COVID, and other chronic pain conditions (10).
Other Treatment Options
Depending on your specific needs and symptoms, there are a number of other treatments that can also help alleviate symptoms and promote healing, such as:
Improving the gut microbiome through probiotics and diet to reduce toxic load and reduce brain inflammation
Addressing any infections or microbe imbalances
Managing stress levels
Avoiding mold, toxins, or chemicals that trigger responses
Other therapies to promote healing such as chiropractic care, massage therapy, acupuncture, lifestyle and nutrition education, regenerative therapies, or even different types of counseling to strengthen mental health and work through any trauma
If you have any concerns about the symptoms or disorders listed above, please reach out to us! We would love to help determine the root cause and work with you to find the right program, therapies, and lifestyle changes that can bring you to a place of greater health. It is our joy to partner with you!
Jonathan Vellinga, MD is an Internal Medicine practitioner with a broad interest in medicine. He graduated Summa cum laude from Weber State University in Clinical Laboratory Sciences and completed his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Upon graduation from medical school, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at the University of Michigan. Dr. Vellinga is board-certified with the American Board of Internal Medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine.
1. Limbic System. Physiopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://www.physio-pedia.com/Limbic_System.
2. Guy-Evans, O. (2021, April 22). Limbic system: Definition, parts, functions, and location. Limbic System: Definition, Parts, Functions, and Location | Simply Psychology. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/limbic-system.html.
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7. Budhram, A., Leung, A., Nicolle, M. W., & Burneo, J. G. (2019). Diagnosing autoimmune limbic encephalitis. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l'Association medicale canadienne, 191(19), E529–E534. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.181548
8. Understanding the science. Dynamic Neural Retraining System. (2021, October 13). Retrieved October 26, 2021, from https://retrainingthebrain.com/understanding-the-science/.
9. Gupta A. (2002). Unconscious amygdalar fear conditioning in a subset of chronic fatigue syndrome patients. Medical hypotheses, 59(6), 727–735. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0306-9877(02)00321-3.
10. Gupta, Ashok. (n.d.). Gupta program: The secret of amygdala retraining. The Gupta Program. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from https://www.guptaprogram.com/.
11. Can DNRS work for me? Dynamic Neural Retraining System. (2021, October 19). Retrieved October 26, 2021, from https://retrainingthebrain.com/can-dnrs-work-for-me/.