The Complexity of Our Astonishing Brains, the Amygdala's Role in Emotional Memories & How to Nourish the Entire Structure
The Complexity of Our Astonishing Brains, the Amygdala's Role in Emotional Memories & How to Nourish the Entire Structure
The Amygdala is a tiny brain region with enormous importance: It's the brain area that drives our experiences of fear, worry, and other strong emotions, like motivation.
By Mark Zuleger-Thyss
Do you fall asleep or get dazzled when people talk about neurotransmitters, amino acids, and new ways to manipulate different brain parts?
Your Brain on Food
Looking at your diet holistically adds clarity and informs how can you eat to maximize the remarkable power of the brain. Diet and mental health are intricately linked — and the connection between them goes both ways: a lack of good dietary choices leads to an increase in mental health issues, and mental health issues in turn lead to poor eating habits.
What foods best feed the brain can be found at the end of this article.
Most people love psychological research, including neuroscience, but there are limits to how much a layman can absorb. For example, there are some whose eyes glaze over at the brain's complexity and then others who master the details.
Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) is widely considered to be the father of modern neuroscience. Wishing himself to be an artist, he apprenticed first to a barber and then to a cobbler.
Encouraged by his father, who was a Professor of Applied Anatomy at the University of Saragossa, young Santiago decided to study medicine, chiefly under the direction of his father. Santiago excelled at making anatomy drawings and took this talent to become one of the first to uncover the mysteries of our brain's architecture.
In 1906, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, along with fellow-Spaniard Camillo Golgi, won a Nobel Prize for their collaborative efforts using state-of-the-art slide-making techniques. Golgi developed the methods to illustrate distinctively individual neurons in the brain.
Santiago, the erstwhile cobbler, went from his love of making beautiful drawings of tapestry-like neural networks to winning a Nobel Prize.
The Amygdalae are involved with Emotional Regulation
Overall, the brain seems like an incredibly complex subject to study, and for many, that's true. But, to its credit, nothing in nature approaches the human brain in complexity.
Neuroscience students face this "complexity dilemma" when they try to understand how all the different parts of the brain work so brilliantly in unison. Unfortunately, no one brain part exists in isolation, as they are constantly communicating and influencing each other. So, what is the benefit of trying to understand different parts of the brain?
Some aspects of our brain structure and function are easy to comprehend. However, gaining a full appreciation of the brain's depth and intricacy requires an awareness of the sheer volume and density of scientific research available. With so much data, let's focus on one part, the Amygdala, and learn what it does best.
Where is the Amygdala located in the Brain?
Amygdala [from Greek amygdale = almond], almond core, corpus amygdaloideum, E amygdala, amygdaloid body.
The Amygdala is a collection of nuclei found deep within the Brain's temporal lobes. Amygdala comes from Latin and translates to "almond" because one of the most prominent nuclei of the Amygdala has an almond shape. These two oddly shaped cell masses can be credited with helping keep us alive.
Although we often refer to the Amygdala in the singular, there are two Amygdalae, one in each cerebral hemisphere. And they assist with a variety of brain activities.
The Amygdala helps us learn and remember. It triggers our fight-or-flight response. It even promotes the release of a feel-good chemical called dopamine.
Your Amygdala's core area is located at the medial tip of the temporal lobe immediately in front of the hippocampus, which is considered part of the limbic system.
As an integral part of this system, the Amygdala is both a connector and a communicator. It sends messages directly to the hippocampus, which relays information to other brain areas, including the hypothalamus (releases hormones), thalamus (transmits motor and sensory signals to the cerebral cortex), and cerebral cortex.
The outermost part of the Brain, the cerebral cortex, is divided into four main lobes. From front to back are the frontal lobe (cognition), the parietal lobe (sensory information), and the occipital lobe (visual processing), and below that is the temporal lobe (memory creation and retention, speech recognition, and auditory perception).
Go Purple to Raise Awareness for Alzheimer’s
The Amygdala | What does it do?
Essential Roles | Emotion, Behavior & Fear Processing
Nearly two hundred years ago, a physician dissecting a human body first recognized the region of the Brain that would come to be known as the Amygdala.
Yet our modern understanding of the Amygdala function can be traced back to the 1930s when Heinrich Kluver and Paul Bucy removed the Amygdala from rhesus monkeys and saw drastic effects on behavior.
Among other things, the monkeys became more docile and seemed to show little fear. The constellation of behavior resulting from removing the Amygdala has been called Kluver-Bucy syndrome. It has led to the Amygdala being investigated for its role in fear regulation.
Fear Response Center
The Amygdala complex is the center for the development of feelings. It is responsible for emotionally evaluating perceptions such as smells and then triggering a reaction. In addition, the Amygdala's core complex controls reflexes and bodily functions such as breathing and circulation.
The Amygdala stores the events of situations associated with emotions. And since it primarily controls the feeling of fear, it is also referred to as the fear center of the Brain.
Understanding how the Brain naturally regulates what information gets prioritized for storage and what fades away could provide critical insight for developing new therapeutic approaches to strengthening memory for those at risk of memory loss.
When exposed to a frightening stimulus, information about that stimulus is immediately sent to the Amygdala.
This is done via neurotransmitters (messenger substances) such as acetylcholine or dopamine and stress hormones such as adrenaline which are released. This can trigger an escape reaction.
On the other hand, a hug can help calm the Amygdala, and in so doing, the hormone oxytocin is released, inhibiting the Brain's scary "flight-reaction" response.
In addition to fear, the corpus amygdaloideum is also responsible for emotions such as anger or sadness. Animal experiments found that sex drive, eating behavior, and heartbeat are controlled there.
Metaphysical Aspects of the Amygdala
Conscious Evolution, Emotional Intelligence & the Spiritually Sublime
Several brain parts are essential in understanding how the brain and body function during trauma. They include the forebrain, the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system, which is in the brain's center, and the brain stem. The Amygdala holds the emotional significance of all events, including the intensity and impulse of emotion. Unfortunately, many of us would not be here today without our Amygdalae because our ancestors would probably have perished.
The brain structures of the limbic system, e.g., the Amygdala, hippocampus, and inferior temporal lobe, have been implicated in the generation of fear, love, intense emotions, and religious and spiritual beliefs. Therefore, central to conscious evolution and increasing emotional intelligence, is to train our Amygdala and nervous system to be more relaxed.
The Amygdala can receive, process, and integrate multiple signals from all the sensory modalities simultaneously. For example, it enables us to hear "sweet sounds," recall "bitter memories," or determine if something is spiritually significant, sexually enticing, or good to eat.
The ability to discern what is worth reacting to versus what needs to be observed will help you in many aspects of your life. The Amygdala enables us to experience the sublime, is concerned with the most basic animal emotions, and allows us to store emotional and personally significant experiences in memory. Embracing any process of deepening your awareness of yourself will give you a better sense of compassion for the behavior we see in others.
The Evolutionary Ancient Brain
The Amygdala was initially thought to be an autonomous brain region. However, researchers soon observed that it had closely related and nearby structures that appeared to be engaged in the same activities.
There are parts of the Brain close enough in proximity and functioning to be considered part of the Amygdala. But scholars agreed to call the original almond-like shape and some other adjacent brain parts engaged in similar activities the "amygdaloid complex," or just "Amygdala" for short.
In summary, the Amygdala is a tiny brain region highly involved in specific emotional and cognitive processes. This region is an evolutionarily ancient part of the Brain: it is involved in "primitive" functions such as our sense of smell. However, it is also highly interconnected with more recently evolved parts of the Brain.
Memory Formation & Fear-inducing Events
The Amygdala's involvement in initiating a fear response is just one of its talents. It is also essential for forming memories associated with fear-inducing events.
For example, say you take mice with intact Amygdalae and play a musical tone before giving them an uncomfortable foot shock. Then, they will quickly associate this sound with the unpleasant electrical surprise. The mice will begin showing a fear reaction (e.g., freezing in place) as soon as the musical tone is played, but before the shock starts.
"It's easier to remember emotional events—like the birth of your child—than other events from around the same time," says Salman E. Qasim, lead author of a new study at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai. "The brain clearly has a natural mechanism for strengthening certain memories, and we wanted to identify it."
It shouldn't be too surprising (given its role in fear processing) that the Amygdala may also play a role in anxiety.
While fear is considered a response to a present threat, anxiety involves the dread that accompanies thinking about a potentially threatening event that may or may not ever materialize.
Studies suggest that the Amygdala is involved in the experience of anxiety and may be overactive in people with anxiety disorders. However, with most human behaviors, anxiety probably consists of a network of brain areas, so activity in the Amygdala doesn't tell us everything we need to know about emotions.
The Amygdala | Its Role in Fear, Anxiety & Motivation
Much evidence suggests the Amygdala's contribution to behavior is much more complex. For example, the Amygdala also forms positive memories, such as earning a reward in an experiment. Damage to the Amygdala can impair its ability to develop these positive memories.
Researchers have been forced to expand the Amygdala's role beyond a threat detector or fear generator.
"Our emotional memories are one of the most critical aspects of the human experience, informing everything from our decisions to our entire personality," Qasim added. "Any steps we can take to mitigate their loss in memory disorders or prevent their hijacking in psychiatric disorders is hugely exciting."
A favored perspective suggests the Amygdala evaluates things in the environment to determine their importance - whether their value is positive or negative - and to generate emotional responses to the necessary stimuli.
The Amygdala may also consolidate memories with a strong emotional component, whether the associated emotions are pleasant or unpleasant.
Our understanding of the Amygdala's function is still evolving, and we likely have much more to learn before thoroughly cataloging this complex structure's activities.
Treatments, Interventions & Supplements that Improve or Rebalance Amygdala Function
The Amygdalae are tasked with processing and regulating memory and emotions, especially fear and anxiety. Dysfunction or imbalance within the Amygdala often results in maladaptive social behavior, such as phobias, compulsions, paranoia, and depression.
Studies have also found that a higher IQ is associated with more mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Those with higher intelligence may be more likely to experience worry, anxiety, and other mood disorders. And chronic stress can shrink the Amygdala and lead to depression and anxiety. When exposed to too much cortisol, brain cells may start dying.
Stress causes the Amygdala to grow, and meditation helps shrink it. Slow breathing and being aware of your thoughts will calm the Amygdala.
You can do this by slowing down, taking deep breaths, and refocusing your thoughts. These steps allow your brain's frontal lobes to take over for the irrational Amygdala. When this happens, you have control over your responses, and you won't be left feeling regretful or embarrassed by your behavior.
Meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain. However, with as little as eight weeks of consistent mindfulness practice, you can tame and shrink your Amygdala.
You can keep your Amygdala healthy by practicing stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and exercising. It is also essential to work through symptoms of PTSD, severe anxiety, or panic with a trained professional.
Some herbs affect brain chemistry and hormone production, balancing the Amygdala function and alleviating symptoms.
Magnesium, a calming mineral, maybe guard against stress hormones entering the brain. The Amygdala signals the entire body, creating tight muscles, increased sensitivities, and insomnia.
Fortunately, the effects of Amygdala damage can be improved through rigorous training and therapy. A doctor or therapist can provide individuals with the most effective treatments for their conditions and tips to promote recovery.
Rapid Eye Movement Therapy (EMDR) for "reprocessing" the Amygdala
EMDR is a treatment that has been around since 1987 and may help patients with an over-activated Amygdala.
Control of the pre-frontal cortex is reduced when experiencing overwhelming events and reliving the trauma. When you get triggered, the rational thinking part of your brain can't control the emotional aspect of your brain, and you feel overwhelmed.
The traumatic memories get stuck in the Amygdala-hippocampal complex, and when triggered, they appear to occur in the present. "Stuck" memories are thought to be memories that haven't been processed yet.
While sleeping, we process and consolidate memories from the hippocampus to the neocortex. Regular, less traumatic memories don't become stuck because, at night, when we dream, these memories are moved out of the Amygdala-hippocampal complex and processed by the rest of the brain.
Neuroscientists propose that what happens during REM (dream) sleep happens during EMDR.
This "reprocessing" temporarily slows down your Amygdala and synchronizes your brain waves, helping you deal with the traumatic memory.
During EMDR therapy, traumatic memories are continuously reactivated, replayed, and encoded into existing memory networks. EMDR helps traumatic memories become untangled and processed like your usual, less traumatic memories.
What is EMDR? ~ Rapid Eye Movement Therapy
Feeding Your Brain | Support for Memory & Brain Health
Diet and mental health have a causative link. Poor dietary choices tend to increase mental health issues, and more mental health issues, in turn, lead to poor eating habits.
Instead of looking for specific foods that strengthen the power of your Amygdala, it seems more sensible to eat foods that impact brain health overall.
Foods such as almonds, blueberries, salmon, yogurt, chamomile, and green tea can help calm the Amygdala. Here are a few brain boosters you can consume to improve your mood, sharpen your memory, and help your brain work at peak efficiency.
Eating Smart | The Benefits of Eating Avocados
Avocados are a superfood high in monounsaturated fatty acids, known to be healthy. According to Kansas State University, healthy unsaturated fats in avocados help keep your brain cell membranes flexible.
They are a source of vital nutrients, including fiber and vitamins C, E, B6, potassium, and folate. In addition, avocados contain high amounts of magnesium, essential for proper brain function.
Numerous studies have shown depression is related to magnesium deficiency. Increasing your magnesium intake from 125 mg to 300 mg daily can help with major depression. Recovery was often achieved in as little as a week.
From raw to cooked, avocados are delicious in many forms, on their own or as part of another meal. Add avocados to smoothies. Puréed avocado is excellent on toast and makes a nutrient-dense, convenient breakfast meal. However, you can never go wrong with using avocados as the main ingredient in guacamole.
Avocados are rich in folate and vitamin K, which improve cognitive brain functions such as concentration and memory.
Dark, Dark Chocolate | Best Food for Your Brain
Extra dark chocolate is excellent for brain health, although pure cocoa is best, given it is high in flavanols. Dark chocolate's abundant phenolic plant compounds have marked antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Just make sure you stick to the dark stuff – and it doesn't have too much sugar.
Many research studies have strongly suggested that the amount of flavanol is a critical factor in helping seniors to reduce memory loss. However, other studies found that flavanol helps regulate mood and even depression.
Dark chocolate is an excellent source of iron, which helps make up the covering that protects neurons and helps control the synthesis of the chemicals and chemical pathways involved in mood.
Due to their ability to increase blood flow to the brain, compounds in dark chocolate boost memory, attention span, reaction time, and problem-solving skills.
Remember, the darker the chocolate, the more flavanols.
Adding Leafy Greens to your Diet keeps your Brain Sharp
Leafy greens such as kale, arugula, spinach, and collard greens contain vitamin E, carotenoids, and flavonoids, which are nutrients that protect against dementia and cognitive decline.
Spinach, Swiss chard, and dandelion greens are excellent sources of folate, which is the natural form of vitamin B9, important in red blood cell formation. Where folate deficiency may underlie some neurological conditions, increasing folate intake benefits cognition and is a cofactor in neurotransmitter production.
Eating leafy greens provides a healthy dose of folate, leading to more serotonin production, which may lift your mood and stave off other health issues linked to depression, such as diabetes, vascular dementia, and Alzheimer's disease.
Nutrients associated with good cognitive health like lutein, vitamin K, nitrate, alpha-tocopherol, beta-carotene, and kaempferol are all particularly dense in leafy green vegetables.
Kaempferol has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, cardiovascular, and neuroprotective properties. Due to its resemblance to estrogen hormone, kaempferol might help treat hormone-regulated cancers such as ovarian, breast, cervical, hepatocellular carcinoma, and leukemia.
Nuts & Seeds | Healthy Brain Fuels
Gathering nuts and seeds for consumption has been around since our hunter-gatherer days. Small and often laborious to crack open, nuts, and seeds offer potent nutrition with many brain-boosting benefits. Nuts and seeds include walnuts, almonds, cashews, pecans, flax, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds.
Nuts have healthy fats and oils that our brains need to function efficiently, along with essential vitamins and minerals — for example, selenium in Brazil nuts.
Almonds contain a potent brain ingredient called phenylalanine. This essential amino acid produces mood-stabilizing hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine. They are rich in vitamin E and are also a great source of riboflavin, iron, magnesium, and L-carnitine, which supports choline metabolism to improve memory by reducing neuronal degeneration.
Cashews contain over eighty nutrients and help increase oxygen flow to the brain. Pecans protect your brain against motor neuron degeneration.
Flax seeds are a rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce the stress response to calm us down. Omega-3 deficiencies have been linked to postpartum depression, ADHD, Tourette syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome. The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts show great promise in improving thinking and memory.
Sunflower seeds are rich in mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids and contain several vitamins and minerals, including vitamins E, C, B1, B3, B5, B6, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and selenium. They also contain tryptophan, which helps the brain to produce the calming neurotransmitter serotonin.
Only eat 1/4 cup of nuts daily and no more, as it's easy to overdo it with nuts.
Nuts and seeds are suitable as a snack, or you can add them to your salads or vegetable side dishes. They can even be combined into a homemade granola or trail mix that contains much less sugar and salt than store-bought versions.
Herbs & Spices for Brain Health
Herbs and spices are a natural pharmacy. Sometimes, magic pills and remedies for mental health problems or brain health, in general, can come in herbs and spices. Certain foods, nutrients, herbs, and spices may help your body reduce anxiety and improve how it handles stress and other issues like depression.
Spices are also known for their antioxidant properties, which help the brain fight off harmful free radicals and prevent oxidative stress, which can damage tissue.
If you consume various herbs and spices daily, their vast pharmacological effects will benefit your overall health. Although left out of this discussion, other spices and herbs include Gotu Kola, Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Ginkgo Biloba, Sage, and Lemon Balm.
Turmeric is a spice long used in Ayurveda, and over the last few decades, this spice has gained in popularity. It is a standout for its help in reducing anxiety. Curcumin, the ingredient in turmeric, is a compound that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. It can decrease stress and change the corresponding brain chemistry, protecting the hippocampus.
Preliminary research suggests that turmeric may boost brain health and stave off Alzheimer's disease by clearing the brain of beta-amyloid. The buildup of beta-amyloid is known to form Alzheimer's-related brain plaques.
Crocus Sativus | Source of Saffron Spice
Anxiety, stress, and low mood are closely related and may contribute to depressive symptoms. Natural products, such as saffron—seem promising in major depressive disorder—and represent a relevant strategy.
One study assessed the efficacy of 8 weeks' supplementation with 30 mg standardized saffron extract on emotional well-being in healthy adults with feelings of low mood and anxiety. Researchers found that consuming saffron reduced depression symptoms significantly compared to the placebo controls.
Regarding the following herbs, consult with your doctor before mixing herbal supplements and remedies with any prescription drugs.
Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is a member of the pepper family indigenous to the South Pacific. It has a long history as an herbal medicine, especially for the treatment of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and mild pain.
There is scant research that indicates Kava kava may reduce over-activity within the Amygdala region and limbic system in general, which is the part of your brain associated with anxiety disorders.
St. John's Wort
St. John's Wort is a plant used to prepare teas, extracts, and tablets for the relief of depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. It works primarily by increasing levels of serotonin in your brain.
According to a Pakistani study outlined in the 2009 edition of the "Pakistan Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences," St. John's Wort has a significant effect on hormones and neurotransmitters related to stress and reduces the impact of stress on the Amygdala and other structures in the brain.”
Cortisol Regulating Herbs | Adaptogens
Rhodiola, Siberian ginseng, Licorice, and Valerian root
Cortisol and adrenaline are produced by your adrenal glands in response to stress. Both hormones quickly reach your brain and activate the Amygdala, which causes more cortisol to be produced if the stress, fear, anxiety, or other negative emotions are not resolved.
Controlling cortisol release from the adrenal glands reduces over-activity within the Amygdala and creates a positive feedback loop. Herbs classified as adaptogens could lower hormones when they are high but increase them when they are too low.
According to "Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine," adaptogenic herbs that can help to moderate activity in the Amygdala and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression include rhodiola, Siberian ginseng, licorice, and valerian root.
Conclusion | A Fit Brain & Amygdala
Proper nutrition is a key building block of a healthy life and a fit mind.
Some herbs affect brain chemistry and hormone production, which can balance Amygdala function and alleviate symptoms.
Certain foods, nutrients, herbs, spices, and even dark chocolate may help your body reduce anxiety and improve how it handles stress and other issues like depression.
Healthy fats, probiotic foods, and nutrients like folate will optimize and protect your memory and enhance concentration. They can also help guard against neurological conditions and benefit cognition.
Consult with your doctor before mixing herbal supplements with any prescription drugs.
© 2023, Mark Zuleger-Thyss | Garden of Healing, LLC | All Rights Reserved.