Transforming the Trauma Paradigm

Treating inflammation.

Posted Dec 10, 2018

Most mental health professionals receive no training in the role inflammation and hormonal imbalance plays in disturbed emotion, behavior, and cognition.  This is partly due to the continued split between mind and body that was crystallized in the 17th century by the French philosopher René Descartes. 

Descartes, Deep Philosophy, and the Ancient Mystery Schools

Descartes talked about some really good things that have served us well.  In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, he proclaimed the power of logic and clarity of thought.  In his book Discourse on the Method, published in 1637, he outlined the importance of introspection to arrive at Truth.  He also acknowledged the unreliability of our senses to accurately define reality.  He asked how he could know that he even existed; perhaps he was only a dream.  He reasoned that he knew he existed because he was thinking, given birth to the famous maxim “I think therefore I am” or cogito ergo sum.

Early Recognition of the Importance of the Pineal Gland

Descartes believed the mind controlled the brain and posited the pineal gland played a role in the mind’s mastery.  It is interesting that even in the 17th century, Descartes viewed this small endocrine gland as central in our mental experience of being human.  We now know the pineal gland, which lies between the two halves of the brain, plays an important role in sleep modulation and in females regulating reproduction. This small, pea-sized gland located on the back portion of the third cerebral ventricle is shaped like a pinecone, from which it gets its name derived from Latin.  Research suggests the pineal gland might also play important roles in cardiovascular issues including hypertension.  For example, sleep disorders may be due to the pineal’s underproduction of melatonin.  The size of the pineal gland has also been considered relative to mood disorders.  Damage to the pineal including tumors can result in seizures, changes in vision, headaches as well as other symptoms. 

Quinn Rusnell’s Thoughts on Descartes and the Pineal

Descartes believed the pineal housed our souls and from it, our thoughts were formed.  According to Quinn Rusnell, Descartes view of the soul came from the writings of Aristotle.  Descartes concept of the soul evolved from an Aristotelian mechanistic view to more of a Platonic one between mind and body.  Rusnell indicated the pineal gland was considered the form of perfection dating to the Greek philosophers Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle.

Descartes wrote in a 1640 letter, “My view is that this gland is the principal seat of the soul, and the place in which all our thoughts are formed.  The reason I believe this is that I cannot find any part of the brain, except this, which is not double.  Since we see only one thing with two eyes, and hear only one voice with two ears, and in short have never more than one thought at a time, it must necessarily be the case that the impression which enter by the two eyes or by the two ears, and so on, unite with each other in some part of the body before being considered by the soul.  Now it is impossible to find any such place for this purpose, in the middle of all the concavities; and it is supported and surrounded by the little branches of the carotid arteries which bring the spirits into the brain.”  Descartes concluded that the pineal gland is the only logical structure connecting sensation to perception and is what separated us from other animals, believing that animals lacked this gland. 

Cathy Eck and Esoteric Studies of Pineal

Eck, who holds a Ph.D. in Esoteric Studies, researched Pythagoras’ inquiry into the pineal gland.  Pythagoras is credited with identifying the pineal gland as being the third eye, a belief that can also be found in ancient Hindu texts in which it is referred to as the Ajna chakra.  The famous Greek physician Galen first documented the pineal gland a little less than 2,000 years ago.  Galen believed the gland regulated blood circulation.

Dr. Eck wrote about Pythagoras’ view of the pineal gland and discovered the following quote credited to him: “If there be light, then there is darkness; if cold, heat; if height, depth; if solid, fluid; if hard, soft; if rough, smooth; if calm, tempest; if prosperity, adversity; if life, death.”  Pythagoras and the other early Greek philosophers were involved in what was called the Mystery Schools where they studied and worked to gain a greater understanding of life and the True Self, something that had to be wrestled back from the world of illusions and contrasts of good and evil. 

Eck connected the ideas of Pythagoras to a Biblical quote from Jesus: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single; thy whole body shall be light.” (Matthew 6:22).  She pointed out the single eye in Pythagoras’ triangle represented as the missing capstone on the pyramid located on the back of the one-dollar bill.  The single eye is symbolic of higher intuition and connection to the divine, something that can be broken by the lower world of illusion.  It beckons to the importance of unity and higher consciousness.  It is St. George slaying the dragon.  We must overcome our inner monsters to experience the joy and peace of inner connectedness and sense of our wholeness.  It is our divine birthright to be connected to our higher intuition which directs us in how to best live our lives.  In contrast, broken connection with self is the very definition of trauma. 

Gordon and Marr

I go into the philosophical and esoteric background history to let you know the importance of a structure of the endocrine system has been viewed as vital since ancient times.   Which brings us to the work of interventional endocrinologist Mark L. Gordon, MD.  I learned about Dr. Gordon’s work from his foreword to Andrew Marr’s excellent book about his recovery from brain injuries sustained while serving as a U.S. Army special Forces Green Beret. 

Gordon helped Marr recover his emotional stability and his life which was crashing by investigating his hormonal imbalances and providing hormonal replenishment therapy.  You can read about Marr’s fascinating yet painful journey to recovery in his book Tales from the Blast Factory.  You can also read about Gordon’s perspective and approach in his book Traumatic Brain Injury: A Clinical Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment.  To get a fast overview of their work, check out Joe Rogan’s excellent podcast interview with Marr and Dr. Gordon.

From their work, I am seeing the hormonal issue as a vital missing piece in our clinical work with traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress.  Gordon boils the problem down to resulting neuroinflammation and hormonal deficiencies from blast injuries that require proper clinical assessment, treatment, and management.

A Note on the Word “Stress” and Hans Selye

It is interesting that we would probably not have the word “stress” as it relates to mental health if it were not for the work of another endocrinologist, Hans Selye.  Selye was encouraged by his professional colleagues to drop his “foolish” work on how animals responded to extreme conditions and just work to discover a new hormone.  Were it not for the support of one mentor, Sir Frederick Banting, who was awarded a 1923 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work in the discovery of insulin, Selye indicated he most likely would have given up his research on stress.  Selye’s work led to what he termed the General Adaptation Syndrome, which as some similarity to what eventually became Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.  Who knows, maybe we would have the term “Post-traumatic Strain Disorder” if it were not for Sir Banting.

Inflammation and the Future of Psychiatry

Gordon’s writings on brain inflammation led me to research Sunil Pai, MD’s work on inflammation.  Pai was the country’s youngest fellow in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and wrote Inflammation Nation that outlines the general problem of inflammation in modern society due to unhealthy lifestyle choices and corporate food policies based on profit over health.  I will write more about Pai’s work in a future blog.  Perhaps psychiatry of the future will be guided by clinical interventional endocrinologists such as Gordon and Integrative Medicine physicians like Pai.  In the meantime, the mainstream continues to manage symptoms.