Neurologist Romie Mushtaq, M.D., shares a program to ease chronic stress and insomnia
Years of chronic stress, long work hours, sleep deprivation and poor eating habits led Romie Mushtaq, M.D., to develop a rare swallowing disorder called achalasia. Doctors told her she was the youngest patient with the most severe case they had ever seen.
Now, almost 20 years later, Dr. Mushtaq has recovered her health and her career is dedicated to understanding how stress is linked to various conditions. “Stress can kill you. It nearly killed me, and I’m a doctor, I should have known better,” she tells The Messenger.
In her new book, The Busy Brain Cure, out Tuesday, the neurologist explains that when someone is under chronic stress — meaning the body consistently remains in the flight-or-fight response — it causes inflammation in the brain. This impacts the circadian rhythm, digestion, and hormones. “Everything is negatively impacted,” she says.
“People with chronic stress have difficulty focusing, difficulty falling asleep and waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep, among other symptoms,” Dr. Mushtaq says. She offers a free online quiz to help people determine how much their stress is affecting them.
How does the mind affect the body?
“Persistent negative emotions are going to rewire the brain to be in chronic stress, and that creates the pattern that I call ‘busy brain,’ Dr. Mushtaq says. Some studies show that stress impacts the immune system as well as the endocrine system — the 50 hormones in the brain and the body that affect all organ systems, she says.
Dr. Mushtaq, who serves as a chief wellness officer at Great Wolf Resorts, says research from the American Psychological Association and The American Institute of Stress shows that more and more Americans are experiencing chronic stress, especially since the pandemic.
“We thought when the world opened back up, things would get better. But research data shows every year the rates of chronic stress and burnout are getting worse.”
The latest annual poll from Gallup shows an increase in stress in 2021, with four in ten adults worldwide saying they experienced a lot of worry, a small rise from 2020.
How do you treat chronic stress?
Dr. Mushtaq created and implemented an 8-week program for one-1,000 executives to help reset their sleep and lessen anxiety, she says.
The book recreates this program — the self-assessment questionnaires help readers to better understand their particular stressors and then slowly introduce small changes to sleep hygiene, tech use and even food choices.
Dr. Mushtaq calls the small changes in habit “brain shifts,” and over time, they could add up to behavior changes that could potentially relieve chronic stress.
“From the 8-week protocol we recommend specific micro-habits each week that stack upon each other for maximum effectiveness,” she says. Here are a few of the small changes she recommends:
1. Schedule a time to go to bed and practice 30-60 minutes of digital detox prior to bedtime. Find other calming activities, like stretching or taking a bath, to do before bed instead of looking at digital devices.
2. Work on restructuring your sleep/wake cycle to be consistent every day. This might also curb stress eating and carbohydrate cravings.
3. Don’t multitask — instead use sound healing such as binaural beats music during the day to focus on one thing at a time. Take short breaks to just “be” and not “do” for three minutes at a time, a few times a day — what Dr. Mushtaq calls taking a “brain pause.”
4. Add one to two servings of healthy fat to each meal.
5. Talk to your physician about stress and potential lab tests. Important markers of inflammation to check are Vitamin D3 levels, high sensitivity C-reactive protein levels, Hemoglobin A1C (HbA1C) and fasting blood sugar.
Do I need to go on a diet?
The program’s novelty is in its very slow and steady pace, which is more conducive to lasting change. “These are micro-habits that are easy to implement without going on a diet,” she says. “Diet is a four-letter word!” The program does not recommend cutting out entire food groups or favorite foods.
The food changes don’t occur until after the first four weeks of the protocol, and by then, stress eating will have hopefully stopped, she says.
Working with chronic stress is a process, and aspects of the program may need to be repeated when a stressful life event occurs. “In the last three pages of the book, I confessed that I almost didn’t get the final edits,” Dr. Mushtaq says. “I was doubting myself and I’m busy as a chief wellness officer and I went back to the protocol again with the help of my therapist and an accountability partner.”