Our bodies are capable of handling massive amounts of stress. We have highly evolved systems to use stress to help us survive. But like everything else, our lives require a delicate balance. We need down time too. The problem is that stress begets more stress and the loop whirls out of control until our body goes into overload. That requires a manual reset. We need to reprogram our bodies to manage stress and force quiet time until we restore balance.
Here’s a quick understanding of the Autonomic Nervous System. The two pathways we will address are the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). They activate mostly opposing functions in our body, but there is some overlap and we should be able to regulate both systems for optimal health.
Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS
“Fight or Flight” “Rest & Digest” or “Feed and Breed”
Increases blood flow to skeletal muscle Increases blood flow to Digestive system
Increases blood flow to lungs Increase blood flow to myocardium (heart) Increases heart rate Slows breath
Increase production of White Blood Cells Nerves of PNS control Sexual Arousal
Let’s talk about the evolution of stress. When our ancestors had to run from predators, we needed extra blood flow to our limbs to run (literally). We needed to breathe faster (take in more oxygen) and our hearts to beat faster. Commonly known as the “Fight or Flight” response, the SNS prepares us for action.
After the perceived threat has gone, our PNS takes over and allows us to relax. Our breath gets slower, our heart rate slows as the PNS takes over, and blood flow returns to our organs of digestion and elimination to cleanse our body. This is basically where we allow our body to do its magic of removing toxins. It’s also responsible for innervating the sexual arousal tissues, allowing us to “breed”.
Both systems are still very important for our daily lives, but too often the Fight or Flight switch is stuck “on”. We may safely walk away from the perceived threat, but we are still stressed.
When our Sympathetic (stress) system is engaged, our digestive system doesn’t work optimally, our sexual arousal system is disrupted, and our ability to get restful sleep diminishes. If your stress pathways are triggered frequently, they become dominant. This means your body loses the ability to naturally switch back to “rest & digest” after the stressor or immediate threat has left.
New research has proven the link to stress and heart disease. This is something we have anecdotally known for a long time, but now several research teams across the country have been able to prove the connection.
Stress causes activation of the amygdala (known as the fear center of the brain). This triggers arterial inflammation (a risk factor for heart disease and stroke).
“Now researchers reporting at the 2016 meeting of the American College of Cardiology have revealed more about how these effects occur. Using the PET/CT scans of almost 300 people, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston showed for the first time a link between activity in the amygdala—the brain’s “stress center”—and arterial inflammation, a key culprit behind the build-up and rupture of plaque in artery walls and subsequent cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and strokes.
The result: Patients who had greater activity in the amygdala had more inflammation in their arteries and also a greater chance of having a major cardiovascular event in the years following the scan. These patients also had greater activation in their bone marrow, which produces immune cells that can trigger inflammation in other parts of the body.” Stress, the Heart, and Inflammation, CLEVELAND HEARTLAB 9/27/2016
Chronic high stress also raises White Blood Counts, which is the body’s way of fighting disease. The elevation in WBC shows us our body is treating stress as a disease and trying to protect the body. As WBC rises, the body creates more inflammation, which can cause heart attack.
Ultimately all systems need to work together for optimal health. We need to harness the ability to turn on our stress response, and to turn it off. For many of us, daily life leads to chronic stress and depleted health.
Here are some things you can do to encourage balance within your body:
Vary movement patterns. Try new exercise programs. Brush your teeth with your left hand. Doing something new or novel rewires the brain. This can help reprogram the stress response.
Create an environment for restful sleep. Turn off your screens an hour before bed. Sleep with a mask on your eyes to block ambient light. Practice breathing exercises to calm your body and mind.
Think good thoughts. Seriously, think about your next meeting/project/day/etc. Visualize positive outcomes. It works for sports, it can work for your life. This simple practice can reduce stress and anxiety.
Breathe. We have the ability to direct which system out body uses. If you breathe fast, short breaths, you’re preparing your body for action (SNS). If you slow your breathing and extend the exhale, you’re preparing your body for rest, digestion, and sexual arousal.
These simple tips can help restore balance to your nervous system and reduce your risk for heart attack and stroke. It can also improve your digestive system functioning, reduce inflammation, and improve your sex life.