As we exit the hecticness and over-indulgence of the holiday season and enter this new and wonderful year (2018!), my mind, like many, wanders toward resolutions and resets. This is such a great time to set 6-month and 1-year goals and to write down concrete action steps for accomplishing them.
The first calendar month of a new year is so filled with hope and grand expectations, particularly around the areas of health and wellness. Our bodies instinctively crave a healthier, more relaxing and more nourishing way of being; a return to equilibrium after the festivities of the previous weeks.
Unfortunately, after month one, a number of us lose our hope and greatly modify our expectations. In my attempt to keep more people on their desired path, I wanted to create a short blog series devoted to the topic of activating the parasympathetic nervous system (fondly referred to as the “rest & digest” system).
Many of us fail to stick to our resolutions or take actions toward our goals because we are constantly battling an internal stress; one that has a profound effect on our physiology, our psychology and, consequently, our decision-making.
I want to offer up some quick, easy, accessible and totally free tricks for managing stress hormones in order to get us resting and digesting like champions.
A Quick Review of the Nervous System
Our incredible nervous system is so loaded with amazing intricacies, but for the purposes of the topic at hand, let’s focus in on the autonomic nervous system; the one which splits into the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) and parasympathetic (“rest & digest”) systems. This is the area of our nervous system responsible for the subconscious control or our organs, affecting such functions as heart rate, respiration and digestion.
While these processes thankfully happen without us having to think about them, there are activities we can consciously decide to include in our daily routines that can strongly influence which part of the autonomic system gets activated.
Things that Over-Activate the Sympathetic Nervous System
What drives us into “fight or flight” mode?
A simple answer is anything that increases the production of cortisol and/or adrenaline in our bodies:
- Perception of stress – We produce stress hormones as a way of prioritizing physiological functioning, so that all our energy can be focused on escaping imminent danger. The trouble is, if we interpret an overly-critical email, a missed bus or an accidental bump by a fellow pedestrian as a major life stressor, then we are running from “imminent danger” all day, and sending a constant stream of stress hormones into our system.
- Lack of sleep – This is a vicious cycle, as lack of sleep releases extra cortisol and too much cortisol prevents restful sleep. The takeaway is that we live in a hurried society that values productivity over quality rest, and our health is suffering for it. The idea that “I can sleep when I’m dead” will almost certainly shorten your lifespan after having sacrificed the quality of your well-being.
- Caffeine – America certainly does run on coffee, and it does so as a substitute for quality sleep. The problem is that caffeine leads the body to produce adrenaline, a stress hormone, which keeps our daily perception of stress elevated. It prevents sleep and, in large enough amounts, can leach calcium from our bones and prevent the absorption of some other key nutrients. It perpetuates the cascade of stress hormone reactions and makes it more challenging to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Sedentary lifestyle – Besides the fact that sitting more than 4 hours straight is said to be worse for your health than smoking a whole pack of cigarettes, when we do not move, we cannot dissipate any of the cortisol and/or adrenaline that we have built up during our countless “imminently dangerous” events of the day.
- Punishing, overly-critical internal voice – Most of us are our own worst critics, and when we keep the repeat button playing all day on our favorite tracks of “I am not good enough”, “I am not smart enough”, “I am too fat”, “I do not deserve to be loved”, we create an internal mental abuse that, when added to all the external “dangers”, keeps us locked in “fight or flight” mode.
Effects of Too Much Cortisol/Adrenaline in Our System
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased blood glucose levels (higher risk of diabetes)
- Increased risk of trunkal obesity/abdominal fat (protecting organs from perceived danger)
- Poor digestion and digestive upset
- Sugar and caffeine cravings (poor eating choices)
- Lowered immune function
- Inability to sleep
- Increased exhaustion (hence craving instant fuel from sugar and caffeine)
- Decreased sex drive
- Weakened connective tissue/collagen
- Weakened bones (increased risk of osteoporosis)
- Weakened hair and nails
- Skin erruptions
- Higher incidence of muscle/joint pain
- Increased risk of mood disorders (including anxiety and depression)
Benefits of Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System
- Lowered blood pressure
- Improved digestion
- Improved sleep
- Improved immune function
- Improved metabolic function
- Decreased pain
- Decreased anxiety
- Improved mood
- Improved appearance
- Improved libido
- General sense of well-being
Things that activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System
In comparing the two above lists, I hope you will all agree that the human being who spends more time in the parasympathetic state is the more pleasant one to be around.
So what are some tips for getting us back into “rest & digest” mode?
- Hydrate – We need to get honest about how much caffeine we are taking in on a daily basis. Are we substituting caffeine for good quality sleep? The combination of caffeine + adrenaline creates internal stress that prevents calm, rational thinking. If you really struggle with limiting your caffeine intake, I invite you instead to try drinking one 8-oz glass of water for every 8-oz cup of caffeinated beverage consumed during the day. Even more water would be great, but start by at least trying to offset your caffeine with equal amounts of water.
- Breathe – One of the simplest and fastest ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system is by taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths. When we take deep belly breaths, trying to extend the exhale to equal the length of the inhale, we are sending a message to our brains that it is safe to relax. From that point, we can optimize our health. This trick is totally free and has amazing benefits to your well-being.
- Sleep – While our needs vary, it is generally thought that the average adult requires 7-9 hours of sleep. This is a critical time for our bodies to release hormones of repair and growth, to counteract any damage incurred during the day. If we are not resting, we are not releasing these hormones and our health is suffering.
- Chew your food – The phrase mindful eating is very popular nowadays and is relevant here as, similar to deep breathing, chewing our food completely, without rushing, signals to our brains that we are safe. It also releases far more nutrients from our food and makes digestion easier. (It goes without saying that the quality of the food you are eating plays a huge role here as well.)
- Meditate – Even 5 minutes of meditation per day can have a dramatically positive impact on your health. To keep it brief, meditation counteracts all the negative effects of stress hormones and helps to elicit the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Be kind to yourself & others – Our moods are very much affected by what we consume, including caffeine, sugar and processed foods. Over-consumption of these substances can affect the quality of our relationships. Once we have our food cravings under control (and hopefully our moods with them), it is important to remember that being kind to ourselves and others, in action and in words, really creates a sense of support and community that allows our stress to dissipate.
- Reassess your perception of stress – Modern life is very demanding of our time and attention, but we cannot do more than we can do. Consider reassessing your to-do list, dividing it into more reasonable, bite-size chunks. Remember that most daily stress is a matter of personal perception. Can you observe seemingly stressful or negative events in a way that does not trigger your stress response? Saving the adrenaline release for when it is really needed……in times of true danger?