Since cold and flu season are well underway, I thought this title would be quite fitting… 😉
From my previous post, we learned that our bodies are designed to self-heal. But, some of you may be wondering – if this is true and we do in fact have this built-in self-repair mechanism, then why are so many of us sick and experiencing frequent and/or chronic health issues?
The reason is: Our bodies (and minds!) can only self-heal and repair when our nervous system is in parasympathetic ‘mode’. If you remember nothing else from today’s post, please remember this:
So what is the parasympathetic? You may remember from high school science class that the sympathetic and parasympathetic are branches of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
The ANS is the part of the nervous system that is responsible for the function of internal organs and body processes – including things like:
- blood pressure
- breathing and heart rates
- body temperature
- pupillary response
- bladder function
- sexual response
- body fluids (saliva, sweat, tears)
- water-electrolyte imbalance
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is associated with our acute stress or ‘fight or flight’ response.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is considered the ‘rest and digest’ (or ‘feed and breed’ / ‘relaxation response’) system.
The SNS ‘fight or flight’ response was first described by Harvard physiologist Water Cannon. This response is an automatic reaction that kicks in when we experience or perceive high/excessive stress caused by internal or external circumstances. When a danger or threat is perceived by a part of the brain called the amygdala, it signals the hypothalamus (part of Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis) which begins the ‘fight or flight’ response. This stress response is our body’s natural way of protecting us.
(If you are interested to learn about the stress response mechanism in greater detail, please check out the resource links listed at the end of this post.)
The ‘fight or flight’ response begins as a cascade of stress hormones (e.g., adrenaline, cortisol, etc…) which prepares our bodies to, as the name implies, fight or flee. Physiological changes that occur from these hormonal surges include:
- blood flow to the skin is decreased; perspiration increases
- blood flow is diverted away from the digestive, immune, and reproductive systems
- heart rate and breathing rate are increased
- oxygen to the brain is increased (thereby increasing alertness); senses become sharper
- release of blood sugar is increased to help supply energy to muscles and other areas
- muscles become tense
When the threat or danger has passed, our PNS kicks in and releases relaxation hormones to turn off the SNS, calm the body, and counteract the stress hormones. Well, that is what’s supposed to happen in a body and nervous system that is functioning properly…
What most people don’t realize is that the majority of us in the North American culture live in the sympathetic nervous system state because of CHRONIC stress. What we actually want is to be ‘just visiting’ the sympathetic on occasion and have the parasympathetic as our default mode… but unfortunately, many of us are unable to get back into the parasympathetic state (without help)… so our bodies lose the ability to heal and self-repair.
Remember, the ‘fight or flight’ system doesn’t just kick in during big traumatic events (e.g., being chased by a big, mean dog or experiencing the death of a loved one), it also turns on with smaller constant day-to-day stressors (e.g., negative thoughts/beliefs/feelings, financial worries, relationship tension, work stress, loneliness, worry, anxiety, family stress, illness or injury, etc…) as well as things that we consider ‘positive’ events (e.g., getting married, a promotion at work).
Here are some important facts about stress:
- Stress is the No.1 cause of chronic illness (American Psychological Association)
- 70-90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints (WebMD.com)
- Stress is the basic cause of more than 60% of all human illness and disease (American Academy of Family Physicians)
- More than half of all deaths between the ages of 1 and 65 result from stressful lifestyles (US Center for Disease Control)
- Positive changes can have the same physiological effect as negative changes (e.g., excitement over an upcoming dream vacation can have the same physiological impact as a ‘negative’ stressor)
- Small daily stressors can have the same negative impact as one big traumatic event
- Stress is cumulative (from birth, from before birth…)
- Stress responses are primarily activated by our thoughts. (It’s not so much the situation that affects us but our thoughts about a situation)
- “Imaginary” changes/events are just as stressful as “real” changes/actual experiences (e.g., watching a suspenseful or scary movie can trigger your SNS/stress response mechanism) (Check out the article listed in “Sources” below about a girl who was hospitalized after watching a scary movie!)
I know many people who are super fit – they work out regularly, they look great, eat healthily… and yet, they seem to catch every cold or flu bug that passes by. What’s the missing factor? You got it – STRESS. Sorry folks, but no amount of coconut oil and green kale smoothies can counteract the long term toxic effects of high doses of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in our bodies.
Just a quick side note about exercise: Be aware that exercise that is too rigorous can also be a stressor. I read a study recently (links are below) which showed that working out too hard contributes to adrenal burn-out and produces high amounts of free radical damage and oxidative stress – which are essentially the ‘building blocks’ of all illness and disease! More on that in a future post… but remember that BALANCE is the key!
Also remember that there are many who don’t realize that they are ‘stressed’ and in constant ‘fight or flight’ mode. Sometimes people are unaware because they don’t know (or remember) any other state! Sometimes when I’m talking to parents of a child who is chronically unwell, they might say something like: “How is it possible that my 3 yr old child is stressed? He doesn’t have anything to be stressed out about. He is served hand and foot; all he does is play and watch TV!” It is important to be aware of the fact that many babies are born into stressful circumstances (maybe it was an unwanted pregnancy or Mom and Dad were always fighting). Studies support the notion that memories, stress/traumas are passed down in our DNA; stress is experienced in utero as well… so by the time a baby is born, it is possible that he/she is already experiencing and carrying high levels of accumulated stress.
Please take another look at the first two bulleted lists above (lists of internal organs/body processes and physiological changes that occur during ‘fight of flight’). Do you notice anything that might be related to commonly reported symptoms of stress?
Because our digestive, immune, and reproductive systems are essentially shut down during ‘fight or flight’/chronic stress mode, it is not uncommon to hear complaints of things like: stomach aches, indigestion, and acid reflux; increased frequency of illness; difficulties getting or staying pregnant.
Or what about acne breakouts (due to decreased blood flow to skin, increased perspiration, increased oil production due to hormonal changes)? Weight gain (due to metabolism changes and increased blood sugar)? Muscle and body aches (due to increased muscle tension)? The list goes on… and these can lead to more serious health problems if stress levels are not managed and decreased.
These first signals of stress (just mentioned) plus those listed below are ‘whispers’ of the body telling us that something is out of balance. We need to listen and take action before they turn into ‘screams’!
- Sleep disturbance
- Lack of energy / Fatigue
- Aches and pains / Back pain / Tense muscles
- Susceptibility to colds
- Change in appetite
- Feeling like you have no control and/or need to have too much control
- Feeling helpless
- Lack of motivation
- Lack of focus / Loss of concentration
- Trouble getting things done
- Poor self-esteem
- Short temper / Irritability
- Upset stomach
- Shortness of breath
(Note these symptoms may also be signs of depression or anxiety – which can also be caused by long-term stress.)
The key now is not only learning stress management and stress reduction strategies – but also learning how to shut off the sympathetic and stimulate the parasympathetic to turn on… I will cover those in my next post… Stay tuned! 🙂
For questions, comments, or topic requests – please e-mail me at email@example.com. 🙂
Mind Over Medicine – Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself Dr. Lissa Rankin 2013
Stress the Silent Killer Course – Integrity Biofeedback Academy Sharron Oyer/Brenda Judah
Understanding the Stress Response http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
Stress Management for Health Course – The Fight Flight Response http://stresscourse.tripod.com/id11.html
The Secret Reason Your Body Can’t Heal (and 10 Ways to Overcome It) http://www.youngandraw.com/the-secret-reason-your-body-cant-heal-and-10-ways-to-overcome-it/
Exercise, Free Radicals and Oxidative Stress http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12023865 http://www.nutrabio.com/News/news_free_radicals.htm
Student Hospitalized after Being Scared Out of Her Mind by Horror Movie http://gbtimes.com/china/student-hospitalized-after-being-scared-out-her-mind-horror-movie
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