FIGHT, FLIGHT AND ZEN
Think back to our ancestors long ago, when they were faced with stressors such as a bear roaring and threatening to chase them. Their body would go into a sympathetic state. The sympathetic (autonomic nervous system) system in our body knows to automatically prepare to fight the bear or flea. When in a situation like this our body releases epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. Because these hormones are released it causes our heart to race, blood pressure to go up, blood vessels constrict and multiple processes in the body begin breaking down stored energy. We then have a usuable form of energy to be used to flea or fight. Once the stressor goes away or our brain tells our system that it is safe now, our body will stop producing cortisol and epinephrine.
Our bodies are incredibly intelligent, however they can’t differentiate between different levels of stress. It doesnt know the difference between a bear or the stress of everyday life, your bosses demands, traffic, a bad diet, a high intensity workout, lack of sleep or crying kids. All these modern day stressors create the same response in our bodies as the bear reaction. Typically people spend a majority of their day in a sympathetic state.
The opposite state that our body can be in is a parasympathetic state or a “rest and digest” state. Our heart rate drops and blood vessels relax again. For many people this is a harder state to get into and stay in. It requires a bit more mindful attention. Spending time in this state is required for balance in our lives and to regulate our stress hormones (epinephrine and cortisol). A parasympathetic state can look different for everyone, it could be meditating, taking a yoga class, taking a walk, being in nature, listening to music, journaling, reading a book, etc. Any of these can create a zen state for our minds. A person will even benefit from a parasympathetic state when getting ready to eat. Our body can’t start proper digestion without a parasympathetic state.
PRACTICE LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT
Our bodies need practice at being in both a para-sympathetic state and a sympathetic state. Our bodies can operate most efficiently when we can move back and forth easily between the two states. For example, if you are into high intensity workouts, make sure you find the balance and have time to not be in the higher intensity state so frequently. Although a high intensity workout can feel like you are relieving stress, you are actually creating stress internally for your body. It’s ok to have that stress sometimes when it is balanced with a practice that is low intensity and calms you. A dominance of one or being stuck in one state (parasympathetic or sympathetic) or the other has been associated with many chronic issues including:
- Low or high testosterone
- Low or high estrogen
- Digestive issues
- A change in workout performance
- Joint pain
- Poor mood
- Loss of muscle mass
- Varicose veins
- Poor sleeping habits
- Lower than normal metabolism
Can you believe by practicing being in a para-sympathetic state we can improve processes of the body? By simply being in this state we can better absorb our food, digest more efficiently, recover from our workouts better, regulate blood sugar levels better, have a heightened level of brain activity, achieve better mental clarity, regulate our hormones better and even build lean muscle mass. When you first start practicing being in a para-sympathetic state, it may take a bit to get your brain to stop racing and relax. However, the more you practice the easier it will become.
Supplements to heal
Lifestyle change is the best way to reduce stress. However supplements can help ease the transition. Adaptogenic Herbs can help bring homeostasis back to the body in times of stress. Here are a few examples.
- Licorice root is an adaptogenic herb, meaning it works to bring homeostasis to the body but it is also a mucilaginous herb. A much-cited article suggests that Licorice root contains an anti-ulcer and anti-inflammatory compound which can heal the intestinal walls as well as regulating hormone levels associated with stress.
- Ashwaganda root is also an adaptogenic herb. It has been shown to improve an individual’s resistance towards stress and improving quality of life. (1)
- Cordycep mushrooms have been shown to lower cortisol levels and have a positive impact on oxidative stress.