Rest and digest to prevent chronic disease.
Lunch Hour Lesson #32
Your Autonomic Nervous System includes two components: the “fight or flight” stress response, called the Sympathetic Response, and the “rest and digest” response, called the Parasympathetic Response.
The fight or flight response prompts a variety of physiological actions to give you quick energy and allow you to survive a stressful event. One is the production of cortisol, the stress hormone, which increases blood pressure, blood sugar, and suppresses the immune system.
Other actions are acceleration of heart and lung action, inhibition or complete shutdown of digestion, dilation of blood vessels for muscles, tunnel vision, and shaking.
In our busy lives, it is easy to get stuck in the fight or flight state indefinitely. Whereas in the past, our ancient ancestors would have been required to fight or flee a wild animal attack once in awhile, these days we are bombarded with stressful events all day, every day.
Rush hour traffic, continuously reviewing your “to do” list, deadlines at work, eating processed and junk foods, little exposure to the outside, toxic environmental and relational exposures, and chronic disease either in ourselves or our family are just some examples of extremely stressful situations that continuously prompt the fight or flight physiological actions that I just mentioned.
And the sad part is, because the primary mechanism of the fight or flight response is to prompt the body to increase cortisol (stress hormone), chronic disease can develop, which is itself a stressful situation and can perpetuate the cycle.
A few of the impacts of chronically high cortisol are insulin resistance, lowered liver detoxification capacity, and increased intestinal permeability. That means, in other words, that being chronically stressed can eventually lead to diabetes, liver toxicity, and leaky gut. Even if you’re eating a really good diet! The best food is not nourishing if it isn’t being digested.
SO. The point is to make a conscious choice to reduce areas of diet and lifestyle stress. And it does have to be a conscious choice, because most peoples’ “normal” daily lives are inherently stressful just as they are. Sometimes we can change where we work, or who we live with, or what our commute is like, or how many activities our kids participate in, but sometimes not. If not, we have to find ways to manage the stress.
Reflect on your experience, and dispel any concerns about “what’s next?”
This response is in charge of activating digestion by dilating blood vessels leading to the GI tract, stimulating salivary gland secretion, and accelerating the absorption of nutrients through peristalsis. It also helps calm the nerves to return to normal function, and allows us to transition from the waking state to drowsiness and into sleep.
One way to activate the rest and digest state is to take three deep breaths before eating, to make sure digestion is “turned on”.
To set the body in a calmer state for a longer period of time, you can get outside and breathe, like I talked about in my lesson a few weeks ago.
Meditation, stretching, and gentle exercise that is rejuvenating rather than stimulating also can move us into a rest and digest state.
One of the most effective ways that I’ve found to break out of the fight or flight response is called alternate nostril breathing.
- Put your finger over your right nostril, inhale through the left for a count of six, then move your finger to close the left nostril and exhale through the right nostril for a count of ten. With your finger still over the left nostril, inhale through the right to a count of six, then move your finger to close the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril for a count of ten.
- Doing alternate nostril breathing even for just a few rotations is wonderful for your health. If you’re someone whose heart starts pounding right when your morning alarm goes off, perhaps hit the snooze button and do this breathing exercise until the alarm goes off again. It will set the body up for a relaxed start to the day. And really, anytime of day is a great time to do this.
- Ten minutes per day of alternate nostril breathing is very healing, so especially people struggling with digestive disorders, elevated blood pressure or blood sugar should try to make this a regular part of their routine.
Rate your stress level on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being extreme stress. Sit for ten minutes in a quiet space and practice alternate nostril breathing. Rate your stress level again.