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May 10, 2019
When was the last time you sat down by yourself and did something you wanted to do?
Our bodies aren’t designed to go-go-go all day long, but these days it’s how most of us live our lives. Without time to rest and relax our body is put into this constant hyper-stressed state. This unfortunately has a huge flow-on effect to many aspects of our health and well being, including hormone balance, immune function, and our digestive health.
One huge player in this game is our autonomic nervous system. This system regulates all of our automatic processes within our body – such as breathing and digestion. This system is made up of two branches; the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The parasympathetic nervous system is referred to as our ‘rest and digest’ system and is activated when the body is in a calm state. This system helps us manage our day to day business of life - eating, sleeping, recovering, and reproducing. When this system is activated, our heart slows, our breathing clams, we digest our food, we make hormones, we repair our muscles, and we build our strength. The more time spent in this state, the better.
The other branch, the sympathetic nervous system, creates what is colloquially referred to as our ‘fight or flight’ response. This system evolved as a survival mechanism and leaps into action when our body senses a threat - such as being chased by a lion when we’re out hunting. When this system is activated, changes occur within the body to help us escape the danger. Energy stores break down, stress hormones get produced, heart rate and blood pressure increase, our pupils dilate, and digestion slows.
This response is all well and good if you’re in an immediate state of danger. But these days most of us aren’t out in the forest getting chased by lions. We’re sitting behind desks with impending deadlines and 1000 things on our to-do list. Unfortunately this kind of stress is also viewed as a threat to the body, and as a result, our body jumps into gear and gets ready to escape.
I know it seems too easy, a treat even, but what if pulling your body out of this ‘fight or flight’ state and into its ‘rest and digest’ state for 15 minutes each day could improve your health?
One way to pull yourself out of this state is by taking 15 minutes out of your day to have me time. This time can be spent doing anything that you enjoy and find relaxing. There are so many reasons why 15 minutes of me time each day makes a difference in our health, but the number one principle is that it helps to switch off our ‘fight or flight’ response. The main hormone involved in this response is cortisol. When we’re stressed, it causes a surge in cortisol, which then activates our sympathetic nervous system aka our fight or flight response.
Cortisol has a specific rhythm throughout the day. It is highest in the morning when we wake up, and slowly falls over the day to be at its lowest when we head to bed. Cortisol is great when we need it, but if our bodies are in constantly stressed states, cortisol won’t follow its normal rhythm. This can have a major impact on our health.
- It puts your immune system in an emergency state, which creates an inflammatory response within the body. In the short-term this is great. It will help your body recover from the lion attack. If cortisol is constantly high however, it will cause chronic (long-term) inflammation. This type of inflammation underpins pretty much every single degenerative disease that we have, including Alzheimer’s, heart attack, and strokes.
- Your gut function is impacted. Your body won’t prioritise digesting that lunch you’ve just eaten. Short term this is great for survival. However, long term this can lead to weight gain and gut issues. Research also shows that ongoing stress can negatively affect the trillions of bacteria in the gut, which can lead to a host of new issues.
- The body will release glucose from its stores, leading to high levels of blood glucose. This is a great energy source for your muscles to run away from the lion, but if glucose is flowing around at high levels in your blood for long periods of time, it can lead to insulin resistance, impair normal cell function, promote inflammation, and lead to increased fat storage.
- The body will reduce sex hormone production. LDL cholesterol is a little fat molecule that travels through our bloodstream. This little molecule is needed for lots of jobs, one of them being cortisol production. However, LDL cholesterol is also used to produce our sex hormones, such as oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. If your body thinks it is under attack it will prioritise its LDL cholesterol to produce cortisol, leaving your sex hormone levels low and imbalanced. This leads to a wide variety of problems including low sex drive, infertility, muscle mass loss, and low energy levels.
Although diet is important for your health, stress is just as important. I challenge you to put 15 minutes aside each day and switch off your body’s fight or flight response. Whether it’s a walk outside, reading a book, or listening to your favourite music. For some women switching this response off can be difficult, supportive herbs and nutrients can help you lower your cortisol output more easily and assist you in reducing your stress levels. Click here to book a consult with me to assist you in lowering your stress levels.
The only rule of this challenge: Don’t feel guilty about it.
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