Sympathetic nervous system and its impact during times of stress....
During 2020, nobody has been immune from the stressors of COVID-19. It does not discriminate and has had far reaching implications on so many people. So if you've been feeling more stressed lately, you're not alone......
How does our nervous system work in times of stress?
Our autonomic nervous system is involuntary and consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. They can be referred to as our 'fight or flight' system (sympathetic) or our 'rest and digest' (parasympathetic) system. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated we see:
- Blood pressure increase
- Blood flow increases to muscles, lungs, and other areas essential for moving away from perceived danger
- Blood flow decreases to the digestive and reproductive systems
- Stress hormones, such as cortisol, and neurotransmitters, like adrenaline, increase to make us stronger and faster
- Glucose is rapidly released to be burned for quick energy
Conversely, when we activate our parasympathetic nervous system we see:
- Heart rate and respiration slow
- Blood pressure drops
- Intestinal activity increases
- Blood flow increases to the digestive tract
- Neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, which regulates muscle contractions, including cardiac muscle, are released
- Stress hormones decrease
We are usually using our sympathetic system throughout the day and then at night time while we're asleep is when our parasympathetic nervous system is most active. This helps our bodies recover and regenerate and provides a sense of calm. Currently, many of us are feeling the pressures of 'life' and we can spend much more time in sympathetic mode - this means we're always 'on' and our bodies don't have the time to repair and regenerate. In times of stress, we may not sleep well, go to bed late, make poor choices in food or feel anxious. "Over time, too much sympathetic dominance (think alarm, adrenaline) can lead to the inability to absorb nutrients from food, overweight, poor blood sugar regulation, anxiety, depression, learning issues, chronic exhaustion, insomnia, aches and pains, and ultimately serious illnesses like diabetes." (source https://www.thesuppersprograms.org).
So how can we encourage more parasympathetic stimulation?
- Stabilise your blood sugar levels - making sure you have the right balance of macronutrients to ensure you are satisfied and can sustain yourself until your next meal. You may need the help of a nutritionist / dietitian to help educate you?
- Choosing the right foods - ensuring you have nutrient dense diet that includes lots of whole foods and limited processed foods can greatly help your overall wellbeing. Again you may want to consult an expert on this one.....
- Keeping hydrated - water aids digestion and helps transport nutrients throughout the body.
- Exercising - however choose exercise that suits you. Not everybody enjoys the same formats of exercise.
- Mindfulness - positive affirmations, yoga, meditation and self-love can be very beneficial to help restore a sense of calmness and activate your parasympathetic system.
- Sleep - this is so important! It allows our bodies to recover and regenerate. Good sleep improves our mood, mental ability, memory, immunity and physical performance,
- Getting outside - this has been shown to have great improvements in overall health!
- Supportive relationships - having someone you can confide in and share your journey with provides a great support system for you.
What to take away?
Stress is a normal response however if it continues unchecked, we can see long term health issues such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression/anxiety and weight gain. During difficult times, we all react differently and some have a higher threshold to cope than other. If you're feeling overwhelmed and as though you cannot cope, there are lots of places you can get help! Don't suffer in silence, start with your GP or your preferred allied health practitioner. :)