In my work as a Holistic Nutritionist, I have been able to witness several healing journeys. Food is powerful medicine, and can be used to bring balance and wellness to a persons body where disease and illness existed before. I have seen the magic of using herbs, exercise and thought work to transform people.
On the other side of the coin, I have watched people struggle to make any progress in their healing despite having a super clean diet, a strict work-out routine, perfect adherence to a supplement regiment and who know all there is to know about their condition and what they should do to heal it. It can be so frustrating to be doing everything “right” and still not get the results you are looking for. So what gives?
Stress, Your Hormones and Healing
Whenever I work with someone who is doing everything in their power to heal their body without success, I immediately shift my focus to stress. Stress is such a huge factor in healing and in disease but so many people still don’t understand how stress affects them on a mental, emotional and physical level. The way you deal with the stresses in your life can mean the difference between chronic dis-ease and healing. It is as simple as that.
So how does stress actually affect your body? How can it prevent healing? What can you do about it?
How Stress Affects Your Body
Stress is an ancient tool that the body still uses in modern times. It is a series of chemical reactions that produce certain hormones that we collectively call the “fight or flight” response. Most people have heard of this sympathetic nervous system reaction, but do you know what it really means?
The sympathetic nervous system is designed to give your body absolute strength and power in order to fight or run from something that is threatening your survival. When you perceive stress, a series of chemical reactions will take place that will produce noradrenaline, adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause the following reactions to occur within the body:
- Dilation of the pupils
- Decreased saliva production
- Decreased digestive function
- Increased heart rate
- Relaxation of the bronchial tissue
- Mobilization of stored liver glycogen
- Sends blood from the digestive organs to the limbs
As you can see, this is an old system designed to help us humans out when stress meant a physical threat. The dilated pupils gave us a wider area of vision, decreased digestive function meant that there was more energy for you to use to run or fight, an increased heart-rate increased your circulation and thus blood and oxygen to your muscles, relaxed bronchial tissue increased your ability to inspire, and the mobilization of your stored glucose would give you quick cellular energy. In the wild, our bodies would have burned through these hormones through the physical activity necessary to survive, and then would have recovered by engaging in a period of rest where the parasympathetic nervous system would have taken over and produce all the healing hormones needed to counteract the negative side effects of stress hormones like inflammation.
In today’s world, our stress is rarely, if ever, caused by a threat to our survival in an immediate sense. You are not likely to be walking around and come across a lion. Nor are you likely to get kicked out of your tribe and sent out into the wilderness to fend for yourself. Today stress comes from deadlines at work, projects and exams at school, meetings with angry bosses, demands from children and significant others, fights with best friends, car alarms, police sirens, and the idea of a collapsing economy.
These stresses are mostly psychological. You are not going to face possible death by having your boss yell at you. You are not facing death when you’re cramming for an exam in which you do not really understand the content. But your body is reacting like you are in physical danger.
You see, the same stress response that saved our ancestors from death in the wild has now become one of the main things that makes you sick today.
When you are under mental stress you will not be burning through the stress hormones that your body is creating and over time these hormones can cause significant damage to your body. These hormones can cause inflammation, decreased digestive function, blood sugar imbalances and a plethora of other issues. The negative effects are doubled when you do not have time to recover from stress, which most of us do not.
The Body at Rest
On the opposite side of the scale, when you are not stressed you will be tapping into your parasympathetic nervous system. When your parasympathetic nervous system is activated the following physiological processes occur:
- Increased salivary output
- Constricted pupils
- Slowed heart rate
- Constricted bronchi
- Stimulated digestive system
- Contracted bladder
This is where true healing occurs. When your stress response is turned off and you are at rest, all the physiological processes that occur are conducive to re-building and restoring. In the wild, moments of stress such as coming face to face with a giant grizzly bear would be followed by fighting or fleeing which would burn off much of the stress hormones produced. After the fight or once a place of safety was found by fleeing, a period of rest where the parasympathetic nervous system would kick in would ensue. This is how our stress response was supposed to work. Periods of short, intense stress, followed by physical activity followed by rest and healing.
Tapping into your parasympathetic nervous system and turning off your sympathetic nervous system is where healing happens.
10 Tips for Tapping into your ‘Rest and Digest” State
Now that you know how stress can affect your ability to heal, what can you do about it? There are some very simple steps you can take starting today that will help your body switch over from your “fight or flight” mode into your “rest and digest” mode. Doing some or all of these things on a daily basis will help your body to feel safe, and may lead to healing when practiced over the long-term.
1. Take 10 deep breaths before eating: Slow, rhythmic deep breathing sends the signal to your body that you are safe. You can literally go from stress mode to rest mode in as little as 90 seconds when you practice intentional breathing. Doing this type of breathing before you eat has two purposes. 1) It will improve digestion because as you now know when you are relaxed digestive function is enhanced, and 2) due to the fact that you eat several times a day it will be a consistent reminder to slow down and de-stress throughout your day.
2. Journal every night before bed: The act of writing anxious, stressful, hurtful, angering and other negative thoughts out on a piece of paper can be so healing. It is a way of letting your mind know that it does not have to hold onto these things so tightly for you. By actively taking some time to release these feelings you may find that you are better able to relax and get into a healing state of being.
3. Schedule more time to sleep: There is absolutely nothing more important for healing than sleep. There are no two ways about it. You can be doing everything else perfectly but if you are not getting adequate sleep, you will not be tapping into your bodies fullest potential for healing. I know that you have most likely heard this a thousand times and scheduling more time to sleep into your busy life may sound impossible but the fact of the matter is without adequate sleep the chances of your body fully healing and recovering are minimal. When you are sleeping your body is doing its most important reparative work. There is no substitute for sleep. The best place to start with this is to set a non-negotiable bed time. About 30-60 minutes before bed time it is best to turn off all electronics and bright lights, drink a soothing cup of tea, read a light book or have light conversation with your loved ones. Try to aim for at least 7 hours of sleep, and then adjust based on your own personal needs.
4. Choose gentle exercise over killer workouts: When your body is over taxed, the last thing it needs is more stress. Exercise is stress! Now do not get me wrong, there is a time and a place for intense exercise, and fitness gains can be made with hard workouts. But when you are in a state where your body is already over taxed, these workouts are most likely going to work against you. By working out intensely when your body is already under stress you may be increasing your output of stress hormones, like cortisol, which could cause weight gain, excess fatigue, inflammation and a whole host of other things you probably wish to avoid. Instead of pounding the pavement on million mile long runs or killing yourself in spin class, go for gentler physical activity like walking, yoga and pilates. These types of routines will actually cause your body to go into ‘rest and digest’ rather than into ‘fight or flight’ which is exactly what you want. The focus on breathing in yoga will be especially helpful.
5. Drink calming herbal teas like chamomile or lavender: These calming herbs have a placating effect on the nervous system, and this will have an overall relaxing effect on your body. Enjoying a cup or two of these wonderful herbal teas before bed can help you get a better and deeper sleep, compounding their healing effect.
6. Communicate your feelings: Just as letting your feelings out through journaling can be therapeutic, expressing your thoughts and feelings verbally can be incredibly healing. You do not necessarily need to tell the person or people who are bothering you that you are irritated with them if that is not something you feel comfortable doing in this moment, but finding someone who is able to sit and listen to you express what is going on for you in this moment with a compassionate ear may be the exact release you need. Release is a powerful healer.
7. Stretch: By opening up space in the body, you will be sending a message to your body that you are safe. Contraction is the bodies natural physiological response to stress. Have you ever noticed that when you become stressed or anxious that your muscles all shorten and tighten? You may notice that your shoulders round forward, your torso becomes crunched and shortened, your fists tightened. When you actively open the body you elicit the opposite effect. You cause your body to relax by opening and breathing. A quick 15 minute stretch session combined with some deep breathing may be all you need.
8. Take breaks: Breaking your work day up with short intervals of rest will not only help to reduce your stress levels but it will also help to improve your productivity! It can be really easy to get ‘blinders’ on when you are working on a project for prolonged periods of time which can lead to blocked thinking, blocked progress and ultimately stress. Taking a 5-10 minute stretch, walk or food break ever hour or two during your work day will help to diffuse stress and will help you to reach your ultimate productivity potential.
9. Say ‘no’ more often: Taking the power back in your own life in areas where you may feel a little less than empowered can have magical stress reducing effects. When you feel like you are trapped or obligated to do things you don’t necessarily want to do, you will be activating your stress response. Yes, saying no can be very uncomfortable and scary at first which may feel like you are adding more stress to your life, but in the long run when you exert the power in your own situation to say no to things, to allow yourself to disappoint and let people down, you will find that your overall stress levels decrease significantly. By saying no you are communicating to yourself that you are not a victim in your life but are powerful and worthy of saying no to things you don’t want to do.
10. Practice gratitude: I have not found any other tool that works as quickly to diffuse stress as practicing gratitude. By interrupting a negative thought spiral with 10-15 things you are grateful for in your life you will switch your focus from all the things in your life that may not be going the way you want them to onto all the things that are working out beautifully for you. Close your eyes and think of those things you are grateful for, write them down or speak them out loud to yourself or a friend. Gratitude is some of the best medicine going!
What do you do to combat stress and encourage healing in your life?
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