The Body Ecology Diet (BED) Column
......with Donna Gates
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Thursday, August 4th, 2011:
Lowering Stress: Unwind with Mindful Meditation
Stress originally was a survival mechanism.
“Stress is the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” Hans Selye coined the term “stress” in 1936. Since then, we have come to a broader and more detailed understanding about stress and the various roles that it plays in the body and in life.
A normal stress response is necessary to be alive. The body must be active and respond to daily events in order to maintain balance. The key to a normal stress response is balance. In a situation of balance, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system work in opposition to one another.
The stress response, often referred to as the fight or flight response, activates the sympathetic nervous system.
The fight or flight response has evolved as a way to protect us from danger and prompt us to quickly take action, if necessary. The initial stress response is activated by the hormone adrenaline. A few things that early stress response activates or dampens:
- Diminishes blood flow to the extremities.
- Increases heart rate and blood pressure.
- Reduces salivation and digestive function.
- Dilates pupils.
- Promotes sweating and relaxes the bladder while inhibiting kidney excretion.
Persistent stress and sympathetic nervous system activation involves a 20 second delay, but it is 20 times stronger than the initial stress response. This persistent stress response tells the adrenals to release chemicals such as epinephrine and cortisol.
Cortisol and Chronic Inflammation
Cortisol is extremely significant. While it plays an important role in stress response, it is most commonly known for its relationship to chronic disease and inflammation. In a stress response, cortisol:
- Increases vascular tone by elevating blood pressure.
- Suppresses immune function while triggering white blood cell activity in the skin and bone marrow.
- Increases glucose concentrations in the blood.
- Decreases the release of growth hormone.
The body experiences a natural ebb and flow of cortisol levels throughout the day. This is what is known as diurnal rhythm. Cortisol levels should be at their lowest concentrations from midnight until 4 am and peak in the morning, around 8 am. This means that you awake feeling energetic and by evening, you are ready to sleep. Regular cortisol fluctuation is the reason why many of us wake up and are not hungry.
- If you are hungry upon waking, this is an indication of irregular levels of cortisol in the body and a possible blood sugar crash in the middle of the night.
- One of the most common reasons why blood sugar crashes in the middle of the night is late night snacking or eating a dinner rich in sugars or carbohydrates.
As you may have guessed, because cortisol levels in the blood fluctuate according to the time of day, simply not getting enough sleep or sleeping at an irregular time, like working late hours or night shift, will affect overall cortisol levels in the body.
Rest and Digest
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the digestion of food, sexual arousal, and gut motility. It also dominates urination, lacrimation, and salivation. The parasympathetic nervous system:
- Keeps our bodies moist.
- Allows toxins to exit the body.
- Allows our bodies to receive physical nourishment.
Clearly, we want the parasympathetic nervous system to function smoothly, at the appropriate time. Unfortunately, the sympathetic nervous response suppresses the parasympathetic nervous system.
While many of us constantly experience stress, few of us actually find ourselves in a life-threatening situation.
Early and direct activation of the sympathetic nervous system is useful in a life-threatening situation because it maximizes our potential to respond quickly and effectively. But when does that happen?
Usually, the sympathetic stress response goes into high-gear while on the job, talking on the phone, managing your family, sitting in traffic, or after visiting a local café. For many of us, these are all normal, daily activities that prompt the constant release of cortisol. Remember:
- Cortisol is released during a sympathetic stress response.
- Elevated levels of cortisol are most associated with a weakened immune system.
- High levels of cortisol increase infection rate and prolong recovery time.
Cortisol sends up a red flag throughout the entire immune system that ultimately delays healing, which can be especially painful in chronic gut permeability. Elevated cortisol levels open the door for yeast, parasites, and opportunistic bacteria to take over and overwhelm healthy digestive function.
3 Steps to Support Your Adrenals
With stress, it is crucial to nourish the adrenals.
- Ancient Earth Minerals help support and rebuild the adrenals.
- Probiotic Beverages increase digestion and nutrient absorption to feed the adrenals with the proper B Vitamins and Vitamin C.
- Holy Basil is an Ayurvedic herb to help the adrenals adapt to the stress response.
How much of your stress is perceived?
While the stress response may seem outdated because most of us are no longer fleeing from wild animals or living as nomads, the fact is that most stress is perceived. Stress that is not perceived can be:
- Lack of sleep.
- Diet consisting of frequent and excessive sugar.
- Athletic overtraining.
If practiced regularly, mindfulness can optimize your productivity and has direct association with health and wellbeing.
You can greatly reduce levels of cortisol and activate the parasympathetic nervous system by practicing mindfulness techniques.
- Mindfulness means complete awareness of the present moment and real-time associations.
- This often leads to the formation of new memories and new experiences.
- It also means that your response, in whatever situation and with any person, is not dominated by past programming or fear.
Eating Can Be Mindful
Remember, when the parasympathetic system is engaged, we are able to release toxins from the body, properly digest meals, and find pleasure in life. If you have never done a mindfulness meditation, try practicing mindfulness while eating:
- Observe the color, texture, and temperature of food before you taste it.
- Recognize and explore any memories that this food evokes. Acknowledge these associations and release them.
- Try practicing gratitude for the food. If you are eating something fermented, thank the bacteria for supporting all the many cells in your digestive tract.
- Trace with your imagination the path that the food took in order to reach you. You may notice an awareness of the interdependence of all things.
- Finally, taste the food.
- Explore what tastes you detect and again, notice any memories or associations that arise.
- How does the food feel in your mouth? What sensation do you feel as you swallow the food, and how do you feel after eating it?
Practicing mindful eating is one example of mindfulness, and you may discover a great amount of joy and pleasure in this exercise!
What to Remember Most About This Article:
- A healthy amount of stress keeps us active and engaged with life.
- The sympathetic nervous system is the fight-flight-freeze response. And cortisol is the main “stress hormone” released during stress response.
- The parasympathetic nervous system allows us to rest and digest.
- Ideally, the parasympathetic response and sympathetic response work in a balanced opposition to each other.
- For many of us, cortisol levels are often chronically elevated and extremely irregular.
- A great deal of stress is perceived!
- This means that you play a role in determining your body’s stress response.
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness has been extensively researched and proven to reduce stress response and improve immune function.
Over time and with a mindfulness practice, your brain will build new associations and memories. You will find that cortisol dominates your nervous system less and less. Your immune system will benefit. You gut function will strengthen. And you will have more energy throughout the day!
Learn more from The Body Ecology Diet book:
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