This is the first of a two part article written by Holistic Health, Fitness and Lifestyle Coach Francesca Blechner that illustrates how stress and 'overdoing it' can have serious negative effects on your body, mind and lifestyle. Read on to discover how to balance out your exercise and fitness routine and what to focus on to lead a healthier you, everyday.
Most people I come across today living a fast paced London life are too 'Yang'. This means that the body is constantly stimulated and thus the sympathetic nervous system is operating on a constant low level of fight/flight response. To paint a picture, since the dawn of time this fight/flight response was useful in the event of acute danger, like being faced with a tiger or life and death situations. The digestive and reproductive systems shut down, glucose is pumped to the muscles to enable you to fight or to run from the tiger (or in some cases freeze!), blood pressure and heart rate increases, pupils dilate and the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into the body.
However, nowadays many people are simply in ‘survival’ mode. The pressure to achieve, strive to do and be more, lack of sleep, work or relationship issues, a poor diet, busy commutes, lack of sunshine and technological bombardment are present more than ever before. These factors and stresses are cumulative – with all these triggers going on throughout each day you can see how the fight/flight response is constantly at a low level.
To no surprise, this keeps the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline up throughout the day and sometimes late into the evening. Cortisol does get a bad rep but it gives us our 'get up and go’ and acts as an anti inflammatory to the body. In a healthy individual it is aligned with the circadian rhythms, with the highest amount of cortisol being released first thing in the morning as the sun rises. Notice how toddlers and young kids are so awake with bundles of energy in the morning? That’s because their sympathetic nervous system and circadian rhythms have not diminished with long work hours, stress and poor lifestyle choices. You see, upon rising you are meant to wake up feeling refreshed, energised and alive.
What does stress do to the body
Stress suppresses the immune system creating inflammation and fluid retention in the body, particularly if cortisol levels are low. The body goes into a catabolic state, breaking down its own tissue – creating more inflammation and allergy responses. Combine this with 'hitting the gym hard', the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated once again releasing cortisol and adrenaline, continuing to break down tissue mostly from muscles. There becomes a major imbalance in your body and mind if the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for growth, repair, digestion, breathing and regeneration has not been activated enough through proper rest, good quality sleep, quiet time and breathing from the diaphragm.
How to reduce stress inflammation
In this instance, I recommend doing a ‘Yin' activity like restorative yoga which works deeply to release the fascia and connective tissue by holding postures anywhere between 2-7 minutes and provides great poses that reduce and ease inflammation in the body. It can be deeply relaxing but also allows the deep fascia to unwind itself allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to integrate and ease stress overall. Also, Tai chi/Qi gong are ancient and excellent forms of martial arts that draw energy in and help to rebalance the Chi/life force in the body. Also, a somatic yoga practice, meditation, pranayama, deep breathing or having bodywork with a trusted health practitioner all help put you into a parasympathetic state.
Yin activities help rebalance the nervous system, allow energy and creativity to flow, release blockages, puts us into an anabolic state of growth and repair, and is anti ageing too! I often work with my clients to release the diaphragm where a lot of tension and anxiety is held followed by deep breathing. It can have a very calming and liberating effect and really does reduce inflammation and stress overall.
To recap, some stress is good because it gives us our 'get up and go'. However cumulative stress from modern day living that is not balanced out by rest, enough yin activity or exercise and good quality lifestyle choices, result in a sympathetic dominant nervous system and inflammation. Long term chronic stress though, where the body can only produce low levels or no cortisol at all, may result in chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, auto immune diseases, a suppressed immune system and more. Remember these rules of thumb:
1. Listen to your body.
2. Ensure you are getting enough quiet time.
3. If you are feeling fatigued, don’t train. Choose a Yin activity instead to draw in energy.
4. Follow my top anti inflammatory food tips coming up in part 2!
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