Stress is an everyday word that we can all relate to. Understanding what happens in our bodies when we encounter a stressful situation is the first step towards creating harmony and stability in our lives.
. . .
In a previous blog, we used our friend, Jack, to illustrate how the body responds to stress. We discuss the mechanisms behind the central stress response system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, how it regulates the cascade of hormones that the body uses to navigate a stressful situation, and the impact that process has on the body.
Interconnected to this hormonal response process lies the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which comprises two opposite, yet complementary branches called the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The ANS is part of the peripheral nervous system that regulates the function of your internal organs, cardiac muscle fibers, and glands, without conscious control.
The yin and yang of stress
The autonomic nervous system also plays an essential role in helping to maintain homeostasis, or internal stability and balance, in the body, where it is constantly fine-tuning bodily functions based on the signals it receives from the central nervous system. How it does this depends on which branch of the ANS is activated at any given moment. Both branches affect the same organs, but they create contrasting effects on them.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is what triggers the well-known ‘fight or flight’ reaction in the body, or what is also known as the E division: exercise, excitement, emergency, embarrassment. What’s very interesting about this is that the nerve fibers of the SNS are located between your thoracic and lumbar vertebrae and lie very close to your spinal column. The name comes from the Greek words ‘feeling together’. This location means that the synapses, or communication, between nerves necessary to initiate a bodily reaction to stress can happen more quickly and affect many organs at once.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ response in the body, or what’s also called the D division: digestion, defecation, diuresis (urination). These nerve fibers are located above and below the SNS nerves, in the base of the brain and the sacrum, above your tailbone. ‘Para’ in Greek means ‘beside,’ so this system is aptly named for being ‘beside the sympathetic.’ The PSNS normalizes bodily functions when it has the time and energy to do so, thus its nerve fibers are further away from the spinal column, sometimes even in the organs themselves.
The all-important messenger
One of the 12 cranial nerves that serve motor and sensory functions is called the vagus nerve. On page 165 in my book, The Longevity Equation, I mention that “The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It runs through the brain stem, esophagus, lungs, heart, digestive tract, and all the way down to the colon.” Although referred to singularly, it is a pair of nerves that emerge from the left and right side of the brain stem. It’s no surprise then that its name originates from the Latin for ‘wandering.’
The vagus nerve works hand in hand with the parasympathetic nervous system during the ‘rest and digest’ response in the body. When we are not stressed, the vagus nerve serves as a communication superhighway, sending sensory information from the peripheral system to the brain so it can monitor function, and transmitting motor signals from the brain to the rest of the body, such as:
· Keeping the larynx open for breathing
· Feeding oxygen into the lungs and diaphragm
· Slowing and regulating the heartbeat
· Stimulating the secretion of saliva, release of bile, and peristalsis (contraction) of the bowels
· Contracting the bladder
· Sending messages to the brain to produce/release oxytocin (feel-good/bonding hormone)
· Reducing anxiety and depression
· Reducing inflammation
· Increasing immunity and longevity
The tipping point
Our stress response is important no matter what is going on in our lives. We all know it is useful when we are in danger or need a boost to get us through a workout. Hormones are released, our heart rate speeds up, our respiratory rate increases and our liver produces more glucose to give us energy. Our bodies are experts at keeping us on high alert when we need it.
However, this alert is designed to be occasional and temporary. What happens when stress becomes chronic and our bodies become overwhelmed by the constant state of vigilance? The accumulation of hormones and chemical messengers increases something called your allostatic load, or the wear and tear of stress on your body and brain. On page 73 of The Longevity Equation, I indicate that “An allostatic state is when your body is trying to deal with the fallout of stressors to try to reach a state of homeostasis. Over time, a heavy allostatic load will cause serious disruptions in the body.”
I continue with, “Keep in mind that though most stressors impose no real immediate danger, your body treats them as if they are serious life-or-death situations and prepares to fight or run away. This means that every time you encounter stress. . .your body prepares to deal with a dangerous situation. In turn, the stress hormones overpower the body and increase your allostatic load.”
Shifting the scales
There are little things we can do every day to counter the overwhelm and accumulation in our nervous systems. Here are a few suggestions:
· Call a friend: Research shows that social support can help to mediate many factors that contribute to mental health and can help us develop coping strategies.
· Get outside: a 2010 multi-study analysis showed, “Every green environment improved both self-esteem and mood; the presence of water generated greater effects.”
· Listen to music: A large scale review at McGill University found that music reduces stress and even improves the immune system!
· Read our blog on mindfulness for even more insight!
How can The Institute for Human Optimization assist me?
We believe that each person is truly unique. From DNA to iris, we all possess a blueprint that is genetically inherited and environmentally influenced. By gaining a deeper appreciation for the person on a molecular level and addressing the root causes driving disease, we can help promote optimized health through our unique scientific, N of 1, approach to individualized care.
At The Institute for Human Optimization, my team and I leverage the most cutting-edge advances in genetic testing, nutritional, and functional medicine to help our patients treat the root biological imbalances that cause aging. I believe that a long healthspan – not just a long lifespan – is the most important thing you can cultivate. A long healthspan means you don’t miss out on life as you get older. It means remaining independent and having the vitality to travel and see the world. A long healthspan means that you can be there – in full body and mind – for the people who need you the most and that every day will feel like a gift.
The Institute for Human Optimization provides the most comprehensive, data-driven, personalized approach to wellness. It is:
· Predictive – We use genomics and advanced biomarker testing to risk stratification and empowerment.
· Personalized – We use data-driven health information to curate actionable change for disease mitigation and prevention.
· Preventive – We utilize highly individualized programs tailored to your unique genomic blueprint.
· Participatory – We empower engagement in personal choices, which allows for improved outcomes and enhanced results.
Let’s work together to find that balance!