There’s Science Behind the Need for Rest and Relaxation

By Dr. Molly Casey

Your Stress and Your Body

Stress affects your health negatively. We know this definitively. We also know that almost all chronic health issues have a direct correlation with chronic stress. While it is certainly important to promote habits that decrease stress and increase the body’s ability to handle it, it’s also important to promote the body’s ability to relax. What’s the difference, you ask? Fighting a fire efficiently and effectively is different than engaging in behavior that promotes prevention. So if the body isn’t in a stressed state, what state is it in? And how do we promote this state? The answer lies in the parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system.

Parasympathetic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system is the portion of your communication system that controls the automatic functions inside the body. This system has two parts, the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of functions in a relaxed state: think resting and digesting. This system helps the body recover from the activities of living -- the wear and tear of life, if you will.

Parasympathetic function helps decrease blood pressure, slow heart rate, and increase your body’s ability to digest food fully and properly among other functions. Optimal health requires that the parasympathetic nervous system be robust and fully functioning.

What Interferes With Proper Parasympathetic Function?

Chronic low grade stress - Most folks in this society have a low level of consistent stress that never goes away so the body stays in a consistent state of sympathetic function, aka sympathetic dominance. Over time, this ultimately takes a toll on the person’s health because driving the systems without balance means there is less than optimal function -- and the body and health suffer as a result.

Think of it this way: If a tiger is chasing you, the body’s first priority is not digesting what you ate for lunch but rather how to fight it, flee from it, or freeze and survive. This response is healthy. However, when that tiger is no longer present, the body naturally and rightfully pulls itself out of sympathetic state (fight, flight or freeze) and into parasympathetic (rest and digest). The issue is that nowadays most people are in a chronic low-grade stress state, that switch doesn’t happen and their health suffers.

Structural Interference - The spine houses and protects the nervous system and its ability to function optimally. If the spine is restricted in range of motion and interferes with the nervous system function, then at some level the body’s parasympathetic function will be negatively affected. Physically, it probably won’t help your ability to escape that tiger, either.

Promoting Parasympathetic Function

The bottom line is that decreasing as much stress as possible is ideal. I invite you to think about ways that you can promote the parasympathetic function instead of the idea of simply putting out fires. First and foremost, an optimally functioning spine will decrease levels of interference; as well, there are even adjustments that can be focused on areas of the spine that are more heavily affected by the parasympathetic function at the top of the neck (cervical spine) and base of the low back (lumbar spine and sacrum).

Second, give the body the things it requires for basic functions such as enough water (half your body weight in ounces daily, so 75 ounces of water for a 150-pound person). Participate in activities that promote calm, rest and relaxation -- and this is the kicker: do it regularly. Spend time outside in the quiet and engage daily in meditation or creative activities such as writing or art. Eat slowly and without distractions, which is extraordinarily important because many folks have quite detrimental eating habits aside from the actual food being ingested.

Parasympathetic function must be active and balanced with sympathetic function for optimal health. The body needs behaviors and activities that promote resting, relaxing, digesting, and calm, and it can’t always be in response to the aftermath of stress in life. The body will get better with these functions the more we look to engage with activities that promote them. Stop in at The Joint Chiropractic and the doctors can help you improve your quality of life by helping you help yourself and your parasympathetic nervous system!

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