Stress And Your Automatic Operating System
The Sympathetic Branch Of The aOS
About a week ago, I was the speaker for a group of people resolved healthy eating and living called the HEAL Tribe. I was asked by The Jax Vegan Couple to be their speaker. It was a great event full of delicious vegan dishes(full disclosure, I eat meat)! I spoke about the importance of the autonomic nervous system, which I refer to as the automatic Operating System, or aOS of the body. Before we get into how the autonomic nervous system (referred to as the aOS) is affected by stress, here's a quick review. The aOS is divided into two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch is often described as the fight or flight manager. In response to stimuli, like seeing a bear in the woods, the sympathetic branch releases noradrenaline and can lead to the release of adrenaline. Once these chemicals are released, you will see the signs of the fight or flight response. These include pupil dilation, increased sweating, increased heart rate, and increased blood pressure. However, the sympathetic branch also decreases blood flow to digestive and eliminative organs. It does so because when confronted by a bear in the woods, digesting lunch is not as important as avoiding becoming lunch.The sympathetic branch harnesses energy to prepare for defense rather than for nourishment. This branch is also activated by angry thoughts and physical overexertion. The sympathetic branch is catabolic, which means it tears the body down. When the sympathetic branch is in control, healing and detoxing of the body is shut off.
The Parasympathetic Branch Of The aOS
Now, let's cover the basics of the parasympathetic branch of the aOS. This branch is often called the rest and digest response or the feed and breed response. In essence, it controls activities that occur when the body is at rest, especially after eating, including sexual arousal, salivation, lacrimation (tears), urination, digestion and defecation. It stimulates the immune and eliminative organs like the liver, pancreas, stomach, and intestines. The parasympathetic branch of the aOS is activated by rest, relaxation, and positive thoughts. It is more concerned with nourishing, healing and regeneration of the body for long term survival. For this reason, the parasympathetic branch is anabolic(building up the body). It is the branch responsible for homeostasis, or balance, in the body.
- Controls stimulation of "rest and digest" activities essential for recovery
- Promotes physical and emotional healing
- Needed for long term survival
Who's In Charge?
Both branches of the aOS are antagonistic. Either one or the other is activated most of the time. To promote balance and healing, the goal is to keep the sympathetic branch quite and in the background. When the sympathetic branch is active for too long, it can result in sympathetic dominance. Staying constantly stressed will cause blood vessels to adapt to constriction and become muscular. The result is a very narrow diameter which requires larger amounts of blood to be pumped through them while increasing blood pressure, not good. Loss of appetite is a common symptom of sympathetic dominance. Can you recall a time when you were pressed for a deadline at work, or spent the day worrying about news of a sick relative? Do you remember going for hours during those days without much to eat? A lowered libido and sexual arousal can also happen in sympathetic dominance due to the interference of testosterone and estrogen production. Low estrogen affects both sexes as estrogen is an antioxidant preventing a number of cardio vascular diseases and atherosclerosis. Another culprit hormone associated with stress and sympathetic dominance is cortisol. Glucose driven by cortisol will cause sympathetic dominant people to not be able to get rid of their lower belly pooch. Other signs of sympathetic dominance are fatigue, exhaustion, moodiness, apathy, and can even lead to depression. Some of the physical symptoms can include aches and pains, indigestion, and insomnia. Over the long term, sympathetic dominance sets the stage for more serious illness like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
What Can You Do?
No one can completely eliminate stress, in fact, we need stress to survive. However, we cannot let stress overwhelm us. Finding things that you truly enjoy and make you feel relaxed is a good place to start. As corny as it may sound, staying positive, practicing forgiveness and gratitude can cultivate contentment. Stay away from negative emotions and people who deplete your energy versus emotions and people that truly uplift you. Simple exercises like stretching and practicing deep breathing will also activate the parasympathetic branch of the aOS. Physical activities like yoga or getting a massage can also be a part of your aOS balancing regimen. Taking care of your physical body is also important to managing stress. Secondary conditions like neck pain or headaches also activate the sympathetic branch of the aOS. We also know that there are anatomical attachments of the upper spinal cord to the base of the skull as well as the top two bones in the neck. Structural shifts of the upper neck create a disrelationship between the head and the neck. These structural shifts can cause an obstruction in how signals from the aOS get to their relay centers in the brainstem. Chronic pain increases stress and all of the domino effects we see in sympathetic dominance.