Even before the Coronavirus pandemic, the majority of us were living with way too much stress. (I am defining stress loosely here as the internal response to a challenging stimulus – overly demanding job, finances, strained relationships, driving in traffic, loss of a loved one, resentment, grief, shame, repetitive thinking such as anxiety and the list goes on and on.) Now, for many that stress has been magnified inordinately.
What a negative toll this plays on our overall health in a time when we need to be reversing the ill effects of stress on our body! Our bodies work hard to keep systems essential for life in check, such as blood pH, oxygen, and glucose. Chronic and prolonged stress challenges our bodies to work extra hard to maintain these check points. These extra challenges are not sustainable long term, and can contribute to many chronic health issues.
I was reminded recently of the importance of breathing in bringing the body back to a state of calmness and homeostasis. Our breath is the connection between our bodies and our minds. When we are in stress mode, our breathing becomes shallow, causing oxidative stress and depriving our cells of needed oxygen. By remembering to breathe and calming our breath, we can relax our bodies and our minds more deeply, a small step we can take to reduce our stress levels, especially important while caught in the midst of this worldwide health crisis.
What’s more, our state of physical and mental calmness, or lack of calmness, when we eat greatly affects our digestion.
Our autonomic nervous system consists of two main parts:
The Parasympathetic Nervous System, also thought of as “rest and digest,” controls body processes during ordinary situations. Basically, it conserves and restores. It slows the heart rate and decreases blood pressure and stimulates the digestive tract to do its job. Every cell that makes up every tissue that makes up every organ depends on our body’s ability to properly digest our food in order to continue functioning.
What does this mean? In order to get the benefits of the foods we eat, we need to be in a relaxed state. It’s imperative that we slow down and get into this state before we start eating – a good time to pause, do some breathing, give thanks.
The Sympathetic Nervous System, sometimes known as “fight or flight,” prepares the body for stressful or emergency situations. The adrenals release cortisol, a stress hormone, and in situations of extreme stress they release epinephrine (aka: adrenaline), our fight or flight hormone. Epinephrine, among other roles, signals the body to increase heart rate and blood sugar levels and direct blood away from the stomach toward the muscles in order to deal with the so called “emergency.” Metabolism slows down, fat gets stored, and we may experience indigestion and bowel problems.
Occasional spurts of adrenaline can be good, but running on adrenaline continuously, long term takes a toll on our bodies and can contribute to a whole host of physiological disorders.
As a nutritional therapist, I educate people on the importance of digestion. Equally important to what we eat, is our body’s ability to breakdown, absorb, and utilize the nutrients in food; and that ability depends on our state of being when we eat. What state are you in when you sit down to eat? Are you relaxed?
Or are you like me and find yourself too often in that sympathetic state, perhaps not even sitting down? What can we do to help ourselves? My intention is to start practicing breath work using Dr. Weil’s 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise for relaxation. Keeping your tongue on the roof on your mouth just behind your teeth, do a forceful exhale, then do four cycles of the following: breathe into the count of 4, hold for 7, and audibly exhale to the count of 8. He suggests doing that at least 2x day, or more often if you recognize a need to calm down. But he emphasizes to not do more than four cycles, unless you are practiced at it, in which case you can do up to eight cycles. According to Dr. Weil, after 2-3 months, you can expect to see changes: aids in dealing with cravings and falling asleep, lowers heart rate, lowers blood pressure, improves digestion, and counters anxiety.
I am not an expert in breath work, rather someone striving to incorporate this into my own life because I know it is invaluable to my digestion and overall health. I want to make sure I am seated when I eat and that I am “practicing what I preach.”
Please share your favorite breathing or relaxation technique. I would love to hear how it helps you.
Relax and breathe!