Why your nervous system is key
This is the first in a six-part guide to feeling good.
Greetings Coasties. I do hope you’ve enjoyed a relaxing break at some point over Summer. Granted our suntans may not be on par with previous years, but it does seem that many folks, restricted in their movements and unable to indulge in regular holiday festivities, enjoyed a simpler and perhaps more mindful break this year.
These unusual times have me contemplating how deeply intertwined our health, happiness and mindset, really are. It’s more apparent than ever that our external circumstances are often entirely outside of our control. However, our physical health, along with our mood, outlook and state of mind, are predominantly an inside job. And there are ways we can continue to feel good – great, even – despite what’s happening around us.
Although my teachings generally centre around food and nutrition, one thing I’m constantly harping on about is that when it comes to health, food is only one small piece of the puzzle. And despite how passionate I am about the importance of good nutrition, our mood, thoughts and mindset affect our inner biochemistry just as much as food – likely moreso!
Just by ruminating over a stressful interaction you had with someone, you’re generating a cascade of stress hormones that break down muscle, increase belly fat, impair digestion and age your skin.
Besides, what’s the point of eating a perfect diet if we don’t feel great? Isn’t that the entire point? To be in a relaxed and joyous state, as often as possible? If you think back to your younger years, I’m sure there’s fond memories of long outdoor Summers, with you chasing dreams and brimming with excitement for what lay ahead.
That energy, that lust for life, is one of the primary markers of health. If I had no other test or diagnostic available to me, it would tell me most of what I need to know.
Ask yourself: do you bounce out of bed, excited for the day? Do you take time to ‘smell the roses’, to notice and appreciate the smaller moments your day? Are you regularly in a state of awe and unbridled joy? Are you prioritising and indulging in (healthy) passions?
If there’s a slight nostalgic feeling, a vague remembrance that you could once answer ‘yes’ to many of these questions – know that it is within your grasp at any time.
Is it easier when our load is lighter? Of course. However, there are so many things we can do to cultivate this state of health. It’s a practice. And it’s greatly interconnected with a well-functioning nervous system.
What does a healthy nervous system look like?
Well outside short periods of acute stress, we’re uplifted rather than depressed, calm rather than overwhelmed and anxious, we have energy to spare, our digestion is in check and we’re thinking clearly. We’re productive, motivated and regularly relaxed and happy!
How can we support the nervous system?
Well, let’s firstly acknowledge the things that are most toxic to a well-functioning nervous system. Chronic, unmanaged stress; negative thinking patterns and emotional states; poor diet or sleep patterns; sedentary lifestyle. No surprises, there. That same list applies to every area of our health. And reading it probably doesn’t inspire you to take any action whatsoever.
The good news for anyone yearning to feel better and especially for those who may be doubtful about whether they can achieve their substantial health goals this year, is that it needn’t necessarily involve eating better or working out at the gym more often (although granted, these would help)!
It’s exciting to discover the immense impact that prioritising things like rest, pleasure, human connection and engaging hobbies can have on our health, due to the way these types of activities support the nervous system.
Fight / Flight versus Rest / Digest
You’ve probably heard of the ‘fight or flight response’ or sympathetic dominance, which is an adaptation that allows us to escape or combat a real or imagined threat.
Our body immediately directs its energy to processes that will facilitate a quick exit or successful battle. Blood is directed away from our organs to the peripheral muscles and limbs. The production of hormones and digestive juices takes a back seat and the primitive hind brain which allows for reactive thinking and quicker reflexes, takes over.
All this results in a diminished capacity for growth, repair, immunity and healing; for digestion and nutrient absorption; for fertility, libido and reproductive health; and for any capacity to think and communicate clearly, hence why expressions of road rage are often one-word expletives and hand gestures!
In days gone by, the threat was most likely a wild animal. In modern times, it could be an angry neighbour or your child pouring milk over the dog. Or even the very thought of your angry neighbour. Remember, the detrimental effects of the stress response occur, even when the threat is imaginary.
Many of us have adapted to rushing around, spending the majority of our time in this state of sympathetic dominance.
Parasympathetic dominance and deep rest
However, what we’re aiming for, at a very basic level, is to bring our nervous system into parasympathetic dominance or a predominant state of ‘rest and digest’. Where our immune system, digestion and cognitive abilities are all flourishing. Where are moods are calm and our outlook, positive. If we’re truly healthy, we exist in this state the large majority of the time. This is the case for exceptionally few people.
For many of us, even in our ‘off’ time, we can still find ourselves stewing about an argument with a partner or colleague or thinking about all the things we need to get done. Our minds still racing, our bodies still carrying tension and our nervous systems still on edge.
And so, I’d like to introduce the concept of ‘deep rest’ or nervous system reset. It’s anything that for a decent period of time, pulls you out of your head and deeply restores your nervous system by grounding you in your body. A long, relaxing massage, a hiking trip, a yoga retreat or a lazy day at the beach.
It’s something that many of us can easily comprehend on an intellectual level, but routinely forget the powerful experience of – myself included!
And after spending several days relaxing in hot mineral springs over the break, I realised I hadn’t truly reset my nervous system or had any resemblance of deep rest, in years. (Such is life, in one’s child-bearing season!)
I’d also underestimated the incredibly transformative effect it would have on every aspect of my health, which proceeded to flow into every area of my life. Thus, inspiring our first theme for 2021: feeling good.
Over the next six weeks, we’ll be exploring all sorts of fun and enjoyable ways to radically improve our health, mood and mindset and generally help us to feel great.
Georgia is a clinically trained nutritionist, wholefoods chef, columnist and mum. She’s been featured in Body & Soul and had TV appearances on ABC Breakfast and Studio 10 for her unique approach to food and health. She’s known for reinventing traditional foods for the modern kitchen and was instrumental in a radical new approach to sports nutrition with a program for the NRL Parramatta Eels, kickstarting their ascent on the ladder in recent years. Find out more at stirringchange.com.