At some point we have all heard about how reducing stress is the key to being healthy happy humans. More specifically reducing stress can support good digestion and elimination, elevate our mood, increase the likelihood of conception and basically keep disease and disorders at bay.
But what exactly about stress makes it so harmful and what could we be doing to manage it?
Typically when we're in a stressful situation, such as a neighbours dog chasing us down the street or a fender bender on our way to work, our sympathetic nervous system is activated and there is a cascade of stress hormones that flood into the blood. When these hormones start circulating our heart starts beating faster, our breath quickens and our muscles begin to tense. Basically our body has perceived a threat and is preparing us to either fight it or get the heck out of dodge. Once the body no longer feels threatened, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) releases hormones to alleviate those physiological responses and we quickly begin to feel our heart rate slow, our breathing becoming more even and our muscles relaxing. This fight or flight response followed by the rest and digest state is an innate mechanism that keeps our body in a euphoric state of homeostasis.
But here's the unfortunate thing, our bodies also see looming work deadlines, bills piling up on the counter, a highly acidic diet and excessive exercise as threats. And though they may not be an immediate risk to our livelihood, being constantly exposed to mini stressors keeps our bodies in a permanent state of distress. In order to manage this onslaught of perceived threats we need to produce more and more cortisol. Cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal glands has several important functions, such as regulating blood sugar and reducing inflammation, but when we have chronically elevated levels of it in our system we can start to suffer from adrenal fatigue, digestive issues, suppressed immune function, reproductive issues and disrupted sleep.
So what do we do about it?
Well we already know some of the basics; eat right, exercise and remove toxic things and people from our lives. But in recent research a concept is emerging that suggests that what we actually need to do is find ways to just plain SLOW DOWN. In today's "do more" culture we have created zero space to rest and let our bodies repair which is putting us at risk of disease. But research shows that by swapping out our sweaty spin session with a slow-paced practice in Restorative Yoga we can regain balance and begin to let our bodies heal.
For those of you not familiar with Restorative Yoga, it’s a yin style practice intended to open and relax the body and mind through passive stretching. A restorative yoga sequence includes light twists, seated forward folds, and gentle backbends supported by props to allow for complete relaxation. During a class we can expect five or six poses in a sequence and most poses are held anywhere between seven to fifteen minutes. By modifying the poses, using props to support the body and holding the poses longer we have an opportunity to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system. And as our bodies shift from survival mode to relaxation and healing we will begin to notice several positive outcomes.
For those couples trying to conceive reducing stress can be very supportive. As we already know our standard lifestyle of “doing” typically keeps the sympathetic nervous system on permanent overdrive leading to excessive synthesis and release of cortisol. A high need for cortisol can be a concern when trying to conceive because the molecules used to produce cortisol are the same ones that are used to make our reproductive hormones. When we are chronically stressed our bodies have an increased need for cortisol which forces the body to use pregnenolone to synthesise cortisol in turn reducing the amount available to support the production of our reproductive hormones.
Reducing stress also supports digestion because the parasympathetic nervous system stimulates the digestive process by increasing the blood flow directly to our digestive tract. When the PNS is activated the salivary gland is stimulated, increasing production of saliva that contains enzymes important to the digestion of carbohydrates. It also increases peristalsis, which is the constriction and relaxation of the intestine (sphincter) muscle. This motion pushes the contents through the intestines where the nutrient from our food is absorbed.
Finally, we want to be tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system because when stimulated it increases alpha brain waves that promote relaxation. Restorative yoga specifically stimulates the vagus nerve, releasing an array of anti-stress enzymes and hormones such as acetylcholine, prolactin and oxytocin. Oxytocin is the "love" hormone and is associated with empathy, trust, sexual activity, and relationship building and we know that fostering loving and supportive relationships can improve our mental and physical health.
So there it is my friends, just by lying on your back completely supported by big cushy bolsters and covered with a warm comforting blanket you can be contributing to a happier, healthier you and with so many classes on offer in Toronto it is no time like the present to give it a try!
Author: Erin Freeman
Erin is a student at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition (IHN) in North York, Ontario where she is currently completing a diploma in Applied Holistic Nutrition. Erin is passionate about women’s health and particularly loves supporting families during the pregnancy and postpartum periods to help them feel empowered to make healthy choices for themselves and their children.