If you think really hard, you might be able to remember back to the first time you heard this phrase in science class: “fight or flight”. Fight or flight is a catchy way of describing the sympathetic nervous system in short hand, which is one part of the autonomic nervous system in the body.
The body’s autonomic nervous system has three parts: the parasympathetic, sympathetic and enteric systems. I am going to focus on the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) in particular, with regard to how it manages stress and weight.
So why am I getting all Science Nerd on you? Because understanding the basics of the SNS has changed the way I perceive food, stress, sleep, and well-being. It’s possible that your health could turn on a dime with this simple understanding of your body, and making the choice to manage your stress differently.
The SNS manages your body’s homeostasis at a baseline level, but the SNS also manages the body’s response to sudden threats or stressors. At that point, it ups it’s game, if you will.
And if you are chronically stressed, then your SNS has been working overtime. By dealing with the fight-or-flight response more often, the SNS releases more of the catecholamine hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine via the adrenal gland. This, in turn, wears your adrenal gland out, causing a myriad of problems including adrenal fatigue, (which is why I am so committed to eat the food (ETF)!)
When your body is triggered into a fight-or-flight situation, it is also called the sympatho-adrenal response. This is meaningful to me, because of the mention of adrenals. I have adrenal fatigue, as do many of you I am sure, which can be managed with stress reduction, and a healthy rejection of dieting.
The SNS is of particular interest because it not only regulates stress, but also the immune system, although indirectly. We have already seen the connection between the SNS and the adrenals, where the catecholamines are secreted. Also secreted in times of stress by the adrenals? Cortisol.
Cortisol is not in the catecholamine group of hormones, even though it is still produced by the adrenal gland. Instead, it is a steroid hormone used to restore homeostasis in times of stress. Prolonged elevated levels of cortisol can cause immune system suppression, as well as osteoporosis and memory loss.
You also may have heard that cortisol is related to belly fat and obesity. There are studies that are currently looking into this, and I personally think they are on to something.
There is also a correlation between high cortisol levels and a deficiency in the amino acid called GABA. My chosen source of GABA is this True Calm supplement, which I find helps me to manage my stress symptoms, especially if I am particularly worn out or irritable.
Cortisol levels can be managed in general by consulting this list, which I find absolutely fascinating. I have a dance degree, I love massages and comedy clubs, and tend towards taking magnesium. Amazing what the body can tell us if we listen, huh?! I’m still geeking out about it!So why does this matter?
Because of our interest in traditional foods, traditionally prepared. And because there are ways to tell if your body is stressed or not.
We go through the trouble of eating traditional foods, traditionally prepared, for a reason. It’s because we believe that god made it that way, or that we evolved that way, or that there is hidden wisdom in the process, or that true health is found in traditional foods, or that we feel the best when we eat real food, or some combination of the above.
This is all well and good, because I do think that our traditional foods are healing and beneficial. That includes grains, starches, and plenty of carbohydrates. Low-carb dieting, while in vogue, does not hold water in the long run. You may feel great at first, but anytime you reduce a macronutrient significantly, you are asking for trouble.
(Of course, you may be in a specific space where you cannot eat grains, or you are on GAPS. That’s fine. Just make sure you get enough carbs on GAPS or another grain-free or gluten-free diet. Your SNS will thank you!)
If you understand the SNS well, then you can understand the benefit of reducing your stress level so the fight-or-flight, adrenal-sucking mechanism built into your body doesn’t get tripped so often and render you exhausted and fat. You will stop killing yourself to do cardio three times a week. And you will stop thinking grains are the devil.
Wikipedia explains the basic rule this way:
Stress—as in the flight-or-fight response—is thought to counteract the parasympathetic system, which generally works to promote maintenance of the body at rest. In truth, the functions of both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are not so straightforward, but this is a useful rule of thumb.
In short, food isn’t everything. There are many things you can do to reduce your stress, such as: making sure your waking temperature is above 98 degrees, that your hands and feet are warm, that you eat enough carbohydrates, and that you honor your body by sleeping well and skipping workouts when you are tired. I know it sounds crazy, but if you don’t believe, read the list again. And then read this.
High temperatures, warm extremities, and plenty of sleep means that your stress will be lower. Guaranteed. It’s just how the body’s mechanisms work.
If you do these things, you can thereby reduce your sympathetic nervous system from working too much and making your body overwhelmed so it cannot function properly. You can read more about it in Diet Recovery, and join me in greater health!
(Oh, and by the way, just because you are fat doesn’t mean you aren’t able to have greater health. I am a stand for the Health at Every Size movement, and wholeheartedly believe that sizism and fetishizing thinness is not going to get us anywhere. Eating carbs and getting a healthy metabolism? That’s a different story!)