Do you remember learning about the “fight or flight” response? It probably came up in science class when you were studying the body’s nervous system.
The body’s autonomic nervous system is made up of three parts: the sympathetic system, the parasympathetic system, and the enteric system. The “fight or flight” response is an important feature of the sympathetic system and that’s what I want to talk about today. The sympathetic system is responsible for managing stressful situations and anxiety. This has an important influence on your metabolism, body weight, and overall wellbeing.
Stress and adrenal fatigue
Stress is causing your body’s sympathetic nervous system to activate. If you are suddenly in danger, it will work extra hard to get you out of it. It’s literally responsible for our survival as species.
Suffering from chronic stress means that your sympathetic nervous system is constantly working which is less than ideal. Each time the fight or flight response is triggered, it releases two catecholamine hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine, from the adrenal gland. This causes adrenal fatigue because your adrenal gland is constantly releasing new doses of those hormones.
Many people who are under constant stress suffer from adrenal fatigue and they usually don’t even know it. See if those symptoms seem familiar to you: trouble falling asleep, lack of energy, needing caffeine to get through the day, craving salty foods (often fast foods, like French fries). All of those can be a sign of adrenal fatigue.
The sympathetic nervous system is also closely linked to the body’s immune system. Therefore, a healthy sympathetic nervous system means a healthy immune system and an overall improvement in wellbeing.
The adrenal gland releases other hormones besides the epinephrine and norepinephrine. The one I want to focus on here is cortisol.
It’s not a catecholamine hormone but a steroid hormone. Cortisol’s role is to restore your body’s balance that was disrupted by encountering a stress trigger. So again, if you are under constant stress, your cortisol levels are bound to be elevated above average. This can cause immune system suppression, as well as osteoporosis and memory loss.
High cortisol levels are linked to a deficiency in the GABA amino acid. I use the True Calm supplement to increase my GABA amino acid intake and I find that it helps me manage my stress better.
Cortisol is also responsible for your metabolism. The fight or flight response causes your basic bodily functions to temporarily shut down so that your body can focus solely on survival. This includes your metabolism as well. And if you are constantly secreting cortisol due to chronic stress then naturally, your metabolism is going to slow down. This process ensures our survival but if continued for prolonged time, can bring more bad than good. A slower metabolism means it’s more difficult to lose weight. Your body feels it’s in constant danger so it thinks it’s necessary to store an excessive amount of fat for survival. Losing weight while under chronic stress is a very difficult task.
Stress can also make you engage in other unhealthy habits. Stressed people might turn towards fast food instead of homemade dinner because they don’t feel well enough to plan and prepare their meals. It’s simply easier to eat food that is readily accessible to us. Stress eating is another thing. Snacking on chocolate when you are feeling down or stuffing yourself with an unhealthy amount of cookies is a form of emotional release. Some skip meals altogether and just snack throughout the day without sitting down to eat proper breakfast and dinner. Sleep deprivation and insomnia are common symptoms of chronic stress. The next day, people have no energy to work on themselves or even think about exercising. It’s a real vicious circle.
A lot of people start dieting to lose weight but if you don’t deal with your root causes of stress then no amount of healthy eating will help you shed that weight. I know it first-hand. I felt cheated when even after switching to clean eating, my weight wouldn’t budge. I felt like I was doing something wrong, like I was misunderstanding the dietary advice I was being given. Now I realize that the reason for that was constant stress. I realize it’s probably not something you want to hear but first, we all really need to start working on getting our stress levels under control.
It’s important to understand the correlation between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Wikipedia explains it this way:
“Together with the other component of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system aids in the control of most of the body’s internal organs. Reaction to 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. The comprehensive functions of both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are not so straightforward, but this is a useful rule of thumb.”
Food is not the only thing you need to consider when trying to lose weight. You also need to know how to relax properly. There are a few tried methods that should help you:
- eating enough carbs so that you have the energy to function
- maintaining basal temperature (body’s temperature right after you wake up) above 98 degrees
- getting more sleep (even if it means you need to skip a workout or two)
- taking warm baths
- rubbing your hands and feet to warm them up
Forcing your body to relax is how you can give a rest to your sympathetic nervous system. It’s been overworked and overwhelmed, it deserves a moment of relaxation too! It will lower your stress hormone levels and give your body a sign that it’s time to speed up the metabolic rate again. You can read all about that in Diet Recovery.
And remember to focus on the important thing here: it’s not about how much weight you lose but about how you feel. You can be perfectly healthy and feeling full of energy even when you still have some of that leftover fat in your body. So don’t let all that media pressure to be skinny get to you! Focus on your own wellbeing, no matter what size you wear.