By Shawn Walker
M.OMSc. Osteopathic Manual Practitioner and Personal Trainer
There are two main divisions to our nervous system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. There is also a third known as the enteric system, but for clarity’s sake, we’ll leave that division out of this conversation.
Our sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” response, which is the predominant neural output when we exercise or feel stress at work. The sympathetic response can accelerate heart rate, increase muscular tone, decrease motility of the gastrointestinal tract, and increase sweating and blood pressure, as well as secretion of the hormone known as adrenaline (to name a few). An instance of increased sympathetic output means redirecting blood from our abdomen and organs out to the peripheral muscles and skin—whereas the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “rest and digest” response.
An increase in the parasympathetic response will have the opposite effects, where muscles relax, heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and gastrointestinal tract motility increases and triggers the release of digestive juices/enzymes. Basically, blood returns to the abdomen to allow for proper functioning of the GI tract and visceral organs.
The sympathetic response, ie. fight or flight, was a necessary adaptation to human evolution. If our ancestors came across a bear or a tiger in the wild, they would need a fast response to deliver blood to their peripheral muscles and increase their cardiac output, so that they could either run away or fight for survival. Fortunately for us Torontonians, having an interaction with large wild animals that can easily kill us isn’t a reality. However, just because we now live in an industrialized society doesn’t mean that we aren’t affected by an increased sympathetic response.
Our society has made survival a lot easier due to modern healthcare and plumbing, but life has certainly become far more complicated than ever before. Between mortgage payments, paying off student loans, deadlines at work, tending to children or parents, et cetera, life has become far more mentally and emotionally complex. This sympathetic stress response in our body is the exact same as the stress response we would have trying to survive in the wild. Although none of the examples listed require physical work, the mental strains of these examples have physical manifestations.
In my daily practice, I consistently see personal training clients and osteopathic patients who are seemingly “stuck” in the sympathetic stress response. The byproduct of this is weight gain and/or extreme difficulty losing weight, high blood pressure and heart rate, difficulty digesting a variety of foods, constipation or diarrhea, insomnia, hormonal fluctuations and more. The good news is the human body has all the built-in remedies it needs to self-heal and self-regulate; sometimes it just needs a bump in the right direction.
All of the stress responses listed above can be improved by daily exercise, meditation, avoidance of sugars and heavily refined or processed foods, and avoiding sitting for extended periods of time. On top of these healthy lifestyle changes, an occasional tune-up from a skilled manual therapist will also help to decrease the sympathetic response and increase parasympathetic output.
When it comes to our health, there is no magic pill that will cure all ailments, but there are some manual manipulations that can be done to promote calming of the nervous system and improved quality of sleep. In doing so, the body can process and begin healing the ailments produced by the stress response so many of us suffer from.