5 Simple Tips to Live Better, Longer and Stronger
What if I told you there is a hidden part of your body that is the difference between life and death?
If you ignore it, you may die. If you learn to activate it, you may live longer and better than you ever thought possible.
This system is the lynchpin between living life like the hands of time stopped just for you, and being forever stuck in sickness, a prisoner in your own withering skin.
It’s called the Autonomic Nervous System.
In this blog post, I’ll show you how it works and how to tweak it to feel less stressed, more relaxed, and live longer as a result! I will give you some tools and tips to move your body from mere survival and into thrival (?).. um, you know what I mean – I want you to thrive.
WHAT IS THE AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM AND WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Your Autonomic Nervous System: let it flow.
Everybody knows about the Central Nervous System – the brain, the spinal cord and the nerves that spread throughout the body. What we are talking about today is a different nervous system called the Autonomic Nervous System – the “automatic” system that’s affecting your wellness every second of every day.
This is the part of the nervous system that supplies the internal organs, including the blood vessels, stomach, intestine, liver, kidneys, bladder, genitals, lungs, pupils, heart, and sweat, salivary, and digestive glands…
You know, kinda important stuff!
The Symathetic Nervous System
When you say things like “I’m nervous” or “that gets on my nerves,” or “this blog post is nerve rackingly epic” and you feel tense or intense, that is your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) talking to you.
Issues like high blood pressure, loss of sleep, anxiety, erectile dysfunction, digestive issues, certain skin problems, many heart problems and even the suppression of your immune system can all have an overactive Sympathetic Nervous system lurking under the surface.
This overactivity comes from stress in our lives, and is rampant in our distracted, fast-paced, uncertain, always plugged-in world.
As I massage the bunched up, painful muscles of my clients each day, I hear the words “But I’m not stressed,” all the time… but ahem, their bodies disagree. Unwittingly, we hold the challenges of everyday life in our bodies.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is designed to keep us alive during emergencies, but when it is activated too long, it depletes other areas not involved with “fight or flight” issues, and they can wither. The SNS doesn’t know if the threats are real (like a tiger jumping out at you) or just in your mind (like you’re worried about money or your kids) – so it gets activated all the time.
The way this plays out in our PT office is we can see delayed healing time, chronic inflammation, and increased pain sensitivity, just to name a few things related to an overly stimulated Sympathetic Nervous System. So let’s figure out how to shift our bodies from chronic “fight or flight” responses to “rest and digest” healing activity in the body.
Enter the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
If the Sympathetic Nervous System is there to help us survive, the Parasympathetic Nervous System allows us to thrive.
Not just survive — thrive! Me want.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), could be illustrated as when we feel mellow, peaceful and relaxed. This is the side of our bodies’ circuitry that helps us “rest and digest,” slow our heart rate, soften tension from our muscles, vasodilate to improve blood flow, decrease blood pressure, and basically relaxes our bodies so there’s no puckered-up stagnancy – it helps everything in the body flow.
When the Parasympathetic Nervous System is activated appropriately and in balance with the Sympathetic Nervous System, we can be both activated to get things done (Sympathetic) but our vital organs and systems are all working in sync to keep us living strong on the inside (Parasympathetic).
Open the flood gate of wellness
When you age, and when you’re in excessive Sympathetic Nervous System drive, your body loses flow of nutrient systems: blood, lymphatic, digestive, hydration, neurologic… and your body becomes more like a dry, cracked, creek bed. These are the things that make us die. When we were young, we had fully flowing channels that provided rich, moist soil, green healthy foliage at the banks, and rosy-colored flowers everywhere. As we age our creek can turn from lush greenery into a barren desert.
When you follow the tips below, the body switches on the Parasympathetic Nervous System (flow); it’s like you open the floodgate and nutrient-rich water begins to fill up the dry creek bed. As you continue these habits (keeping the flow), the soil absorbs it little by little, and new growth blossoms as the soil is rejuvenated.
This means that the tissues, organs, and glands in your body are getting more nutrient-rich lymphatic/blood flowing to them. This improves the function of digestion, tissue absorption, circulation of blood/lymphatic, immune, neural, organs, sleep, endurance, etc. It makes you feel better and live longer.
Creek beds aside, I’ll repeat what the PNS controls: it is the keystone between living life in a body that feels supple and strong, and one that keeps you constrained in sickness and limitation.
But how do we do it?
How do we open these healing flood gates? Wellness is never created by just one thing.
It’s the combination of all the things we do – “good” and “bad.” But some things are better than others and some are more powerful at activating the PNS. Here they are:
TIPS TO OPEN THE FLOOD GATES TO VITALITY:
Here are 5 in-depth powerful things you can do to boost your PNS:
TIP 1: Belly Breathing:
A recent study in Frontiers In Human Neuroscience noted that belly breathing activates the vagus nerve, a key activator of the PNS.
When you breathe using your diaphragm (your belly) you stimulate the vagus nerve. This nerve runs from the base of the skull and ear through the throat and down to the abdomen area, so quite simply, when we breathe deeply using our diaphragm, it mechanically stimulates this nerve. This activation leads to better digestion, a lower heart rate, and a lower respiratory rate. Every time you breathe with your belly, you stimulate your vagus nerve and give your body an instant chill pill. When there’s never any movement of the belly, the breath stays shallow and there’s no “flow” via the parasympathetic system, just stagnancy.
- Try this: take a big breath in and “sigh” either audibly or not, with a long exhale, breathing out about twice as long as you breathe in. See if you can feel your belly extend out on the inhale (like a beer-belly sticking out), and then draw your belly button in on the exhale (like you’re trying to tuck in your shirt to a slightly too-tight waistband). Try to keep your neck and shoulders relaxed and just move the belly. At this point, breathing with your nose or mouth doesn’t matter. The most important thing is to try to relax, feel your belly move at least a bit (less movement in the chest if possible), and exhale longer than the inhale.
- Pro tip: “5 Breaths” exercise: See if you can do 5 deep belly breaths in a row without your mind wandering. Feel the temperature and humidity of the breath glide in and out of your nose and/or mouth. If you start thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner, start over from 1 again and make it to 5 breaths without losing mindfulness of the breath. Sounds easy, and it can be, but give it a try – the mental focus is part of the benefit here. Work your way up to 10 breaths. Do your 5 breaths:
- While in the shower
- Whenever you feel stressed
- Whenever you notice negative thoughts or emotions
- Before an important presentation or conversation
- Right before bed
TIP 2: Meditate
I could write a whole series of blog posts on the benefits of meditation. The International Journal of Basic and Applied Medical Sciences sums it up pretty succinctly: “…parasympathetic activity is more in meditators as compared to non-meditators.” To bypass all those nerdy, big words– what they are saying is meditation puts the healing “flow” back into our bodies!
As you may know, my wife and co-founder of Active PT, Rachael Larson, is a visionary healer and expert meditation guide. We are in the process of opening a separate branch of our company, called Physical and Beyond, where she offers online healing meditation videos, sessions of meditation with movement, and personal guidance in alternative healing, all of which help regulate the PNS.
If interested in these deep mind-body type offerings, she is now available for free 15-minute phone consultations to discuss what she offers and to help you see if this is something that can help you. It’s different from any standard western medicine treatment, but that’s the point. She most often works with people who Western medicine has failed or isn’t fully working for them by integrating unique energetic techniques fused with Western medicine with a mind-body approach to healing.
If you’ve already got a meditative practice, great! Keep doing it! Know that it’s helping your overall health and even longevity.
And if you need some help getting started, contact us for more information about Rachael’s online Physical and Beyond options – just click the blue “Leave a Message/Chat” bubble to inquire.
TIP 3: Get a Massage
Turns out, massage isn’t just a “feel-good” indulgence, but has significant health benefits that can last for an extended time after the massage.
The International Journal of Neuroscience reports that people who received a moderate pressure massage showed a PNS response, suggesting increased activity of the vagus nerve.
The people who got massages had lower blood pressure and increased heart rate variability (HRV), a now-common marker of healthy Parasympathetic activity. Massage benefits don’t just last that day either – another study showed that people who got massage not only had lower blood pressure than non-massage subjects, but that this decrease in blood pressure lasted for at least 72 hours after getting the massage. All this is to say that massage is a healing modality that not only feels good, but gives us lasting health benefits and reduces risk factors for major health problems.
We will be resuming massage here in the Active PT office soon (we are taking a short break from massage in the office while Covid numbers in the community have been up).
If interested in getting a massage, click the blue “Leave a Message/Chat” button or call the office at 805-934-0663 and we’ll put you on the list to call as SOON as we are scheduling patients again. It won’t be long… but the waitlist may be, so get on the list now if you want in.
Tip 4: Physical Activity
Continuing with our “flow” analogy, moving our bodies is one of the best ways to create flow in all the vital systems of your body. This means when you move your body, as in walking, Tai Chi, Yoga, resistance training, swimming, etc, you are not only strengthening muscles or even just strengthening your heart (cardio): you are deeply circulating blood flow, and your PNS flow. Flood gates are opening to all the systems that keep you alive and thriving.
As we help people here at Active PT who are having problems moving their bodies, we tell them “motion is lotion,” but it’s not just true for the muscles and joints. Turns out, you’re lubricating all the systems of your whole body when you move it.
- Pro tip: For a gentle but effective way to get started and improve parasympathetic and overall movement in your body, check out our video below guiding you through “Yoga Warmups,” or our blog post on “how to start exercising without getting hurt,” also below.
Tip 5: Red Light Therapy
Red Light Therapy helps us relax and heal. We shine healing frequencies of LED light on the body, it absorbs it, our body produces a Nobel prize-winning “miracle molecule,” nitric oxide, which increases blood flow and activates repair of the tissues in our body.
This means that Red Light Therapy heals all of us! Science fiction come true? Yep, we really have a ray of light that can heal just about any tissue in the human body.
Studies report that Red Light Therapy improves our bodies’ immunity, tissue healing, and decreased inflammation. Did you catch that? Improved immunity. Hm, that might just be a big deal right now, as we strive to survive a global pandemic. The immunity boost of our Red Light Therapy bed here in the office is a big reason my family and I get on the bed regularly ourselves (not to mention the drool-inducing relaxation of the 40-minute sessions).
So, red light healing is a potent modality to use to stimulate and strengthen our PNS. With the benefits of anti-aging, reduced inflammation, and improved immunity it is one of the most powerful activators for a thriving PNS system.And it helps us relax. Who couldn’t use that right now?
Just like getting a massage, this is a time where you’re forced to just slow down, and lie still on the table for the 40-minute session. Not many of us take the time for self-care, so this alone can make a huge difference in stress levels. Not to mention the powerful effect of absorbing the light itself.
A single 40-minute session can force your body from the Sympathetic Stress Response and activate the Parasympathetic Relaxation Response. With regular light sessions, you can retrain your Autonomic Nervous System to make the switch from Sympathetic to Parasympathetic faster and easier over time.
If you want a feel-good, done for you way to shift into your Parasympathetic Nervous System flow easily, naturally and without effort, this is the thing for you.
At this point, it’s a good reminder to point out that creating balance and wellness in the body takes time. The PNS is slower to respond than the fast-acting Sympathetic Nervous System. Gentle consistency is more important than intensity. The results are compounded over time. So even though you are watering the seeds of healing, it takes a while before the green shoots pop up.
The above tips are easy enough and feel immediately good enough to get you over the hump to try them and weave them into your daily routine. You don’t have to be perfect at these. There is no perfect. Do one of them once a day. Build from there and steadily open the channels of Parasympathetic healing inside your body.
Good luck and reach out if you need some help or have questions!
How to start exercising blog post: CLICK HERE
Yoga warmups video: start moving today! CLICK HERE
Breathing benefits (vagus nerve): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6189422/
Parasympathetic benefits of massage: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=parasympathetic+system+massage+benefits+&btnG=#d=gs_qabs&u=%23p%3DPKu1G_akPogJ
Impact of Meditation on Autonomic Nervous System: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Anterpreet_Arora/publication/294873970_IMPACT_OF_MEDITATION_ON_AUTONOMIC_NERVOUS_SYSTEM-A_RESEARCH_STUDY/links/56c4cc2d08aea564e304d699/IMPACT-OF-MEDITATION-ON-AUTONOMIC-NERVOUS-SYSTEM-A-RESEARCH-STUDY.pdf
Red light improves inflammation: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28748217/
Nitric oxide and the autonomic nervous system: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15866320/)