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Turn Down Stress for a Nervous System Tune-Up

Turn Down Stress for a Nervous System Tune-Up

Turn Down Stress for a Nervous System Tune-Up

How do you handle stress? I’m talking about both the garden variety—traffic, busy schedule, family problems, etc., and the big stressors. Life changes like the care, illness, or death of a loved one, medical problems, or money issues.

Did you know that as we age, our bodies are less able to handle the wear and tear caused by stress? Our internal stress-hormone-reducing mechanisms gradually become less effective, so that means the older we get, the calmer we need to be.

The body’s autonomic nervous system has two components that respond to stress.

The first is the sympathetic nervous system. This is the nervous system’s volume knob that turns it UP. It’s the part of the autonomic system that handles the flight or fight response. It triggers the release of three hormones: cortisol, which revs up your body; endorphins which blunt the perception of pain; and glucagon, which is a hormone in the liver that releases sugar to power your muscles.

All the things you’d need if you were trying to outrun a tiger in the wild.

We know that older adults need to control their cortisol levels because excess cortisol causes premature aging. It shrinks the brain, ages the heart, weakens the bones, affects your gut health, suppresses sleep, suppresses your sex drive, makes you fat, and makes you sick.

It also decreases insulin sensitivity (which can cause type 2 diabetes), increases the growth of cancer cells, slows wound healing, and disrupts your sleep patterns.

The next time you feel stressed out, don’t make light of it! Instead, do something to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the second component. The one that turns your nervous system’s volume knob DOWN. It promotes relaxation, rest, and sleep, among other things.

You might think, “Yes, Donna! I’m in! But how do I do it? How, exactly, can I activate that parasympathetic thing?”

Well, you’re in luck, because there are lots of ways to do it. And most of them are pretty darn easy.

First and foremost, the E word.

Yup. Exercise.

Get lots of physical exercise. It deepens your breathing and helps relieve muscle tension. Movement programs such as yoga and tai chi help you control breathing and sharpen mental focus, which can induce a sense of calm.
Meditation is medication. PET scans show that during meditation, blood flows to the areas of the brain that influence tranquility. Meditation shifts the focus of thought from the right brain, which contains the stress centers, to the left brain, which contains the peaceful centers.

It takes practice, but you may see a difference over a month by meditating just 5 or 10 minutes a day.

Laughter is also medicine, as we know. Consider that children laugh up to 400 times a day, while adults only laugh about a dozen times a day.

It’s good for your brain, because it releases pleasure-enhancing neurochemicals. It’s good for your immune system because it decreases levels of cortisol and epinephrine. It increases T-cells, which aid your immune system. And it’s good for your heart because, just like exercise, it increases heart rate and circulation. It’s the exact opposite of the stress response.

So, get back to your childhood, at least when it comes to laughing.

Another way is to eat “happy” foods. Foods that contain a high level of the calming amino acid tryptophan, and that stimulate the relaxing hormones dopamine and serotonin include seafood, turkey, whole grains, beans, rice, hummus, lentils, nuts, eggs, sunflower seeds, dairy products, and chocolate.

And last, but not least, expand your social network. Friends, acquaintances, relatives, spouses, companions… people who enjoy close relationships receive emotional support that helps to sustain them in times of chronic stress and crisis.

So, get out there and do whatever you can to help your body handle stress and give your nervous system a tune-up. It’ll lead to a healthier, happier you, I guarantee it!

Until we meet…