Dr. Jennifer Kessmann ABFM, IFMCP, DABIHM
copyright 2022 all rights reserved
Do you live in a state of chronic stress? If you do, this may be contributing to many chronic health issues and chronic inflammation. I see this often in my practice and work with most every patient to decrease their stress chemistry and help them with healing. In this article, I explain what stress does to the brain, how it contributes to inflammation and how to improve your stress induced inflammation to heal and rejuvenate your health.
Stress and Your Autonomic Nervous System
Everyone has an Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). This ANS system is a way our body operates its automatic functions such as gut activity, breathing, temperature regulation and heart rate. It is connected to nearly every other system in our body through complex neural networks.
The ANS system has two components and operates in an either/or fashion. These systems are referred to as the sympathetic, or “fight or flight” system, or the parasympathetic vagal system or “rest and digest” system. While one is active, the other is suppressed. It is important to have both, but many people operate in a state of chronic sympathetic fight or flight overdrive. These two systems help to maintain homeostasis and balance when operating normally.
Sympathetic Nervous System
Activation of the sympathetic system happens in response to stress and helps us respond to danger. If we are responding to a stressor, such as a tiger, the system helps us to forget what we are doing and “just run!”. It diverts blood away from the gut and towards our muscles.
The vagal system on the other hand helps us rest, detox, heal and digest our food. If the sympathetic system is dealing with stress, the vagus nerve decreases its activity. This effect essentially prepares us to flee away by optimizing our physical ability to run fast while impairing our ability to rest and digest. This can lead to many problems if it goes on too long.
Vagal System Activity
In contrast to sympathetic activity, our ANS includes the parasympathetic system that works through the vagus nerve. Vagal nerve activity helps to activate blood flow to the gut and slows our heart rate allowing us to rest, digest and rejuvenate. Improved blood flow is responsible for gut motility, saliva production, enzyme production and food absorption. This helps our breakdown of proteins and absorption of our nutrients. At night, the vagus is responsible for allowing us to maintain restful sleep.
Stress turns on the sympathetic nervous system. This is very useful for SHORT periods of time in response to acutely stressful situations. In contrast, chronic stress chemistry activates inflammatory pathways that contribute to many disease processes. Brain activity is even changed in response to this to activate areas of the brain that help us to run- but not remember or concentrate!
Many of my patients coming to me living in a state of chronic low grade or even high grade stress. This may be due to their relationships, their work or even psychological trauma that happened long ago. However it is occurring, the good news is there are ways to help decrease and interact with stress differently to activate these important calming, healing, vagal pathways.
Stress and Inflammation
How we respond to our stress is very important for many aspects of our health. Stress is a known activator of the sympathetic nervous system and immune system dysfunction with overactive histamine release. Histamine, of course, further activates our immune system. See more In my recent blog here: Histamine and Health So many patients present with chronic histamine excess and need ways to decrease their levels.
Inflammation contributes to almost all health consequences and disease processes. Chronic stress is known to activate chronic inflammation which can drive many compromising chronic health conditions like dementia, autoimmunity and even coronary heart disease. Learning how to decrease chronic stress and sympathetic activity can actually prolong your life but also may add to the quality of life as well.
Stress, Brain Fog and Chronic Pain
You may be wondering, how does all this cause brain fog or even chronic pain? The answer is through inflammatory pathways. Pain is known to activate the chronic stress pathways and can contribute to further inflammation causing more pain! Chronic stress can also activate pain pathways through increasing inflammation! Calming inflammation is the way back to vibrant health and well being. See more on brain fog here: Kessmann Brain Health Link
Brain fog is often due to chronic or acute inflammation in the brain. Inflammation in the brain causes activation of the microglial cells (immune cells in the brain) and may contribute to brain fog. These inflammatory pathways help if we have a brain infection or are dealing with malfunctioning cells, but not if it is related to some other inflammatory pathway such as stress or gluten intolerance.
Centuries of people and many cultures have learned the benefits of calming stress on quality of life. We all feel better after a restful vacation! Ayurveda, the oldest of medicinal practices, often incorporates ways to help calm sympathetic pathways to decrease disease. Things like meditation, yoga, diaphragmatic breathing, mindfulness are also being used today by pioneers in the Western Medical space. I love to use tried and true methods to help my patients improve their lives.
Calming stress does not mean removing all stressors- only perhaps unnecessary ones! Mark Twain once stated “most of what we spend our time worrying about never even happens”. I think this is true today for many in our world. Becoming mindful about what fear is helping us and what fear is harming us is important. Fear is meant to protect you, not harm you unnecessarily. I often tell my patients allow fear to help you to be smart, but don’t allow it to “scare you” and increase your susceptibility to disease. Be aware, be smart but not scared.
Simple Ways to Activate the Vagus Nerve
If we cannot remove the stress, what CAN we do? We can learn ways to optimize our vagal nerve activity and to reset our fear response. Often I use breathing in my practice to teach to patients to help them with their stress response. Breath is the pathway back to vagal activity that WE have CONTROL over.
Another concept is vagal tone. Vagal tone is the ability of our nervous system to return to a state of rest and digest after an acute stress. It can be measured by something called heart rate variability or HRV. Our Heart Rate variability can be an indirect measurement of our health and well being. The Oura ring measures this while you are sleeping. Heart Math is a program that can help you learn how to improve your heart rate variability through alterations in how deep you are breathing.
Resetting with the Vagal Breath
The vagal breath involves feeling safe and grounded. Find a comfortable place where you feel safe and are able to experience the full benefits of these breaths. The deeper the breath the more activation in general. The length of the exhale also needs to be longer than the inhale. So, sit softly on the ground and allow the ability of the body to breath deep. Soft belly, good posture and allowing the full expansion of the lungs helps. Rest the tongue on the roof of the mouth and for best results breath through the nose. I usually use a 4-6 inhale and a full count of 8 for the exhale. Close your eyes. Do three full cycles of inhale and exhale for improvement in vagal function.
I often incorporate this breath cycle before meals, before an important speach or meeting. Yawning is a great way to activate the vagus and activate sleeping too.
Other Vagal Activators, Improving Vagal Tone
- Cold water on your face or submersion.
- Deep Soft Belly Breathing with prolonged exhales
- Yoga and Meditation
- Practicing Mindfulness
- Gentle movement and gentle exercising in nature
- Forward bending and folds/stretching
- Gargling loudly twice daily
- Grounding and safety
- Praying/meditating/breathing before meals
- Petting an animal like a Cat
I hope that you take the time to incorporate some of these healthy strategies today!! Thank you for reading and we hope to see you soon!
Contact us today!!! Kessmann Clinics and Functional Medicine Contact