Last fall, following a coronary artery calcium scan, my doctor delivered a diagnosis of coronary artery disease. The cold reality of that fact drove me to cast my net wide and gather knowledge of the factors that contribute to heart disease.
I quickly decided that lifestyle modifications are the path I wanted to take. I’ve since implemented a plan that reduces my daily carbohydrate consumption, added certain nutritional supplements, eliminated three sleep meds I had been taking, and adopted a regular meditation habit.
An Aha! moment
Have you ever found some interesting info online and had it open the door to a whole new world? This video (there are many sources online on this issue) provide me with a Aha! moment - a flash of insight into my personal health history that I had not seen before.
I knew that mindfulness is often mentioned as a component of good health. My daily searches for information to educate me about my health often lead to YouTube videos. The title of this video by Sally Gray caught my eye: How to Heal the Vagus Nerve to Heal Your Mind & Body. The reason it drew my attention is that I live with gastroparesis, an impairment of the vagus nerve, the nerve that connects the brain to digestives organs like the stomach, liver, and intestines.
I am definitely a type A personality. When I was a young adult, I was consumed with ambition to find and develop a career that provided not only sustenance but also long term happiness. I am goal-oriented and have been successful at many of life’s pursuits.
Sympathetic nervous system dominance
But, there’s a dark side to this daily striving to succeed that only now, at the late age of 65, that I’m starting to appreciate. We, as people with diabetes, recognize that balance and equilibrium are key concepts for good blood glucose management, especially when treating with insulin.
Life contains countless examples of opposing forces. There’s the ebb and flow of ocean tides, the rhythm of day and night, and the fundamental human respiration that includes breathing in and breathing out.
Yet I have lived most of my life inhaling and failing to successfully exhale. When I was 16, I was diagnosed with an ulcer in my duodenum, the transitional small intestine just below the stomach. I was a serious teenager struggling with many of the issues teenagers must endure, but looking back, I can see that my seriousness damaged my health. That diagnosis was a real mystery to me and I am only now starting to make some sense of what happened.
Furthermore, I think that my type 1 diabetes diagnosis 14 years later likely flowed from the same source. Now I know that auto-immunity triggers type 1 diabetes but what sets the stage for that to occur?
Nervous system yin and yang
I was aware of the duality of the central nervous system comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic components. The sympathetic nervous system is essential to our survival; its fight or flight response enables us to martial immediate body resources like an increased heart rate and blood pressure to deal with extrinsic threats.
Our bodies, however, were not designed to run continuously on the sympathetic side. It’s unhealthy, unsustainable, and promotes disease. In order to maintain a healthy equilibrium, we need to spend enough time using the parasympathetic nervous system to relax and restore our full body.
We often see references in many health news sources about the emerging science of the gut microbiome and the mind-body connection. My gastroparesis dysbiosis shows me how important a healthy brain-gut axis is for overall physical and emotional health.
A little late, but a better path
I feel like I’ve finally realized the nature and importance of nurturing the parasympathetic nervous system. I’m discovering tactics like breathing exercises that promote good vagal tone. My essential belief is that the human body contains an impressive ability to heal itself. I’m hoping that adoption of these new habits can mitigate some of the damage I’ve caused myself by living my almost entire life using the sympathetic nervous system to the point of burnout and disease. I’m hoping it’s not too late to turn things around.
Do you do anything that deliberately places you into the sphere of the parasympathetic or relaxing side of yourself? Anyone else out there who has made the same mistakes and found a way to pivot toward a better lifestyle?