Ability to relax is crucial for optimal health


#1

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?


#2

During my undergraduate degree I took a course in psychoneuroimmunology as a psychology elective, which is all about the connection between the mind and the immune system. Really interesting stuff!

I am fortunate to have a personality that feels stress easily (often in the form of worry) and, depending on the circumstances, will naturally back off if I feel my comfort zone being exceeded too much.

One thing I do disagree with (that your post seems to speak of) is that I don’t believe we have any direct control over the conditions we develop. We can do everything in our power to be healthy and still have a health condition develop. And many things that were attributed to stress in the past have, in more recent years, been shown to have other causes. For example, ulcers used to be attributed to stress, but in the 1980s they found that they’re actually caused by an H. pylori infection (which 50% of humanity is infected with).

So, while I do believe stress reduction is an important part of overall health, I don’t think it (or any other specific action) can be taken to prevent any particular health condition from developing. And, for me, going down that road actually increases my stress, so I try to avoid it. What we do have direct control over is how we respond to any health challenges or other adversities in our lives.


#3

Yeah, I learned about the H.pylori bacteria in the early '90s and had a test done. It came up negative.

Many aspects of our health practices our not fully understood as science is never finished. It’s always subject to update. I’ve made some value judgments here about how stress has impacted my health and I fully appreciate the n=1 basis for this. There’s more here than medicine and science currently understand.

Our challenge is to make health choices based on an incomplete understanding of the facts. Our gut instinct (pardon the pun) is often the right choice for each of us.


#4

My identical twin and I each have a different auto immune disorder; Nancy has celiac, that developed in later life and I have T1 since age 11. I don’t know that diabetes was triggered by anxiety, but I have always wondered. Our alcoholic parents decided that my twin and I needed to be put in different classrooms in a large school, rather than keeping us together in a small one. This was an exceptionally traumatic event for me and I developed diabetes within the next year.

But really, that doesn’t matter. If we think about how stress affects diabetes in a daily way, it
is easy to imagine the help of meditation, mindfulness or any other means of entering and staying in calmer states. Thank you for reminding us all.


#5

Lexapro.

I agree that imbalances of our nervous system responses can play major roles in many aspects of our health.


#6

Also essential oils in a diffuser “aromatherapy” has been shown to be helpful for some people… but there’s so much hype surrounding it it’s hard to know what’s legit and what’s not


#7

Running on trails in the great outdoors helps to relieve stress, too:)


#8

Yeah - I agree with hype.

It often makes it hard to separate the real stuff from the crazy stuff.

@Sam19 - It would be interesting to read any non-hype that you happen to come across related to essential oils.


#9

One of the drugs I used to help me sleep was a low dose of amitriptyline. Higher doses of this drug are often used for mood disorders. I was lucky to benefit from a low dose since I was able to remove it cold turkey without consequences that often follow. In fact, I’ve read that slowing reducing the med is critical for mitigating withdrawal symptoms, something best managed by a doctor.

Drug therapies are sometimes the best answer but often come with unwanted side effects. Generally, I would prefer more natural methods, but I understand its appropriateness in certain situations.

Aromatherapy is something I have not experienced. I agree about the hype throughout the supplement sector. It makes deciding what to use and what to avoid difficult.

I’m now seriously looking at cannabidiol or CBD oil, a non-psychoactive extract from the hemp plant. One of its observed benefits is lowering blood pressure, one of my key heart health goals.


#10

@Jen

I know !!!

But still I do not believe the information has spread very far.

I would wager a bet that if you asked 25 young people (ie - who should know this based on not having older information drilled into them for decades and decades) on the street of any Major US city what causes stomach ulcers, the vast majority would say: STRESS.


#11

@Tim35, that is a bet that you would win. I’m a biology professor. Usually when I lecture on the digestive system I mention a few words about peptic ulcers. I start by polling the class to see what they think causes the majority of ulcers. The options I give them are stress, spicy foods, caffeine, increasing age, or bacterial infection. They are usually torn between stress and spicy foods. Except for the students who have read the assigned reading before class, very few answer bacterial infection.


#12

But can’t stress make you more susceptible to the bacterial infection? Isn’t it a bit of a chicken vs egg scenario?


#13

Ha ha ha - that is tricky. You get to find out right away who the serious students are.

:stuck_out_tongue: