Stress. We hear about it all the time. We read the articles on all the dis-ease it’s linked to and that we need to be meditating and de-stressing more. But does it really deserve the bad wrap it gets? Is it even realistic to think we can live stress free lives in our modern day world? And how does this all fit into women’s health?
Well, let’s put it this way. If there’s one thing I talk about with nearly every woman I see for fertility or women’s health – it’s stress. Our western culture is developing as such a rapid pace we can barely keep up. We are exposed to more information in a single day through advertising, media and our work life then our ancestors experienced in an entire lifetime. And the truth is, our bodies have not evolved for this current experience. We have not evolved to cope with being bombarded with the level of stress the average person feels day to day whether it’s from traffic, synthetic chemicals in our food and body products, career stress and just making sure the bills are paid. There is so much for us to think about our mind rarely gets a break. This can make a huge impact on our fertility and hormones.
It all comes down to our nervous system.
It is beautifully complex but at the same time quite simple. There are two main branches of our nervous system, the central nervous system comprising of our brain and spinal cord, and our peripheral nervous system that houses the rest. Within this is our sympathetic nervous system and our parasympathetic nervous system (if you are one of my patients you have definitely heard me bang on about this more then once). Throughout all our evolution as human beings we have been a parasympathetic dominant species, now we are sympathetic dominant and to put it bluntly, the human body simply can’t function this way long term.
Sympathetic Nervous System
Our sympathetic nervous system is our fight or flight response, our survival mode. We are designed to function in this system for short periods of time, like running from a tiger, or nowadays making a speech, or avoiding a near miss on the roads. In survival mode all our blood rushes from our center to fill the muscles in our arms and legs with blood so that we can literally fight or run. This diverts blood and energy away from our reproductive organs. This means the uterus is deprived of adequate blood flow; we need as much blood getting to the uterus as possible to help thicken the uterine lining. I see frequently in clinic women who are under stress often having thin uterine linings. When trying to conceive we need the lining to be a certain thickness in order to allow implantation of an embryo.
In survival mode our adrenal glands are under the pump and we experience a huge surge in adrenaline and our body contracts. In this state our body is just concerned with survival, so regulating our endocrine (hormone) and digestive systems are simply put to the bottom of the to do list.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system is our beautiful rest, digest and calm state. This is where everything comes online! It is in this system our hormones are regulated, our digestive system is humming and our reproductive system is nourished with blood and energy. Our muscles relax, our adrenals rest and we have no surging adrenalin.
Our bodies are designed to function primarily in the parasympathetic nervous system, and have short bursts of the sympathetic nervous system. But now we are seeing people live in the sympathetic state for hours, days, weeks, months, even years. This is toxic to the body and no one can maintain this without experiencing health issues at some point. It is not sustainable.
This is why it’s so important to carve out some time every day to relax and simply just be. If you have not yet developed a meditation practise or if you find it boring, first think about that. Why do you find it boring? Why is it that you need constant mental stimulation? Why are you constantly distracting yourself? For some people it is because they have some sadness, some anger or some fear that is too unsettling to sit with, and so an easy escape is distracting themselves whether it’s through food, TV, social media or their work. Think on that, does that apply to you? Is there something you don’t want to sit with or acknowledge?
The next thing you can bring your attention to is that when you are relaxed and in your parasympathetic nervous system, you feel still and calm. However internally so much is happening! Your hormones are being produced, processed and eliminated and your digestive system is busy extracting nutrients from your food to fuel all the cells in your body, blood is nourishing and strengthening your reproductive system and your body is performing countless more functions to keep you healthy. That’s a lot of work! Mentally you may not feel like much is happening, but internally magic is happening. If you struggle with stress, switching off and slowing down, flip your perspective to seeing that by slowing down – your body can get the work done it needs to do, like preparing your body for pregnancy.
Signs you may be sympathetic dominant
Feeling frustrated or uninspired
Feelings of anxiousness, excessive worry or sadness
Hormonal imbalance like acne or symptomatic menstrual cycles. Click here to learn what a normal period is.
Muscle spasaming and twitching
Low energy or fatigue
Digestive issues: bloating, nausea, acid reflux, ulcers, constipation/diarrhoea
Low immune system
TMJ or teeth grinding
Your checklist for saying goodbye to sympathetic dominance and saying hello to parasympathetic bliss.
Limit caffeine intake or avoid completely. Caffeine sends a signal to the adrenal glands to secrete adrenalin and puts the body into survival mode, even if mentally you feel relaxed.
Limit your screen time, especially at night.
Turn off your wifi when you go to bed. Long-term exposure to wifi can cause mitochondrial dysfunction and hormone disregulation.
Regular physical movement
Look at your work and home environment. Are there stressors here that can be changed?
Spend more time outdoors then indoors. Immerse yourself in nature.
Walk barefoot on the ground, find a grassy area or a beach where you can feel the sand between your toes
10 mins of meditation upon waking and before you go to sleep. Your meditation doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Simply close your eyes, place your hands on your abdomen and take full deep belly breaths. Try to make your exhales longer then your inhales. This is one of the fastest ways to take your body into the parasympathetic system.
Legs up the wall pose. You can also do this before bed for along as feel comfortable. This is another key tool you can use to instantly move your body back into the parasympathetic. Place one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest and feel your breath move through your body.
Now I'd love to hear from you. Do you feel like there is too much stress and not enough ease in your life? What are your go-tos that help you relax? Leave your comments below :)