As written for Wellbeing Magazine
We live in a busy and fast-paced world and are juggling far more day-to-day than ever before. Over time, the perception of pressure, high stress and an ever-growing workload can take a big toll on your nervous system and in turn your entire body, manifesting as fatigue, lowered immunity, poor sleep, irritability, weight gain, digestive dysfunctions, hormonal imbalances and premature ageing. Supporting your nervous system is therefore fundamental for vibrant health, happiness and longevity.
Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system (also known as the fight or flight nervous system) to respond and release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Our physiology has not changed in thousands of years, so when the sympathetic nervous system is activated our body perceives we are in danger and the stress response is rapid to ensure our safety. The problem is, in this day and age there is often no actual danger to run away from (unlike our ancestors who were trying to outrun lions and bears), we are just being over-stimulated by the day-to-day stressors of life.
While the acute symptoms of stress can be felt instantly such as rapid heartbeat, anxiety and shortness of breath, the long-term effects, such as premature ageing, occur silently over time at a cellular level.
The relationship between stress and premature ageing
The process of ageing occurs due to changes in normal biological functions resulting from DNA damage, inflammation and impaired communication between cells in the body.
Chronic psychological stress impairs the body’s ability to regulate inflammation. Inflammation causes tissue damage and is associated with a number of chronic diseases and conditions of ageing including cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, insulin resistance and diabetes, muscle wasting and frailty.
The goal is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) regularly so that the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is not your dominant state.
Prolonged stress and excess cortisol production have also been shown to reduce the length of telomeres, which are the protective casing at the end of DNA strands: think of them like the cap on the end of a shoelace. Without telomeres the DNA strand becomes damaged, similar to the fraying of a shoelace, which can lead to premature ageing and chronic disease.
Six ways to support your nervous system
There will always be some degree of stress in life, and at times this is inevitable. The goal is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) regularly so that the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is not your dominant state. This can be achieved by implementing daily stress-reduction techniques such as the following.
Meditation and mindfulness
Meditation has been scientifically proven to reduce levels of cortisol in the body while improving one’s ability to deal with stress. Creating a regular meditation practice may seem daunting; however, it is important to remember that there is no such thing as a perfect meditator. The goal is to create space for a moment of calm in your day. There is a great free app called “Headspace” that has guided meditations and mindfulness exercises for all levels.
Regular exercise enhances the body’s ability to manage and cope with stress by improving cardiovascular and nervous system function and encouraging feel-good hormones (dopamine and serotonin) and endorphins. Focus on low-intensity, restorative practices to support your nervous system such as yoga, tai chi, Pilates, walking and swimming. Aim to move your body four times a week for at least 30 minutes.
Cut back on caffeine
Coffee increases stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin. Swap your morning coffee for something less stimulating such as cacao, green tea, chai or a herbal tea.
A good goal is to aim for eight hours of sleep each night and to be in bed by 10pm. When we sleep our body does its most intensive healing and the nervous system has a chance to unravel, resulting in a calmer, more balanced state in our waking hours. Be mindful of switching off all devices at least one hour before bed, as blue light from screens interferes with melatonin production, resulting in poor sleep quality.
Spend more time in nature
It truly is the best medicine and wonderful for unraveling a bound-up nervous system. Aim to weave some nature time into each day, which could be by eating your lunch in the park or sipping your morning tea in the garden. Prioritise spending more time in nature on the weekend, such as going for a bushwalk or swimming in the ocean.
Chamomile, lavender, passion flower and peppermint are mild herbal sedatives that help to calm the nervous system and reduce feelings of anxiety, tension and stress. They are readily available as herbal teas, or a stronger therapeutic dose can be bought as a tincture from your naturopath or herbalist.How