I posted this on Facebook the other day and I thought it was a good topic to address in-depth. https://www.facebook.com/StevanFreebornCPT/posts/635296526573903
No, no I am not saying your too sensitive.
I don't mean that kind of sympathetic. This kind of sympathetic has to do with stress, recovery, training, and the nervous system.
Are you still questioning my judgement that you are too sympathetic? I can understand that. But let me ask you a few questions.
Do you train more than twice a week?
Do you have a forty hour per week job?
Do you get less than six hours of sleep on average each night?
Do you have kids?
How many of those questions did you answer yes to? One? Three? All?
Still kind of lost?
Okay let me put it to you this way all those questions above are looking for sources of stress in your life.
Training, kids, jobs, and poor sleep quality all apply emotional, mental, and physical stress to your person in varying amounts at varying times in various combinations. However your physical body does not differentiate between sources or types of stress. Stress is stress as far as the body is concerned and the body only has one response to stress.
That is as far as we are concerned stress is cumulative and the body's response is always the same.
Stress (in terms of how the body sees it) is defined as an organism's response to a real or perceived external and/or internal and chemical, biological, and/or environmental stimulus.
In other words stress as an input into the body can come from a variety of external and internal sources, but the body only has one resulting output from this input.
This isn't necessary a bad thing especially when you think about how much slower we would be as a species to impending dangers or threats if our body first had to identify how much stress was coming in, where it was coming, and how frequently it was coming in order to decide on the proper physiological response to call forth. Trust me if this was the case we would have died out long ago as a species.
Our response to stress is a favorable adaptation, but in today's world this stress response (aka fight-or-flight response) is becoming not so favorable anymore especially for those of us who are trying to optimize our health through smart nutrition and regular training.
And it is our most amazing and complex nervous system that is to blame for this response. Our nervous system is constantly both conscious and subconsciously gathering information about our internal and external environment and making decisions based on this information. This is good because it allows us to be the dominate species on this planet however it also can be a bad thing when the information it is getting either consciously or subconsciously is faulty.
But real quick before we go any further I think it will help you a lot to get a bit of background in regards to the structure and function of our nervous system.
The nervous system is the part of an animal's (it's weird to think of ourselves as animals I know, but technically based on Linnaean classification we are in the Kingdom Animalia) body that coördinates involuntary and voluntary actions and transmits signals to and from different areas of its body. This system is divided into the Central Nervous System, consisting of the brain and the spinal cord, and the Peripheral Nervous System, which is essentially everything else.
The Peripheral Nervous System is the part of the nervous system that consists of the nerves and ganglia outside of the brain and spinal cord. The primary job of this sub-system is to connect the central nervous system to the limbs and organs to provide communication between the brain and the extremities. It is also typically subdivided into two and now typically three systems: the Somatic, the Autonomic, and the Enteric Nervous Systems.
The Somatic Nervous System is responsible for voluntary movement of the body. It consists of efferent nerves which stimulate muscle contraction and afferent nerves which relay sensations back to the brain. The Enteric Nervous System is the newest subdivision and the one that is least understood, but is being studied at large currently. It is embedded in the lining of the gastrointestinal system, beginning in the esophagus and extending down to the anus. And although once thought to be completely innervated by the Autonomous Nervous System it is capable of functioning on its own such as the coordination of reflexes. It can and does operate independently of the brain and the spinal cord.
However the system of the Nervous System we are most interested in regards to this post is the Autonomic Nervous System. This system largely influences the function of internal organs. It is a control system that acts mostly unconsciously to regulate bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupil dilation, urination, and sexual arousal. It is regulated by the hypothalamus in the brain. It's subdivided further into the Parasympathetic Nervous System and the Sympathetic Nervous System (hints the title).
The Parasympathetic Nervous System is most typically summed up with the words "rest and digest" or "feed and breed." It is primarily concerned with regulating the unconscious actions of the body. It is most active when we are resting and relaxed. It stimulates metabolic processes that allow our body to begin the recovery process by clearing away the old and building anew. As you might have guessed the Sympathetic Nervous System is responsible for the exact opposite and is most active in the exact opposite scenario. This part of the autonomic nervous is most commonly summed up in "fight or flight." It is the system in our body that responds to stress of any kind.
These two branches of the Autonomic Nervous System are compliments to one another in order to maintain homeostasis within the body. However if an imbalance exists between the two a whole host of problems can begin to pop up. Today the imbalance most commonly experienced is one of Sympathetic overload as you may have guessed from your answers to the questions at the beginning of the post. If you have a lot of stress every day week in and week out you are getting a lot of stress response that is largely all being driven by your Sympathetic Nervous System.
I promise physiology class is almost over, but to understand why this over Sympathetic stimulation impacts you so negatively I think it's important for you to have an understanding of what exactly happens when the Sympathetic Nervous System kicks into gear.
The phone rings, you pick it up, and you see that it's your boss calling. You just submitted this week's report on your teams progress on the big project a couple of hours ago. You big to feel nauseated. You wonder if you forgot to include something in the report. Or perhaps the boss expected your team to be further along. Either way you are freaking out that the minute you hit the green answer button you are going to get an earful.
During this experience your body is experimenting a Sympathetic stimulation and a fight-or-flight response. Your amygdala is stimulating your hypothalamus which activates your pituitary gland to secret adrenocorticotropic hormone, which will serve to increase production and release of cortisol. Almost at the same time your adrenal glands will begin to secret epinephrine.
This elevation in cortisol and epinephrine results in an increase in blood pressure, increase in blood sugar, and a decrease in the body's immune response. It also causes the heart rate to increase, digestion to stop, the bladder to relax, mobilization of fatty acids, disinhibition of your spinal reflexes, and increased blood flow to your muscles.
The goal of all this being to prepare the body for immediate action and to divert all available energy and resources towards powering whatever your body thinks it might have to do to escape or fight for its life.
Can you imagine that there might then be a problem if you are experiencing this type of physiological response many times a day all week-long and probably to some existent just an ongoing response at with moments of response elevation?
Remember this response is a favorable adaptation that has allowed us to survive on this planet for many, many years and in small acute doses there is nothing inherently wrong about the response. Most importantly it helps us stay alive and more related to our discussion it is the response we count on during intense training sessions to catalyze our bodies into adapting to become bigger, stronger, faster, and healthier.
However there is a problem when we are experiencing this response chronically and we have chronically elevated levels of cortisol and epinephrine.
Remember that cortisol elevates blood sugar levels and higher blood glucose levels leads to the development of insulin insensitivity as the body attempts to constantly clear the glucose from the blood and over time can lead to full-blown type 2 diabetes. Cortisol also increases our blood pressure resulting in increased strain on our blood vessels It slows down our digestion and impairs our ability to move our bowels regularly. Again all these things are helpful in the short-term, but in the long-term they can do us all serious harm.
Epinephrine constricts our blood vessels and restricts blood flow to certain areas of the body leading to poor circularity. It elevates our heart rate and forcing our heart to work harder. Again all good things when we are really in a life threatening situation, but not good when we perceive every interaction with our boss as an immediate danger, we do Crossfit six times a week, and sleep for four hours a night.
So yeah you are probably now beginning to believe why I think you are way to sympathetic and why it is probably holding you back from getting to where you want to be physically.
I cannot though overstate how important it is to remember that the Sympathetic Nervous System is not inherently evil it is the over stimulation of it and us becoming stuck in the always on position and catabolic state and never getting back to the off position or the anabolic state. If we want to recover and actual repeat the benefits of our training and good food choices then one of the most important things we can do is manage the balance between the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems.
In other words we need to be doing way more resting and digesting than fighting or flighting.
What are you saying Stevan? I need to quit Crossfit?
Hire a nanny to help with the kids?
Go to bed earlier?
You have to be joking?
No, no relax I am not saying you have to change your entire lifestyle, but you may need to change pieces of it.
You definitely will need to design and manage it better.
And you will have to change the way you act and react on a daily basis.
If you want to be more parasympathetic, and trust me you do, then you will have to work at it because now your thoughts, actions, and life are set up to drive a sympathetic response.
If you are willing to work at this then read on because I have some specific things I think that can help you be less sympathetic and get more out of your training and good food choices.
1. Change your perceptions.
Stress is bad right?
I mean after everything I just told you you'd think that would be the case, but the truth is stress is stress.
Rather in regards to stress the poison is in the dose.
Too much stress and we exceed our ability to recover physically or mentally. We breakdown and can't keep up.
Too little stress and we give ourselves no reason to adapt, grow, or change. Again we being to weaken and experience a loss of our abilities.
In other words stress keeps us sharp and even push us to perform at all time highs, but too much can dull our edge.
However most of us don't view stress as an ally. We panic about it and in some ways I think create it and glorify it in order to feel good about ourselves. It makes us feel like we are important or that we have things that matter.
In addition many of us are so jacked up our stress response goes off at a moments notice in response to everything from taking on a new responsibility at work to trying decide what to eat for dinner.
We have to retrain ourselves to relax, stay calm, don't be overly emotional, and welcome stress as inevitable that is to be used to improve ourselves and managed to ensure we have enough time to recover from it.
This is one of my favorite TED talks and it does a fantastic job of talking about this idea of changing how you perceive and react to things that we would consider stressors.
I am not saying that there are legitimate stresses that we cannot control how our body reacts, but in a lot of situations in the 21st century our body is following the lead of what our mind is perceiving and our brain is processing.
2. Deep and proper breathing.
Deep, diaphragmatic breathing drives our parasympathetic nervous. It is an activity that we can only perform when we are in a rest-and-digest mode.
Don't believe me?
Try practicing deep diaphragmatic breathing while doing treadmill interval sprints.
Believe me now?
Yeah I don't lie.
Our body has developed efficient ways to deal with all the demands placed on it. This means when we are in fight-or-fight mode we trend to breathe faster and a bit shallower. We enlist the help of accessory muscles such as our scalenes to aid us in drawing more air in and delivering more oxygen to drive the metabolic demands of primarily our muscles.
This type of breathing is much more associated with a sympathetic response.
All this means we can influence where we are on the spectrum between parasympathetic and sympathetic through our breathing.
By practicing deep diaphragmatic breathing we can purposefully drive ourselves to feel more relaxed and jump-start the recovery process and by using this proper breathing in everyday life we can continually be sending inputs to our brain that reassure it it is okay to calm down and rest and digest.
This is really important as most people are really bad breathers. I know that sounds weird because I mean you are sitting here reading this now so you must be breathing okay because your alive. And while that is true you may be constantly driving a sympathetic response from your body if you are a chronic chest and mouth breather.
To practice good breathing I like the drill in the video below. The focus is on breathing deeply in through your nose and exhaling forcefully out through your mouth. You should feel a 3 dimension expansion of your rib cage, and abdomen.
3. Managing training intensity and volume.
I have said this many times before, but it bares repeating because it seems that not everyone heard me the first few times.
More is not better! More is just more!
Seriously this is super-duper important to understand. Continually adding to your training volume, intensity, or overall training regimen is not productive, it isn't smart, and it's actually retarding your progress instead of contributing to it.
You have to manage the intensity at which you train, the amount of training you do, and how frequently you do it to make sure that you are spending plenty of times getting into a parasympathetic state after spending time driving a sympathetic response through your training.
This is where a high level coach really comes in handy because they can do the managing of the volume and intensity for you and adjust it based on your feedback.
If you are constantly training at increasingly higher levels of intensity and volume you are continually stimulating the fight-or-flight response and elevating your sympathetic tone.
As we talked about before this will put you in a catabolic state and it isn't until we switch over to our parasympathetic system that we start to drive the response that is going to start the recovery process and get us the results we want.
I don't expect you to start doing all of these things overnight and I don't expect you to become a parasympathetic dominant person overnight either.
What I do hope is that you will be more aware of the interplay between these two parts of your nervous system and the results you get from your training.
My hope is that slowly over time you will take the steps necessary to promote more parasympathetic responses throughout your day and drive better recovery from your training.
Happy moving and heavy lifting!
Practical, Purposeful, Effective Training