Is Stress Ruining Your Metabolism?

If I told you that there was a one-minute exercise that could improve your metabolism instantaneously, would you believe me? 

Many of us believe that diet and exercise alone are the keys to optimal health. Unfortunately, this is not always true. Although diet and exercise can cause dramatic improvements in health, there is still one health factor that may be even more important. That factor is stress. Despite its powerful role in health, stress is often overlooked. That's because stress is complicated. It is not only difficult to define but it can also be both good and bad.

In paleolithic times, for example, stress was evolutionarily advantageous. It alerted our ancestors to predatory threats which meant the difference between life and death. Short periods of stress can also motivate us to work harder. In these times, stress is good! 

Unfortunately, stress can also be bad due to its profound physiologic consequences. Here is a brief explanation:

The stress response, (better known as our "fight or flight" response), begins in our autonomic nervous system. This system has two alternating branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). When we are stressed, the SNS is dominant and when we are relaxed, the PSNS takes over. 

When we are stressed, SNS dominance, the following things occur (among many others):

  1. Blood is diverted away from our core
  2. Digestion is completely shut down
  3. Fat burning is halted
  4. Muscle building is inhibited 
  5. Enzymatic output is decreased by 20,000% 
  6. Nutrient absorption is decreased
  7. Nutrient excretion is increased

These changes help to preserve and allocate our current energy reserves for quick action and thoughtful planning. However, the beneficial effects of these changes have an expiration date. In fact, when the SNS remains active for too long (over 5 minutes), many other critically important physiologic processes (i.e. fat burning and detoxification) are put on hold.  

This is because our paleolithic bodies are designed primarily for survival. Therefore, any seemingly "frivolous" use of energy will be halted until stress abates. In times of threat the body prioritizes safety over fat burning, detoxification and other second-order processes. This makes sense, but can also quietly sabotage our health goals.

Sadly, the rapid evolution of technology, transportation and communication has created a world where stress is constant. Even though most stressors today are not life threatening, their incessant nature makes them just as dangerous. Therefore, the fat loss and detoxification that we are hoping for, will not happen until we address the stress in our lives. 

To begin to address stress, it is critical that we understand exactly what it is. Stress is defined as, “any real or perceived threat and the body’s response to that threat.” The key term here, is perceived.

For many of us, stress is just as commonly the result of perceived threats as it is an authentic or life-threatening one. By perceived threats, I mean instances such as relationship turmoil, financial constraints, professional demands and threats to reputation. While these instances may not be life threatening, they can still lead to the perception of threat which is all it takes to incite the potent SNS. 

Fortunately, no matter why we are stressed, there is something simple we can do to lessen its impact. All we have to do to stop the stress response is breathe. It's true! Our physiologic stress response is still controlled by our mammalian brain. Research has also found that a few long...slow....deep breaths is all it takes to convince this primitive part of our brain that we are safe. Breath is that powerful. In fact, the answer to your stalled health goals may be as simple as five deliberate breaths before each meal.

Try it for one week and see for yourself! For best results: 

Sit relaxed, in a comfortable position. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose for a count of 4. Hold your breath for 2 counts at the top. Exhale through your mouth for a count of 4. Repeat 5-10 times.

Although it may sound too good to be true, this simple exercise incites the PSNS or the "rest and digest" branch of your central nervous system that we discussed earlier. Science has demonstrated that PSNS dominance relaxes the nervous system, increases fat and calorie-burning, and enhances nutrient absorption and digestion. PSNS activation is also the only time that healing and detoxification will occur.  

Finding a few minutes to breathe deeply each day can do wonders for your health. Do it as often as you remember: in the car, in the shower, or before your meals. If you're like me (and many others), you will notice its powerful effects immediately which may be just what you need to jumpstart your results.I sincerely hope that it does 😊 

Keep me posted!

Happy Paleo-ing,

Autumn Smith