This page is still under construction, but I am just keen to share the findings that seem to be having a real impact on my health…
What I am learning
For many years I believed that I had no real influence over my health. Of course I knew to eat healthy and to exercise, but my city worker life style (10+ hours a day, stressed and hunched over a computer) had left me far removed from my own intuition as to how I was feeling. By the time I was very ill (I wonder how many of the subtle symptoms I missed) and finally went to the doctor, I was even further removed from my body, especially now it was not functioning the way it was supposed to. So I surrendered completely to the wisdom of the specialists, as surely they knew best how to ‘fix’ me.
I say wisdom, but I would no longer call them wise; they are certainly clever and educated, but most of them are closed off to alternatives or a holistic approach. I think I have given them plenty of time to prove their genius; nine years of increasingly heavy medication for Ulcerative Colitis, a total colectomy surgery and reversal, followed by referrals from specialist to specialist and then a diagnosis of Crohn’s with another surgery to remove part of my (small) intestine (with some follow up fistula repair surgeries) followed by seven years of immunosuppressants and anti TNFα infusions… and this is all still on-going (for more on my story click here). This is the nature of the illness; it is a chronic, autoimmune illness and that’s where modern medicine fails. Doctors are brilliant when you break your leg or have an acute illness, but when it is chronic, a response involving multiple systems of the body, they fall short. Specialists have become over-specialised, they are not looking at the bigger interconnected picture; the mind-body connection. For me that was obvious after my colectomy surgery; in theory the ‘ill part of me’ was removed, but the same illness just manifested in another part of my body.
Ever since I discovered that yoga would physically make me feel better and stronger and that it helped with pain, I have embraced it as a tool I can use to help me with my illness. Over the past 3 years I have discovered that it does so much more, and most importantly that it quiets the mind. That is the second verse Patanjali wrote in the yoga sutras; ‘Yoga is the practice of quieting the mind’. It quiets that part of the mind which has that incessant chatter; your stream of consciousness, your ego, your I like-I don’t like-I don’t care inner voice constantly judging-fixing-comparing yourself to others and the world around you. The part of you that is anxious about the future or depressed about the past. So let me say it again; yoga helps you to quiet that part of your brain which brings suffering and creates equanimity and contentment; two powerful antidotes. Yoga, through the 8-limbed path, does this by developing discipline in postures (Asanas) and breath (Pranayama) and gives focus (Dharana) by going inward (Pratyahara), cultivating awareness of your internal world; your gut instinct and your intuition. Then it will enable your meditation practice (Dhyana) to progress (as your body is open, your breath is calm, your mind is focussed and not distracted by the senses) and you meditate.
Yoga has led me onto a path of a more holistic approach to life, but it takes discipline and effort to do the work. What is ‘the work? To be mindful of what to eat, to move, to meditate and to practice gratitude and be compassionate. Show up for this every day. Resolve to begin.
Nutrition has a real impact on health. Mindful movement creates awareness and flexibility, strength and balance. Meditation is necessary to quiet the mind. It is absolutely necessary - you cannot expect your mind to be calm if you never stop the input. So you need to work at it and some days will be easier than others, but you will notice a difference; that shift in your body and mind. You will finally start realising the impact you can have on your own health and wellbeing. Take that power back…
For the full article from Yoga International click here
Watch this space for the impact of breathing on your body and mind… and how most of us aren’t breathing ‘properly’…
The immune system works hard to defend you from pathogens, including bacteria and viruses. It’s made up of leukocytes (white blood cells), proteins, and other tissues, including the lymphatic system. When it’s not fighting infection, the lymphatic system is busy draining excess fluid from the body’s tissues and removing debris from that fluid.
Red bone marrow is the soft part inside certain bones. Red bone marrow makes red blood cells and platelets that are important for the cardiovascular system, and it also makes leukocytes, which are part of the immune system. Different types of leukocytes exist: lymphocytes, which identify and remember enemy microorganisms to help the body destroy them, phagocytes, which chew up those microorganisms, and basophils, which are involved with allergies and inflammation.
T-cell and B-cell are two key players in our immune system. They both originate in the bone marrow, but T cells migrate to mature in the thymus (hence the T), while B cells mature in the bone marrow. They attack infectious agents in very different ways. T cells bring about cell-mediated immunity — in face of an infectious agent, the alarm system gets activated and results in the proliferation of killer cells which attack and destroy the infectious agent. B-cells cause antibody-mediated immunity. The main task of the B cells is to differentiate and generate antibodies — large proteins that will recognize and bind to some specific feature of the invading infectious agent. In binding to the specific feature, antibodies immobilize the infectious agent and target it for destruction.
How does stress impact the immune system?
Stress disrupts the immune system in many ways — it suppresses the formation of new T cells and B cells, shortens the time pre-existing T cells and B cells stay in circulation, inhibits manufacturing of antibodies.. the list goes on. And all sort of stressors (physical or psychological) do that in primates, birds even in fish — and of course humans.
How does stress do that? It is often not stress itself, but the recovery from it that triggers a negative impact on our immune system. As it turns out, during the first few minutes after the onset of a stressor, your immune system is actually enhanced — it’s your body’s defence mechanism. An hour later, you glucocorticoids level and active sympathetic nervous system begin to offset that enhanced immunity and “recovers” your immune system back to normal. This is necessary because it is too costly to have the immune system always maximally activated, and over-activated defence system leads to the accidental killing of the good guys (risk of auto-immune diseases). This fine balance is developed to cope with acute stress scenario (the typically being chased by a lion or poisoned by your food). However, if stress is prolonged — when it lasts for days, months and years, we will get to a place where the immune system is over-corrected and goes way below normal level. This is how chronic stress really suppresses the immune system.
An autoimmune disease is a condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body. Normally, the immune system can tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells. In an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes part of your body, like your joints or skin, as foreign. It releases proteins called autoantibodies that attack healthy cells. Some autoimmune diseases target only one organ. IBD attacks the digestive tract and Type 1 diabetes damages the pancreas. Other diseases, like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), affect the whole body.
There are more than 100 Autoimmune Diseases, click here for more information.
In the Immune System section above, it is clear that stress has an impact on the function of the immune system. Robert Sapolsky presents in his book (Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers) research evidence on the (mostly negative) impact of stress on your body functions, from hormonal balance to cardiovascular risk, from growth to reproductive system — everything.
The basics of stress response: what happens in your body in the seconds and minutes after you are stressed:
Neurotransmitter and Hormone If a neuron secretes a chemical messenger that travels a thousandth of an inch and causes the next cell in line to do something different, that messenger is called a neurotransmitter. If a neuron (or any cell) secretes a messenger that, instead, percolates into the bloodstream and affects events far and wide, that messenger is a hormone.
Stress response within seconds — neural system
Your Sympathetic Neural System (SNS) kicks into action during emergencies (or what you think are emergencies) — this is what makes you run twice faster if a lion is chasing you. The classic fight or flight behavior.
Your Parasympathetic Neural System (PNS) plays a completely opposite role. It mediates calm, vegetative activities. It is activated when you go to sleep or when you had a full meal — that happily drowsy you after Christmas dinner
In short, SNS speeds up your heart, pumps blood into your muscle, pauses all long-term projects in your body, and prepares to run for your life. PNS does the opposite.
Stress response in the course of minutes or hours — hormonal system
In the course of minutes or hours after the initial stress, your hormonal system starts to kick in. Hormones are vital to the stress-response — epinephrine (aka adrenaline), norepinephrine, and glucocorticoids (a type of steroid hormones). Different hormones act at different speed — Epinephrine typically acts within seconds, and glucocorticoids back this activity up over the course of minutes or hours
When something stressful happens or you think a stressful thought, the hypothalamus secretes an array of releasing hormones into the pituitary circulatory system that gets a chain effect rolling. Within fifteen seconds or so, CRH triggers the pituitary to release the hormone ACTH, which after released into the bloodstream, triggers glucocorticoid release. Glucocorticoids, combined with the SNS stimulation mentioned earlier, account for a large percentage of what happens when you are stressed.
When you are stressed, the first thing your body does is to shift your heart into a higher gear (pumps faster and stronger) and pumps more blood into your vessels — so your blood pressure rises during the stress response. The next steps are to distribute the blood thoroughly across the body (so that oxygen can be delivered to every piece of your muscle to empower you to run for your life) — arteries are relaxed to allow blood flow more freely. This is all good news, but it becomes bad news when we are in a long-term stress situation. When our blood vessels keep getting strong blood flow, it builds up thicker muscle to regulate stronger bloodstreams, and as a result, blood pressure has to increase next time it needs to pump more blood because of the higher resistance. The vicious cycle of chronic high blood pressure goes on.
This is particularly tricky at bifurcation points. Think of those as crossroads where large blood vessels branch into smaller and smaller ones. Fun fact: no cell in your body is more than five cells away from a blood vessel — yet the circulatory system takes up only 3% of body mass — quite amazing isn’t it? Anyway. chronic high blood pressure disproportionally impacts bifurcation points and often causes inflammation — and then stuff like cholesterol and fat in your bloodstream tend to stick to the inflammation spots. Eventually the accumulated cholesterol and fat block your blood vessel — causing heart attacks. High cholesterol in itself is not a problem, but high cholesterol coupled with chronic high blood pressure (which can be a result of high-stress) and inflamed blood vessels — this combination leads to heart attacks and strokes. We have heard much about LDL (bad cholesterol) and HDL (good cholesterol). LDL is the type of cholesterol that gets stuck on your bifurcation points and HDL are the type that has been removed from those points and is on its way to be degraded in the liver. That’s why not all cholesterol is created equal we want low LDL and high HDL.
In summary, long-term stress leads to chronic high blood pressure, and together with high cholesterol level significantly increases your likelihood for heart attacks and strokes.
Time to introduce a very important type of hormone — insulin. Insulin is this optimistic hormone that plans for your metabolic future. It stimulates the transport and storage of food into building blocks. The strategy here is: break your food down into its simplest parts and then reconnect it into complex storage forms. If you eat protein, they get broken down into amino acids in your bloodstream and gets stored as protein. Carbs are broken down into glucose and fat into fatty acids.
When you are stressed, everything works pretty much the opposite way, amino acids, glucose, and fatty acids are mobilized in stressful emergencies. The metabolic stress-response is good — you need that to cope with emergencies. But constantly triggering this type of stress response is dangerous for several reasons.
First, it’s inefficient — every time you go through the storage — mobilize cycle, you are wasting some energy.
Second, constantly mobilizing the metabolic stress-response means that you have tons of fat and glucose perpetually circulating in your bloodstream. And we all saw in the last section that this leads to cardiovascular diseases
Thirdly, during stress, not only do you block insulin secretion (so that you don’t deposit any energy into long-term storage), but you also make fat cells throughout your body less sensitive to insulin, just in case there’s still some floating around working to get energy into storage. This is called stress-induced insulin resistance. This is really bad news for people with juvenile diabetes (where the body does not produce enough insulin) — because this creates a lot of additional challenge to the already fragile system of balancing insulin level in the bloodstream. Frequent stress and/or big stress-responses might increase the odds of getting juvenile diabetes, accelerate the development of diabetes, and, once it is established, cause major complicating in this already life-shortening disease. This is also bad news for people with adult-onset diabetes (where the fat cells do not respond to insulin) because it makes the original problem of insulin resistance much worse.
I just finished reading the book “Why we sleep” by Matthew Walker (which I highly recommend) a few notes here:
About 75% of cases of insomnia are triggered by some major stressor.
Stress not only disrupts the the total amount of sleep but can decrease the quality of sleep. It disproportionally reduces your deep sleep (slow wave sleep) — which is what you need for energy restoration.
And this is a vicious cycle. Stress disrupts sleep, poor sleep activates more stress-response, which leads to even worse sleep, it goes on.
We have now seen some important links between stress and depression: extremes of psychological stress can cause something in a lab animal that looks pretty close to a depression. When animals are exposed to uncontrollable stressors (e.g., random electric shock), they have trouble coping with all sorts of normal life tasks. This is both due to simply not trying to cope with stress and move on in life, and also not reacting to any improvement from the normal coping mechanism. “I can’t control what’s happening to me, ever. So why bother?”. Much of what constitutes a depression is centred around responding to one awful thing and overgeneralizing from it — cognitively distorting how the world works. According to Marty Seligman’s “learned helplessness” model, depression is not generalized pessimism, but pessimism specific to the efforts of one’s own skilled action. Subjected to enough uncontrollable stress, we learn to be helpless — we lack the motivation to try to live because we assume the worst; we lack the cognitive clarity to perceive when things are actually going fine, and we feel an aching lack of pleasure in everything.
The good old wisdom from your grandmother is still among the best things we can do to live a long and healthy life — doing exercise, spending time with friends and family, meditating, focusing on things you can control, and having the cognitive flexibility to switch between internal and external locus of control.
Autonomic nervous system, vagus nerve and vagal tone
The vagus nerve represents the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which oversees an array of crucial bodily functions, including control of mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. It establishes one of the connections between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract and sends information about the state of the inner organs to the brain via afferent fibres. Inflammation lies at the root of most chronic diseases. While acute inflammation can be useful as part of the immune and healing responses, inflammation can damage the body when it becomes chronic or imbalanced. Chronic, systemic, and low-grade inflammation is a major contributor to autoimmune illnesses.
The Link Between Stress, Inflammation, and the Immune System
The vagus nerve (cranial nerve X) is the main nerve of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) part of the autonomic nervous system. It is an important route of communication between the brain, cardiovascular system, gut, and immune system. This bi-directional pathway travels from the brainstem down through the chest and into the abdomen, branching off to multiple organs. It is the longest nerve in the body (vagus means “wandering” in Latin).
The body is intricately connected, and the vagus nerve plays a key role in coordinating communication. Signals are sent from the brain to the organs of the chest and abdomen, as well as from the gut and organs back to the central nervous system. The vagus nerve helps orchestrate this communication network by signaling the brain to produce neurotransmitters and hormones, coordinating responses, regulating stress reactions, and helping to keep inflammation in check.
For example, the vagus nerve plays a central role in coordinating the parasympathetic relaxation response, helping to slow down breathing and heart rate, promote relaxation, stimulate digestion, and bring about a sense of peace and calm. To help coordinate this relaxation response, the vagus nerve releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which seems to be a major brake on inflammation in the body.
Vagal Tone and Why It Matters
Since the vagus nerve is a major control centre for the body, the health of this nerve is of utmost importance to the health of your brain, immune system, and overall inflammatory state. Some people have stronger vagus nerve activity than others, allowing their bodies to relax more quickly after stress. The strength of your vagus response is known as vagal tone.
Low vagal tone has been associated with chronic inflammation. Research shows that those with inflammatory conditions, such as IBD and other autoimmune diseases, often have decreased heart rate variability, a marker of reduced vagal tone. This reduced vagal tone triggers the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines (substances secreted by inflammatory cells and affect other cells) and leads to an increase in sympathetic nervous system activity and stress hormones, contributing to systemic inflammation.
But what you really need to pay special attention to is the"tone"of your vagus nerve. Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.
In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. In other words, the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa.
For research on IBD and vagal tone click here (page 25 onwards)
What’s interesting is that studies have even shown that vagal tone is passed on from mother to child. Mothers who are depressed,anxious and angry during their pregnancy have lower vagal activity. And once they give birth to their child, the newborn also has low vagal activity and low dopamine and serotonin levels. Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain biological processes such as your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability(HRV).
When your heart rate variability (HRV) is high, your vagal tone is also high. They are correlated with each other (53-55).If you’re vagal tone is low, don’t worry -you can take steps to increase it by stimulating your vagus nerve. This will allow you to more effectively respond to the emotional and physiological symptoms of your brain and mental illness.For people with treatment-resistant depression, the FDA has even approved a surgically-implanted device that periodically stimulates the vagus nerve. But you don’t need to go down that route, below are natural ways to stimulate the vagus nerve.
Natural vagus nerve stimulation
Cold Exposure: Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways. Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve. Either take a cold shower simply splash your face in ice-cold water.
Deep and Slow Breathing: Deep and slow breathing is another way to stimulate your vagus nerve. It’s been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve. You should breathe slowly and deeply from your diaphragm; ideally the breath is slowed from our typical 10-14 breaths per minute to 5-7 breaths per minute. You can achieve this by counting the inhalation to 5, hold briefly, and exhale to a count of 10.
Singing, Humming, Chanting and Gargling: The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve and this has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone.
Meditation Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself. Another study found that meditation reduces sympathetic activity and increases vagal modulation.
Exercise: Exercise has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may explain its beneficial brain and mental health effects; many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health. Yoga combines movement, breath and meditation.
Massage: Research shows that massages can stimulate the vagus nerve; the vagus nerve can also be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body. Foot massages have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability and massaging the carotid sinus, an area located near the right side of your throat, can also stimulate the vagus nerve to reduce seizures. An emerging technique for reducing inflammation and toning the vagus nerve is a type of self-abdominal massage. Moderate pressure massage has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, increase the movements of the digestive system and contents, and improve insulin secretion to help balance blood sugar in pre-term infants (studies on adults have yet to be done). The combination of manual manipulation and stimulation of the vagus nerve can have powerful anti-inflammatory benefits. Click here for more on this technique.
Socializing and Laughing: can reduce your body’s main stress hormones and they are likely doing this by stimulating the vagus nerve. Researchers have discovered that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions. Laughter has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and improve mood. And vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect, suggesting that they are connected and influence one another.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats which are found primarily in fish and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system. Researchers have also discovered that omega-3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity. Studies shown that they reduce heart rate and increase heart rate variability, which means they likely stimulate the vagus nerve.
Probiotics: It’s becoming increasingly clear to researchers that gut bacteria improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve.
Watch this space for information of epigenetics, it’s not all about your genes, it is predominately the external factors that influence your cells…
The Biology of Belief: There is so much I want to quote from this mind-blowing book, above just some quotes..
Anatomy and Fascia
Watch this space for information on the mind-body connection, how the body stores trauma, the stress-muscles (Psoas) and the wonderful world of fascia…
My reference books for holistic health
I have been downloading and reading a lot of books over the past year or so. usually while on courses when talking to people; whenever someone would recommend a book, I would google it and if it peaked my interest I would buy it. My library has grown dramatically since going trainings and courses.