About Holistic 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 office-worker life style (often 12 hours a day, stressed and hunched over a computer) had left me far removed from my own intuition into how I was feeling. By the time I was very ill (I wonder how many of the subtle signs I missed) and finally went to see a doctor, I was even further removed from my body, especially now it was not functioning the way it was supposed to. So I completely surrendered to the wisdom of the specialists, as surely they knew best how to fix me.
I say wisdom, but I would not describe them as wise; they are certainly clever and well educated, but most of them are closed off to any alternatives or a holistic approach. I think I have given them plenty of time to prove their genius during nine years of increasingly heavy medication for Ulcerative Colitis, 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 eight years of immuno-suppressants and antibody biologic 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 is 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 generally not looking at a bigger interconnected picture; the mind-body connection. It is mainly symptom management through medication or surgery; for me that became 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.
Don’t get me wrong, I am eternally grateful for the doctors helping me while I had an infection on my leg or an obstruction in my intestines, that initial medicine and subsequent surgery was indeed needed at the time and it might have even saved my life. It is the subsequent treatment pattern I struggle wit; the cycle of medicine targeting the symptoms rather than looking for a long-term solutions, solutions which don’t necessarily have to involve pharmaceuticals… thinking outside of the pharma-box.
Ever since I discovered that practicing yoga would physically make me feel better and stronger and that it helped to manage 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 instead brings 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 practice yoga, to be mindful of what to eat, to meditate and to practice gratitude and be compassionate in daily life. Show up for this every single day. Let go of guilt on the days you didn’t make it work. Resolve to begin again. Be kind to yourself.
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…
Links to articles
Click on the below links to jump to the relevant section in the articles on this page, more on:
Meditation and mindfulness
Choosing to live wholeheartedly
“The principle of nowness is very important to any effort to establish an enlightened society. You may wonder what the best approach is to helping society and how you can know that what you are doing is authentic and good. The only answer is nowness. The way to relax, or rest the mind in nowness, is through the practice of meditation. In meditation you take an unbiased approach. You let things be as they are, without judgment, and in that way you yourself learn to be.”
-Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
For the full article from Yoga International click here
At first mindfulness seemed a bit of a hype to me, as books and apps and colouring-in books seemed to spring up everywhere. However during my Yin teacher training a lot of emphasis was placed on mindfulness and meditation. Meditation had come up during my original teacher training and I had started to practice at home but I had never linked the two. Yin yoga requires you to stay in sometimes uncomfortable postures for a length of time and to observe, be aware of the sensations in your body (and mind). The mindfulness aspect simply means staying focussed on the 'thing you are doing' in the moment. This I translated to any type of yoga, as you are always trying to be completely focussed and aware of the movement and of the breath. So practicing yoga is a form of mindfulness.
The book on mindfulness I really enjoy is written by Edel Maex and is a very practical guide to learning mindfulness.
“Mindfulness finds its origins in Buddhist meditation techniques. Instead of trying to achieve goals that lie far ahead in the future, mindfulness teaches you to be present in the moment, with a compassionate and open mind. This book, consisting of short and airy texts, follows the eight weeks of the traditional stress reduction programme as it was developed by dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the mindfulness movement. Based on his many years of experience as a psychiatrist, Edel Maex has written a clear, concise and heartfelt guide to mindfulness, that will help you to deal differently with the unavoidable agitations of life.”
I find the app Calm incredibly helpful -it has become app of the year 2017 in appStore); guided meditations on various topics (anxiety, focus, stress, also some for kids) and sleep stories too.
I would also recommend the app Headspace (especially for kids) which has programs specifically designed for age categories (7-9, 10-12, 13-15, 16-18 years and adults). Created by a former Buddhist monk, this app presents meditation in very straightforward ways and for specific circumstances, including walking, sleeping, kindness, and focus. It also includes reminders, rewards, and ways to connect with friends for motivation.
Breathing is something most of us don’t think about, it happens automatically all day every day. But the fact that most people don’t think twice about their breathing could mean that you’re missing out on something that could have a big impact on many different aspects of your body’s health and well-being. Here are four ways to use different breathing techniques to improve both your physical health and state of mind.
Breathing for Relaxation
To activate the natural relaxation response, in order to effectively combating stress or reducing the harmful effects of stress, we need to engage in focused, abdominal breathing. It increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the nervous system, causing a state of calmness. Practicing focused breathing 20 to 30 minutes each day can work wonders in reducing stress and anxiety. And we’re not talking about taking a 30-minute nap. The point of focused breathing is to feel connected to your body, and be present and aware of the feeling of your worries drifting farther and farther away. There is a quick, six-second exercise that utilizes visualisation and deep breathing to stop stress in its tracks,, here’s how to do it:
Smile inwardly with your eyes and mouth and release the tension in your shoulders. This is a powerful muscle release in the places where most people hold their muscles tense.
Imagine holes in the soles of your feet. As you take a deep breath in, visualize hot air flowing through these holes moving slowly up your legs, through your abdomen and filling your lungs.
Relax your muscles sequentially as the hot air moves through them up your body. When you exhale reverse the visualisation so you “see” hot air coming out the same holes in your feet. Repeat throughout the day whenever you need to feel calm and relaxed.
Breathing for Increased Energy
To give your body and mind an extra little boost you can try a technique known as the “Bellows Breath,” which signals the body to become more alert. It’s described as being able to energize the body, clarify the mind and “clear away the clouds.”
Here’s how to do it: Sit up tall, and relax your shoulders. Keep your mouth closed and inhale rapidly through your nose with quick, short breaths (exhale quickly as well). Try doing that for about 10 seconds. Take a 15-30 second break and breathe normally. Repeat several times.
Breathing for Muscle Tension Relief
Try this breathing technique first thing in the morning as it can help minimise muscle tension throughout the entire day.
Stand up straight and bend forward at the waist. Bend knees slightly, letting your arms hang limply, close to the floor.
Inhale slowly and deeply, and return to a standing position by slowly rolling your body up, lifting your head last.
Exhale slowly as you return to your original position.
Stretch your muscles a little, and repeat.
When seated you can inhale through your nose trying to lift all your breathing muscles and lifting your shoulders up towards your ears, then exhale blowing out slowly through your mouth, as if you are blowing out a candle. Try and slow this down as much as you can, releasing your shoulders and all your breathing muscles as you exhale.
Anti-inflammatory breathing technique
I am trying this technique frequently to notice an impact on my Crohn’s disease, which is an inflammatory response as are many auto-immune illnesses.
First bring your awareness to your breath; shift your focus down to your belly and allow it to soften as you slow down your breath, tuning into the inhalation and exhalation. Once you feel your breath is calm and relaxed you can start the Yin breathing sequence which has an anti-inflammatory effect:
Inhaling through your nose for 5 seconds
Hold your breath for 20 seconds
Then exhale for 10 seconds.
If the ratio 5-20-10 is difficult then you can adjust to 3-12-6 or something that works better for you (try to stay close a multiple of the the 1-4-2 ratio). The idea is that you hold the breath for a length of time, allowing subtle pressure around the vagus nerve.
Always breathe into and out of the belly. You can deepen your exhalation by gently contracting the core muscles, to push more air out of the lungs. Do 10 rounds of the yin breathing sequence and see how you feel after this. To induce deeper relaxation, just keep going, and continue to feel more tension melt away.
Breathing, the Autonomic Nervous System and Vagal Tone
The autonomic nervous system regulates our breathing in response to moment-to-moment metabolic needs. We see this in action with a breath of fear and a sigh of relief. Breathing is automatic; we breathe without thinking. We can also breathe with intention, changing the tone of the autonomic nervous system. By simply bringing attention to the breath, respiration rate often slows, and breath deepens. Voluntary regulation of breathing practices influences psychological states and often improves symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic response.
Voluntary regulation of breathing practices influences psychological states and often improves symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic response. Generally, slower breathing, prolonged exhalation, and resistance breathing increase parasympathetic activity. Matching inhalation and exhalation maintains autonomic balance, while rapid breathing, irregular breathing, and sharp inhalation or exhalation increase sympathetic activity. Moving from typical breathing to slow breathing (5–7 breaths per minute) creates a sizable shift in average respiratory rate and changes our physiology. Slow breathing increases vagal activation and parasympathetic tone, leading to better physical and psychological well-being.
Emotions and respiration are linked, and slow, deep breathing can effectively inhibit distress.
Slowing and deepening the breath during moments of distress brings a return of ventral vagal control, and, as our autonomic state changes, so can our story. Beginning to attend to the breath for the first time can trigger cues of danger and activates the sympathetic or dorsal vagal systems. People using deep, slow-breathing exercises for the first time often experience the protective response of sympathetic flight or fight, but over one to three months, with regular practice, autonomic activation shifts from sympathetic protection to parasympathetic safety. In a study of people new to yoga, they found that introducing slow breathing with equal inhalation and exhalation was the simplest way to use breath to experience positive autonomic shifts.
Resistance breathing uses a slight contraction of the larynx and glottis to add resistance to the exhalation. Reducing airflow during exhalation brings an increase in vagal activity Ujayi breath, or the ocean breath, a commonly practiced form of resistance breathing, seems to occur naturally when toddlers are playing with blocks, when children are doing math problems, and when adults are exerting effort under stress. Take a moment and imagine working hard to figure something out, and listen to your breath. You will likely hear a sound in the back of your throat. Resistance breathing brings a sense of feeling calm, alert, and attentive.
Sighs naturally occur several times an hour as part of healthy lung function and sighs are also associated with feelings of sadness, tiredness, relief, and even contentment. Sighs can be thought of as “re-setters of regulation” in response to both physiological and psychological demands. From an activated sympathetic state, sighing returns the autonomic nervous system to parasympathetic balance. Heaving a sigh of relief truly is a release of tension!
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 old familiar wisdom 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.
I first encountered autogenics when I saw the psychologist Gaylin Tudhope in 2014; it’s a deep relaxation technique allowing the parasympathetic side of the nervous system to engage. Autogenic training exercise can be used to help address stress, anxiety, fear, tension. The more regularly it’s used, the more powerful it becomes; it will help you feel more centred and more relaxed, calmer and quieter.
Find a comfortable seat, soles of the feet on the floor and hands on your lap. Close the eyes and just listen to the guided relaxation.
What Is Autogenic Training?
Autogenic training is a therapy that trains a person to access his/her own physical relaxation process, and use it to relieve physical and emotional stress. Originating from research on hypnosis, autogenic training has been compared to yoga and meditation, which influence the body’s autonomic nervous system. It is a type of relaxation technique that can be used to help reduce anxiety, including that experienced as part of social anxiety disorder (SAD). It can be incorporated into regular treatment such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) or used on your own as a self-help strategy.
Autogenic training works on the basis of simple psychological and biological principles. It makes use of the fact that the psyche and the body are interdependent. It is also premised on certain mindfulness principles, which it shares in common with other therapies, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT). Some courses train practitioners in all of these therapies, which they can then use to treat various concerns.
In the early days of psychoanalysis, the concept of psychosomatics -meaning mind (psyche) and body (soma)- became popular. Initially, it was used in a very speculative way. For example, a psychoanalyst might connect a patient’s chronic pain with the repression of childhood issues. However, over the past century we have learned how the body and mind are connected in a much more basic manner. We now know that emotions are connected with a combination of physical factors. These include chemical processes, aches and pains, fatigue, and much more. The connection goes two ways. The physical influences emotions, and emotions influence the physical. A common example is the feeling many of us get in our stomachs when particularly anxious about an upcoming event.
Similarly, breathing quickly can amplify anxiety and physical exercise can make us happier. It’s not just a two-way street. Thoughts impact emotions and their physical expression, and emotions impact thoughts. Autogenic training works on the basis that by managing the physiological responses related to stress, the emotions and thoughts can be relieved.
For more on autogenic training you can read the full article here.
The Autonomic Nervous System
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 signalling 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)
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.
The Vagus Nerve
In the section above you have read what the Vagus Nerve is and does, below some techniques to stimulate the Vagus nerve and create a healthy Vagal tone;
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.
You control your destiny; it’s not all about your genes, it is predominately external factors which influence your cells.
For a great interview with Bruce Lipton click here.
The Biology of Belief explores how cells receive and process information. implications of this research radically change our understanding of life, showing that genes and DNA do not control our biology; instead, DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our positive and negative thoughts.
For decades, genetic determinism -that is, the idea that our genes are fixed, immutable, and outside of our conscious control- was the general view of the scientific community. However, Dr. Bruce Lipton, Dr. Candace Pert, and other researchers have demonstrated that DNA is actually controlled by signals that come from outside of the cell. In other words, the cell’s environment matters much more than we once thought. So change the cell's environment, and change the cell behavior and genetic characteristics.
And since we're made up of cells, change ourselves.
Some of the most powerful external signals that influence the health of our cells are the energetic messages which emanate from our thoughts. Positive or negative, our thoughts have the ability to literally change our bodies and alter our physical health and well being. This is great news, because it means that we have the power to alter our lives for the better! We have more agency and authority over our life experience than we ever realised.
Lessons From The Petri Dish: In Praise Of Smart Cells And Smart Students - Cells are not simply in competition with one another for the most resources; instead, they work collaboratively and cooperatively, allowing multi-celled organisms to evolve and thrive in changing environments.
It’s The Environment, Stupid - Epigenetics is the field of study focused on how the environment influences genetic expression; it tells us that our nutrition, stress, and emotions can modify our genes (and that these modifications are heritable).
The Magical Membrane - Modern research shows that the cell membrane’s effector proteins control how genes are “read” … and that these proteins function in response to environmental influences.
The New Physics: Planting Both Feet Firmly On Thin Air - The nature of reality is change, a constant state of flux … and energy waves are vital, because our vibrational frequency has the power to change us at the atomic level!
Biology Of Belief - Our emotions are the language of our subconscious minds, influencing our cells in ways we’re just beginning to understand … and the placebo effect is a case in point!
Growth And Protection - There are practical ways to limit stress and fear (which contribute to cellular breakdown) and increase love (which contributes mightily to cellular health).
Conscious Parenting: Parents As Genetic Engineers - You can influence the next generation for good even before birth, and you can teach and model the power of personal responsibility.
Fascia and Pain
The book explains the current model driven by big pharma and surgery and that the holistic mind-body view of health has been abandoned.
"The current western medical approach has developed from theories that date from the earliest days of our scientific knowledge, a time when women wore whalebone corsets, men wore breeches, and illness and disease were widely regarded as a punishment from God.
Two basic theories that are no longer generally considered to be true (ask any Buddhist philosopher or eastern healer) and current scientific research in many connected areas is proving conclusively that they are wrong. They hold that:
body and mind are separate
the body can be reduced to a linear, cause and effect model.
These theories, developed over 300 years ago, have their roots in the work of philosopher René Descartes and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton. It was Descartes who first proposed the concept of mind–body dualism. He suggested that what until then had been regarded as whole and complete was, in his view, two separate entities–the mind and the body. This approach is known as the Cartesian approach (Renatus Cartesius being the Latin form of Descartes’ name). Descartes went on to say that the body was made of physical matter only and therefore could be studied scientifically, but since the mind was non-material or ephemeral it should be the realm of the Church.
At a time when science and the medical profession were challenging older forms of wisdom and the Christian Church was fighting to retain its influence, Descartes’ view was accepted wholesale as the basis of a sort of ideological truce that suited everyone. Under the terms of this truce the Church claimed authority and control over the mind and the doctors took charge of the physical body. Both were careful not to stray into each other’s territories, and so it remained, pretty well until Sigmund Freud came along and started looking into people’s minds.
Meanwhile, Newton’s ideas influenced how the body (and many other things) was studied. Newton created a branch of physics that looked for linear causes and effects and continually reduced what was being studied to ever-smaller units. The idea was to simplify everything to one single cause and effect that led to a single solution to an isolated physical problem. The combination of these two ideas was how we lost our sense of the mind–body as a whole.
Our modern medical approach is still firmly rooted in the mind–body division inherited from Descartes and treatment is still based on Newton’s linear cause and effect model. Treat disease A by blocking receptor B on cell C and the disease is stopped. Complex diseases, and relationships within the body, are simplified into models and treated as such."
She goes on the write that from a holistic perspective, it takes a mind-body approach, recognising that emotional experiences and trauma can play an important part in our experience of pain. She talks about the placebo affect (the impact the mind has over the body) and about the commonality of chronic pain; it is life-limiting, people have at least one medical diagnosis, multiple treatments and have been given a lot of medication and they have experienced trauma and are living with stress.
The book realy resonated with me especially how she wrote about what it is like to live with chronic pain; it has an indepth description of the workings of fascia and a self-help exercise section for various pain conditions. Using this book might help you understand why you are in pain, and better yet, if you stick to the exercises it might help you release the pain. Imagine that!
People who have good emotional health are aware of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. They have learned healthy ways to cope with the stress and problems that are a normal part of life. They feel good about themselves and have healthy relationships. However, many things that happen in your life can disrupt your emotional health. These can lead to strong feelings of sadness, stress, or anxiety. Your body responds to the way you think, feel, and act. This is one type of mind/body connection. When you are stressed, anxious, or upset, your body reacts in a way that might tell you that something isn’t right. Trying to express your feelings, living a balanced life, developing resilience and learning to calm your body and mind are ways to help with this. But you need to start with awareness of your emotions and feelings and how you react. Get to know your patterns and what fears they are covering up. Freeing yourself of this and learning to let things go are a big part of being healthy.
In the epigenetics section (the Biology of Belief) you can see that there is evidence of external factors influencing on a cellular level. I wanted to write some more about how emotions can physically impact the body. Notice for instance where in your body you can feel anger; maybe it’s in the upper part of the torso around the liver; the feeling of love you might notice around your heart; fear can live in your belly. The location might differ for people but most of us do physically feel emotion somewhere in our bodies. If these negative emotions are pushed away, they can start causing damage in the body. I have long felt that the way I had become more judgmental over the past decade, and how strongly I resented that judgement, both had a very negative impact on my health. It worked itself in in two ways; the nature of my job (and my personality in my job) and the nature of my illness. I am a type A personality, which is often charactarised as; aggressive, ambitious, controlling, competitive, workaholics, hostile, and lacking patience… you get the idea!
Type A personalities are more prone to having high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and stress-related illnesses. While they cannot say that any personality type causes illness, certain personality features definitely increase the risk because they are more likely to generate physiological stress.
I believe the environment of an office job in banking in the city -a pressured and competitive environment- feeds that behaviour. So over the years as the pressure in the job grew, my type A behaviour strengthened.
While working in this environment, my illness worsened; I had more flare-us, hospital visits, surgery, more drugs, suffered from chronic pain and fatigue and the struggle to physically do my job (to a type A standard) was enormous. It took all my energy to physically travel to work, do my work, interact with people and commute home again, before collapsing from exhaustion and pain. I had very little social life to balance out all of these intense impressions and emotions, so I hardened and became more judgmental and intolerant. It was a self-perpetuating cycle; struggle to work harder, physically and emotionally feel worse, lock in more anger and grief, subconsciously push people away and have even less of a social network. My, what a tight web I had woven! It was only when I read a passage in ‘When the body says No, the hidden cost of stress’ by Gabor Maté, that I realised I was the poster girl for IBD patterns;
“The 1955 study, which looked at over seven hundred people with ulcerative colitis, concluded that a high proportion of these patients “had obsessive-compulsive character traits, which included neatness, punctuality, and conscientiousness. Along with these character traits, guarding of affectivity [emotional expression], over-intellectualization, rigid attitudes toward morality and standards of behaviour.… Similar personality traits have also been used to describe patients with Crohn’s. “
People said they were very critical of others and of themselves—one more trait for which they end up judging themselves. I can relate to this so much; I had to deal with so many heath issues, the bar moved, and I became increasingly intolerant of other people suffering from a cold or IBS as that was just a drop in the ocean in my life. I would drag myself into work bleeding, aching and tired almost every day, so staying home for a mere cold was out of the question in my world. My adaptation to being so ill had hardened me and increased my intolerance and judgment, something that in turn made me grow to dislike my own behaviour even more.
It has taken some for me time to develop this kind of awareness and realising how I react in situations and which emotions it brings about. My awareness has grown and I’ve become conscious of my reaction patterns and the ways I have grown to deal with everyday life. Recognising patterns, habits and how I process (or not) emotions is one thing though, breaking and changing these patterns however is a whole different ballgame. I read, meditated, went on workshops and practiced yoga, but something more intense was needed; so I went to the Hoffman process. It was amazing; we were taught that the cycle of Awareness, Expression, Forgiveness and Compassion leads to New Behaviour. It’s not a quick fix and will need continued practice; as with everything in life, if you want to create change and create new habits, you need action and repetition. In short: Practice.
For more on the insights if the process see this wonderful article written by Tim Laurence.
Linking all this back to the world of yoga, to show how holistic and impactful a yoga practice can be; as yoga has taught me awareness. Through continued practice I learned to reconnect my mind and body and link it with breath. Awareness for how I was feeling, what impact external factors (food, exercise, temperature, etc.) had on me, physically but also mentally and emotionally. Awareness of what was chatter, that stream of consciousness constantly judging, comparing and fixing events happening in the outside world, and what was thought, analysis and memory. Being able to discern the difference, learning that I am not my emotions leading to awareness of my deeper self, my spirit, my essence, whatever you want to call it. As Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche writes in ‘The joy of living’: “If you truly want to discover a lasting sense of peace and contentment, you need to learn to rest your mind. Only by resting the mind can its innate qualities be revealed. The simplest way to clear water obscured by mud and other sediments is to allow the water to grow still. In the same way, if you allow the mind to come to rest, ignorance, attachment, aversion, and all other mental afflictions will gradually settle, and the compassion, clarity, and infinite expanse of your mind’s real nature will be revealed.”
Gratitude and Forest Therapy
Practice gratitude every day.
Write down what you are grateful for at the start or end of every day. Make a list of your favourite things in life and remind yourself of them. It will shift your mindset -which is hardwired to look for the negative- and can start a snowball effect of feeling more gratitude. You will find it is the little things that you are the most grateful for; family, friends, good health, sunshine, log fires, hot baths, sea, travel, music, a good book and especially the awe-inspiring beauty of nature and trees!
One of the many reasons why I felt well at Kripalu, was due to the amazing green environment.
Forest Therapy is a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments. Forest Therapy is inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku, which translates to "forest bathing." It is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of wellbeing.
During an 8 year long Japanese study, they measured the activity of human natural killer (NK) cells in the immune system before and after exposure to the woods. These cells provide rapid responses to viral-infected cells and respond to tumor formation, and are associated with immune system health and cancer prevention. It showed significant increases in NK cell activity in the week after a forest visit, and positive effects lasted a month following each weekend in the woods.
This is due to various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, found in wood, plants, and some fruit and vegetables, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects. Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better—inhaling phytoncide seems to actually improve immune system function.
I was fortunate to attend a Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) one-day workshop lead by Emily Oliver and Thupten Jinpa. His book ‘A Fearless Heart’ is about compassion being the key to greater well-being. Thupten Jinpa is a former monk and has been the principal English translator to H.H. the Dalai Lama for nearly thirty years.
In Compassion Cultivation Training, four areas for change are targeted: outlook, awareness, capacity for empathy, and behaviour. Changing our outlook by working with our conscious intentions and the attitudes we bring to our everyday experience of the world. It’s interesting to observe that in our modern society we focus more on self-esteem, which is often tied to criteria of achievement, which leads people, including children, to believe that they are worthy of esteem (from themselves and others) only to the degree that they ‘succeed’. And self-esteem is twisted by our competitive culture, so that many people understand their worth only in comparison to other people. Practicing loving-kindness meditation is the first step.
Brené Brown has amazing talks on courage, vulnerability and shame. I also read her book ‘The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are”. It’s all about living wholeheartedly.
Authenticity is a choice that requires courage, compassion and connection.
Fear of shame hides behind perfectionism.
Cultivate purpose and perspective so you are resilient in the face of adversity.
Practice being grateful for the ordinary moments in life.
To be a better decision-maker, let go of the need for certainty and trust your intuition.
Embrace your own creative potential to do away with the need for comparison.
When it comes to your well-being, play and rest are just as important as work.
Learn to manage your anxiety rather than trying to get rid of it.
Identify your own gifts and talents that you can share with the world.
Don’t be afraid of being uncool.
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.