The Nervous System: Fight or Flight

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Ready, Signal, Fire:  Nerve Supply
Every activity that your body performs is based on the activity of your nerve system.  Whether it’s the rhythmic contractions of your heart and digestive systems, or the rhythm of your golf swing, the activity of your nerve system determines how your body functions.  Your nerve system integrates the activity of every cell, tissue and organ system in your body.

The language of the nerve system is the signals that are sent across nerve fibers:  the nerve impulse.  In many ways, nerves act as bundles of wires that carry signals in order to transmit information.  As each one of the nerve fibers in the bundle sends an impulse, or fires, a signal is transmitted so that your body is always acting in harmony.  As nerve impulses reach their destination, the signals are like on/off switches that regulate and integrate every activity of your body.

The firing of nerve impulses strengthens and develops the pathways along which the impulses travel.  In other words, repeating a phone number, or the motion of a free throw, strengthens the nerve pathway so that it is more powerful in the future.  In this manner, nerve fibers create new pathways and reinforce existing ones to create the ability to learn, move, feel and think.

Nerve Supply to Your Brain is Critical
Millions of bits of information are gathered from every part of your body that then travel through the spinal cord to your brain.  This input of nerve supply to your brain is critical for your brain to function.  So much so that the uppermost sensory input to the brain, the fifth cranial nerve, is the dividing line for brain activity.  If an injury above this point were to prevent sensory information from reaching the brain, it shuts down.  Were the same injury to the brain to occur below this point, the brain remains active.

In other words, although we know that the brain is a supercomputer that runs the body, it is just as true that the nerve supply from the body is what runs the brain.  Your brain runs your body, but your body fuels your brain.  And according to Dr. John Medina, director of the Brain Center at Seattle Pacific University, the most important of this fuel is movement.  Movement, he says in his 2008 book Brain Rules, “acts directly on the molecular machinery of the brain itself.  It increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress.”

Movement, Nerve System and Your Sixth Sense: Proprioception
Your sixth sense is an essential function of your nervous system called proprioception.  It is how you know where to place your feet when you walk, how a batter is able to swing a bat into the path of an incoming ball, and how you can touch both of your fingers together behind your head without looking.  Proprioception is your body’s ability to be aware of where it is in space.

Amazingly, the vast majority of the information traveling across your nerve system is below the surface.  Furman and Gallo, in their textbook The Neurophysics of Human Behavior, report that throughout the nerve system, there are trillions of bits of information flowing through your nerves.  Of these, we are consciously aware of around fifty at any one period in time.  The constant evaluation of movement information through the proprioceptive part of your nerve system is similarly behind the scenes.  It has a powerful influence on your health, however.

The authors of this program, wellness chiropractors, have seen firsthand how proper function of the nerve system and proprioception is an essential element for health through working with patients, as has been seen by chiropractors for over 100 years.  Roger Sperry, PhD, received the 1981 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in brain research.  This is how he described how important the impact of proprioception and its contribution to the essential element of nerve supply was to overall health.  “Better than 90 percent of the energy output of the brain is used in relating to the physical body in its gravitational field.  The more mechanically distorted a person is, the less energy available for thinking, metabolism and healing.”

The unconscious understanding of the body’s positions and movements has always been the critical element of every moving animal species.  Without it, it is impossible to perform the basic functions of finding food and water, shelter and procreation.  Because of this, the proprioception component of your nerve supply is hardwired into regulating your body’s ability to handle stress.

Stress, and Your Nerve System
Ultimately, it is your nerve system that is responsible for handling stress.  Stress comes from three categories of sources:  chemical, physical, and mental.  That is, stress results from unhealthy choices in your fuel, air and spark.  Once your body encounters stress, however, there is a common response from your body.

The physiologist Hans Selye was the first to coin the term stress just over fifty years ago.  The hallmark of the response to stress inside your body (the stress response) is the release of stress hormones.  As discussed below, the release of these hormones is controlled by your nerve system.  When your body perceives something as a stress (read:  your nerve system senses a stressor), it sends signals to release hormones.  These signals are controlled by a part of the nerve system called the sympathetic nervous system.  Adrenalin and noradrenaline, also known as epinephrine and norepinephrine, along with cortisol are the initiators of a system-wide stress response in your body.

Fight-or-Flight, Rest and Repair, and Your Nerve System
Just as being awake and being asleep are two separate and distinct states, being stressed and being in a state of healing and repair are two separate and distinct states.  When our bodies are in a state of stress, the hormonal release stimulated by the nerve system prepares the body for a state of activity.  This means tearing tissue down, preparing to burn energy, and preparing to move.  Blood is sent to muscles, away from organs, blood pressure rises as vessels tighten, digestion slows, and immune responses weaken as the body prepares for action.  This feeling of stress, often referred to as the fight-or-flight response, is directed by the sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nerve system is used by your body in response to stress, or, in other words, anything that your body perceives as a threat.  Acting intelligently, your body’s response to threats is to prepare for action:  fight-or-flight.  Even thinking of a stressful event will cause you to experience the influence of the sympathetic nerve system in your body.

To do this, however, there is a cost.  Spending energy to deal with a threat means halting the activities of rest and repair.  The sympathetic nerve system activity has an opposite system in your body dedicated to rest and repair called the parasympathetic nerve system.

Your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the activity of digestion, relaxation and reproduction.  This is the system your body activates during times of safety for healing, tissue repair and procreation.  In order to heal and repair effectively, you want to be in a state of rest and repair.

Research over the past twenty five years has shown how far-reaching the influence your nerve system is on the function of two other “super-systems” inside your body:  your immune system and your endocrine, or hormonal, system.

The Hard-Wired Connection Between Your Hormones, Immune System, and Your Nerve System
Prior to about twenty five years ago, mainstream science did not understand the intimate connection between the immune and nerve systems.  Patients of chiropractors, however, reaped the benefits of improved nerve system function for decades before this.  See this example of life-saving results patients of chiropractors, doctors trained to remove interference to nerve system function, had during the flu pandemic of 1918.

In fact, every immune organ in your body is richly influenced by communication from your nerve system.  Immune organs located in your body, including your network of lymph nodes, your thymus, spleen and bone marrow, and also most importantly in your digestive system, have their activity directed by your nerve system.

This connection is also one of the underlying mechanisms that explains why you are more susceptible to becoming sick when you are stressed.  During a period of stress, you shift into a more sympathetic fight-or-flight mode, promoting the release of stress hormones.  Chronic stress hormone release makes you more susceptible to illness.

Today, research showing how the immune system, hormonal system and nerve system are hard-wired together continues to grow more and more.  To read more, check out these links on this growing field of psychoneuroimmunology.

Week 7 Fuel Insight: Appropriate Physiological State

by admin

ESSENTIAL ELEMENT:  Appropriate Physiological State

Critical Concept:  Create Calm Before You Eat
Your nervous system is designed to operate in one of two modes at any given moment:  “Rest Mode” or “Go Time.”  The Autonomic Nervous System regulates your organ systems (including the heart) and certain glands.  This part of the nervous system functions to organize the processes that are needed to navigate a typical day’s activity.  Digesting a meal, taking a nap, running down the street, or giving a presentation at work all require various levels of involvement by different systems.  The autonomic nervous system acts as an air traffic controller that helps you relate to your ever-changing environment and its demands.

This system is sub-divided into two parts, the “Brakes” (Parasympathetic System) and the “Gas” (Sympathetic System). The Brakes are applied when it is time to slow down - for rest, repair, digestion and reproduction.  The Gas is engaged when it’s time to move.  Known as the “Fight or Flight” system, the Gas is activated when we are stressed and need to act.

These physiologic states are opposites.

Your state can be altered by a stimulus.  A stimulus can come from your external environment, such as the smell of garlic or a charging rhino.  Sometimes the stimulus may come from inside your body or mind, like a pleasant memory or a disturbing thought.  The input is registered, and your body responds readily and appropriately to the stimulus.

The body response is associated with the appropriate hormonal changes.  Hormones are powerful chemicals produced by our bodies that influence organ functions, prioritize focus and energy distribution, and even affect our thoughts and feelings.

There are hormones that excite us and hormones that calm us down.  When we sit down to eat, we should be in the calm state.  We want the Brakes System engaged.  When we are in “Brakes State” our body is able to enjoy, digest and process foods appropriately.

Too often, we live in the “Go Mode.”  Our lives are incredibly fast paced and demanding, and this keeps our Gas System at full throttle.  This chronically stressed state creates constantly elevated stress hormone levels. Stress hormones impact every facet of our bodily functions – especially digestion.

One of the key stress hormones is cortisol.  This fight or flight hormone will keep our muscles flexed, our blood pressure elevated, and our digestive tract slow and sluggish.  This makes a lot of sense in the context of survival.  If we are acutely stressed (chased by a lion) and need to focus our body on escaping real danger, we do not want to spend energy on digesting lunch.  We are trying to avoid being lunch.  When the Go System is active, your physiology is geared to run away from a lion, not stop and eat – or go to the bathroom, for that matter.  All processes of digestion are upset.

Insulin is also a potent stress hormone.  Insulin is known by the moniker “The Fat Storage Hormone.” If insulin remains elevated – you remain in the fat storage mode.

So if you find yourself struggling with indigestion, reflux, weight gain or constipation, consider your state at meal times.

Are you stressed out, under the gun, and eating on the run?  No wonder you’re having difficulty.

Healthy people slow down to eat.  We practice mindfulness when eating.  Sit down and slow down, don’t chow down.  A best practice for changing state before eating is changing your location.  Don’t eat at your desk or in the car.  Sit at the table; don’t stand at the breakfast bar.  Stop multi-tasking.  Research supports the fact that mindless eating is a sure path to indigestion, overeating and obesity.  Besides, you’ll want to enjoy the flavors of the Bonfire Café Menu.

A vital behavior for achieving the desire state for digestion is deep breathing before meals.  Take 3 deep, diaphragmatic breaths before eating.  This discipline will reset your physiology and move your body toward the ideal state for digestion.

Breathe, relax and enjoy your lunch.  There is no lion, I promise.

Summary Checklist: At this point you should be….

  • Drinking an abundance of water
  • Eating plants first
  • Eating lean cuts of high quality protein
  • Consuming high-fiber, whole food carbohydrates
  • Increasing your healthy fat intake
  • Taking your Bonfire Essential Supplements
  • Taking 3 deep breaths before you eat to reset your state