Can’t Lose Weight? Is Your Autonomic Nervous System Balanced?
Many people think that in order to become healthy they must lose some weight. Actually the opposite is true. In order to lose weight, one must have good health. The truth of the second statement can be seen in gyms everywhere, where people honestly do put in their exercise time and eat a diet of rabbit food, and still despite all their efforts, the fat does not budge, or not to the point expected for the effort put in. The frustration in these people is palpable. Their trainers that are giving them killer workouts are also frustrated. What is going on?
For the answer, we must understand how the autonomic nervous system (ANS) works. This is what runs our body behind the scenes, not under our conscious control. The ANS regulates our heart-rate, our respiration, our immune system, our temperature control, our organ function, our hormones etc., all in the background while we carry on with our life. There are three parts to the ANS – the sympathetic system, the parasympathetic system and the enteric system. For our purposes today, we will discuss the sympathetic, otherwise known as the “fight or flight” system, and parasympathetic or “rest and repair” system and their interaction.
The SNS and the PNS generally have opposite functions – when we are under stress, the sympathetic system raises our heart-rate, increases our respiratory rate, releases cortisol, our stress hormone to help us cope, shunts the blood from the digestive tract into the muscles so that we can either run away from or fight whatever is threatening us. If organ systems in the body are unhealthy and therefore stressed for one reason or another, or we are mentally or emotionally stressed, that increases sympathetic load as well. The sympathetic system by its very nature is catabolic, meaning it breaks down muscle tissue due to the increased levels of cortisol secreted. High-intensity physical exercise is also sympathetic in nature – the heart-rate goes up, respiration goes up, body temperature goes up, and cortisol is released into the blood stream. I have explained in previous health tips how cortisol turns blood sugar into fat. (No, I’m not saying exercise is bad!) When the threat is dealt with, the parasympathetic system slows our heart-rate and respiration back down, brings the blood back to the digestive tract so that we can digest our food, and works to repair any tissue damage, increases libido etc. Night time is when the parasympathetic system has lots of time to do its job, provided we go to bed early enough. The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems should balance each other nicely, and in those people that have a balanced nervous system, high- intensity exercise will lead to fat loss, as the parasympathetic rest-time between workouts is when muscle tissue is built.
Those that are unable to lose fat by doing regular high-intensity exercise may have a dominant sympathetic nervous system, and consequently, an inhibited parasympathetic system. There is too much systemic stress coming from somewhere, and for those people adding high-intensity exercise is counterproductive, as it adds to their sympathetic load pushing them even more out of balance. Anxiety is very common today, frequently based in financial stressors, poor or inappropriate diet and its consequences, and/or poor relationship stressors, but one does not need to be anxious to be in sympathetic overload. In my tip on dealing with health issues, I give a roadmap on an approach to reducing sympathetic load. Anything that can be done to reduce the stressors is important for successful fat loss (and pain reduction). As for exercise, yes, it should be done several times a week, but choose exercise like Qi Gong, Tai Chi, Yoga, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, etc., or any exercise that is done slowly and with the breath, which will increase the parasympathetic system and help balance the ANS. Later, when the body is in balance and healthier, the fat will come off. The information in today’s tip is a summary of Paul Chek’s article Balancing the Autonomic Nervous System, so feel free to read the original, more detailed article. If you want to know if you are in sympathetic overload, which organ and glandular systems are stressed, and figure out what to do about it, find a Holistic Lifestyle Consultant near you.