Living life in the fast lane, pushing towards your goals, keeping up with social obligations, keeping track of your health and pushing for a fruitful career can all seem like a plate spinning act at times.
If we are to take on a lot of activities, hobbies and work then we need to ensure we are well rested and relaxed in order to keep pushing on. Stress and tension can accumulate easily, possibly without you knowing because of the million other things going on around you.
For all the go getters out there, it may be of use to schedule a little time to unwind.
If you have ever done yoga before then you are probably familiar with its calming and centring wake that stays with you for hours after practice. This is a result of the union between mind and body, and is the definition of yoga.
Before we touch on yoga, lets have a look at what characterises stress and why we want to manage it.
When stressed, your Autonomic Nervous System changes in response. There are two branches to this system:
Sympathetic – Fight or Flight – stick em up or get the hell out of there.
Parasympathetic – Rest and digest – sex, digestion and rest.
The Effects of Stress
States of stress involve Sympathetic over activation. Many of us are walking around in this hyperaware state most of the time. This over activation is a result of chemical signalling from Cortisol and Adrenaline – the stress hormones. These are telling our bodies that we are in danger and we need to escape. The trouble is most stress today is psychological and is harder to escape from than a tangible threat.
Stress is all around us. The jackass that just cut you off causes a release of stress hormones. Your morning cup of Joe triggers the release of these hormones. A cigarette triggers their release. Your boss, workload and obligations can trigger these hormones.
When chronically elevated, Cortisol and Adrenaline cause a cascade of changes in physiology and biochemistry. Systems which control energy metabolism shift to burning glucose for fuel as fast acting energy to get us out of danger. This can upset weight, appetite and cause cravings for sugar.
Too much Cortisol and Adrenaline can impair the way you think
Capacity to make good decisions falls and higher thinking becomes difficult due to the perception of a threat. If you were being chased by a bear, would you be able to put any thought into how to tackle your next project at work?
Elevated Cortisol creates a catabolic state
Catabolism is a state of wasting as opposed to anabolism, or growth. Muscle proteins break down to provide fuel to get us out of danger. We want a decent amount of muscle mass to regulate our metabolism, provide an efficient means of utilising energy, and defend us against disease.
Chronically elevated Adrenaline is inflammatory
Inflammation, when ongoing is not good news. This mechanism that usually helps us heal from acute injury can become very damaging to our cells, organs and bodily function when out of balance. Inflammation is at the root of most chronic disease – it is when we experience ongoing stress that inflammation is able to create an environment for disease to develop.
Ongoing release of cortisol can wreak havoc on our ability to digest food
Again, when chased by a bear the last thing on our minds is lunch. Digestive secretions become blunted, such as that of the pancreas. Acid of the stomach can also become weaker and ineffective at fully breaking food down.
Without the proper breakdown and assimilation of nutrients from our food, malnutrition can occur impacting systems across the body and contributing to stress even further. We need food to protect us against disease, and we need to be able to squeeze every last nutrient out of what we eat!
How Yoga Can Help
Amass the piles of anecdotes of yoga’s stress relieving potential, scientific inquiry has shown many benefits from the ancient practice in terms of easing the mind and body into a blissful state of matrimony.
As you may have guessed from the spiel above, yoga has a regulatory effect on the activity of your Autonomic Nervous System. Sympathetic activity is reduced whilst increasing parasympathetic activation. This reduces the stress response and increases the relaxation response. The relaxation response is calming and restorative, allowing us to rest, digest and get busy with our spouses or partners.
Yoga also increases the tone of the ANS. That is the ability to shift from a state of SNS to PNS. Greater flexibility of the ANS allows us to respond to stress and cool off from stress effectively.
Yoga practice acts to harmonise neurotransmitters, hormones and enzymes involved in stress and anxiety. When stressed and anxious, Cortisol rises and in some individuals serotonin drops. Serotonin is our stress defence and happiness neurotransmitter – depleted levels of Serotonin show in stress, anxiety and depression.
Kundalini yoga practice was shown to decrease cortisol, increase serotonin and decrease the activity of Monoamine Oxidase. MAO is an enzyme which breaks down circulating neurotransmitters such as Serotonin. Decreased activity of MAO means higher levels of circulating serotonin – your good mood sticks around.
As mentioned earlier, Cortisol when chronically elevated can lead to muscle atrophy due to impaired muscle protein synthesis. Due to the catabolic effect of elevated Cortisol on muscle tissue, it is important to find ways to regulate Cortisol to perverse muscle mass and strength. A 12 week Hatha yoga programme showed increased muscular strength and endurance in men and women on upper body and abdominal strength. These findings attributed increased strength and endurance to the intensity of the poses adopted throughout the practice. Proper posture and spinal alignment also improved muscular strength and endurance.
In addition to increases in muscular strength and flexibility, yoga has been associated with increases in muscles mass. The preservation of lean muscle tissue is important for regulating metabolism, Insulin sensitivity and generation of energy via the mitochondria (energy factories in muscle cells). Sufficient muscle mass also provides an auxiliary fuel source for organs in times of emergencies.
The practice of yoga helps to manage short and long term stress and acts as a means of increasing quality of life. Emotional distress in women was shown to be greatly reduced after adopting a 3 month Hatha yoga practice.
Yoga has marked benefits on our physiology when taking into account stress. Breathing, stretching and entering into a meditative state of awareness can be calming and restorative both short, and long term.
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