3 Important Ways to Improve Sleep

I just saw a commercial for over the counter sleep medications. But before reaching for any medications for acute sleep problems, try these solutions first:

  1. Tight/Stiff muscles and joints can contribute to interrupted sleep. The CNS (central nervous system) thinks a person is still in fight/flight mode and are not ready to relax when the body (muscles and joints) are stiff and tight. The body knows if you are fighting or running, it is definitely not the right time to sleep so your body and nervous system is going to keep you awake so you can continue fighting or running. To communicate with your body that you are ready for sleep, we need to show the body that you are indeed relaxed and there’s no reason for the muscles to stay contracted. Try stretching the body and doing some gentle yogic exercises 1-2 hours before bed, daily. After the first week, the body should loosen and sleep should be easier to come by.
  2. An overactive mind activates the sympathetic phase of the CNS (fight or flight mode). In order to activate the parasympathetic phase of the CNS (relaxation mode), stress needs to be decreased/managed and the mind needs to relax. Try reading a book before bed, or listening to relaxing music, meditation, yoga, various breathing techniques, journaling, drinking hot tea or steamed milk. If you have chronic stress issues, it may be a good idea to receive individualized counseling or life coaching to learn how to manage and minimize the stress.
  3. Posture, Structure, Alignment: This solution is not talked about and yet it’s one of the most important solutions. Most pillows cause the cervical spine or neck to flatten and takes away the natural curvatures of our neck. A flattened neck can interrupt sleep, interrupt breathing during sleep, increase snoring, and it can increase occurrences of neck pain and strains. Neck Pillows (for example Tempur-Pedic neck pillows) can bring back the natural curves of the neck which can help to reduce neck pain, and provide a more restful and uninterrupted sleep.  Try using neck pillows, especially if your latest physical or x-rays show a flattened neck.

*** If you have more severe or chronic sleep issues including diagnosed Insomnia, the solution may need to be individualized to your needs. Looking at your physical activity, stress level, diet, and any other health problems that can be contributed to a lack of sleep. ***

Stress and Chronic Muscular Pain

In the Anatomy of Stress (1st article in Street Coaching Group’s Stress Series), we discussed how resources are diverted to our muscles during a sympathetic response (fight or flight). The muscles are ready to either fight or run, meaning they are slightly contracted. Skeletal muscles (muscles that are attached to our bones), extend and contract, allowing movement such as running, walking, twisting, and bending. During weightlifting, contraction happens on the exertion and extension happens on the release or relaxation. When muscles contract, they shorten in length, and when they relax, they extend back to their normal length.

When stress is experienced for a prolonged period of time (with very little relaxation), the skeletal muscles of our physical body responds to the stress by contracting. When muscles remain contracted for a period of time, they lose their original length and shorten. The body realizes you don’t need the muscles to be long (the stressed person teaches the body to change its length by building a habit over time of having contracted or shortened muscles).   When muscles shorten, the body’s posture and alignment respond by readjusting to the new shortened length. But we can’t all walk around bent over at the waist, head tipped back at the neck, and knees bent more than normal. When a person tries to stand, walk or have any movement with shortened muscles, the body responds with pain.

Everyone holds stress in different parts of the body. For those who hold stress in the low back, knees, upper back, shoulders or neck – any regular movement such as standing, walking, bending over, and standing up from a chair will cause a constant dull pain or spurts of sharp stabs of pain.

Muscles along the jaw, forehead and around the head can also contract. When we open our mouths, our muscles lengthen. When we close our mouths, they shorten slightly and when we chew, bite down, and clench, the muscles contract and shorten further. When muscles around the jaw and forehead remain contracted, knots are formed (knots can be formed anywhere in the body, including the head area). These knots put pressure to different parts of our head area such as our eyes, teeth, sinuses, forehead, neck and the back of the head. TMJ and migraines are a result of the non-stop pressure, as are toothaches and neck pain.

Just as the skeletal muscles in the body were taught to shorten and remain shortened due to the prevalence of stress, it can also be taught to lengthen and extend. Lengthening the muscles slowly over time will increase the body’s range of motion and ease of movement. This will in turn smooth away the knots and decrease chronic physical pain to a bare minimum and even to zero pain. “Lengthening the muscles slowly over time”…I hope some of our readers have made the connection here. It sounds

Yoga Therapy or private yoga sessions are safe and effective solutions for those with chronic physical pain

like stretching. And yes, it really is just as simple as stretching. Ten or longer years of chronic physical pain can decrease and even be solved with the simple and yet powerfully effective solution of daily stretching. This doesn’t mean 5 minutes of stretching. 5 minutes of daily stretching will not solve the 24/7 habit of shortened muscles in the body. This is why yoga has been testified for years as being a great exercise for chronic physical pain. It’s not just a fad or some Hollywood commercial. Understanding the stress response of muscles and chronic physical pain can help link the problem to the obvious solution of stretching exercises such as yoga. Yoga is also great for activating the parasympathetic (relaxation phase) division of the nervous system (This may take a few months of participation in yoga for those with chronic stress).

 Massage Therapy

Another solution is massage therapy, craniosacral massage and active release technique. These are touch therapies where the clinician/therapist uses their hands to smooth away knots and slowly “knead” the muscles to lengthen. For a person suffering from chronic physical pain, it may take anywhere from 5 – 20 sessions to increase range of motion and decrease pain (depending on the severity of the chronic pain). The key is to not only lengthen the shortened muscles but also to build a habit of maintaining lengthened muscles so that it becomes the norm.

Stress Series: Stress and the Immune System

How does stress affect the immune system?

The fight or flight response of the Central Nervous System (and more specifically the sympathetic division), boosts the immune system in order to prepare for any injuries and/or infections that may be received during the fight. But, this is only short-term. A fight or flight response is meant to exist only in the short-term (acutely), not in the long-term (chronically). With long-term stress, the immune system can be suppressed.

This area of stress and the immune system has received a lot of attention in recent years and much research. Research has been done by physicians, psychologists and psychoneuroimmunologist (psychoneuroimmunology – study of how the mind affects the body). The studies conducted show that the immune system receives a boost in the short-term but is suppressed in the long-term.The immune system consists of many elements. There are a variety of defense mechanisms in the body. Our skin is a defense mechanism or barrier. The mucus in our nasal cavity traps foreign particles so that we can either sneeze it out or blow the mucus out. Our lungs also have mechanisms that trap foreign particles – we cough it up. Tears in our eyes clean away bacteria and our urine carries waste products discarded by cells out of the body (hence why it’s so important to drink water). These are all physical mechanisms in defending the body. There are also mechanisms deep inside the body such as specific immune cells – B cells, white blood cells, T cells (a type of white blood cell) and even our red blood cells. These aren’t all the cells that defend the body but it’s some of the main ones. T cells are further divided into specific T cells such as helper T cells and killer T cells.

With long-term stress, research has shown that certain substances such as corticosteroids (which suppress the immune system) are produced in the body. Immune enhancing hormones such as growth hormones, which are released initially with the fight or flight response, is later suppressed with chronic stress. When the immune system is suppressed, the elements that make up the immune system such as the white blood cells (T cells), B cells, and even our physical defense mechanisms are unable to function at an optimal level.

In regards to the immune system – there are two main problems that can occur. Either the immune system is suppressed so that diseases, infections, bacteria, foreign particles and viruses can attack the body in severity, duration and frequency – OR – the immune system is unable to recognize friend from foe and starts attacking our normal tissues. This second problem results in autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and thyroiditis (where the immune system attacks a normal thyroid).

With chronic stress, the immune system is functioning at a below optimal level, is suppressed or is unable to identify normal and infected tissues. Decreasing stress is only the first part of strengthening the immune system. Stress is a natural response and stress is a natural aspect of everyone’s lives. The key is learning to manage stress and allowing the parasympathetic, or the relaxation phase, be the norm.

Stress and the Digestive System

During fight or flight (sympathetic) response, resources are redirected from several systems in the body including the digestive system to the muscles and respiratory system. Times of fighting or running are not times to be worrying about digesting food – that can wait. But with chronic stress, where the relaxation phase or the parasympathetic system is rarely activated, how does it affect the digestive system in the long run?

The digestive system, also called gastrointestinal tract, does more than just digestion. The digestive system’s role is separated into four parts: ingestion, digestion, absorption and defecation. The fact that the digestive system has these roles also show that it is made up of more than just our stomach. It also includes: the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines (both small and large as well as the colon) and anus.

An intimate relationship exists between the digestive system (most importantly the stomach) and the nervous system. The stomach is also called the second brain because it holds the most nerve cells (compared to other systems) in the body and therefore has a direct link to the brain. This also alludes to the challenge of identifying cause and effect – does stress cause digestive disorders or do digestive disorders cause stress and emotional disorders? Many of the relationships/links in the body are rarely one-way – it’s safe to assume that both occur.

During a stress response, muscles in the body contract (shorten/tighten) in order to get ready for fight or flight. This is no different in the digestive system. During stress, muscles along the intestines, stomach and esophagus also contract. How does food move smoothly and comfortably through the system when it is being impeded by tight spaces along the digestive tract? It can’t. The common result or problem is indigestion. Another problem that can occur with slowed digestion is constipation. When food moves through the digestive tract too slowly, the colon has a tendency to absorb too much water during that time, resulting in hard and dry feces. The result is painful bowel movements and excretion of feces.

Another response of stress is an increase in stomach acid. The production of gastric acid is regulated by the autonomous nervous system (The Anatomy of Stress article mentions how this system contains the sympathetic and parasympathetic division). With an increase in stress, there is an increase in stomach acid. When this increase in gastric acid is prolonged by chronic stress, it can contribute to heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (also called acid reflux disease). There are other contributors to heartburn such as spicy foods and foods high in acidity. As mentioned in the beginning of the article, stress and digestive problems can go both ways. Heartburn can cause pain in the chest, stomach, and bowel. Acid reflux disease can also cause pain when swallowing foods. These responses contribute to increased anxiety and stress, which in turn increases even more stomach acid. The process becomes cyclical.

Stress also produces numerous hormones all corresponding to different systems in the body including the digestive system. Some of these hormones will cause the stomach to feel full and even nauseated. Ever wonder why right before a stressful event such as a business presentation, or exam, you are unable to eat? A person shouldn’t eat while running or fighting therefore hormones are produced to prevent this hunger. Some other hormones though might cause cravings once the stress is somewhat alleviated – hence why some people turn to comfort foods in times of stress. Once the initial danger (sympathetic response) is gone, there is a need to quickly replenish the body before the next stress reaction, therefore hormones are produced for a quick and focused craving. People with chronic stress will have frequent mixed periods of skipping meals, cravings, and eating little to large portions of food. This type of schedule can further contribute to negatively affecting insulin levels (hypo or hyper – glycemia, diabetes), weight gain, and thyroid to name a few.

The key to having a healthy digestive system is quite simple but hard to practice in our culture of busy schedules, random routines, chronic stress and poor diet. But the costs of not practicing is a slew of disorders and illnesses that can develop as well as the financial costs of these diseases. Here are some simple tips to maintaining a healthy digestive system:

  • Do Not Eat on the Run! – Sit down and actually enjoy the food you are eating.
  • Avoid foods that upset your stomach. Know what you can handle and can’t handle and LISTEN to your body.
  • RELAX!!! Before, during and after you eat. Take a 5 minute breather to meditate, read, close the eyes or stretch. About 30 minutes after the meal, go for an easy leisurely walk outside.
  • If you are stressed – don’t eat too much. Wait until you are able to enjoy the food. Or grab a protein shake for on-the-go meals.
  • Try to have a routine for when you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner (even if it’s a protein shake). Try not to skip meals or eat at random times throughout the week.
  • Eat foods that feel good not only emotionally but also good for the stomach.
  • And finally – De-Stress! Relax the muscles in the body. Exercise, walk, yoga, meditation, listening to calming music, reading a non-stressful book, breathing exercises and meaningful mini-vacations for the self (such as going to the bookstore, watching a favorite movie, etc.)

Respiratory System and Stress

Continuing from the Anatomy of Stress, we explore the different relationships between stress and oxygen, breath, and respiratory diseases.

When the sympathetic division of the body is activated due to a “stress” or “energetic” response, resources in the body are re-directed from the digestive and reproductive systems to the muscles and the respiratory system. Oxygen is inhaled into our lungs and carried by our blood from the heart and to the rest of the body. When oxygen is distributed into the cells, carbon dioxide and other waste products are carried back to the heart from the body and back into the lungs where it is exhaled. During an energetic episode such as exercising, the breath quickens and becomes more shallow in order to quickly carry large amounts of oxygen to the body with each pump of the heart. This same reaction occurs during a stress period as well. The body, in order to prepare for fight or flight, knows that oxygen is needed in order to keep the muscles working so the heart beat and breath are both increased.

But the body isn’t supposed to maintain the heart beat and breath at this level of quickened pace. People with chronic stress will either maintain an increased heart rate, increased and shallow breath or both. Now why is this a concern?

Have you ever noticed that when you experience a high level of stress such as anger, a friend or family member will say, “Take a deep breath and calm down.” Why does taking a deep breath calm us down? Breath is directly connected with our emotions. As you’re reading this – if you were to forcefully breathe quickly and shallow, you can purposefully make yourself feel stressed, uncomfortable and dizzy. Now, if you take a deep breath in and breathe slowly out and practice this a few times, you can “feel” yourself relaxing. (For those with chronic stress this exercise might not work because people with chronic stress have over the years developed a quicker pace of the breath therefore are unable to breathe deeply which leads to a decrease in oxygen consumption and feeling out of breath). Even if a person has no reason to feel stressed throughout the day, because the breath is following a stress pattern, the person can inadvertently cause stress. It works both ways – breathing quickly can inadvertently activate and maintain the sympathetic division.

People with chronic stress also feel fatigued physically and emotionally. We will explore the stress and emotional connection in later articles. For the respiratory health topic, let’s explore physical fatigue. Just because you breathe oxygen, it doesn’t mean your body is able to absorb the oxygen. Do you ever feel out of breath when you exercise? Breathing more won’t do anything to solve this problem. It doesn’t have to do with how much air you breathe, it has to do with how much oxygen is being absorbed by the cells in your body. Oxygen transfer happens at the site of cells and capillaries (small blood vessels). Now why is this important to understand? When the body is stressed, muscles tighten or contract. We tend to hold stress in different parts of the body such as the shoulders, jaw, low back, knees, upper back and neck. We even hold stress in our forehead area. With chronic stress, the muscles do not have a chance to relax but remain tight and become short causing stiffness, pain and knots. When muscles are short and tight, oxygen absorption is limited and obstructed. Without the cells ability to absorb oxygen, the cells and the body become fatigued.

Notice how there is a slight contradiction here. With a stress response, breath quickens but breathing more won’t do anything to solve the problem of feeling out of breath during exercise. There is a cap or maximum ceiling of how fast or how much you can breathe. The breath is going to quicken during the sympathetic response but only to a certain point. It’s also up to the body’s ability to absorb oxygen and together the body operates on an optimal level.

Asthma

Asthma is one of the main respiratory diseases. Doctors and researchers do not yet fully understand the causes behind asthma. Asthma can occur due to genetic, environmental (pollution), allergic, and stress factors. For our discussion today, we will focus on the stress factor. The bronchial airways in our lungs are surrounded by thin lines of muscles. Like with the rest of the body during a stress reaction, muscles tighten. When the muscles surrounding the airways tighten, the airway becomes restricted and the person experiences the symptoms of asthma such as wheezing, shortened breath, and breathlessness.

Normally, during a stress response such as exercise, the airways in the lungs expand in order to allow more oxygen to enter into the body. But when this episode is maintained for long periods of time (chronic), the airways can tighten. Some research shows that asthma is prevalent in athletes who participate in long distance running, mountain biking and cycling.

Muscles should tighten when necessary and then it must also relax or lengthen, including the muscles surrounding the airways.

In this picture, you can see the muscles wrapped around the bronchial airways, the blood vessels and the round alveolar sacs

By understanding the relationship between stress and respiratory health, we can also understand how certain wellness therapies can be effective. Yoga can help stretch and lengthen muscles increasing oxygen absorption at the site of cells. Breathing techniques in yoga called pranayama can help to slowly relax the muscles surrounding the airways in the lungs and even increase lung capacity. Alveolar sacs which are found at the end of the bronchial airways in the lungs is where the transfer of carbon dioxide and oxygen takes place. The amount of blood vessels and even the alveolar sacs can increase over time when it is frequently used such as with healthy exercise and breathing techniques. With the increase in the amount of blood vessels and alveolar sacs, oxygen intake or lung capacity also increases. Yoga, pranayama and meditation can teach a person to relax and activate the parasympathetic division of the body. Notice how the operative word here is “teach”. As mentioned before, those suffering from chronic stress do not know how to relax or breathe deeply. This takes practice and time to achieve.

The second way pranayama can help with asthma is by teaching people to breathe deeply. Even if asthma cannot be completely eliminated, an asthmatic person can maintain comfortable levels of breath and minimize the occurrences of asthma by learning diaphragmatic breathing. By using the diaphragm, a person learns to breath deeply into the lungs (when the diaphragm expands on the inhale, it creates a new compartment towards the bottom of the lungs for more air to be collected for usage), increasing the intake of oxygen. Babies breathe into the diaphragm. This is how we are supposed to breathe. With increased stress in society, people have unfortunately learned to breathe shallow and fast (the stress response of breath).

Understanding stress and its effects on respiratory health can empower a person to make different changes in their lifestyle such as using relaxation techniques, practicing a balanced exercise routine of cardio, strength training and flexibility and the importance of breathing techniques.

The Anatomy of Stress – First in SCG’s Stress Series

To understand stress and the reasons behind the different muscular, emotional and disease effects of stress – we must first investigate the anatomy of stress. To understand the anatomy, we focus on the nervous system.

The Nervous system is separated into two main parts:

  1. The Central Nervous System – is in charge of the brain and the spinal cord. The CNS is in charge of memory, sensory information, and generating thoughts and emotions. With the help of the spinal cord, the brain receives and processes information.
  2. The Peripheral Nervous System –  is the middleman between the central nervous system and the rest of the body. The PNS acts like a telecommunication center transmitting signals between the CNS and the body. The PNS is separated into two other parts
    • Motor Neurons carry signals from the brain to our muscles and glands
    • Secondly, the Sensory Neurons carry signals from the sensory organs to the CNS. We branch off again from the motor neurons into the somatic and autonomic nervous systems.
  1. Somatic Nervous System – controls voluntary movements of the skeletal muscles
  2. Autonomic Nervous System – controls the involuntary responses of the organs, glands and smooth muscles. We branch off one last time from the ANS into the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Division.
    • Sympathetic Division – prepares the body for fight or flight responses or in other words, for a stressful and energetic response
    • Parasympathetic Division – is the default position (or it should be). It dominates during “rest” times and while the body and mind is in the parasympathetic division, the body goes through “maintenance” activities in the digestive, reproductive and immune systems.

Let’s focus on these two divisions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic. Starting with the sympathetic division:

When a person is under “stress”, the body and nervous system activates the sympathetic division. This means that blood, oxygen and nutrients are redirected from the digestive, reproductive and immune systems to the muscles and respiratory system. You might have to run or fight, your body knows this because you are under stress. The body does not understand exactly what kind of stress you’re under. It doesn’t realize that you are sitting at your desk, fretting over deadlines, upcoming exams, financial debt etc. It thinks you are about to fight or run. Therefore, it tries to protect you by sending energy such as extra blood to your muscles. The reason it also sends resources to your respiratory system is because when you are running or fighting, you need more oxygen so your heart rate increases (people who have chronic stress also have hypertension, high blood pressure and heart risks). The resources are taken away from your digestive system because processing food is not a priority, neither is making babies – You need to run or fight! So these two systems (digestive and reproductive) are on hold until you relax.

Parasympathetic system:

When the body and mind finally relaxes and rests, the body knows that whatever “danger” you were in from the “stress” response is over. It can now comfortably go through some maintenance activities. Imagine several people with a clipboard in different systems of the body, “Is the food being processed properly – check!”, “How does the ovaries look – are they ready to make their way through the fallopian tubes on time – check check!”, “Oh, there’s an injury in the left leg, looks like a scar and the digestive tract was having some issues earlier – probably because of the stress response – let’s relax that tract as well, check check check!”

The parasympathetic system is supposed to be the default setting of our body and nervous system. We need more time to carry out all the maintenance activities of our body, to keep our immune system strong and healthy and the reproductive system functioning properly. When we are under constant stress, also called chronic stress, the sympathetic system becomes the default and the parasympathetic system becomes the exception. A person with chronic stress will have lived through many years of this reverse role. As time passes, the body forms a habit and this becomes the norm.

Understanding the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses help to see how all this contributes to infertility, heart disease, weak immune system, upset stomach, acid reflux disease etc. Most diseases do come from stress! Another reaction of stress is that the body holds onto fat. You can’t eat while you’re fighting or running for your life, so the body knows to hold onto the fat until you are relaxed and ready to consume energy in food – stress contributes to obesity. The parasympathetic system is mainly dominating during sleep (the best rest period a person can experience). So then what happens for people who have sleep disorders such as insomnia? The body is still under the stress division and cannot perform the maintenance activities effectively.

The body is truly on our side in the sense that it tries to protect us. We are just not good at meeting it halfway by relaxing so it can do its job properly and “stressing” only when we are in need of the extra resources in our muscles and respiratory system. The goal therefore in preventing diseases and other complications in the body is to learn how to manage stress and activate the parasympathetic division of the body. Most people with chronic stress no longer know how to do this and must learn relaxation techniques. And even after learning the relaxation techniques, it’s not a matter of practicing them 1-5 hours a week. The only way to prevent diseases is to set the “regular” functions of the body back in balance – meaning the parasympathetic division should be the norm (the body should be in this phase most of the time) and the sympathetic division the exception. This takes time, constant practice and a forming of a new habit for the nervous system and body. This is a lifetime change, not seasonal and not a 5 minute relaxation exercise a day. This might sound almost impossible for some people, but it’s actually not. It’s doable and realistic – you just need a good plan.