What Is The ‘Automatic Body’ And How To Find It
At Parsley Health I’ve been struck by how many people have shut down their automatic body- or in biological terminology, autonomic nervous system — and how this disruption has led to weight gain, chronic digestive issues like bloating and reflux, chronic fatigue, and hormone imbalances like PMS infertility and PCOS, as well as hypothyroid, something 1 in 8 women will experience in the US in her lifetime.
This weekend I was invited to speak at Wanderlust, the massive traveling yoga and music festival that’s taken off around the world in the past 5 years. My topic was The Automatic Body — How To Tap Into Your Primal Nervous System To Heal With Ease, also the subject of a larger project I’m working on. My talk will be available on video later this summer, but until then I thought you shouldn’t have to wait for the details. What is the automatic nervous system? Let’s have a quick biology lesson!
You have two sides to your nervous system the Somatic and the Autonomic. For simplicity sake we’ll call the Autonomic the Automatic nervous system. The Somatic side powers your muscles and skin. It’s the voluntary side. Think — I want to pick up that cup of coffee or put my arms in downward dog. That’s the somatic nervous system at work. The Automatic side is the involuntary side that controls the hundreds of processes in the body you probably take for granted every day, like breathing, sweating, your heart beat, and the movements of your digestive tract. The body is beautiful and complex, and handles all of these essential tasks for you every second of your life. It’s a huge thing to even contemplate!
This Automatic nervous system has three parts. The Parasympathetic, which controls your Rest, Digest, Relax and Heal functions, and whose primary nerve is the Vagus nerve, is one. The second part is the Sympathetic, which is your Fight or Flight response — think, I need to run away from a lion, or jump out of the way of that bus. Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems help regulate breathing, heart rate blood pressure, blood sugar, blood flow to your tissue and digestive function. Also at work is the third part of the automatic system, the “enteric” or gut nervous system, which holds 95% of the serotonin in your body, 100 million neurons, and is quickly and profoundly affected by the foods you are eating and the bacteria living in your gut.
In functional medicine, we understand that this autonomic nervous system is deeply powerful and interconnected, and is controlled in large part by our environment and our choices: what we eat, how much we sleep, the amount of stress we are under, and even the types of bacteria that live inside of us. Too often I see people with dysfunctional automatic nervous systems because they have been living on refined carbs sugar and caffeine, not sleeping, living in chronic stress, and destroying the helpful bacteria in their bodies through antibiotics chemicals and over the counter medications like ibuprofen, and of course with toxic foods.
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First, inadequate sleep increases the accumulation of toxic metabolic debris in the brain, and leads to sympathetic hyperactivity, so your parasympathetic system is turned down, thereby increasing cortisol, which leads to increased appetite weight gain and fatigue as well as a suppressed immune system. Then refined carbs, sugar and excessive caffeine (more than 100mg a day) lead to a yo-yo of hyperstimulation, turning up the sympathetics and also turning down the parasympathetics.
Chronic stress also leads to chronically elevated cortisol, driving further imbalances in sleep patterns, weight gain, blood sugar imbalances, immune dysfunction and even chronic pain. High cortisol also imbalances our sex hormones and can set the stage for low thyroid function — compounding symptoms like constipation and weight gain. To top it all of stress and refined, processed foods alter our gut bacteria which are responsible for moving our digestion along, maintaining the sensitive barrier of our intestinal lining and even making neuroactive substances like GABA and Glutamate that affect our moods.
This combination of factors over time decreases the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, leaving the sympathetic system in overdrive and the enteric system frozen. Restoring the automatic nervous system takes time and I highly recommend you work with a team at Parsley of expert doctors and coaches who can help you work in a multi-level way on re-establishing healthy systems, using in depth testing of the microbiome and hormones.
But there is a lot you can do on your own, starting today. Here are 3 tips to getting back into your automatic body:
1. Do an elimination diet.
Remove all refined grains, sugar and processed foods along with potential immune triggers like gluten and dairy from your diet for at least 6 weeks. This can help heal and rebalance your enteric nervous system, improving things like mood, brain fog and inattention. I also recommend taking a probiotic regularly to support a healthy bacterial balance, especially if you have had a lot of antibiotics or medications in your day.
2. Get 8 hours of sleep each night.
This might require taking magnesium at bedtime, doing a bedtime meditation, getting away from the blue light from computers and phones at least an hour before bed and even taking natural supplements like Catecholecalm, something we use at Parsley to help our members find a deeper sleep. It also may include being tested for sleep apnea, which I see going underdiagnosed even in younger people with normal weight.
3. Get one hour of rest in every day.
This includes walking, meditation, gentle yoga, stretching or even cooking. This kind of downtime away from screens work and stimulation turns the parasympathetic system back on so it can begin to balance the sympathetic overdrive you have been living in. If you need help getting started, I recommend our 7 Day Detox Program, which includes a simple daily guide, a delicious protein smoothie you have for lunch and dinner every day, and probiotics. I’ve seen this reset people’s systems in as little as one week.
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