I apologize in advance for the length of this article. Reading it to the end will help you determine if you are healthy or not.
Just because you feel good it does not mean you are healthy. There are several different things that will determine your state of health. This article is to help you understand a very important concept that will help you to determine your state of health.
Your nerve system controls or coordinates virtually everything in your body. It has two divisions. The part you consciously control and the part you don’t.
For example, a guy could go to the gym and do biceps curls for the girls to get big guns. He consciously controls the muscle movement. However, when he pushes his muscles, the part of his nerve system that is subconscious also kicks in to increase the blood flow and increase his heart rate. He consciously made his muscles work but his heart rate increased without him thinking about it because of his subconscious nerve system. This is so cool. His nerve system is making it possible to look good for the girls while at the same time intelligently adapting to the environmental demand.
The part of the nerve system that works without you thinking about it is called your autonomic nerve system. Our autonomic nerve system is also divided into 2 separate functions, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. There is always a continuum between parasympathetic and sympathetic. You are never just one or the other. On a scale of zero to a hundred, sympathetic dominance would be zero and parasympathetic would be 100. These 2 divisions are important for our discussion today regarding how stress affects you and your overall health. Let me use an analogy to explain the different functions of each division.
Parasympathetic dominance is healthy and indicates homeostasis. A very long time ago, if you were walking out in the bush, minding your own business, you were likely in a parasympathetic state. When your nerve system is parasympathetic dominant, you are in homeostasis. You are at or near 100 on the continuum scale. All of a sudden you see a tiger running toward you. Your nerve system accurately detects the tiger as a stress. There is an immediate stimulus sent to your brain that is interpreted as “danger.” The stimulus and the response is all happening in your autonomic nerve system. As a result of this stimulus, you have gone into autonomic shift, or in other words you have shifted your autonomic nerve system from parasympathetic to full on sympathetic response. You are no longer in homeostasis. You are no longer at or near 100. This is not healthy but it is ok for a bit and it is very intelligent adaptation. It’s what keeps you alive short term in the dangerous situation.
Sympathetic dominance is not healthy and indicates allostasis. When your autonomic nerve system shifts into sympathetic mode, a host of things take place that are designed to keep you alive while you are having the life threatening situation. One of the chemical changes that takes place is the production of cortisol. It is made in the adrenal glands and floods the blood stream and goes into the tissues. Short term, this is not a bad thing. It’s part of the design to keep you alive until you are out of danger. Physiological changes occur as a result of the cortisol. The body speeds up, tenses up and becomes more alert. Functions not critical to survival like immune function and memory shut down. For short term acute stress this is not a problem. It is just intelligent adaptation.
Chronic stress will make you sympathetic dominant and cause allostasis. Prolonged increased cortisol levels due to the stress response will cause all kinds of metabolic changes resulting in high blood pressure, diabetes, infertility, low testosterone, fatigue, digestive issues, poor immune function, obesity, senility and dementia to name a few.
After the threat of the tiger is gone your autonomic nerve system will gradually shift back toward parasympathetic mode to assist in restoring and repairing. Your brain wants you to move back toward 100. When you are in this parasympathetic state you are in homeostasis. Homeostasis is the expression of health as all the parts of the biological system are working harmoniously together. This is how it is supposed to happen. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that has created multiple tigers that are chronically jumping out at us every day. The majority of people I see are in a chronic sympathetic dominant state. Sympathetic dominance is not homeostasis. They have moved away from 100 on the scale and are moving closer and closer toward the zero side of the scale. The term for when your sympathetic nerve system is dominant is called allostasis. The outcome of homeostasis is health. The outcome of allostasis is sickness. Chronic allostasis will lead to chronic degenerative disease.
Allostasis is not healthy. Chronic allostasis may not result in immediate symptoms but the symptoms of poor health will eventually show up. It’s kind of like spending all winter indoors and out of the sun and your skin became very “sun deficient.” The first warm, sunny day of spring is so exciting and you shed some clothing to soak it in. For most people, the first 20-30 minutes will provide many benefits, including the conversion of natural vitamin D. Staying in the sun when you are so fair skinned for longer will eventually lead to sunburn that you may regret later. After spending the first 20 minutes in the sun, you likely will not notice any change in your skin color, interpreted as no symptoms. Staying in the sun for a few hours will also not lead to immediate skin color change but watch out for when evening comes. Ouch, you’ve burned. The symptom of skin color change didn’t show up immediately but it did later, even after you removed yourself from the sun.
To sum it up: Parasympathetic dominance is 100 on the scale and would be called homeostasis. Sympathetic dominance would be called allostasis and is the zero side of the scale.
Are you in Homeostasis or Allostasis? Your physiological state, homeostasis or allostasis, will lead to either symptoms or no symptoms. The symptoms or lack of symptoms is the outcome. The outcome is what we feel. For example, a heart attack is a symptom. Back pain is a symptom. A headache is a symptom. Sun burn is a symptom. The symptoms are not the problem. They are only the result of your physiological state. If you are in a homeostatic physiological state then you will be symptom free. In other words you will not have or more accurately, cannot have a chronic degenerative condition if you are in homeostasis. Meaning you will not have a stroke, cancer, heart attack, back pain or a headache if you are in homeostasis.
Allostasis will result in symptoms eventually. On the flip side, if you are in allostasis you are headed toward sickness or disease. With mild allostasis which would be anything lower than a 90 on the scale we talked about earlier, you may not have symptoms at first. It may take years or even decades to create symptoms but they will eventually happen when you are in allostasis. If you are having symptoms, you are definitely in allostasis.
Your level of health (symptoms) is determined by your state of physiology (homeostasis or allostasis). Your level of homeostasis/allostasis is determined by your level of chronic stressors. If you can identify the chronic tigers jumping out at you and remove them, you will move closer to homeostasis and away from the symptoms that you don’t want. This will more importantly move you closer to health within your ecosystem.
Some chronic stressors (tigers) may be easy to identify. For example, “I know I eat too much sugar” or “I know I could exercise more.” Others may be more difficult to identify which is why so many people come to me only after they are having symptoms. Most people have no idea that the habits that they think are not a big deal, really are a big deal. This is why we encourage folks to use a Health Risk Assessment, or HRA, to help them identify the stressors that they can change.
It is vital to identify your stressors in order to move toward homeostasis. When you take a HRA you will be able to identify your state of physiology and whether or not you are in homeostasis or allostasis. You will then be able to make consistent changes that are relevant and measurable. Instead of thinking “I need to eat better” you can know that I’m currently not eating 5 vegetables per day and that is contributing to your overall, allostatic state. This will empower you to start eating 5 vegetables every day. After 90 days there will be very positive health changes.
Talk with someone on our team to have a HRA emailed to you.