What does rest and digest mean?
What does rest and digest mean?
It’s a good question. What does it mean and why would one choose it as the name of a website?
To start with, it is important to introduce the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is controlled by the subconscious mind and therefore regulates the body’s functions. For example, there is blood pumping around your body but you are not consciously directing this flow. The ANS is split in to three divisions – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS). Here, I will focus on the first two divisions.
The sympathetic nervous system
The sympathetic nervous system – also called fight or flight - is activated when we are faced with a stressful situation or we perceive a situation to be threatening. Key here is that what you perceive becomes your reality. What you consider threatening, someone else may perceive as nothing out of the ordinary. These situations may be life threatening or it may be anxiety inducing – such as sitting in traffic while running late. Our response to the stressor, is hardwired in to our body with our brain sending signals to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol in to the body.
Unfortunately, our way of life and the current world pandemic, is responsible for this fight or flight phase being constantly activated and high levels of cortisol coursing through our bodies.
The problem with constant SNS activation
The fibres of the sympathetic nervous system enervate our internal organs. When our SNS is activated, this manifests in our organs. For example;
- Eyes – pupils dilate
- Heart – blood pressure and heart rate increases
- Mouth – produces less saliva
- Nose – produces less mucous
When one is in a state of constant high alert, the body then has to deal with the physiological consequences such as high blood pressure, poor digestion, poor sleep, etc.
When SNS activation is not a problem
Not all stressors are bad however. Sometimes, the activation of our SNS is due to something exciting happening, like hearing good news or your team scoring a goal. Or maybe you just did an exercise session.
In a well regulated nervous system, once the perception of stress has passed, the PNS kicks in – our rest and digest response – to help us back to a state of calm and the the hormone levels return to normal. For some of us, it is difficult to find our way back to this sense of calm and we remain in an elevated sense of flight or fight which has flow on effects in our day to day life. We can become more anxious, have trouble sleeping, experience high blood pressure, have digestive issues, gain weight and complain of poor memory or concentration. This is why it is essential that we learn the techniques required to assist our body to activate the rest and digest phase.
How to activate the parasympathetic nervous system
What we need to do, is “hack” the messaging system that is telling our brain to dump the stress chemicals and instead send the message that we are ok and enter the rest and digest system. How do we do that?
Thankfully, there are many ways to access this rest and digest phase. Following is a list of ideas -
- Chief among the ways to rest and digest - and my favourite - is the use of the breath. Slow, deep breathing ensuring a longer exhalation. There is a physiological reason – that will be explained in depth in another post.
- Meditation, chanting or prayer
- Practice yoga, qi gong, tai chi or any movement that is slow and mindful.
- Further to the last point, walking will contribute to PNS activation, but taking a walk in nature will be especially beneficial.
- Read a book
- Spend time with a friend.
- Sing or hum. Humming has been proven to activate the vagus nerve and by extension, send a message to the brain to turn on the rest and digest phase.
- Find more opportunities to laugh – with friends or by watching funny movies.
- Enjoy a relaxing cup of herbal tea
Rest and Digest
As we move through life and face various challenges, we come to learn what are the techniques that work best for ourselves. I know that the breathing techniques work for me and are the easiest for me to access in times of stress. Being able to activate the rest and digest system is such an important skill for our wellbeing.
The aim in choosing Rest and Digest as the name of our business is to over time become a reliable resource for you to find tips and tools to help you be more in this phase. I hope that you have found this helpful and I’d love to hear what works best for you.