Are you aware of how healthy you are?

Updated: Dec 25, 2020

When we think about being healthy, the first idea that comes to our minds is to be free of disease, however this can prove to be quite a simplistic way of looking at it. We all can relate to having been in an emotional situation that makes us feel unwell, for example when been under stress we sometimes experienced digestive problems, anxiety, insomnia, or difficulties with our mood. Also, when feeling depressed we become ill relatively easily because our immune system also suffer. By contrast, when we are well and happy we often feel full of energy and after a vigorous exercising we tend to feel renewed, energized and in a great mood. The fact is that we are human beings with a body, a mind, a soul, a family, a job, with life projects, with problems and dreams, living in a specific place and, eating specific foods, all these aspects of our lives affect us, the way our body works, our physiology and our health.

The WHO (World Health Organization) defines health as: “the state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not only merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This concept reflects the oneness of body and mind, of the individual and their environment and the connection that exists between these.

If we focus on our body, we can see that we have three very important systems that appear to be key in maintaining our psychical being in constant communication, integrated and in balanced. These systems keep talking to each other and by doing so they alter the physiology of our organism. These systems are: the nervous system, the endocrine system and the immune system but we will only focus on the nervous system, for the time being and will return to the other two systems in later articles.

The nervous system has a key role in keeping our body in balance and healthy. It is the main door that allows our internal world to communicate with the outside world, linking us to our environment by receiving external signals, which are subsequently processed and come to influence the way our body works, and through this external signals interacting with our already existing internal signals. More specifically, how we think and interpret the information we receive from our environment comes to affects the responses in our bodies. Although, most of this processing work is done by our brain, a lot of this is supported by what has come to be understood as our second brain: our gut. It contains 200 million neurons and has the ability to function totally on its own because it has its own nervous system, the ‘enteric nervous system’, which works independently from the brain. Through our gut, we also have direct contact with the outside world via the food we eat and the bacteria we are exposed to daily. 70% of our immune system also resides in our gut, which makes it an important system in keeping us nourished, healthy and free of infections.

These two brains work together and they are known as the ‘gut-brain axis’. They keep communicating and influencing each other, thus generating responses in the rest of our body through this bi-directional interchange.

How can we keep our gut-brain axis healthy? A key step is to ensure that our blood sugar levels are stable throughout the day so that our brain can produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA, acetylcholine, and dopamine, which are essential for keeping our mood stable and allowing us to focus.

Producing stable levels of neurotransmitters is essential not only for our mood, but also for normal functioning of the gut and digestion, and one of these key neurotransmitters is acetycholine, which is also released when we are relaxed and stress free.

Our mood, emotions and psychological states influence the way our body function through a specific part of the nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, which connects the brain to the gut. This system works on its own, without conscious control and consists of two parts: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic systems.

The parasympathetic system has a very important nerve, the vagus nerve, which supplies nearly the whole of the gastrointestinal tract from mouth to the large intestine, and is responsible for digestion and relaxation, with acetilcholine as its primary neurotransmiter. When we eat food, our brain should send a signal through the parasympathetic system to the gastrointestinal system in order to have adequate digestion and a normal movement of the gastrointestinal tract.

The sympathetic system on the other hand responds to high stress levels or when our bodies are under threat and need to fight, flee or freeze. When our fight or flight system becomes activated, our digestion shuts down and energy reserves and blood flow are prioritised to handle the heightened stressful event. This is a survival mechanism since there is no need to digest food if we are not going to make it out alive. This is why it is so important to never eat when we are stressed, anxious, or angry. If we are in an emotional state that is favouring the sympathetic nervous system, our body would not be ready for food.

Also, if there is poor communication within the brain itself, if the blood sugar levels are unstable, or if we are under emotional pressure, then the gut might not get the right amount of blood flow for its vital functions compromising the processes of digestion and adsorption.

What happens when we are under stress? What happens when we have we negative thoughts, or when we have feelings like resentment, anger, anxiety and supressed emotions? As we already know, if we are in any of those emotional states, which favour the sympathetic nervous system, our body is not ready for food and we should not eat. Under such emotional pressure our brain will also send signals to increase the release of cortisol, our stress hormone, which triggers responses that are extremely detrimental to our wellbeing. Cortisol increases blood sugar levels and blood pressure, suppresses our immune system, slows down digestion, increases the secretion of acid in the stomach and lowers serotonin levels (which can depress mood).

As such, it is important that we learn to manage stress or to the circumstances that cause us stress instead of treating the effects, this is the only way to figure out the life changes we need to make to improve our health.

We need to remember that our emotions, thoughts, and beliefs affect our gut health, and our gut, in turn, affects our brain health.

Our emotional state on a day to day basis is of paramount importance for being healthy. If we continually respond with anger, irritability, and anxiety, healing our gut and being healthy will be virtually impossible.

It is key that we access the support we need so that we can reconnect to the positive aspects of our lives like love, gratitude, compassion and happiness, which can help create a healing environment for change. This is where mindfulness, meditation, having a spiritual connection and a purpose in life come into play.

As we have seen, to be healthy you need to keep in balance many aspects of your life that may impact your organism negatively. It may be helpful to ask yourself: what am I eating? How am I eating? Am I emotionally healthy? How fulfilling are my relationships? Am I happy at work? Do I have a life purpose? Am I sleeping well? Am I exercising enough? Do I feel well? It is a matter of learning how to have a healthy life and feel satisfied and content with yourself. It is a process of adopting and sustaining a new lifestyle, a process that may take a while, however, with the right support and guidance you are able to incorporate new healthy strategies that not only allow you to have a healthier and happier life, but also can impact your family and friends and it can have a ripple effect that can even benefit society.

Through using a naturopathic approach to health, I look at all my clients from a holistic and individual perspective and I support and empower them to make positive, long-lasting lifestyle changes to improve their health and enjoy life.

Listen to the podcast of Dr Mary Pardee for a better understanding of the subject.

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