Learning How to Relax. What is Sympathetic Overload?

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Recently I have had the privilege of working with an increased number of people coming in with the diagnosis of “sympathetic overload.” And though Chinese medicine doesn’t often concern itself with a western medical diagnosis to treat a condition most people who come in with a problem are concerned with their diagnosis and what, as an acupuncturist, I can do to help them. So even though I know for a fact that acupuncture works on the nervous system I wasn’t super aware of this term sympathetic overload. So as with may of my blog post it starts as a need for information and then grows into a need to share information.

The autonomic nervous system has two branches – the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ response ie. when we would traditionally have encountered danger such as a charging rhino. When the SNS is in high gear it diverts the blood away from our digestive system to our limbs to help us fight for our life. On the flip side is the parasympathetic nervous system, ‘rest and digest.” It helps us digest our food correctly and get adequate rest. We need both of these systems working equally for us to be healthy.

Sympathetic overload is, in my opinion, a term used to describe a person who is overstimulated and isn’t able to then disengage their body. They are then stuck in fight or flight mode. When we are under a high level of stress for a long period of time, the SNS becomes dominant. Over time, this over-stimulation can lead to clear-cut signs of imbalance including: poor digestion/indigestion, constipation, anxiety, shallow breathing, increased heart rate, poor quality sleep, restlessness, night sweats, decreased libido, fatigue, nervousness, increased agitation/irritability, increased muscle tension, increased inflammation and increased susceptibility to frequent illnesses.

If you notice that you are experiencing more then three of the symptoms above then you may what to reevaluate a few things in your life. If you answered yes then it sounds like your body is overstimulated and over stressed and this could potentially lead to other serious health problems. There are defiantly things you can do to help rebalance things again, but the first thing you need to realize is that it is going to mean slowing down and taking time.

Here are some suggestions for ways to start reversing sympathetic overload.

  1. Get Acupuncture! Acupuncture is a wonderful way to tap into the sympathetic nervous system and help to calm and relax an over excited body. It helps to restore the whole body to a state of balance an harmony.

  2. Take a look at your diet-

    ~ Are you getting enough water? Most of us don’t so make it a point to get even more water. It has been scientifically shown that we drink more when we have a straw so head to the store and find a reusable straw and put it into everything.

    ~ Are you getting enough protein in your diet and if you do eat meat and dairy protein is it clean, organic, grass fed and not hormones, antibiotics and, etc

    ~ Root vegetables contain many nutrients– including vitamin A, B-complex, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, iron and trace minerals- that the body needs to calm an overly active sympathetic nervous system. Eat plenty of carrots, beets, yams, sweet potatoes and potatoes to help get you more grounded. Soups and stews are great options.

    ~ Avoid alcohol and caffeine

    ~ Take a look at the types of oils you cook with and eat. Avoid hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated and trans fats and get plenty of omega-3 (and some omega-6) fatty acids. Excellent sources are deep-sea fatty fish (see above), eggs from grass-fed hens, walnuts, flaxseeds, avocado, coconut oil and fish oil supplements.

  3. What types of exercise are you doing and is it too strenuous?

    ~Look for exercise that is more focused on low-intensity such as yoga, Tai Chi, Qi-gong, gardening or simply walking or hiking outside. In addition to that turn off the gadgets while you are doing it. Make it a mindful practice and enjoy and listen to your body and not someone else or something else. Be in the present moment. This is not to say that one day you won’t be able to go back to the more intense workouts but while the body is trying to recover don’t fight it.

  4. Take a look at your mindset. What we think we create more of…..do you start your day with gratitude? Do you end your day with gratitude?

    ~ Surround yourself with love. Whether you are at home, work or in your car, surround yourself with pictures, music, books, magazines and things that bring you joy and remind you of people, places and experiences you cherish. Along those same lines, hang out with people that build you up and let go of relationships that are no longer fulfilling.

    ~ Don’t worry, be happy. We are bombarded with images, sound bites and news about all the cruelty and injustices in the world. Give yourself a break. Turn off the news and turn on a song that make you smile and want to dance. Pick a podcast that uplifts, read a book that is silly or juvenile. You don’t have to listen to all the negative crap in the world…so don’t.

    ~ Get enough sleep.

    ~ Deep breathing is one of the fastest ways to calm down and quiet an overly active sympathetic nervous system. Practice taking deep breathes multiple times daily; attach the act of deep breathing to some other activity that occurs regularly throughout your day – such as receiving/sending emails, texts or phone calls.