It’s common thinking to allocate toxicity to things external to the body. Which is to say that toxins are viewed as foreign bodies that we either have to ingest or otherwise come into contact with for them to exert influence. What this overlooks is that we are quite capable of creating toxicity within ourselves through stress and negativity.
From an evolutionary perspective this makes a lot of sense. Strange as it may seem our natural stress response has actually developed to increase our chances of survival. This has been popularly coined our ‘fight-flight’ response and it’s insightful to look at what actually happens when it’s called to action.
Consider your distant ancestor under mortal threat from a razor-clawed predator. There is an instant response in the most primitive areas of the brain triggering an hormonal surge in adrenaline, noradrenalin and cortisol. Biologically, this is the all hands on deck, panic station moment when all available resources are harnessed for immediate survival and nothing else. Pupils dilate and vision narrows, blood is diverted away from the gut towards the extremities, blood pressure rises and the heart races in anticipation. Forget about higher order thinking we are now down to pure instinctive reaction.
Simultaneously acid floods the stomach halting digestion and seeps into your bloodstream to make you less tasty. In preparation for injury your blood thickens to speed up clotting. Stored glucose is dumped into the blood stream for use and the immune system is effectively shut down. After all who cares about getting rid of the flu when you about to be torn limb from limb.
It seems nature in her benevolence has allowed us the capacity for short-term superhuman performance but it comes with a price. Our ancestors would have physically made appropriate use of that potential and, assuming they survived, spent the rest of the day in recovery mode. All things considered this is a wonderful capacity but try as I might I do struggle to remember the last time I was pursued by a large carnivore. Do you see where I am going with this?
Whilst we are still equipped with this survival mechanism, our challenges are more intangible and insidious. The mere fact of living in a modern society means potentially having your survival response tickled all day long. Financial problems, work deadlines, relationships and ubiquitous media threats are all triggers. By and large these are abstract threats, disallowing you the option to either physically fight or flee. Your biology – having served successfully for an odd 40,000 years – interprets these negative aspects of your life as a threat and proceeds accordingly. The danger, however, is never dealt with in a physical fashion yet hovers around prodding at your SURVIVAL instincts.
So let’s imagine what would happen if your immune system was constantly depressed, the blood diverted away from your digestive system, cortisol elevated and your ability to relax inhibited. Perhaps you don’t need to imagine, perhaps you are there or at least have been there to some degree. I’d go, as far to say the price we pay for this level of hyper-vigilance is equal if not higher than those that come from poor nutritional habits. It has been shown that cortisol dysfunction correlates with:
Elevated and stubborn body fat
Sexual dysfunction, infertility, loss of libido
Depression and depletion of feel good hormones
Low energy – feeling of being “wired and tired”
Reduced lean mass
Predisposition to diabetes
Predisposition to Alzheimer’s.
Fortunately, there is a relaxation response that we’ve also evolved to experience that counters stress. The issue is that chronic stress, even at low levels, can inhibit optimally entering this state and receiving its full benefits. Because we all love a corresponding rhyme this is sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” response. Whereas fight or flight activates the excitatory sympathetic nervous system, proper relaxation activates the parasympathetic system.
Activating the parasympathetic nervous system allows your body the chance to repair, heal and rejuvenate. The immune system goes into full swing, digestive enzymes are released, blood pressure and heart rate drops. Furthermore, the brain seeks coherence, returning activity to the centres responsible for memory and learning. When we consider a growing body of research into the link between stress and predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease this point deserves mention.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were something we could do to de-excite the body-mind so we could experience deep relaxation? Self-medication through alcohol, prescription drugs, food and such is a negative manifestation of trying to achieve peak relaxation. These modalities, however all come with there own drawbacks. Well there is, it’s completely free and the only side-effect is that it will make you better at everything else you do. That and the occasional feeling of ecstatic happiness. It’s meditation.