"Rest and Digest" vs. "Fight or Flight" – How Stress Affects your Health

by Anna Gutermuth

You may have heard the terms “Rest and Digest” and “Fight or Flight,” but do you understand what that really means for your health?

“Rest and Digest,” sometimes alternatively referred to as “Feed and Breed,” is shorthand for the Parasympathetic Nervous System.  On the other hand, “Fight or Flight” (also known as “Fight Fright or Freeze”) is another way of referring to the Sympathetic Nervous system.  Together they make up the Autonomic Nervous System which is what controls all the involuntary actions in our body.

These two systems very much reflect the concept of Yin and Yang because they are opposing forces which regulate and balance each other.  The Parasympathetic nervous system is more Yin in nature and the Sympathetic is Yang.  Just as Yin and Yang seek to balance each other, so should the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous systems.

The purpose of these systems is to assess our environment and allocate bodily resources according to importance.  Cortisol, the main stress hormone in the body, dominates the “Fight or Flight” system where energy is sent to our eyes, lungs and muscles and allows us to make quick responses in the face of impending danger.

In most of human evolution, “Fight or “Flight” was only needed in life-or-death situations.  The problem with modern lifestyles is that they can trigger cortisol release all day long.  Low blood sugar levels from irregular diets, work or family-related stress, and over-stimulation from TV/internet/phones can all cause stress.

Unfortunately, this constant flood of cortisol causes many people to find themselves permanently stuck in “Fight or Flight” mode, even at night when cortisol levels are supposed to be the lowest.  In Chinese Medicine we would call this Yin Deficiency because the body is not getting enough “yin time,” meaning it is not the “rest and digest” state enough.  This can lead to chronic stress, insomnia, inflammation, headaches, digestion problems and eventually Adrenal Fatigue.

Hammock by StuartAlternatively, the “Rest and Digest” system focuses on relaxing, properly breaking down food, procreating and sleeping.  This is the system that focuses more on our long-term health, since it is activated in response to a calm, safe environment.  It’s important to understand that “Rest and Digest” is not something we only do on vacation; it needs to happen every day to keep the body functioning properly.

In our clinic, we often see overly stressed patients having problems with menstruation or getting pregnant.  This is because the body is constantly getting the signal that it is in danger, so it focuses on surviving day-to-day rather than diverting resources for long-term health.

The good news is the Acupuncture is amazingly effective to snap out of the “Flight or Fight” mode and relax into the “Rest and Digest” state.  This is why patients complaining of insomnia and anxiety often have no problem falling asleep during an Acupuncture treatment.

If you experience stress, insomnia, chronic inflammation, problems with your reproductive health or you feel your “Flight or Fight” system may be overstimulated, then consider adding Acupuncture to your routine of self-care.  Practices like meditation, yoga, Qi Gong, massage, and hypnotherapy are all helpful tools to manage stress as well.  Find what combination works for you.

(Post by Jacqueline Gabardy of FLOAT: Chinese Medical Arts; Photo credits: 5/365 by Anna Gutermuth, Hammocks by Stuart)

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