There are two arms to the nervous system: the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Some refer to the PNS as the “rest and digest system” and the SNS as the “fight or flight” system (1).In times of stress the SNS becomes dominant and aids in the release of glucose from its stores in the body, increases heart rate and blood pressure. If stress is on-going cortisol is released from the adrenal glands which may contribute to weight gain long term (2).
There are many different techniques that can be used to decrease stress and aid relaxation such as; guided imagery C.D’s, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, bathing in Epsom Salts and deep breathing exercises. Apps such as Headspace have also gained popularity as a course in guided meditation that can be used on both iPhone and Android mobiles https://www.headspace.com/.
As little as 5-15 minutes a day of relaxation can be beneficial. Find a relaxation activity that you like to do and develop the practise of doing it regularly. It may take some time to develop the techniques and skills for your new practise, so remember to be patient while you learn.
Using deep breathing techniques, such as Pranayama used in Yoga teachings can help to reduce stress and move towards increased PNS activity (3).
In a relaxed state (PNS dominant) the body can digest and absorb nutrients from food more readily, heal and repair muscles and tissues, reduce muscle tension, help you to sleep better, improve your capacity to focus and think clearly and could even help you to develop a stronger immune system (2).
How to perform alternate nostril Pranayama (slow breathing)
Alternate nostril breathing (3)
Sit in an easy and steady posture on a soft seat on the floor (or wherever possible).
Keep the head, neck, and trunk erect, eyes closed, and other muscles reasonably loose.
Use the thumb of the right hand to close the right nostril, and inhale for about 6 s. Then, use the index finger to close the left nostril, and exhale through the right nostril for about 6 s. This is one cycle.
Alternate which nostril does the inhalation and exhalation with each cycle.
The breathing must not be abdominal.
During this practice, do not think much about the inhalation and exhalation. Rather, think about something calming, such as the blue sky, trying to minimize thoughts.
Do this for at least five minutes per day.
Patel TR. Anatomy of the Sympathetic Nervous System. Nerves and Nerve Injuries. Elsevier; 2015. p. 495–506.
Alexander J, Ames B, MacDonald Baker S, Bland J, Bennett P. Textbook of Functional Medicine. 2010.
Chaddha A. Breathing slower to live longer life. J Indian Coll Cardiol. Elsevier Ltd; 2015;5(3):183–8.
The Art of Living, 2016. Pranayama: The Beginner’s Guide to Yoga Breathing Exercises. Available at: http://www.artofliving.org/us-en/yoga/breathing-techniques/yoga-and-pranayama [Accessed April 29, 2016].