Balancing the Autonomic Nervous System
Contributing Author: Chek, Paul H.H.P.
Paul Chek is a world-renowned expert in the fields of corrective and high-performance exercise kinesiology. For over twenty years, Paul’s unique, holistic approach to treatment and education has changed the lives of many of his clients, his students and their clients. By treating the body as a whole system and finding the root cause of a problem, Paul has been successful where traditional approaches have consistently failed. Paul is the founder of the C.H.E.K (Corrective Holistic Exercise Kinesiology) Institute, based in California, USA.
» Website: www.paulchek.com
Today, it is generally accepted that if you need to lose weight, want to put on muscle mass or are stressed out you need to hit the gym and hit it hard! While this approach did bear fruit in the past and became embedded in our consciousness as the way to do it, the realities of modern eating habits and lifestyles no longer support the use of an antiquated formula. To see proof of my point, one need only visit a public membership gym; there is no shortage of people who faithfully jog, run, pedal, pump, push and pull several hours a week, yet their body shapes change little, if at all! They get frustrated and their trainers get frustrated. It’s time we apply programming strategy appropriate for the 21st century.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) may also be referred to as the automatic nervous system because it runs various physiological processes without any conscious thought. The ANS controls and regulates all the functions necessary to maintain life and, if we were to get knocked unconscious, it is our ANS that would keep us alive. Some of the key functions controlled by the ANS include:
The ANS has three divisions, each having key functions. Let’s look at each of them briefly:
RECOGNIZING ANS IMBALANCE
The ANS is a very complex system, yet there are some classic indicators of imbalance, or dominance of one branch over the others (Table 1).
Any time you see a client and want to determine the status of their ANS, run through the indicators in Table 1, the more indicators they present with, the greater the relative imbalance between the branches of the ANS. As a side note, the ENS communicates with and activates the SNS and PNS – thus, any dietary influences should be strongly considered as a potential stimulus to either branch of the ANS as mediated via the ENS. Although even just one indicator, when chronic, can indicate an imbalance of significance, it is generally reliable to assume that the greater number of chronic indicators you find, the greater the problem and the more critical it becomes to modify diet, exercise and lifestyle factors to encourage balance.
STEPS TOWARD BALANCING THE ANS
The first step toward balancing the ANS is to understand the common influences that create an imbalance. To do this we must look at the developmental structure of the human brain and nervous system.
Research in evolutionary biology, comparative anatomy and neurocognitive sciences has led to an understanding of what is now referred to as the Triune Brain (three brains in one), a concept that was founded and demonstrated by researcher Paul MacLean (6). As you can see in Figure 3, the reptilian brain represents the oldest brain structure that humans possess. Maclean describes the mammalian brain and neocortical, or human brain structures, as outgrowths of the reptilian brain. This is important to understand because many people misinterpret MacLean’s model thinking that the individual brain structures are modular, or independent of each other in function, which they are not. The best way to understand the triune brain system is to realize that the reptilian brain is like the operating system of a computer (e.g. MS Windows) – it is the platform upon which all the other computer programs operate. In this case, the other computer programs are the mammalian and neocortical brain structures.
Today, our clients present us with one or any combination of the following issues:
The more of these reptilian stressors they have in their life, the greater the stimulus is to the SNS! At a very core level, these stressors are interpreted as being the greatest threat to our survival as a species – thus, the stress response is proportionate to the interpretation of the stressor in each individual. In other words, whatever someone’s perception is of any given stressor, the degree to which they feel stress towards that event will proportionately serve to stimulate the SNS. When looking at the number of SNS dominance indicators that are chronic (repeated regularly and exaggerated over weeks, months or years), we can interpret which one or combination of a client’s reptilian stressors are driving the system and just how stimulated, or over-stimulated, they’ve become.
While the collection and use of this information is much more vast than I’ve presented here, and is an important aspect of the CHEK Nutrition and Lifestyle Coaching Program as well as C.H.E.K Certification Levels 2, 3, and 4, the health or exercise professional reading this article can be of great service to their client by:
When you have a client who demonstrates multiple chronic indicators of reptilian stress (Table 1) and you have suggested books, tapes or counselors to help them better manage their specific stressors, you can further assist them with correct application of exercise.
A general rule of thumb I teach my students that if you can’t perform an exercise comfortably on a full stomach, that exercise is stimulating your SNS. With that in mind, you can now easily see how the majority of exercises being prescribed in a typical gym setting are serving to further stress the SNS; remember that SNS stimulation keeps the body in a catabolic state! If a client’s body gets stuck in SNS dominance in response to the combined stressors of their individual life, exercises that stimulate the SNS will only serve to perpetuate an already dysfunctional situation. In fact, I have had several clients over the years seek my consultation because, after hiring a personal trainer and exercising regularly, they gained weight… a pretty good indicator that the body interpreted the exercise as a threat to their survival.
If you or someone you know is training a client who has overly stimulated their SNS, I recommend that they focus on Chi-cultivating exercises until their ANS has been adequately balanced to respond to SNS challenges with an adequate PNS or anabolic rebound. Examples of Chi (life-force energy) cultivating exercises are introductory Yoga postures, Tai Chi, Qi-Gong or simply walking! In a number of cases where people were unsuccessful at changing their body shape or losing fat using a typical bodybuilding program, once they switched to a period of PNS stimulating (Chi-cultivating) exercise, along with the necessary diet and lifestyle modifications, their body changed favorably and rapidly! Not only were they able to improve their body shape and reduce body fat, they did it with far less time in the gym, which is music to a client’s ears given the schedules of most people today.
Just how much SNS stress an individual can take is specific to the individual. You may find that you can stick with one or two compound exercises such as squatting, deadlifting, cable pushing or pulling. Keeping the training sessions under 30:00 and supplementing their program with stretches that specifically restore muscle balance will also improve Chi (Life-force energy) flow in the body, thus facilitating ANS balance; to learn how to assess length/tension balance in the body, refer to The Golf Biomechanic’s Manual (9). When you see sleep quality, energy levels, mood and response to exercise improving along with a reduction of chronic SNS indicators you can carefully add more challenging exercises to their program, always being sensitive to the client’s day-to-day needs and overall stress levels. Some days it may be necessary to only stretch or cultivate Chi because they haven’t sufficiently recovered from the last workout. Monitoring your client’s digestion and elimination will also give valuable cues to their progress on your fitness program. (I expand on this more in my Flatten Your Abs Forever! video (5) and in my book How To Eat, Move, and Be Healthy! (4).
WHAT ABOUT THE PNS?
PNS over stimulation, or finding clients with chronic PNS dominance factors from Table 1, is very rare today. I may have seen only a half dozen in the past 10 years, most of which resulted from electrolyte deficiency. One of the primary indicators of PNS over-stimulation is orthostatic hypotension or, getting dizzy when rising from a seated to a standing position. The easiest first step to take in such cases is to add a pinch or two of unprocessed sea salt to each liter of water the client consumes for a few weeks. If that doesn’t address the problem, I suggest you consult a CHEK NLC Level 3 or a naturopathic physician for a comprehensive assessment and any needed program modifications. There is also a list of recommended people to consult with in the Resources section at the end of the article.
We must let go of the “no pain, no gain” philosophy! What worked with Navy Seals and football players no longer works for today’s gym members or the public. Because of the environment we live in today, we must change our philosophy about exercise and what it is to be healthy in the gym! Today, I personally believe that “pain = no gain”, and therefore we must “train, don’t drain!” We must remember that the reptilian brain is inclusive of the ANS and the key reptilian stressors are very real. Look not to see how much weight you can stack on the bar or leg press for your clients, but how much stress they have on their back each day on the job and at home. How are their finances (safety/security)? Is their diet adequate to improve life-force (sustenance)? Are they having meaningful, fulfilling sexual relationships? While these issues may seem a long way from a barbell, one need only stand in a gym for 20 seconds with two ears open and you will learn quickly that these issues can be heard in many conversations in the gym. As trainers and therapists, we were given two ears and one mouth so that we could listen twice as much as we talk and when we begin to listen to our clients, we will better understand their needs and realize the need to design eating and lifestyle programs to help them accomplish their goals most effectively – not just “hammer them” with the latest trends!
Please join me and my fellow C.H.E.K Practitioners, CHEK NLC’s, CHEK Exercise Coaches and Golf Biomechanics in building a health and vitality consciousness in the exercise and health care industries today! And remember, you are your best form of advertising for your programs, so the first place to start is always with yourself!
- Common Sources of Chronic Stress
- Adrenal Syndrome
- EMFs and Radiation
- Gluten Intolerance
- Heavy Metals
- Inflammation and Pain
- Mold Toxicity
- Parasites and Pathogens
- Poor Lifestyle Choices
- Lifestyle Support
- Diet and Nutrition
- Mental and Emotional Stress
- The Choices Are Yours
- Functional Wellness
- Functional Medicine
- Lab Testing
- Symptoms are Warning Signs
- Homeostasis and The 5 Stages of Disorder
- Advocate for Your Health
The Chronic Stress Crisis
by Dr. William Timmins
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