Updated: Jul 23
I remember in nursing school learning about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. If you're a nurse, you may recall we have our sympathetic system that is also known as our "fight or flight mode". Then we have our parasympathetic nervous system which is often referred to as our "resting and digesting mode".
Like other mammals, we are meant to be in parasympathetic mode the majority of the time. This is when we recover from stressors. When we are in sympathetic nervous system mode for too long, we can impair our bodies ability to heal. Beyond this, there are many functions that are impaired when we spend too much time in fight or flight mode.
Just think of the term resting and digesting. If we are in fight or flight mode, how will we digest our food? The example I often use is a nurse working in the hospital. Most bedside nurses in the United States work twelve plus hour days, and they rarely have time for their meal breaks. When I worked in the hospital, I often found myself with no lunch or running into the break room to quickly eat something that was not the best food choice, scarfing my food down, and running out to get back to my patients. Did that food even get assimilated into the body? Probably not! We need stomach acid to digest our food, and we produce stomach acid when we are in resting and digesting mode. So if we have a stressed out bedside nurse, at what time during the day are they in resting and digesting mode? And just how restorative is their sleep on those work days?
Breaking down our food through chewing and in the stomach is step one on this journey. Once food is past the stomach, it does need to be absorbed into the body mostly in the small intestines, but also some of this like water absorption takes place further down in the large intestines. When we are not in parasympathetic nervous system mode enough, all of these processes are impacted. Interestingly, I have seen patients with diarrhea, constipation, normal bowel movements, or alternating diarrhea and constipation from being in a stressed state for too long, so the presentation can definitely vary!
With diarrhea, we are reducing the amount of time that nutrients are passing through to be absorbed and reducing the amount of water that is available for the body. With constipation, we are impairing detoxification pathways which can lead to a whole host of issues.
One topic I find is undervalued in Western medicine is cellular demand. Our body has trillions of cells, and each one has a nutrient demand. When we think of this impaired digestion and absorption that can happen in a persistent stressed state, its important to realize that our cells may be lacking key nutrients to function properly. This is such an under-respected topic in healthcare!
Similar to when we are sleeping, being in a relaxed state is a time for our body to address any immune threats. When we are too often in fight or flight mode, we can find ourselves becoming ill more easily. People with high stress levels often report more frequent viral illnesses than other people.
Another big topic with persistent high levels of stress is infertility. Rates of infertility have dramatically risen in recent years, and one of the causes of infertility is linked to high stress. When our body is prioritizing making cortisol for long periods of a stressed state, this can often lead to an imbalance in our sex hormones.
It can be a new and interesting conversation to have with our patients and clients to point out the effects that stress can be having on their health. Encouraging people to carve out moments in their day for rest and play, seek more joyful moments, reducing unnecessary stressors in their
lives, and prioritize self-care can all improve health outcomes. Like everything in functional medicine, the root cause of a high stress life will be unique for each person, and nurses are the perfect partners to help patients uncover the root cause of their health concerns. With stress, this can include identifying stressors and opportunities to address their stress.
In functional medicine, we approach each client knowing that there are countless potential stressors that can affect our health. In the course I teach Functional Medicine for Nurses through the Integrative Nurse Coach Academy in partnership with the Institute for Functional Medicine, I help RN and NP students identify these many potential stressors, learn how to evaluate their patient's nervous system balance, and explore the downstream effects of any impairments.
Circling back to our hospital nurse example, I find many of my students that still work in the hospital benefit from prioritizing getting into resting and digesting mode as much as possible during their lunch breaks, and to increase the amount of chewing they are doing per bite to help the body break down and absorb nutrients more effectively. Squeezing in lunch breaks can be a challenge, but knowing the impact of missing out on that "resting and digesting" time can be just what is needed to advocate for that precious reprieve each shift.