- Clear away brain fog
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For the Ask Dr. Sheila column, Dr. Sheila Patel, Chopra’s Chief Medical Officer, answers questions from our community. If you have a general question for Sheila around health and wellness, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and your question may be the one she answers next.
In this article, Dr. Sheila answers a question about how Ayurveda can help to manage stress.
Having stressors is part of human life. In fact, not all stress is bad. Our mind and body needs challenges sometimes as opportunities to stimulate self-healing mechanisms. However, when we are overwhelmed with stressful situations, or don’t have practices that support self-healing, stress accumulates and ultimately can lead to physical disease and our mental health can suffer as well. In addition to experiencing emotional stress, our bodies are regularly healing the microtraumas and wear-and-tear on joints, muscles, and organs that occur every day.
During my career in medicine, I have had the opportunity to work in remote settings where we often had to fly people to larger medical centers for treatment. It was during these years that I began to recognize the power of our innate healing systems. There were times when giving the body some gentle support with medications until the patient could be transported resulted in better outcomes than doing aggressive procedures. In fact, during my decades in medicine, we have shown over and over that ‘less is often more’ and when simply supporting the body it is actually quite resilient.
In the Miriam-Webster dictionary one of the definitions of resilience is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to adversity or change.” The American Psychological Association states that “resilience is the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.” They go on to state that greater resilience can be cultivated and practiced.
There are many tools and practices to cultivate resilience, and the healing system of Ayurveda gives us some of the most practical and effective tools. Ayurveda gives us the opportunity to awaken our innate self-healing mechanisms, or self-regulation, through daily practices that calm the nervous system and nourish the body.
When the nervous system is calm and the body feels nourished and safe, the internal environment is one of healing and restoring, and any changes in the external environment are more easily perceived as opportunities. We find we recover faster from both physical and emotional stressors. However, when the nervous system is overactive, it is harder to recover from stressors of any kind.
Under stress, when the mind-body system is out of balance, any change or challenge is perceived by an overactive nervous system as a potential threat and the body and mind go into reactive mode, fight-flight-freeze, and have more difficulty adapting to the challenges.
Let’s look at a few Ayurvedic practices and how they may help us build resilience:
Moving the body
Exercise has a beneficial influence on brain resilience and can induce positive physiological and psychological improvements, protect against the effects of stressful events, and prevent or minimize several neurological diseases. A core tenet in Ayurveda is “Movement is Life” and recommends moving the body daily. Yoga as movement provides additional benefits as it promotes self-regulation and resilience through regulation of the autonomic nervous system, keeping the mind and body calm and better able to recover from stress.
Establishing a regular daily routine
Ayurveda recommends establishing a daily routine that is in alignment with the natural rhythms of day and night. Circadian rhythm researchers tell us that “body clocks” that are found in every cell in the body are vital to a properly functioning immune system. A synchronized daily rhythm allows our immune system to be resilient and work effectively. Conversely, when our organs functions are ‘desynchronized,’ or not in a natural rhythm, our immune system may be less effective thus making it harder for us to fight off infections.
Ayurvedic recommendations for an optimal daily routine, or dinacharya, include eating regular meals with the largest meal in the middle of the day, not eating within 2-3 hours of bedtime, connecting to the sun and nature daily to sync our rhythms to the Earth’s rhythms, performing more vigorous activity in the late afternoon as opposed to the evening hours, and having a good bedtime routine.
Doing regular self-massage
Ayurveda recommends using our senses for healing and performing self-abhyanga, or self-massage, as one of the best ways to create resilience in the nervous system. Through modulation of the nervous system, the sense of touch is a powerful tool to self-regulate and build resilience. There are some studies that show changes in the immune system and brain that support what is seen by massage practitioners as far as improvements in both physical and emotional resilience.
Establishing healthy sleep
Ayurveda puts as much emphasis on good quality and quantity of sleep at night as it does on our activities during the day, in fact, poor sleep has been associated with an increased risk of many chronic diseases in the body, as well as a worsening of anxiety and depression. Ayurveda has many tips to create restful, restorative, and natural sleep.
Some Ayurvedic recommendations include performing regular self-massage at night to calm the nervous system, using calming aromatherapy such as lavender, sandalwood, or rose, taking a warm bath or shower in the evening, reducing intense activity in the evening, dimming the lights, and doing some calming breathing right before bed. By establishing healthy, natural sleep, we create improved resiliency in body and mind.
A regular meditation practice has effects on our genetic expression and can ‘turn up’ genes related to health and resiliency, and ‘turn down’ genes that can lead to chronic disease. In addition research is beginning to identify changes in specific areas of the brain that occur with a meditation practice and how these changes can create stress resiliency. The changes in these areas of the brain are associated with enhancement and maintenance of resilience.
Ayurveda offers us many practical tools to build resilience in our minds and bodies. By following an Ayurvedic lifestyle and incorporating simple Ayurvedic practices into our life, we can not only prevent disease, but create a physiology that allows us to recover more quickly when stressors arise.