If you want to feel better, you need these two things to be happening. You need to spend time out of a stressed state and spend time in a relaxed state. In other words, people who want to optimize the body for health and healing need time out of what's called the stress response and time in what's called the relaxation response.
Dr. Lissa Rankin, author of the book Mind Over Medicine, explains this best. She says, “The body has natural self-repair mechanisms that fight disease, kill bacteria, get rid of toxins and foreign bodies, repair broken proteins, slow aging, and generally keep the body healthy. But…. those natural self-repair mechanisms don’t function when the nervous system is in the midst of a ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response. Only when the nervous system is in a counterbalancing relaxed state – in what Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard named ‘the relaxation response’ – can the body effectively heal itself.”
In very generalized terms, this idea that we need to spend time out of the stress response and spend time in the relaxation response is what natural treatment and self care aims to address. It's why we might be recommended to make dietary changes, lifestyle modifications, practice regular Yoga, create a daily meditation routine, etc. These area all just tools for moving the body from a stressed state to a relaxed state in an effort to feel better.
In other words, these self-care or natural treatment plans have the ability to calm down (again as Dr. Rankin says) the “trigger-happy, freaked out amygdala responsible for activating stress responses”.
What exactly is all this stress fuss about?
While this might make things a bit more clear, it's probably not something entirely surprising. If you have an autoimmune disease, for example, you've probably been told a time or two to reduce the stress in your life. And it's easier said than done, for sure. But the reason this is such a big part of the health conversation nowadays is because the amount of stress our body is under is the TOTAL sum of stress in our lives. (P. 159 The Paleo Approach.)
Which means we need to add the amount of stress placed on the body from physical activity plus the amount of stress placed on the body from autoimmune disease plus the amount of stress placed on the body from daily life like errands, house chores, and to-dos plus stress placed on the body at work plus any stress placed on the body from life transitions or difficult seasons plus any stressed placed on the body from food choices... etc.
Basically, it can add up to a lot of stress, right?
This becomes increasingly concerning as we begin to find ourselves outside of short-term stress -- which by itself can improve the immune system -- and instead find ourselves living in chronic stress. This chronic stress has a significant effect on the immune system and can lead to inflammation in the body. This is noteworthy because inflammation is related to chronic illness.
Pro tip: While I'm discussing the concerns of chronic stress on the body, I don't mean to convey that the stress response is bad and the relaxation response is good. In fact, as I write this blog post I'm swinging towards the stress response simply because I'm motivated, excited, and taking action. The key here is not to eliminate any and all traces of "stress" in our lives. We need time in both of these states for a healthy and productive life. Instead, this is a post directed at those of us trying to heal from physical ailment like an autoimmune disease. When this is the goal, our focus should be placed more heavily on carving time out of stress and time in relaxation.
So as mentioned, this is why some folks love and might advocate for dietary changes, longer sleep, meditation, restorative Yoga, or even EFT and less-toxic living. These practices often reduce the amount of stress on the body. For example, dietary changes could reduce the amount of stress placed on the gut and digestive tract. Meditation and Yoga could give the body a much needed break from the stress of social media, work demands, or never-ending to-do lists. Swapping toxic products for cleaner alternatives could reduce the amount of stress placed on the body from foreign substances that trigger chemical or hormonal imbalances and allergic reactions.
And since stress is the total sum of stress in our lives, reducing any stress at all is a huge win moving the needle in the right direction. Plus, some of these practices, like certain meditations, Yoga Nidra, and any repetition paired with active clearing of the mind, move us not only out of the stress response but also into that relaxation response. (The term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson that denotes the place where all the healing magic happens!)
It's in this relaxation response that the body seems to have the best chance to do what we want – restore.
I know that as we talk about these self-care remedies or natural treatment approaches as tools for feeling better, you might be rolling your eyes or feeling hard on yourself for not sticking to these practices already. Because if you're on this blog post, you're probably not one of the people who find that these tools just work - easily, effortlessly, quickly.
I'm sure you know who I'm talking about -- those who take to self-care and natural remedies and incorporate them into daily life relatively easily. The ones who don’t feel restricted, deprived, bitter, or overwhelmed. The ones who simply make changes, feel better, and go on with life. The people who (I think) tend to account for a lot of the traditional success stories we see.
These people are awesome -- and also not the reason I'm writing this post today. These folks are doing what works for them and all I want to do is encourage them to keep going. And provide any possible resource I can to support them in doing so.
Instead, I'm writing this post for the other group of people. For the ones who have a more difficult time adopting these changes. For the folks who struggle to stay consistent or motivated. For the people who don't see results even when they’re doing everything “right”. And for the ones who feel incredibly restricted, deprived, or angry at needing to make these dietary and lifestyle modifications in the first place.
Those are who I'm on a mission to help. And because of that... I have to ask the question: What the heck gives?
Why do natural or self-care treatments work for some people? How come some folks can stay “committed” or focused or “on track” while others struggle? And then, even more, when both parties are taking the same actions to the same extent... Why do these tools work for some and not for others? What’s the difference between why some people feel better and "get well" -- and some people don’t?
As I've studied this question, I've realized there's one glaring point of discussion staring me in the face. It's the point of discussion where the conversation usually stalls out. You see, traditionally when we're not feeling better and seeing the changes we want, we blame willpower, perceived laziness, or a specific exercise plan, diet, etc.
But before we tweak our tools, we need to assess their efficacy.
The question isn't solely how come some people stay consistent or how come some folks end up feeling better through these practices. Instead, the very first question we should ask is... Does the change I'm making ACTUALLY bring about the desired effect? Is it ACTUALLY leading to time out of the stress response and time in the relaxation response?
This is so important because these same self-care remedies and natural treatments also have the ability to turn up the stress in our lives. Feeling restricted, feeling deprived, disliking or not believing in a change we’re trying to make… these mental and emotional reactions can trigger the exact response we’re trying to avoid.
What triggers these mental and emotional reactions?
This is the question I answer in what I call The Restorative Method. I dive into 5 possible contraindications -- or factors that may make a particular self-care remedy or natural treatment plan inadvisable, less-effective, or, in some cases, harmful. If you want to learn more about these 5 contraindications -- and see if one of these could be holding YOU back from feeling better -- join my private (and free) community. I host live streams, share the latest content, and open the floor for questions about optimizing the body for health. It's a safe place to share your story and feel supported by others walking a similar journey. Join us for free today!
As always, remember that this is solely for your general knowledge and not a substitute for medical advice. Always speak with your doctor and team of healthcare providers before making any changes to your diet, exercise, or lifestyle.