How we replenish our energy and inner resources is key to our human survival. Be it in the form of chemical-free, plant-based nutrition, or regular access to green spaces for fresh air, enriching ions, sounds, and vibrations. Not least of all is the importance of living within our natural circadian rhythms, where night is night and day is day. This balance seems to become more and more elusive in the post-modern world, as we battle to reset our ‘body clock’ and find ourselves in further and further stages of industrialization and urbanized living. Arguably, with the level of immersion of our global society in technology, and the uneven distribution of basic essentials to wellness, when it comes to the post-corona world, we could see even greater socio-economic discrepancies further entrenched.
The Nervous System and Stress
The process of adapting from an already widespread level of stress as a way of life for many people to the ‘new normal’, during and post Covid, brings up the need for work-life balance like never before. Seemingly overnight, the daily micro-management of our modern reality has upscaled substantially. Underlying currents of fear, worry, anxiety and depression in the midst of looming economic effects, lockdown fatigue, future uncertainty and concern over one’s health and wellbeing (especially for those who are most vulnerable) brings about psychological and physiological changes that call on our inner resources the more that such experiences of long-term stress are prolonged.
The stress response is a primitive reaction to a threatening or dangerous situation and has been essential in ensuring survival of the human species. It is commonly known as “fight-or-flight”. The hormonal and chemical defense mechanisms that evolved over time as a means of protection have been retained, but today have little outlet. Dire harm can be caused by continuously suppressing our natural instincts to respond physically to a stressful situation.
Physiologically speaking, when confronted by a situation which we perceive to be threatening, our thoughts regarding ourselves and the situation trigger two branches of the central nervous system, namely the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system initiates involuntary responses aimed at activating all the major systems of the body. The first response is a flood of hormone secretions. The hypothalamus triggers the pituitary gland which in turn releases hormones that cause the adrenal glands to upregulate the output of adrenalin and noradrenalin into the bloodstream. Corticosteroids also mobilize the body against invading pathogens or foreign proteins, and enhance one’s level of alertness. But if the stress response is continuously activated in the form of long-term stress, with little counterbalance from adequate rest and relaxation, the body generally weakens, leading to accelerated aging and illness.
The Immune System and Stress
The stress response always activates the immune system. Often, stressful situations are continuous and perpetuate the stress response on a semi-permanent basis, keeping one on red alert. Yet on the other hand, physical release is usually unacceptable and therefore suppressed, especially in today’s society. This stress build-up cannot be maintained for too long before there is something like a domino effect internally, knocking the body systems almost inevitably out of balance, leading to extreme physical and mental exhaustion.
Long-term adrenal stimulation with no resolution, will deplete essential minerals and vitamins like vitamins B and C which are crucial for proper function of the nervous and immune systems. When this pattern enters the chronic stage, the body’s normal resistance declines below normal and becomes exhausted. Everyone is confronted daily with potentially stressful situations. One’s vulnerability to stress can be influenced by life events, such as our current coronavirus pandemic and the concurrent shockwaves into our individual lives which have consequently resulted, causing undue emotional strain. Emotional distress is another resistance lowering factor. The extent to which stressful events lead to poor health and weakened immunity may depend to a large extent on a person’s ability to cope with stress by reviving one’s energy reserves. A vital component to the latter is, of course, our sleep duration and quality.
A Focus on Melatonin and Serotonin
Melatonin and serotonin are neuro-hormones produced by the pea-sized pineal gland, located in the center of the cranium, that among other functions, control all the bio cycles, otherwise known as our day-night or sleep-wake cycle. Small changes in electro-magnetic fields and exposure to light influence the pineal gland, increasing or decreasing production of melatonin and serotonin. While serotonin levels affect our mood, melatonin levels affect our sleep. Low levels of melatonin are associated with poor sleep quality needed for healing both in body and mind.
Circadian rhythms are crucial for a better sleep, and melatonin is a key player in balancing these sleep patterns. It lowers blood pressure, glucose levels and body temperature to make sure we wake up refreshed and ready for the new day ahead. Melatonin also enhances both innate and cellular immunity. It stimulates the production of progenitor cells of granulocytes and macrophages and of NK (Natural Killer) cells. Supplementation needs for melatonin tend to increase with age, from mid-life onwards, and dosage should be prescribed by one’s healthcare professional. (Some sources of information suggest avoiding melatonin supplements, which can prevent the brain from producing melatonin naturally.)
Several things we do in our modern way of living, especially in lockdown living, can reduce our melatonin and serotonin levels. Exposure to artificial light after dusk and before bedtime may reduce sleep quality by suppressing production of melatonin and may also have other negative health effects on serotonin, and therefore, mood.
Night-time melatonin secretion is suppressed by a relatively dim light when pupils are dilated. This has been suggested as the main way through which prolonged use of devices such as laptops and smartphones before bedtime can have a negative impact on melatonin secretion, circadian rhythms, sleep, and immune health. With the increased demand for going online in our daily lives, (which has gone through ‘the proverbial roof’ during global lockdowns in numerous countries around the world), it is important to be aware of the effect this may be having on the pineal gland.
There are some proven ways to support healthy hormone levels, especially if yours are out of sync. Try to carry out the following four changes for a better sleep and watch your energy levels improve. This can only be a good thing for one’s immune system too.
Get enough natural sunlight
As most people now know, artificial light can delay one’s melatonin kick – but natural sunlight exposure during the day does not. Like exercise and chocolate, sunlight actually stimulates the glandular system’s release of our happy hormone, serotonin.
The brighter the rays we expose ourselves to, the better our body clock and hormonal system can function, specifically serotonin levels. The best way to increase your natural light-levels, by soaking up the sun, is said to be ideally at the start of the day when it’s at its brightest. So wherever possible, go out into the sunlight! Obviously during the safer hours. To protect against sun damage, it is important to avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest. It is advisable to wear protective clothing and sunscreen whenever necessary.
As most people know, regular sun exposure is also the most natural way to obtain vitamin D. Vitamin D is a hormone the kidneys produce that controls blood calcium concentration and impacts the immune system. The body makes vitamin D in a chemical reaction that occurs when sunlight hits the skin.
This reaction produces cholecalciferol, and the liver converts it to calcidiol. The kidneys then convert the substance to calcitriol, which is the active form of the hormone in the body. Too little vitamin D makes an individual more prone to infections and illness, cardiovascular disease, and mental illnesses — including mood disorders like depression.
To maintain healthy blood levels, aim to get 20–30 minutes of gentle sunlight on most days of the week. People with darker skin may need a little more than this. Your exposure time should depend on how sensitive your skin is to the sun.
- Keep to a regular sleep pattern
As tempting as it may be to sleep until a later time in the morning than usual, especially with nowhere to physically go to, hardly any traffic to beat during different levels of lockdown, your pineal gland may plea, “Don’t do it!”. As life appears to exist more in limbo with regular routines relatively displaced, experts encourage us to stick to a certain schedule as best as possible. Otherwise, you shall
probably still find that your head is in a fog like state once that Zoom meeting takes place later in the morning.
To create a healthy circadian rhythm, or body clock as they call it, you need to develop a consistent sleep pattern that has you in bed around the same time every night and out of bed in the morning at a regular time also. Sleeping late – even if it’s just at the weekends – can confuse your body rhythms and make it more challenging to sleep at night. Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep every night in order to maintain good energy levels during the daytime.
2. Set a curfew on gadgets
Smart screen devices and late-night Netflix marathons can disrupt melatonin production. For a better sleep, try to stop looking at screens around an hour before you go to bed and completely remove them from your sleep space to keep them out of temptation’s way. Meditation, quiet time, light yoga, or just some deep breathing can help instead. Not only that, but the electromagnetic frequencies emitted by smartphones can also contribute to sleep disruption by effecting the pineal gland, potentially disrupting hormone balance and leading to chronic fatigue.
3. Use blackout curtains in your bedroom or wear an eye mask
Power up your melatonin levels for a more peaceful and sound sleep by making your room pitch dark at bedtime. This will stimulate your pineal gland to raise melatonin levels naturally. Optic nerves in our eyes tell our cells, that respond to light and dark signals, when it’s time to wake up. Night-time exposure to artificial light on an ongoing basis causes cortisol levels (the long-term stress hormone) to rise, thereby reducing melatonin. The result: a totally negative knock-on effect when it comes to your sleep-wake cycle.
4. Looking Ahead
In the next few issues of Biodiversity and Environment Africa, we will look at how one can maximize lifestyle habits to the best of our ability in protecting and enhancing overall health and wellbeing. More specifically, we will focus on natural ante-dotes to stress which can help leave us feeling authentically re-energized and support our immune systems, mental faculties, emotional health with natural vitality.
HEALTH & WELLBEING WRITTEN BY: Nicolette Da Costa
After her tertiary education in social sciences, humanities and romance languages through the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) and UNISA in South Africa, Nicolette began her working career in the linguistic field while living in Spain and Portugal, and subsequently built up experience through various projects and developments inside the wellness industry upon her return. Here, her skills formation has focused on therapeutic modalities aimed at ensuring general wellbeing and mitigation of individual stress at grassroots level with a personal aim of supporting communities. Over the past 16 years, Nicolette has contributed various articles to specialist health magazine publications and blogs, and given presentations on natural therapies including Therapeutic Reflexology and Traditional Chinese Medicine while running her own private practice based in Johannesburg.