"Rest and Digest": How We Relax

Many people view getting a massage as a special treat as a reward after trying for  months to reach a specific goal or after struggling with a challenge for a long period of time.  Yes, Swedish massage makes a great, non-caloric reward and a session will help relieve any muscle or mental tension that may have accumulated while striving to complete the specific task.  However, regularly scheduled massage sessions help you activate your "rest and digest" nervous system which gives your body time to recover and restore balance.  

Swedish massage helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system  -  the "rest and digest" system.  Everyone has an involuntary nervous system, aka the Autonomic Nervous System, which includes the following two systems:

  1. The sympathetic nervous system (the "fight or flight") which helps you respond to a perceived pending danger, and 
  2. The parasympathetic nervous system (the "rest and digest ") which helps return your systems to normal or homeostasis when you're not in perceived danger. 

The two systems can't share the spotlight; only one works at a time.  Here's an example of a fight or flight response resulting from a 21st century problem: distracted walking while texting.  Imagine you're responding to a text message while walking across a busy street.  When you hear tires screeching and a car horn blaring in your direction, an act of survival would be to look up, determine your surroundings and move out of the way of any approaching vehicle.  At the moment you realize a car is headed in your direction, your fight or flight nervous system activates.  Your involuntary nervous system will automatically start or stop body functions needed to immediately preserve life.    

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When the fight or flight system activates, the following may occur:

  • heart rate increases and places more pressure on your blood vessels
  • muscles contract 
  • endocrine system releases adrenaline
  • pupils dilate
  • saliva production is inhibited

Modern times have created scenarios in which the fight or flight response may be chronically activated.  The morning commute on a heavily congested highway, the constant news feed of negative events occurring everywhere and in your local area, the demands due to an unreasonable workload, the perceived inability to live life as lavishly as friends on Instagram, Facebook or other social media - these could also trigger the fight or flight response.  Repeatedly activating the fight or flight response on a regular basis may lead to health problems resulting from over-use of the endocrine and cardiovascular systems.

The rest and digest system helps relax the body and return it to a state of equilibrium/ homeostasis after the fight or flight system isn't needed.  

While the parasympathetic system is operating, the nerves related to the craniosacral (i.e., the base of your brain and the area above your tailbone) work to restore balance to help you rest and digest (i.e., perform the functions needed to sustain life).  Twelve cranial nerves play an active role in the rest and digest system.  For today, we'll focus on the vagus nerve which runs from the brain to the heart, lungs and stomach and has both sensory and motor functions.  Meaning it can provide external information from the environment to the brain and take direction from the brain to create an action within the body.  

Going back to our earlier example of distracted walking, let's say you've made it safely across the street and the person you texted has arrived to meet you at the coffee shop for a bite to eat.  You two settle into a quiet corner and begin to sip your coffee while eating a pastry.   While you're eating, the vagus nerve senses the intake of food then signals your brain which activates the parasympathetic nervous system; thus, triggering the following:

  • your heart rate slows down
  • endocrine system decreases the norepinephrine that had been produced by the sympathetic nervous system
  • saliva production increases
  • muscles relax

You begin to feel relaxed and you enjoy your snack.  With both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems impacting the same organs (e.g., heart, lungs, kidneys), you benefit from reducing the number of fight or flight responses in your life; doing so gives your body time to rest, relax and to heal.

Because you may not be able to schedule your next Swedish massage as soon as you'd like to take a break from a seemingly recurring fight or flight response mode, here are some simple steps to help you activate your parasympathetic system.  Choose one or use all of the steps to help you start your rest and digest nervous system. 

For each step, start in a calm environment with minimal disruptions (if needed step into the nearest restroom or study room in a public library). 

1. Deep Breathing.  Breathing through your nose take in enough air to fill your lungs, feel them rise toward your chin as you continue to inhale and feel your belly extend with air.  While exhaling through your mouth, squeeze your abdominal muscles to assist in letting the air out.  Repeat at least five times; each time feel the change in your body as you inhale and exhale. 

2. Contract and Release Muscles.  Starting with your toes, squeeze tightly for about five seconds then release your muscles.  Take time to feel the release of tension in each set of muscles as you proceed.  Do one group of muscles at at time.  A recommended sequence starts with your toes, calves, upper leg muscles (i.e., hamstrings and quadriceps), glutes, abdominal muscles, hands, arms, shoulders, eyes then forehead.  

3. Use Essential Oil.  Mix one to two drops of lavender essential oil with a carrier oil (e.g., jojoba oil, fractionated coconut oil, grapeseed oil) and swab it with a cotton ball or cotton tip.  Place a dab of the topical ointment  behind your ear and hold it under your nose as you take at least five deep breaths.

Photo of distracted walker courtesy of LinkedIn Sales Navigator

Source: http://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00049