Written by: Colleen Gerson
While we all take measures to support our immune system and one another, one of the most potent tools we have in supporting our immunity is tending to our nervous systems and deepening our connection with ourselves and the natural world.
Our nervous system is of course the backbone of our mental and emotional wellbeing – but did you know that it’s also deeply interwoven with our immune response?
It’s true. Our nervous system is always in need of help in our modern, fast-paced ways of living, with endless streams of notifications and demands, internal and family dynamics, increasing awareness of climate and social conflicts, and so forth. Now throw in a pandemic and collapsing economies and we’re all likely feeling frayed and unsettled. Living has always been a risky business, fraught with challenge and discomfort – yet fertile and resilient nonetheless.
Whether you’re on the front lines, or at home juggling parenthood and homeschooling and somehow work or unemployment, isolated at home alone and running out of distractions, or drifting in boredom or confusion, we’re all in this together, holding one another up and taking it all one step at a time.
Know this: while navigating our external conditions and internal worries, we are not just feeling our own stress and grief, but that of our family, our community, and the global collective. That is a lot to feel and process, and none of us really know what’s happening or what to do about it all just yet. So please foster compassion and patience for yourself right now, and for one another. Now more than ever, it’s essential to prioritize self- and social care, to remain resourced through hard times.
What’s stress got to do with it?
In times of chronic or acute stress, our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is activated; you may know this as the “fight, flight, or freeze” reactive survival mode. Cortisol and adrenaline spike, which increase inflammation and suppress the immune system. In our fast-paced, information-overloaded lives, we can unknowingly live chronically in this state; and now, with a global crisis, we’re all at a heightened level of anxiety.
However, we have a power within our brilliant bodies. When we consciously support our body in down-regulating into a Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) state, we shift into the restorative, digestive, reproductive and reparative mode of being. This reduces inflammation and supports our immune functioning and other systems – and also our mental and emotional wellbeing, and our ability to tend to others from a more grounded place.
We can drink the green juice and take all the supplements, but if we’re in a consistent state of stress or anxiety, it’s going to impact our health and immunity on our core level. So, we really want to prioritize soothing stress and nourishing our nervous system daily in little meaningful ways.
These tools are invaluable always, but now more than ever we’re being invited to tune inward, to see what’s in our homes, our hearts, our bodies, and learn how we can nourish our reserves so we feel healthy and able to move through challenges more skillfully.
Firstly, we have to consider setting boundaries around the media we’re consuming. With so much information coming at us from all directions and viewpoints, we’re easily glued to the machines, watching the play-by-play or debating theories, and it’s not always productive or healthy.
For our nervous system and sanity, we can create boundaries around what hours to tune into the updates, or commit to unplugging from our devices for a good chunk of each day. This is a time for you to unplug from the outside world and plug into what you can control in the present moment to feel good. With my clients, we often dedicate the first and last hour of the day to unplugging from digital devices and the outside world, and therefore bookending the day with tuning into our internal needs. I’ve so often seen such a dramatic impact from this step alone.
The depth of our breath is the gateway to our heart and our nervous system.
We can activate our Parasympathetic Nervous Systems by stimulating our Vagus Nerve, the complex sensory nerve that connects our brain to our vital organs. The most effective and always accessible tool for stimulating this nerve and improving our vagal tone and stress response is through deep belly breaths.
Bringing awareness and deepening your breath whenever you feel stressed or anxious, and incorporating conscious breath as a daily practice through meditation, yoga, and/or guided breathwork for 5-15 minutes, can make a big impact. The air is also cleaner now, so soak it up.
Routine and Rituals
With our usual routines disrupted and maybe our days melting together as one, creating a new rhythm can help. It’s exhausting for our unconscious mind to not know what’s happening each day, so creating some level of routine helps our mind and nervous system feel more at ease and safe. Try writing out a new flow for right now, a basic framework that would feel both good and doable.
Don’t forget to schedule in your self-care or solo time. Whether that’s unplug time, taking a bath, nature walks, digital dance seshes, fantasy novels, or facetime with family – calendar it in. Carving out 30 minutes or an hour a day for what feeds your body and heart will let your nervous system know, amidst it all, you got you.
We explored this a bit in the Immune System blog – eating wholesome foods to give your body the nutrients it needs to be supported and resourced. Foods like broths and soups, sweet potatoes, grains, lentils, animal proteins, mushrooms, roots like beets and carrots, and even dark chocolate (organic and fair trade of course), are nature’s comfort foods for our nervous system, and more nutrient-rich than all the baking we’re probably doing (though that banana bread has its place too).
Additionally, many of these grounding foods are also rich in prebiotics which feed the probiotic “good bacteria” in our guts, and research is continually uncovering the many ways in which our gut microbiome influences our mental and emotional wellbeing. Stress influences our gut bacteria and our gut bacteria influences stress. Lacking diversity in beneficial bacteria, as well as overpopulation of yeasts or inflammatory microbes in our gut, can increase brain chemicals that promote anxiety and depression. Incorporating prebiotic foods as well as probiotic-rich fermented foods daily may not satiate our craving for comforting sweets, but they’re far more effective in the long run.
My clients often find that dairy, gluten, or alcohol actually cause anxiety for them for a day or so following. If this is a time of slowing down for you, then it’s a perfect time to get curious and tune into how your go-to comforts may be affecting you on a deeper level, and with that same curiosity and compassion, exploring approaches that may feel more grounding and supportive (more in the plants section below).
As we move into the warmer months, lots of fresh produce and lighter foods become more abundant, so weave them in as they’re available and calling to you. Consider limiting processed sugary or caffeinated food and drink that disrupt your blood sugar and nervous system, and connecting with gifts from nature in every possible way. Think warm grain and veggie bowls with protein and some kimchi, or a beautiful salad topped with protein and cultured beet sauerkraut.
There are SO many plants that could be listed here. Plants are ancient healers and have helped us to thrive and adapt to stresses in our environment from the beginning of our time.
Like us, they’re multifaceted. Many can be classified as nervines which specifically support the nervous system, can help relieve muscle and mind tension, and some even help regenerate healthy nerve tissue. Some of our favorites that are more easily accessible include kava kava, oat straw, lemon balm, and chamomile.
Kava kava is the strongest of these and great when we really need something potent to help wind us down, open the heart, move grief or loss, and feel deeply supported. It’s also a wonderful aphrodisiac, so it can help get us into our bodies and in the mood, if our stress or “headiness” is getting in the way of our libido and feeling pleasure.
For more daily, gentle nervine support, sip oat straw or lemon balm tea throughout the day, or a cup of chamomile tea to calm down in the evening. Lemon balm and oat straw are similar in their calming yet uplifting qualities, and delicious. Chamomile is a time-tested cup of sunshine and anxious belly-soother, safe and effective for all including children, who are likely feeling the stress through this experience as well.
Adaptogens are plants and fungi that also help to ground our nervous system, support our immune system, and help our body as a whole to adapt to stress in our internal and external environment to create homeostasis. Some of our favorite adaptogens are licorice, tulsi, rhodiola, cordyceps, and reishi. Any one of these is incredible, depending on what you can access or enjoy.
Licorice is one of the primary herbs proven to support our stress response in regulating cortisol and nourishing our adrenals, and it’s naturally sweet so tickles that desire. Tulsi and Rhodiola are incredible adaptogens that also support regulating cortisol, and I think of them when wanting to support hormone balance through the reproductive and nervous systems.
Coffee and sugary things are delicious and can help us push through stress or tasks in the moment, however they can be depleting and imbalancing in their nature especially with constant use. Weaving in some of these potent plants regularly can help to soothe anxiety and replenish our energy reserves and capacity to handle stress. Stay tuned to our IGTV, as we’ll share some elixir recipes soon.
CBD, of course
We know by now that cannabis and hemp are proving to be strong allies in balancing our stress response and supporting relaxation (particularly the sun-grown and low-THC varieties). Our endocannabinoid system, which helps to bring balance to many body systems and organs, is also closely woven with our adrenal and nervous systems, particularly that of the parasympathetic.
Many cannabinoid CB1 receptors are found along the vagus nerve, which contains about 75% of all parasympathetic neurons. Phytocannabinoids plug into these receptors along that crucial nerve, adrenal system, and brain, and can help support harmony in our mood and other bodily functions (such as digestion and immune function) (1). Beyond activating the receptors themselves, CBD has also been shown to slow the breakdown of cannabinoids in the body by inhibiting fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which seems to help our own cannabinoids stick around longer and be utilized, similar in essence to SSRI’s (2).
Time in nature radically reduces stress and boosts mood, even for days afterwards. Now more than ever, while we may be feeling cooped up or isolated, the earth is there to offer deep grounding support and relief.
Whether it’s the grounding contact with earth and soil, or the uplifting plant terpenes in the air, the Vitamin D produced through our skin from time in sunshine, the visual majesty of the more-than-human natural world – nothing else can do quite what nature does.
For many of us, the beaches, parks and trails may be closed, but we can still find ways to connect with nature at or near our home. Take a walk, sit with potted plants, feel the sun, lay your belly on the ground, and feel your heartbeat and breath slow to the tempo of the earth.
Move it and Release It
We know the vast benefits of exercise for our physical body composition, health, and slowing of aging, but the mental clarity and mood-boosting, stress-relieving qualities of physical exercise, especially in times of stress or grief, are what make it so vital right now. Getting just 30 minutes of light to moderate exercise per day is shown to activate our endocannabinoid system, improve our parasympathetic tone, relieve stress, boost mood, and support sleep.
Grief is also believed to be stored in the lungs, and some good cardio helps to open that up for release. When I have experienced deep grief, one of the best medicines has been moving my body and deepening my breath through exercise and breathwork, to really move it through and out. When we’re stressed or depressed, exercise can be the last thing we want to do, yet if we give ourselves that nudge it can be the most impactful.
There are many wonderful beings and programs offering digital dance or workout classes right now. . We’re legit superfans and think you will be too. We also love YogaGlo, for guided yoga, pilates, and meditations.
Physical distancing does not have to mean social distancing or isolation. Technology allows us the wonderful ability to stay connected to our family, friends, and community via many different platforms. Yes, it’s not the same as being close physically with loved ones, feeling that energy exchange, and doing all the things out in the world, but we can still connect for phone calls, video calls, family dinner via Zoom or Facetime, or joining an online book club, Netflix party, digital dance class, etc. Even if you’re an introvert and don’t mind the quiet work from home, connecting with others is important for our mental and emotional health, particularly when we feel low or under-resourced.
Likewise, this is also a potent time to tune into our deepest desires, to rekindle our relationship with our bodies and our minds, when we may have tossed some much-needed care aside for the demands of a busy “productive” life. So too this may be with our romantic other, or our children or family unit as a whole; perhaps we’re re-learning now how to cultivate deeper intimacy, presence, and gratitude for the small and simple gifts. These are all medicine too, for our nervous systems and our hearts.
Through this strange and challenging time and beyond, let’s remember to breathe deep, to stay connected to our body and collective strength and resilience. Proactively managing our stress levels with plants and practices to calm our nervous systems is one of the best things we can do right now, to support our health as well as the health of the collective. We hope this information and invitation helps, we hope our gifts from the garden help, and we hope for you all to stay home for now, stay healthy, and breathe a little deeper – together, but apart. This document is only intended to identify modalities that may support your nervous system. It is not meant to recommend any treatments, nor have any of these modalities been proven effective against coronavirus. Always consult your physician or healthcare provider prior to using any of these herbs or modalities, especially if pregnant, nursing, or . For up-to-date information on COVID-19, please consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov.
- Burdyga, Galina et al. “Expression of cannabinoid CB1 receptors by vagal afferent neurons: kinetics and role in influencing neurochemical phenotype.” American journal of physiology. Gastrointestinal and liver physiology vol. 299,1 (2010): G63-9. doi:10.1152/ajpgi.00059.2010
- Source: Uberto Pagotto, Giovanni Marsicano, Daniela Cota, Beat Lutz, Renato Pasquali; The Emerging Role of the Endocannabinoid System in Endocrine Regulation and Energy Balance, Endocrine Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 February 2006, Pages 73–100, https://doi.org/10.1210/er.2005-0009
- Carnevali, L, and A Sgoifo. “Vagal Modulation of Resting Heart Rate in Rats: the Role of Stress, Psychosocial Factors, and Physical Exercise.” PubMed.gov, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 24 Mar. 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24715877