What is Health?
Traditionally we think about health as in cold and flu symptoms: coughing, sneezing, congestion, vomiting, stuck in bed for days.
If we don’t have that then great! We are healthy, we can go about our days doing whatever we need to without another thought.
But over the last 10-15 years the healthcare community has begun to try and broaden peoples perspectives of what health truly is and have created this concept of wellness.
The wellness paradigm consists of a healthy diet, regular exercise, quality sleep, and reduced mental and physical stress.
Even though this paradigm is very good, there is something lacking from it. When we start to look at how our bodies actually work, we begin to realise what the missing link it is.
The body functions as a whole, not in isolated systems and organs. With this in mind, it becomes necessary to consider how the body communicates and coordinates these systems to create health.
Our nervous system, which includes our brain spinal cord and nerves, is this missing link, our master control centre. It acts similar to an orchestra conductor: telling particular areas of the symphony that is our body to play louder and faster while others to slow and quiet down. At the same time it works as a communication system similar to the postal service or an email service, sending messages back and forth from all aspects of the body, so that it knows everything that is happening in our environment both on the inside of our body and the world around us.
So when we begin to truly consider what is health?, we have to look at how well we function, and how well we function as one complete unit beginning with our control center, the nervous system.
When we start diving into the world of neurology it can quickly and easily become complicated and confusing. My aim in writing this is to not just simplify it, but give you a concept of health and function which will give you a foundation of understanding of how the body works. As well as at the end provide some avenues you can do to improve and maintain it.
As I mentioned, our nervous system, and in this case the brain, is constantly communicating and coordinating every other system of the body. Whether it’s the heart, lungs, kidneys, postural muscles, digestive tract, or our immune system, our Nervous system plays a role in their function.
How is our brain able to do this?
One major way is through it connection to every internal organ through our ANS or automatic (autonomic) nervous system. Our ANS is commonly comprised of two divisions that play a balancing act or see-saw effect in order to keep our health and function level.
We have our Sympathetic Nervous System aka fight or flight system or our Reactionary System. We also have our Parasympathetic Nervous System aka rest and digest, or our relaxation system.
When we experience a stressor our Sympathetic system kicks in to respond to it, it helps us adapt to it. When the stressor is gone, our Parasympathetic system tells us to relax and rest. Through this balancing act they create a baseline at a middle ground between the two states.
Now here is the thing about stress, that frightful word, which we experience at just hearing the sound of it. Stress is constant it’s always around us, it’s even necessary, and it’s not all bad.
A simple stress is moving from a cold environment outside to a warm one inside. In the cold environment our blood is shunted to our heart, lungs and brain to protect them and so our skin gets cold. When we transition temperature, our bodies react and we realise we are no longer in danger. Our parasympathetic system tells us that we can relax, blood is shunted back to our skin and we warm up.
A extreme stress is if we are out in the woods and we see a bear. All of a sudden our heart rate and breathing quickens, our pupils dilate to allow us to see more, blood rushes from our skin to our internal organs to protect them, as well as into our flexor muscles in case we need to run or fight off any danger, our digestive tract slows down, and our liver creates pre-inflammatory molecules in case we get cut we can stop the bleeding. This is all sympathetic reaction. But then the bear walks off, and we realise we are no longer in danger, and our heart rate and breathing slow, blood rushes away from our internal organs and back to our skin, our muscles relax, digestion begins again, and our pre-inflammatory molecules are recycled.
So stress is necessary to our survival, it allows are bodies to respond and adapt to our every day life and relax and recuperate each night.
The Problem with Stress
The problem with stress is when our nervous systems either doesn’t respond appropriately or it can’t respond. Our neurological baseline begins to shift and we get stuck towards one extreme or the other.
Either we become under stimulated and in an overly parasympathetic state, or we become over stimulated and overly sympathetic state. When this happens every aspect of our bodily function and health can be effected.
Being under stimulated contributes to poor or slow connections and communication in our nervous system. Our arousal or activation centers are stuck in idle, rather than kicking our bodily systems into action. Since nothing works in isolation this can result in problems with coordination and posture, ability to focus and be organized, behavior, as well as immune and digestive function.
When people become over stimulated their bodies are in constant react mode, and so they can not adapt appropriately to the world around them. If their bodies are taxed than they can’t control their postural or spinal muscles and they may experience back and neck pain. They can’t adequately shunt blood and they may experience migraines or headaches.
When we become neurologically exhausted from being in a constant state of reaction, our nervous system fatigues and we can not adequately coordinate our gut function leading toward poor absorption (vitamin deficiencies) or leaky gut (allowing everything in) contributing to food sensitivities and inflammation. This can ultimately impact our immune systems ability to protect us from invaders, be able to fight them off, or target the correct molecules. Being under constant fatigue ultimately affects our mood, outlook on life and our ability to heal and recover.
But wait a minute this is a conversation about wellness, it’s about improving our health and function for prevention.
Here’s the thing: Prevention begins where the source of health begins and that is with a fully functioning nervous system.
Our brains possess an extraordinary ability to change and grow strong in its connectivity. This is known as neuroplasticity. Our brains can become exhausted and shrink but at the same time given the appropriate stimulation, and allowing ourselves to relax and rest over time we can shift ourselves and our brains back to baseline; making a majority of these problems reversible.
In order to prevent any of this occurring, continually strengthening our brains ability to communicate and coordinate is critical.
So how do we do it?
This brings us back to our wellness paradigm and the reason it’s a pyramid. All of these help improve brain function. Eating a healthy well balance diet, low in sugar and processed foods, exercising at least 30 mins per day with a combination of cardio and resistance activity, finding ways to create a positive mental outlook (like gratitude journaling, meditation, mindfulness, prayer, counselling), and getting 7-8 hours of quality restful sleep all improve brain function. Improving brain function also allows us to be able to and have a desire to do all of these.
At Berkhamsted Chiropractic, we help provide guidance and therapeutic services to help improve nervous system function, mental and physical wellbeing. Those services include
So I ask you again, what is health?
Health is about function, our ability to interact with our environment both inside and out, continuously and appropriately responding adapting and relaxing to necessary stress, and maintaining a well functioning nervous system that is in constant coordination and communication of every aspect of our bodies.
by Nate Bogedain DC M.Sc
Nate is a chiropractor with a background in functional neurology and sports medicine. He has been helping people optimise their health and neuromusculoskeletal system since 2014