Just want the cliff notes? Scroll to the last header “Practical Applications.” Enjoy!
Foreword: Nervous System States
The nervous system is our control center…often unconscious…like breathing.
The autonomic nervous system has two sides, like a coin, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. And like a coin, when one side is turned up the other is turned down. They are inverse of each other.
Sympathetic Nervous System: “Fight or Flight” | Energy metabolism and sensory processing are heightened, the digestive and immune systems are suppressed.
Parasympathetic Nervous System: “Rest & Digest” | Recovery is turned on…tissue repair, muscle synthesis, digestion, storage, anabolic hormones produced, etc.
Want more on nervous system states? Listen to Episode #008 of The Fitness Movement Podcast: Shift State
State & Nutrition | Not a One-Way Street
For years the fitness community has lied to you.
Maybe not directly, but certainly by way of omission.
We have been given the following script.
“If you are stressed (sympathetic) you will crave sugar and processed foods.”
This is true. However, it is also misleading. It paints a picture of a one-way street. Never does the conversation go further. That’s it…the end.
This one-way thinking is like only ever saying, “You chest breathe when you are stressed.” Okay true…but that on its own isn’t helpful and there is so much more to it. Not only does this skirt the entire conversation of ‘optimal,’ but it also fails to admit you can regulate nervous system state with your behaviors. You can act…not just be acted upon.
The old view fails to acknowledge that it is possible to be in control and know how to turn up (sympathetic) or down (parasympathetic) on command.
The Impact on Nutrition on Nervous System States
In reality, state and nutrition are a two-way street. It goes both ways. If you eat sugary, high-glycemic index (GI) foods you will likely enter into a sympathetic state. Likewise, if you eat natural, low GI foods you will likely enter into a parasympathetic state.
But that’s just the beginning. If we stop here we give away control. It is possible to use nutrition as a tool to manipulate state…just like the breath.
The following is a more accurate representation of nutrition’s role on state.
If you eat high GI foods, you can facilitate yourself entering or staying in a sympathetic state.
If you eat low GI foods, you will encourage the parasympathetic state (if you are already in that state).
Want to learn how I optimize nutrition for performance?
Listen to #007 of The Fitness Movement: CrossFit Competition Nutrition.
If you are in a sympathetic state (e.g. just finished a workout) and you are told to eat something ‘healthy’ (let’s say vegetables) it will do one of two things.
1) It could bring you down from your sympathetic state to facilitate digestion and recovery.
2) It could be perceived as an additional stressor by your body and cause an even bigger sympathetic, inflammatory response.
If you are unable to tone down your nervous system after your workout and you choose to eat something ordinarily considered healthy (vegetables) it will actually be one of the worst things you could do to your body. In fact, it could be an aggression to your body if you are unable to process it.
If this is the case you have two options once again.
1) LEARN. Learn to control your state and return to the parasympathetic side of the coin quicker after your workout so you can eat low-GI foods.
2) ACCEPT. Accept that you are unable to down-regulate your nervous system and that you must fuel in the sympathetic state with high-GI foods.
Intuitively this makes sense…
…if you are mid-workout (sympathetic) you have zero desire to stop and eat some broccoli.
…if you just finished a big meal (parasympathetic) you want nothing to do with a hard workout.
Doing the opposite of what feels natural to your current state will either cause a hard shift in state or prolong the current state. For example -eating broccoli mid-workout- either indigestion because you continue in stress or an end of the stress (stop workout & relax).
For more check out this video by Julien Pineau of StrongFit
Application 1: Learn to Control Your State with Your Nutrition
Teach yourself to use healthy foods as a trigger for your body to down-regulate.
Example: If you are ingesting food directly before or during a hard workout (sympathetic) you eat easily digestible foods that have carbohydrate (sugar) content because it does not need to be broken down (digestion). If an athlete eat foods high in fat and/or fiber when sympathetic, the food will not be digested. In this circumstance, food that causes less GI distress is the most healthy. Conversely, eating foods that are traditionally thought of as healthy will provide an additional stressor, making them unhealthy.
Example: If you are finished with your workout, you will accelerate the recovery process (parasympathetic) via diaphragm breathing, getting to a quiet and cool place to lower excitement level and eat ‘healthy’ foods that will require a rest & digest (parasympathetic state).
Sample Protocol [After challenging, lactic workout]
Step 1: Assault Bike 150-200 watts, 8-10 minutes or until feeling and breathing normally again
Step 2: Passive Mobility, 3-4 Stretches, 90-120s per stretch, Pair with Parasympathetic Breath Work Protocol
Step 3: Find quiet place to continue parasympathetic breath work protocol. A quiet car on the ride home would work. 7-10 minutes of 3s Inhale, 7s Exhale. Manipulate breath duration so it require focus but is relaxing rather than stressful.
Application 2: If you Can’t Control Your State, Let State Dictate Food Type
If you are stressed and can’t become unstressed, foods traditionally considered healthy are harmful.
Example: If you can’t calm down, stop sweating and become hungry within 15-45 minutes after your workout to eat a ‘healthy’ meal, then you are better off with a protein + carb shake that lacks fat and fiber.
Example: If you went through a hard breakup with a significant other and can’t console yourself, eating a serving of ice cream may be better than eating a big meal of meat and vegetables that sits in your gut, unable to be digested.
Example: If you are competing in a multiple event competition and have a max snatch event up next (sympathetic system needed) you are best served with something quickly digestible, high-carb and low-fat.
If you sitting there wondering what you should with this information, don’t overthink it.
The easiest way to control your state is to control your breathing.
Breathing -as Brian Mackenzie calls its- is the “remote control to your brain.”
If you want higher levels of performance and to maximize your recoverability between hard workouts, you have to learn how to breathe properly.
This is the biggest problem I work to solve in Breath Work for the Sport of Fitness. If you don’t know where to start, that’s an excellent place to go.
Breath Work for the Sport of Fitness
A Guide to Nervous System States, Tier II Skills & Optimal Arousal
Do you find yourself resting between movements to catch your breath?
Let me help you plug the holes in your fitness revealing your untapped potential.