What Happens to Your Body When You Relax
Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on August 25, 2020
What Is the Relaxation Response?
It’s one name for what happens when your parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of your body functions. This part of your nervous system regulates the work of your organs and glands while you’re at rest. Your relaxation response kicks in when you feel safe. It can actually block effects from your body’s response to stress. These changes are good for your mental and physical health.
Your Heart Rate Slows
Stress triggers activity in your sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of your body functions in dangerous situations. This “fight or flight” response sends out hormones called catecholamines to speed up your heart. But relaxation lets your body know it’s OK to save energy. Your parasympathetic system takes over and releases a hormone called acetylcholine. That slows your heart rate down.
Your Blood Pressure Goes Down
Stress hormones can speed up your heart rate and tighten your blood vessels. That temporarily raises your blood pressure. The opposite happens when you relax. If you have high blood pressure, relaxation methods like meditation may help you manage stress and lower your chances of heart disease. (But don’t stop taking your medicine unless your doctor says it’s OK.)
Your Digestion Gets Better
When stress causes the “fight or flight” reaction, your digestion gets put on hold as blood moves toward your larger muscles. Relaxation reverses this process. It also lowers inflammation that can hurt your gut. Stress plays a role in many digestive problems, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Calming techniques like deep breathing or meditation might help with your symptoms
Your Breathing Slows Down
“Take a deep breath,” you might tell someone who’s in a panic. There’s a good reason for that. When you’re stressed, breathing speeds up. Breathing too fast may lead to low levels of carbon dioxide in your blood, which could make you dizzy and weak. But relaxation slows your breathing rate. You can also help yourself relax with slow, controlled breathing, around 6 breaths a minute.
Your Muscles Relax
Your body stiffens when you feel threatened, whether from a bear in the woods or a deadline at work. Usually, muscle tension eases when you calm down. But long-lasting stress can lead to tense muscles nearly all the time. If you have a hard time relaxing, ask your doctor about biofeedback. It uses sensors to give you feedback about your body’s functions. That helps you learn how to release muscle tension.
You Hurt Less
Relaxation doesn’t get rid of your aches, but it can turn down the volume a little. Relaxed muscles hurt less. And relaxation prompts your brain to release endorphins, chemicals that act as natural painkillers. Studies show relaxation techniques like meditation can lessen pain from conditions like fibromyalgia, migraine, chronic pelvic pain, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
You Have Better Blood Sugar Control
Stress hormones can make your blood sugar rise. And if you have diabetes, the effort it takes to manage your condition may amp up your stress. Relaxation can help you get a handle on your blood sugar (though it can’t take the place of medicine). To get there, exercise regularly and get enough sleep. Try relaxation practices like meditation or yoga to help you mellow out further.
Your Immune System Works Better
Long-lasting stress makes it harder for your body to fight off infections. But deep relaxation can help your immune system recover. You can get there with the help of techniques like progressive muscle relaxation. That’s where you tense, then relax, each muscle group one by one. It’s even more important to manage your worries as you age. Your immune function naturally declines over time.
You Sleep Better
Sometimes, you might be unable to doze off even when you’re worn out. This “tired but wired” state is a sign you’re still in “fight or flight” mode. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing can help switch on your relaxation response. They’re sometimes used as a treatment for insomnia.
How Can You Relax?
Some people unwind while they garden, cook, or read. Others pray or meditate. Or you can explore techniques like:
• Visual imagery
• Progressive muscle relaxation
• Deep breathing
If you’re not sure how to get started, ask your doctor to refer you to a specialist who teaches relaxation training.
Try the Benson Method
This technique was created by Herbert Benson, MD, the heart doctor who first described the relaxation response. Here’s what you do:
• Sit down, making sure you’re comfortable.
• Close your eyes.
• Gradually relax all of your muscles, starting at your feet and working your way up.
• Breathe through your nose.
• Pay attention to your breath.
Do this for about 20 minutes. Then sit with your eyes closed for a few minutes.
Surprising Signs You’re Not Moving Enough
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 22, 2021
When you move more, your colon moves more, and it’s easier to poop on schedule. Healthy muscle tone in your abs and diaphragm is also key to moving waste through your digestive tract. Consistent exercise can help you stay regular, especially as you age.
Your Joints are Stiff
Achy, hard-to-move joints can sometimes be a sign of inflammatory conditions like arthritis or an autoimmune disease. But joints can also stiffen when you don’t use them enough. Put them to work so they don’t lock up and cause you pain.
You’re Always Out of Breath
Just like biceps get weaker when you don’t use them, the muscles that help your lungs move in and out as you breathe lose strength if you don’t work them out regularly. The less activity you do, the more breathless you get, even during easy daily tasks.
A lack of movement hurts more than just your physical health. It can also increase feelings of anxiety and depression. Get your blood pumping on the regular. Cardio exercises like walking, biking, swimming, or running, will boost and steady your mood, and even improve your self-esteem.
Your Tank’s Always Low
Feel sluggish and tired most of the time? Exercise helps deliver oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. If you spend most of your time sitting, they aren’t getting the same amount of fuel they need to keep you going.
Your Metabolism’s Slower
People with “fast” metabolism may just move more — even if that movement is fidgeting. The more active you are, the more calories you burn each time you move.
Your Sleep’s Shot
If you’re tired of counting sheep at night, get up and get moving during the day. When you keep a regular exercise routine, you fall asleep faster, and you sleep deeper once you drift off.
You’re Forgetting Things
Regular exercise tells your body to make more chemicals called growth factors. They boost blood vessel production in your brain. The more blood that gets to your brain, the better you can think, remember, and make decisions.
Your Blood Pressure’s Up
Spending most of your time sitting raises your risk of heart disease. That’s partly because you’re more likely to have high blood pressure, a big risk factor for heart issues like coronary artery disease and heart attack.
You Have Prediabetes
When physical activity is a regular part of your life, your body has an easier time keeping your blood glucose under control. Stable blood sugar levels keep you out of the type 2 diabetes danger zone.
Your Back Hurts
When your core muscles are weak from lack of use, they can’t support your back the way they should. This makes it much easier to tweak your back muscles during everyday movements like standing or reaching. Pilates, yoga, and other exercises that use stretching are good for building a stronger back.
You Always Want to Nosh
Seems like you’d be hungry more often if you exercised more, but the opposite is usually true. Aerobic exercise like biking, swimming, walking, and running can actually decrease your appetite because it changes the levels of certain “hunger hormones” in your body.
You’re Sick A lot
Studies show the more moderate activity you get, the lower your chance of catching a cold or other germs. When you make exercise a habit, your immune system gets stronger.
Your Skin has Lost Its Shine
If your skin looks duller than usual, a lack of movement may be to blame. Some studies show that moderate exercise boosts your circulation and your immune system, which helps your skin keep that youthful glow.
The pace and challenges of modern life make stress management necessary for everyone.
To monitor your stress, first identify your stress triggers. What makes you feel angry, tense, worried or irritable? Do you often get headaches or an upset stomach with no medical cause? Is it hard to focus or do you have trouble sleeping at night?
Some stressors, such as job pressures, relationship problems, a busy schedule or financial concerns, are easy to identify. Recently many people have had to deal with issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic as well. But daily hassles and demands, such as waiting in a long line or being late to a meeting, also contribute to your stress level.
Even essentially positive events, such as getting married or buying a house, can be stressful. Any change to your life can cause stress.
Once you’ve identified your stress triggers, think about strategies for dealing with them. Identifying what you can and can’t control is a good starting point. For example, if stress keeps you up at night, the solution may be as easy as removing the TV and computer from your bedroom and letting your mind wind down before bed.
Other times, such as when stress is based on high demands at work or a loved one’s illness, you might be able to change only your reaction.
Don’t feel like you have to figure it out on your own. Seek help and support from family and friends, whether you need someone to listen to you, help with child care or a ride to work when your car is being repaired.
Manage your time and prioritize your tasks and commitments. Within reason, set the agenda for your time and energy. Figure out what’s most important or what commitments you can say no to. Get rid of commitments that aren’t important.
Many people benefit from practices such as deep breathing, tai chi, yoga, meditation, mindfulness or being in nature. Set aside time for yourself. Get a massage, soak in a bubble bath, dance, listen to music, watch a comedy — whatever helps you relax.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help you manage stress. Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get enough sleep. Make a conscious effort to spend less time in front of a screen — television, tablet, computer and phone — and more time relaxing.
Avoid using alcohol or drugs to manage stress.
Stress won’t disappear from your life. And stress management needs to be ongoing. But by paying attention to what causes your stress and practicing ways to relax, you can counter some of the bad effects of stress and increase your ability to cope with challenges. You can reduce your stress level, improve your quality of life, improve your ability to focus, have better relationships and improve your self-control. If your stress gets worse, you might find it helpful to talk to a mental health professional.
Sales of Unproven, Unapproved Stem Cell Therapies Are Booming
By Robert Preidt
MONDAY, Nov. 8, 2021 (HealthDay News) — The sale of unproven and unapproved stem cell treatments has skyrocketed in the United States, according to a new five-year study.
The study found a fourfold jump since 2016 in the availability of the treatments, which claim to do everything from relieving pain to slowing aging.
People who use these treatments are needlessly spending thousands of dollars and could be putting their health at risk, study author Leigh Turner warned.
“One of the most troubling features of this marketplace is that businesses selling unproven and non-FDA-approved stem cell products often use marketing misrepresentations and aggressive sales tactics to exploit the hope, suffering, fear or desperation of patients,” said Turner, a professor of health, society and behavior at the University of California (UC), Irvine.
Using online search tools, the study identified 1,480 U.S. businesses and 2,754 clinics offering purported stem cell treatments. That compares to 351 businesses and 570 clinics that did so five years ago.
The United States now has more locations offering such treatments than any other country, including those that were once hot spots for so-called “stem cell tourism,” the findings showed.
Stem cell therapy, also known as regenerative medicine, has resulted in life-saving treatment of patients with certain types of cancer and blood diseases. But the safety and effectiveness of stem cell products needs further testing, according to a university news release.
In this study, the states with the highest number of stem cell clinics are California (347), Texas (333) and Florida (310).
The findings were published online Nov. 4 in the journal Cell Stem Cell.
“Many of these ‘clinics’ are promoting unlicensed and unproven stem cell products and claim their interventions do not require FDA approval,” said Turner, a member of UC-Irvine’s stem cell research center and ethics leader at its Institute for Clinical and Translational Science. “However, that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Turner said there is widespread promotion of products that do require authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before marketing.
“In many cases, these clinics are using misleading advertising and predatory marketing techniques,” he warned.
Claims about the treatments include helping with pain (85%+), orthopedic diseases and injuries (46%+), and sports-related injuries (22%+). The claims range from helping with hair loss and slowing the aging process to strengthening the immune system to protect against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Out-of-pocket costs for the treatments range from $1,200 to $28,000, with an average of about $5,100.
Unproven and unapproved stem cell products pose numerous risks to patients and have caused some serious harm to some, according to Turner, who added that the situation is likely to continue unless the FDA and other agencies step up enforcement.
Read a U.S. Food and Drug Administration warning about unapproved stem cell therapies.
SOURCE: University of California, Irvine, news release, Nov. 4, 2021
All About NSAIDs
What Are NSAIDs?
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs treat pain. They also relieve inflammation and reduce fevers. Over-the-counter NSAIDs include pills like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium, and creams you apply to your skin. Your doctor can also prescribe these pain relievers in a high-dose or more targeted version, like celecoxib (Celebrex) for arthritis.
How They Work
These drugs block inflammatory proteins in the body, called COX-1 and COX-2, to cut inflammation and ease pain. That reduces swelling and fevers, too. Aspirin, unlike other NSAIDs, also prevents your blood from forming clots, which can protect you from heart attacks and strokes. The others may promote clots.
Conditions NSAIDs Treat
People take these pain relievers for all kinds of aches, including muscle strains, headaches, menstrual cramps, toothaches, gout, bursitis, backaches, and arthritis. They reduce the fever and pain that come along with a cold or the flu too. NSAIDs can also ease joint swelling that comes from inflammation.
How Long Should You Use Them?
These OTC painkillers are for short-term use. You shouldn’t take them for more than 10 days for pain and 3 days for fever. If you take them for too long, you are at higher risk for side effects. If you feel you need to take NSAIDs regularly for arthritis pain, talk to your doctor to be sure it’s safe for you. They may suggest other pain relief options.
In some people, NSAIDs can cause stomach pain, nausea, bleeding, ulcers, gas, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. NSAIDs other than aspirin can also raise your risk of heart attack or stroke, even after just 1 week.
How to Prevent Side Effects
Stomach problems are the most common complaint people have about these drugs. To avoid nausea or a belly ache, take your NSAID with food, milk, or antacids. Your doctor can also prescribe acid-controlling medicine to take with NSAIDs to protect your stomach and prevent ulcers.
Who’s at Risk for Side Effects?
You might face a greater chance of ulcers or stomach bleeding when you take NSAIDs if you’re older, smoke, drink alcohol, have advanced liver disease, are in generally poor health, or if you also take prescription blood thinners, steroids, or SSRI or SNRI antidepressants.
How Soon Do NSAIDs Work?
When you take them for short-term or acute pain, such as a headache or muscle strain, these drugs may do the trick in just a few hours. If you have an ongoing or chronic problem, like arthritis, you need more time to build up a certain amount of the medicine in your blood for it to work best.
How to Take Them Safely
Keep track of how many doses you’ve taken. Only take the smallest dose you need. The label will say how much you can take within a 24-hour period. Don’t go over that amount. Never mix two or more drugs that contain NSAIDs, including cold medicine. If you take daily aspirin for your heart, don’t take another NSAID too. It could put you at higher risk for dangerous side effects.
Who Shouldn’t Take NSAIDs?
Don’t take them before or after heart bypass surgery or if you’ve had a recent heart attack. It may put you at risk for a second heart attack. Also, if you’re pregnant, don’t take NSAIDs after the 29th week. If you’ve taken them in the past and had an allergic reaction like hives or breathing trouble, don’t try them again.
If you can’t take these medications or they don’t do much for you, acetaminophen (Tylenol) is another option. It works in a different way, so when NSAIDs don’t help, this alternative could. But, keep in mind, acetaminophen only treats pain, not inflammation. It can also help reduce fevers.
1 COX, Not 2
Some people who can’t tolerate the stomach-related problems that NSAIDs may cause can use prescription celecoxib instead. NSAIDs block two types of COX enzymes, including one that also protects your stomach. Celecoxib only blocks the COX enzyme that causes inflammation and pain. However, high doses of celecoxib could still cause side effects like bleeding.
Antidepressant, Anti-Seizure Meds
Some antidepressants can relieve ongoing pain too. The ones that have this effect include tricyclics, or SNRIs like duloxetine (Cymbalta), milnacipran (Savella), or venlafaxine (Effexor). Anti-seizure drugs, like gabapentin (Neurontin) or pregabalin (Lyrica), may ease nerve or fibromyalgia pain.
Herbal Pain Relievers
Plant-based remedies, including ginger, turmeric, and garlic, may help you manage arthritis pain because of their anti-inflammatory effects. Creams with capsaicin, or chili pepper oil, can ease joint pain, too. The spicy chemical may cut off or reduce pain signals to your brain. But you might need to use it for a few weeks to feel a difference.
A Feel-Good Lifestyle
Your daily habits can help you manage pain. Exercise releases endorphins, your body’s natural pain-relief chemicals. On the other hand, stress can make you feel worse. Find ways to relax, such as meditation, and you may not hurt so much. Enough sleep is also key. Make sure you get plenty of shut-eye to help you cope with chronic pain.
MIND & BODY | Articles & More
The other day, my friend Kristina told me that one evening she unintentionally locked
her husband in a downstairs part of their house. She had known he was down there, but
while distractedly locking the door for the night, forgot completely. She didn’t realize
what she’d done until she saw a text from her husband the next morning asking her to
please let him out.
“I couldn’t believe I did that to him,” she says. “I was stunned and alarmed that I had no
awareness, in the moment or afterward, of what I had done.”
Kristina’s is one of many stories I’ve recently heard from people suggesting they’re
having more trouble staying focused, making decisions, or remembering things. I’ve
experienced this myself—misplacing keys, forgetting appointments, and leaving lights
on in vacated rooms. When it comes to work, I’m less focused and have trouble getting
Perhaps it’s because I spend so much time online, reading news, shopping, working,
even socializing via Zoom. When you’re constantly staring at a screen—especially if
you’re following events unfolding in Ukraine—you’re bound to suffer stress and
attention fatigue from information overload.
Is Your Brain Foggy? Here Are Five Ways to Clear It
Studies are finding that isolation, stress, and uncertainty can cause
forgetfulness and disorganization. Here’s what to do about it.
BY JILL SUTTIE | MARCH 4, 2022
The emotional costs of the pandemic aren’t helping, either. It’s clear that COVID-19
conditions have affected people’s stress levels, sleep, and mental health—especially
those who don’t deal well with uncertainty. This, in turn, has affected our cognitive
well-being, leading to poorer performance on tasks that require attention, memory, or
Though the worst period of the pandemic may have passed—cases and deaths are
falling, and there’s no imminent danger of another shelter-in-place order—many of us
are still paying that cost in the form of “brain fog.” Researchers have noted that living
through the pandemic is negatively influencing people’s cognition—their focus,
attention, ability to plan, and more. Though the elderly may be particularly vulnerable,
many of us could be suffering some degree of brain fog in the wake of recent events.
Here are some steps you can take to clear the fog away.
- Become more intentional about consuming
Whether we’re trying and failing to make plans, keeping up with the ever-changing
recommendations around COVID, or doomscrolling about climate change or the war in
Ukraine, it’s hard to avoid anxiety or catastrophizing about the future. That’s going to
impact our brains.
Unfortunately, newspapers, TV news programs, and many social media sites make their
money by grabbing your attention—and nothing grabs attention better than negative
news. But repeated exposure to crises wreaks havoc with our well-being and can lead to
bad decision making.
If we want to reduce stress and keep sharp, there are ways to tone down our media
consumption and be more intentional about how we consume our news. For example,
once you’ve read an update on what’s happening abroad in Ukraine, you might skip
watching 24-hour cable news where the same stories are repeated ad nauseam. You
might limit your use of social media, as doing so can help you feel less lonely, depressed,
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YOUR BRAIN SHARP
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healthy from the books The SharpBrains
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In fact, taking breaks from technology, in general, could help you focus better at work
- Exercise regularly—outside, if you can
One of the best tools for stress-busting or fighting depression is exercise. But it’s also
important for thinking more clearly.
When we exercise, we encourage blood flow through our bodies, including our brains,
which need oxygenation to perform at their best. Sitting for long periods of time
without taking breaks to move has been tied to brain changes associated with dementia,
as well as poor cognitive functioning. Getting exercise, on the other hand, is tied to
better cognition—and even moderate exercise can help us think more clearly and
perform better on tasks requiring focus.
If you have a park or open space nearby, try spending some time moving while in green
spaces (especially among trees). Research confirms that being out in more natural
settings is helpful for our well-being and has positive effects on our cognition above and
beyond those coming from exercise alone.
- Stay connected to others
The lack of socializing during COVID lockdowns may have been particularly hard on
For example, in one study, researchers in
Scotland tested the cognitive functioning in
342 adults ages 18–72, starting when
lockdown restrictions were in place but
easing over time. The participants performed
online tasks that measured their attention,
memory, decision-making, time-estimation,
and learning skills; the researchers also
measured how isolated they were. When
comparing the test results to the level of
Find out what neuroscience can teach us
about aging better.
isolation they were experiencing, the
researchers found that cognition improved as
people became less isolated and had
opportunities to socialize more.
Though some of this could have been due to
other factors, like lack of exercise, a recent review of many studies (pre-pandemic)
confirms that socializing is important for keeping yourself cognitively fit. It also found
that loneliness increases people’s vulnerability to cognitive decline, especially among
the elderly. So, it’s a good idea to try to find ways to be with others—safely, of course—
to keep your brain functioning well.
- Try new challenges
While many of us have been at our wit’s end during the past few years, we can do
something for our brains that’s good for cognition at any time: learn new things.
During the pandemic, I began learning to speak Greek in anticipation of future travel
there. It was certainly a cognitive challenge—one that was fun and, hopefully, will help
stave off dementia (which happens to run in my family). You probably know people
who’ve used lockdown restrictions as an opportunity to learn to play a new instrument,
write poems or stories, study their history, or build furniture.
Whether there’s a pandemic on or not, using your brain in new, challenging ways is good
for neural health, and will help your brain stay healthy. Of course, you should not take
on more to do if you are already struggling to keep up with the basics. But noticing
opportunities to incorporate new things into your everyday routines—even taking a new
route on your walk or trying out a new recipe—could give your brain a fun workout
without adding more to your to-do list.
- Be kind to yourself
If you are already trying things to avoid brain fog and still seem to have it, don’t beat
yourself up about that. We are living through extraordinary times, and so we need to
practice a little self-compassion. That can mean anything from simply forgiving yourself
for your lapses (like losing your keys for the nth time) to actively advocating for fewer
work assignments (so you can build in a little breathing room for inefficiency).
If you find yourself suffering extreme anxiety or depression, you may want to seek
professional help—because seeking treatment is a key way to be kind to yourself.
Talking to a trusted therapist can help you figure out how to manage chronic emotional
issues better so you can suffer less brain fog. (Therapy is expensive, but you might be
able to find agencies in your area that provide it on a sliding scale.)
It’s important to accept that we may not be our best selves right now and that it may be
somewhat out of our control. But, if we can keep in mind what feeds our brains in the
coming weeks, it may help us regain some clear-headedness as we negotiate the
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About the Author
Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good’s former book review editor and now serves as a staff
writer and contributing editor for the magazine. She received her doctorate of psychology
from the University of San Francisco in 1998 and was a psychologist in private practice
before coming to Greater Good.