FF 08: ‘Chronic fight and flight – how Sympathetic Dominance affects your health’ with Kelly Beanland

Chronic stress can cause a shift in a mother’s fight or flight response. Learn more with Newcastle chiropractor Dr. Dorte Bladt and her chiropractor friend, Kelly Beanland.

Stress is an inevitable part of life. It can be both good and bad depending on what sort of stress it is, and how we deal with it. Kelly Beanland, chiropractor at Family Chiropractic Charlestown, explains how chronic, bad stress can cause a persistent fight and flight reflex, and how this can cause health problems, what it may look like in both children and adults and what to do about it at home.

Intro: Flourishing Families with Dr. Dorte Bladt, the Switched On Kids chiropractor and her passionate friends sharing the secret of inspiring wellness to help your families thrive.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: Good morning. I’m really happy to have Kelly Beanland here with me to do a podcast this morning. Thanks for coming.

Kelly Beanland: Thank you for having me, Dorte. I’m excited to be here.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: Excellent. Can you tell us who you are?

Kelly Beanland: I’m a chiropractor. I’ve had the utmost honour and privilege to be adjusted since I was an infant. My Mum took us from a very young age so I became a chiropractor seven years ago and I now work at Family Chiro in Charlestown. I have a special interest in seeing kids, families, young babies, pregnant women, so that’s exciting for us. I’ve trained in Gippsland as well after I first graduated from RMIT, so I’m a Victorian. I grew my practice there and now I’m in sunny Newcastle.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: Sunny Newcastle, except for today when it’s not very sunny.

Kelly Beanland: It’s a disgusting 40 degrees.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: Tell us, you have a particular interest in something called Sympathetic Dominance. What exactly does that mean?

Kelly Beanland: Yeah, I do. We’ve decided to start look at the nervous system in a very functional way and in a holistic way. As a chiropractor yourself, you would have seen a lot of signs of Sympathetic Dominance but a lot of people haven’t really connected the ideas. So we started to connect a few ideas on how stress physiology starts to change every system in our bodies over time, not just the classic stress signs of “I don’t sleep” or I get “tight shoulders” but neurophysiological changes – that’s a big word and I’ll explain it more in a minute, but what can happen to our gut system, what can happen to our hormonal system and how that can affect our bodies as a whole. So yeah, it’s very interesting work and I’ve started to enjoy doing that the last five years.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: You started that from working with Wayne Todd.

Kelly Beanland: Yes. I had the very great opportunity to do my first placement with Wayne and Angela Todd in Gippsland with Todd Clinics and I grew my knowledge base and how I became the practitioner I am now. Wayne put together what we call SD Protocol.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: What exactly does it mean, the sympathetic dominance?

Kelly Beanland: Sympathetic Dominance refers to how hard a system functions. It starts to look at our voluntary versus involuntary systems. We’ll put voluntary aside for a second and let’s just talk about our involuntary cycles. That separates into another two arms, being sympathetic and parasympathetic. So if we think about our parasympathetic, a lot of people think of that as a rest-and-digest part of our nervous system. This part of our nervous system does most of its work while we’re actually asleep and in our healing phases and when we’re more resting, so when we’re not in an aggravated or what we call fight-or-flight part of our nervous system. Parasympathetic functions mainly in our digestion and our hormonal system with impacts on our immune system as well. So let’s go to the other side of the system, the involuntary pathways. We look at the sympathetic nervous system and it’s “S” for survival, fight or flight. A lot of people have heard of that part of our nervous system.

So if we imagine, now, Dorte and I are sitting in this room, a tiger came into the room, we think of what our nervous system would do to react to that type of situation. Our breath rate goes up, our heart rate goes up, our sweat response increases, our eyes become dilated so we can see more, our blood pressure goes through the roof and we start to get a forward posture. Our shoulders tighten up, our hamstrings get tighter, our calves get tighter. We get ready to run away.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: We’re getting ready to…

Kelly Beanland: Fight or flight. I think I’m not going to fight the tiger.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: But we are getting ready to move. It’s a movement preparation, basically.

Kelly Beanland: Yes. It’s a stress response in movement, yes. 100%. The big thing that we’re started to look at was this system evolutionary, but this is the system that got us here today so we wouldn’t be here without that sympathetic nervous system thousands of years ago. It made us fight or flight, away from the dinosaur or the tiger or whatever it was back then to get us here and evolved where we are now. So this part of our nervous system actually suppresses when this one has heightened the parasympathetic function. That’s when we start to see those changes in those physiological gut hormones that I mentioned before.

The interesting thing with that sympathetic overdrive is it’s not designed to be activated any longer than hours, maximum days. So, unfortunately, you think of the young family that might have financial stresses, work stresses, getting kids to school, what are we having for dinner tomorrow, what are we doing on the weekend, when are we planning our next holiday? That potentially, say a young Mum – I’m just going to pick on Mum for a second there because they seem to run those types of households – that young Mum is most likely in a state of fight-or-flight or Sympathetic Overdrive for a lot longer than what we’re actually designed to do.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: So evolutionary, we’re supposed to fight the tiger or flee the tiger and then find the place to shelter and have our parasympathetic nervous system take over and make sure that we heal and we digest our food.

Kelly Beanland: Yeah. I think of it as a dance. This is the way I was taught and I think it’s a great analogy – if we think we dance between our sympathetic and our parasympathetic nervous system, that’s when we achieve balance in our lives. It’s about getting one heightened and then the other one just picking up the slack and they dance between each other. Much like kids on a seesaw.  When you have a kid that’s too heavy on one side, the other one pulls it up to the other side and that’s when you start to get those imbalances.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: So being in the sympathetic state is not necessarily a bad thing. We need it.

Kelly Beanland:  We do, 100% we need, it just not for the sustained state that we, unfortunately, see a little bit more often than we should.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: Okay. So we have this parasympathetic kid sitting on the end and seesaw has stuck.

Kelly Beanland: Yes.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: So what does that, you say, what does that look like? You mentioned the shoulders, you mentioned the heart rate and blood pressure going up. What would people experience if they were in that state?

Kelly Beanland: There are a couple of key indicators that we often see patients that could be experiencing an overdrive in their sympathetic nervous system for a long period of time. Some of it can be digestive in regards to they might get bloating, they might get butterflies excessively. They might find they’re getting intolerant to certain foods that they could have tolerated five, ten, even two years ago. They’re constipated, diarrhoea, those types of things. Unfortunately, Dorte and I are in a bad category – it affects women a lot more, Sympathetic Dominance, we do find just because we have a lot more fluctuation through our hormones and I do find that women are bigger thinkers than men as well. We do kick into our sympathetic nervous system a little bit more than men, but not to mention that Sympathetic Dominance doesn’t affect men. We just see it more in females, as I said, for that hormonal link.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: Can you just hold that thought. I’m really interested in that if you have the physiological response, let’s just say it’s exercise, and men tend to do more heavy, pushy type exercise whereas we women might do more long… we might go for a walk or ride the bike with the kids or whatever.  Is there a helpful exercise in that they burn their adrenaline, burn their stress response through much more gutsy type exercise? Do you see what I’m trying to say?

Kelly Beanland: Yeah, I do. Men, if they’re doing those manly, like “yeah, let’s go push things and lift things” as a choice to doing that calming, I think that’s definitely part of it. Testosterone-driven exercise I think a lot of that is. Again, it comes back to that hormonal link. I think, instinctively, women don’t mind doing those exercises that are a little bit calm and a little bit more settling because that is essentially what our nervous system does require. I’m not saying weights and everything like that are bad because it’s definitely good to be strong, but I do find that women do well when they’ve got that nice balance doing any calming exercise with their lifestyle. So just to go back to what you said before, we could see hormone imbalances as well. I often see patients that have had retaining sympathetic dominance for a long time that may have things that are very common in today’s society, like menstrual issues, PCOS, thyroid issues as well.

Dr. Dorte Bladt:  Let’s just stop there. What’s PCOS?

Kelly Beanland: Sorry, Dorte. Polycystic ovarian syndrome. We do see it quite often now. We are seeing quite often now infertility. It’s becoming a big issue in our society and I’ll explain that concept really quickly right now that if we think of it if we’re being chased by that tiger or that bear, you’re not going to want to digest the sandwich that you ate for lunch. Essentially, that’s not a priority. Your fight or flight is your priority and go to the hormonal system of that parasympathetic function like we discussed before, you’re not going to want to ovulate. You’re not going to want to release your egg so you can reproduce if your body is in threat mode.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: No. That makes sense.

Kelly Beanland: So it’s the hormonal or the holistic look at how the nervous system is actually affecting these pathways sort of comes into it. Physically, we can definitely see a lot of physical signs when we’re looking at a patient with sympathetic overdrive. So tight shoulders as I mentioned before… They might have a significant forward head posture. Forward head posture can be defined by looking at the patient or looking at the individual from the side and looking at their ear to their shoulder. They should be in a nice line when they’re standing up straight and we often see the ear coming forward. Every centimetre that comes forward puts a significant load on the neck and starts to change our rib functions and we don’t end up oxygenating very well.

Oxygenation is really, really important for higher brain function as well, and when we breathe. So if we did some breathing exercises now, I could guarantee Dorte and I would feel really calm and collected because our brain is receiving that oxygen it requires. So if you’re constantly not oxygenating and you’re locked into that forward posture, you’ll often get other physical effects below your waist, you’ll tighten up your hamstrings and your calves. Low back issues is very common in patients with that forward head posture driven by that sympathetic overdrive as well. If you had a look at your lovely wife’s eyes, if there are some guys out there, you might see their eyes dilated quite a lot, the pupils, because basically, they’re dilating so they could see where that tiger is in the grass. So waiting for that rustling tiger to come through, they could see more so they might not like bright lights. So driving at night can become an issue. They don’t like that headlight coming on to them. They need their polarised sunnies when they’re outside. They can’t handle the brightness on their phone up too high, they can’t handle the blinds they have open when they’re sleeping at night. They can’t have the alarm clock light. That fits to these light issues is very prominent.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: Right. Is that sensitivity related to headaches?

Kelly Beanland: Can be, yeah.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: Okay. So I find it interesting you talking about the forward head posture because we spend a lot of time talking to the kids and the parents in the practice about their screen time. Does it go the other way? Can we induce the Sympathetic Dominance by spending too much time with our head bent?

Kelly Beanland: I would 100% agree with you, Dorte. I think of it as a highway. So I think if there’s a two-lane highway, so we’ve got a highway going to Sydney and we’ve got a highway going away from Sydney. If we are inducing a forward posture by ergonomic activities such as screen time for kids but also adults at work on computers, to me that physical posture is telling that brain, “I’m ready to run away. I’m getting ready to fight or flight”. Our body is priming and you are telling your brain, “quick, let’s go.” But vice versa, if you have the emotional part of Sympathetic Dominance, so let’s say there’s a lot of stress for children at school, they’re going to be pushing themselves into that sympathetic windup. So neurologically, their brain is telling them to be in that forward posture. We have to work at it from both ends of the highway to get the best results for our patients.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: You mentioned exercise and I like exercise. I’m interested to hear there is a big trend today with a certain body image. Big shoulders, big chest muscles, maybe not so much working on the legs. People exercising the front of the body that would naturally pull the shoulders forward. What effect does that potentially have given? Again, we’re talking that forward head posture.

Kelly Beanland: I agree with you. The trend that we’re seeing is actually quite concerning because it is very pec-driven, but it’s not only exercise but then now social life is driving that pec changes like with the increased phone usage and looking down and texting on the train or texting in the car or watching TV or whatever that may be, but going back to your exercise point, yeah, a lot of pec-driven exercises aren’t actually beneficial to, I think, any patient all the time but also particularly the patients that are suffering that sympathetic overdrive.

A lot of these patients also experience some emotional aspects of this sympathetic overdrive. Stress is a big part, which you’ve probably already picked up that it’s massive, but that’s linking in with anxiety. So if every cell in your body is primed and ready to run away from that tiger, it’s going to be ready and wait for attack, waiting for attack, waiting for attack, waiting for attack, and then it doesn’t get attacked then you’re going to feel anxious all the time waiting for that response, and the average patient is going to feel, if that is retained, that response, they’re going to feel depressed about being anxious. So it’s really that linking but then you find a lot of people would use exercises they’re out from that way of thinking but if they’re doing the wrong exercises, so pec-driven exercises, exercises that are winding up their low back or winding up their hamstrings or winding up those calves, they’re often doing themselves more detriment than what they could be doing. They feel better at the time but more long term for their healing in their body they’re not doing themselves any favours.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: So it’s again coming back to the nervous system. It’s not necessarily the muscles but the way we affect the way the brain works.

Kelly Beanland: 100%, yes.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: Excellent. So we’ve spoken a fair bit. We’re pushing the mothers. That’s not very good. Let’s look at the kids. What would it look like in a child?

Kelly Beanland: Sure. I think in my experience, we are seeing sympathetic overactivity in children a little bit more these days. Dorte, it’s already linked into as screen times increase these days and how that’s affecting our children’s brains. What I find in kids that might have a bit of an increased sympathetic system – the big one is sleep.  To be honest, so many kids are struggling with getting a good night sleep and I don’t think that’s necessarily the parents’ fault. It’s just about how our spare time or our leisure time has started to change over the last ten years. TV and screens and homework on iPads and computers are becoming a norm for our kids. What that’s doing to our brains is it’s keeping them awake or keeping them going. That brain is thinking it’s daytime a lot of the time so you’ve got that hormonal effect that you don’t secrete melatonin at the right times that keeps you awake, but at the same time, that brain is becoming sensitive and wound up to maybe that light stimulus of whatever screen they’re looking at before they go to bed and they’re not really kicking into that parasympathetic balance in dance that I indicated before.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: Just relax to digest.

Kelly Beanland: Yeah, 100%. So sleep is the main one, I do find. Some younger children might not like being in the car with the flicker of the lights like the light sensitivity can really shine through there. They just can’t concentrate in a brighter environment. I find that might not work for them. I do use some – what we call red lens – so if the light going too bright now, just change the light from a blue light to a red light so the brain can calm down.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: Which is a slower wavelength so less stress there.

Kelly Beanland: Yes. Very calming to the brain, the red light as opposed to the blue. That works quite well for some kids and adults or anyone looking to calm their sympathetic system through that light factor. I often use earplugs with kids. So you might find a lot of kids with Sympathetic Dominance can exhibit symptoms of some sensory processing issues as well, so visually and auditory are the main ones we look at, but they might be oversensitive to those auditory symptoms as well. I find if we work on carving that primitive sympathetic response their sensory processing starts up and does improve, which is great. Behaviour-wise, they might just be a little bit quick off the mark with getting a bit agitated.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: That’s a nice way to put it.

Kelly Beanland: So whether they used to be able to tolerate their sister pinching them, now, they’re not going to tolerate them looking at them and they lose the plot sort of thing, or they start to get a bit more angry than they used to and things like that, but forward posture is very prominent as well in children. I think it’s something that we really do need to be aware of. So they’re your classic signs, really.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: Yeah. What are some of the things that you would advise parents or people to maybe do at home that could settle down that sympathetic hyperactivity and get a bit more parasympathetic response in their lives?

Kelly Beanland: The way I look at this – this is a common question that we get, obviously – once we diagnose or talk about what could be going on in someone’s system is we start to talk about what to do about it.  I look at that in the health triangle. It’s a really good way to explain it. So you’ve got physical, chemical and emotional health. Most people have heard of that expression that if we don’t hit each part of those paradigms, we don’t reduce the overall stress in the body as well as we possibly could.

Physically, we start to look at posture. That’s really important. We start to change how someone stands in gravity and increase their oxygen. Oxygen is so important because we talked about cells before. Every cell in the body requires certain things but neuronal cells just start to change our nervous system require three things: nutrition, oxygenation, and activation.

So activation, being movement. Movement being exercise, like Dorte has already indicated. Movement as well.  Movement directly into the body could be chiropractic work as well works really, really well to keep that movement and activation. Nutritional is what you guys feed brains at home, good diet, nutrition, things like that and then oxygen you start to change how that works. Then we start to look at chemical impacts or chemical stresses on the body that’s pushing them into sympathetic overdrive. If there is a gut issue there, the gut has been affected, we need to start doing work with your gut system. We’ll start to look at what could be pushing that system into a bit of stress. Won’t go into that now – that’s quite detailed on its own – but that’s important to look at as well.

Then you’re looking at the emotional part. Meditation is really good. Anyone should be doing some sort of mindfulness or meditation to get them out of that space that says, “go, go, go,” all the time.  “go, go, go” is just not healthy and that’s what retaining. As I said to you before, the system isn’t made to be for days, like weeks, years. It’s only meant to be hours, maximum days. So it’s just about getting us out of those twitches.

When we start to look at the nervous system as where this sympathetic system sits in the brain, it actually sits in what we call the mesencephalon. It’s a very complex name and you don’t have to remember it, but there are certain nuclei which respond to different stimulus at different times. I’ve already spoken about them so you’re really familiar with it already, one being sound – that hypersensitivity to sound comes into play. One being light – the light coming into play. One being posture – that coming into play as well, and the other thing is stress-linked and mind-linked with the adrenal glands. So to get the best outcome for my patients, I find if I address each one of those factors within that physical, chemical and emotional triangle, somewhat two ways to look at it there, I’ll get best results there.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: So I will often mention to children and it’s really difficult. They tend to go a million miles an hour. The last thing they want to do is to meditate. But there is a free app called Smiling Mind which is quite manageable and not too long and easy to understand. Are you using that as well?

Kelly Beanland: Yeah, I use that very often actually. It’s a great app. It’s really, really good. That with Headspace, I think some adults like Headspace as well, but Smiling Mind is my classic go-to for children. There’s a lot of great teachers out there now are using it in classrooms, which is awesome, as in after lunchtime.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: To calm them down.

Kelly Beanland: Yeah, because funnily enough, when they’re calm they learn better which is great. So I encourage parents that if they’ve been out for a busy day, often as soon as they get in from wherever they’ve been, whether it be school or they’ve had after-school activities and then they’ve come home, usually dinner is on the next step or homework. So, either way, I usually say just do this for five to ten minutes. There are set programs. You download the program according to the age of the child, so if you’ve got a four-year-old or a twelve-year-old, you will just set it up in such a way that is good for them. I get them to lie on the floor in an open ‘T’ position because that’s very oxygenating for them. If they’ve got some postural issues I might get them to lie on a rolled-up towel as well just to help open up that chest, like what we spoke about before, but that is perfect to winding our sympathetic system.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: That’s great and of course, that’s not just for kids.  That would also be for Mum and Dad.

Kelly Beanland: Yes. Family meditation. I’m all for it.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: That sounds like fun. I can just imagine where the kids will be. Not on the posture roll, they will be on your chest, they will be rolling over you.

Kelly Beanland: Yes. I remember I had a patient send me a screenshot or a photo of her whole family lying on their laundry room floor, so it does happen.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: That’s fantastic! Following your advice. I like that. So tell us what is next in line for you for the foreseeable future?

Kelly Beanland: I am about to make Newcastle my home for the next foreseeable future, which is really exciting. Working at Family Chiro, I get to incorporate sympathetic dominance work within this already elaborate practice. To me, it’s very different, it’s very innovative and it really does demonstrate how we can look at the utmost primitive cause for a lot of what can lead on to the chronic health conditions. If we can get in to start to change people’s health that comes at the earliest stage in the health timeline as possible, I think we’ve got a great future in natural health care… but I just get excited that I get to change lives every day.

Dr. Dorte Bladt: Excellent. Thanks so much for spending your time with us this morning, Kelly. I appreciate your time and we look forward to spending much more time with you.

Kelly Beanland: Yes. Thank you for having me.

Outro: The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Family Chiropractic or the host. Brought to you by Family Chiropractic Centre Charlestown, serving the families in Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and Charlestown.