When was the last time you ate because you were hungry and not because it was meal time? Or went to bed because you were tired and not because it was bedtime? When was the last time you awoke because your body was finished sleeping versus waking because your alarm has reached its snooze limit? We program our bodily functions to fit into busy schedules that often fall outside the requirements of our biology. A Zen Master, once said “When hungry I eat, when tired I sleep, fools laugh but the wise understand”. This wisdom is simple, and yet the depth of impact when we ignore the subtle language of the body can be catastrophic.
When you are born, you enter the world with many reflexes that ensure your body continually functions to maintain homeostasis. One such reflex is the guarding reflex which is part of the urination cycle. This reflex is a dance between the sympathetic, parasympathetic and somatic nervous systems. It triggers when the volume of urine in the bladder is increasing. The volume increase causes the bladder to stretch which increases bladder pressure. This bladder pressure is balanced by involuntary increases in contraction of the external urethral sphincter (the muscle which keeps your “pee-pipe” closed). This contraction of the external sphincter triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to keep the bladder relaxed while the internal sphincter remains contracted. When then bladder is full, the micturition reflex kicks in contracting the smooth muscle of the bladder while relaxing the internal and external sphincters resulting in urination. In some native African and Asian cultures, mothers can sense the subtle micturition reflex of their babies allowing them to hold the baby over an appropriate place in a practice known as “natural hygiene”. As a western mother, I was not tuned in to my baby’s reflexes, nor to my own.
Programming your superpower
Around age 3, we are trained to listen to our micturition reflex to take voluntary control over external urethral sphincter allowing us to delay urination until we reach a restroom. The same is true for the reflexes involved in defecation (pooping). We learn to control these reflexes and we use that control to fit our bodily functions into our busy daily schedules. You can view your ability to control these bodily functions as you would a superpower, and with great power comes great responsibility. How many of you have gone to the toilet “just in case” before heading out the door? How many have held on to a bowel movement all day, waiting to get home to the comfort and privacy of your own bathroom? We view our bodily functions as an inconvenience, giving rise to the name “convenience room”.
Ignoring or abusing our reflexes in this way can lead to dysfunction. In the case of urination, “just in case peeing” equates to negatively reprogramming your bladder function. If you consistently pee before your bladder has filled, your nervous system will interpret the signals as notification that the bladder is full when it is not. Over time, your body will learn to signal a need to urinate with only a small amount of urine in the bladder. If you believe you have a “bladder like a mouse”, this could explain why. This reprogramming can result in the symptoms of an overactive bladder (frequent need to urinate smaller amounts). Emptying too soon also decreases those extra involuntary contractions of sphincter which, over time, can contribute to atrophy of the muscle. This in turn can lead to involuntary loss of urine when sneezing, laughing, coughing or running, a condition known as stress incontinence which is a form of pelvic floor dysfunction.
In the same way, if you consistently hold onto your poop when the defecation reflex is signalling the need to empty, you will reprogram your bowel to ignore the stretch receptors allowing things to get backed up. Over time, this can result in weaker contractions of the smooth muscle of the bowel which in turn can lead to constipation and straining, a contributing factor to pelvic organ prolapse in females; another form of pelvic floor dysfunction. You are interrupting nature’s own feedback loop with information that is invalid.
Having experienced pelvic floor dysfunction first hand, I learned the hard way that ignoring my natural reflexes could wreak havoc with my life. Cultivating daily awareness by connecting to my breath helped me to become mindful of my dysfunction. In the same way as this negative reprogramming, you can positively reprogram these functions. Listening to the subtle reflexive signals allowed me to change my negative patterns giving me back my superpower allowing me to regain control over my bladder and bowel function.
Like your intuition, your reflexes speak to you in whispers, with little
energetic vibrations guiding you quietly towards homeostasis. Take the time to
breathe and listen to the subtle language of your body. By increasing your
awareness of these reflexes, you can master your superpower and with balance
you can learn to trust this wonderful organism that nature gave you!
This article was originally posted on Thrive Global on August 6th, 2018.