Your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is your internal system for creating homeostasis, and homeostasis is the balancing of opposing forces in the body. But sometimes the forces being balanced won't come into balance in the usual way - sometimes one or more the conditions being balanced requires drastic measures, and then the balance achieved can actually be destructive over time. For example, when we put a lot of processed carbs into our bodies which are in part balanced by insulin, after some time, the balance to the high insulin condition is insulin resistance.
What if the balance your body has achieved is actually hurting you, how do you change the game? Is this unconscious ANS a runaway train? An unmanned drone? A set it and forget it system that you forgot and that has now turned on you like Hal in the movie 2001?
Absolutely not. Your ANS is capable of running the absence of your attention, but it calls out for your attention constantly. Every signal of hunger or fullness, tiredness or energetic vigor, focus or fuzziness, craving or settledness, need to go to the bathroom or the gym is a letter in your mailbox you can ignore and round file, open and put to the side or open and address. Every desire, every feeling is an opportunity to interact with this system and move it toward more harmonious balance.
While it’s true that your body will find a way to balance even the most out of synch conditions, it’s also true that most of these conditions - or inputs - are under our control. The problem comes in when our body has been compensating for less than ideal conditions for months or even years - each adjustment to balance a less than optimal input will have its own knock on effects in the system, perhaps shifting hormones, neuropeptides, our ability to feel satisfied by real food, and resulting in mental states, cravings and emotions seemingly unconnected to the original input.
The good news is that any place you choose, if you choose your change wisely, will generate its own positive knock on effects and make the next and further changes easier and more enjoyable.
My suggestion for a starting place is a movement practice, and one that has options from vigorous to full relaxation, and yoga is the perfect option here. When you start with a practice you leverage several factors that make other changes easier. By choosing one time each day devoted to your yoga practice, you’re putting a stake in the ground: this activity is going to happen cyclically at this time each day. You have control over this if you plan it well (most of the time - there are always celebrations and emergencies that interrupt regularly scheduled programming). The exercise you get during your yoga practice will also help to reset your internal clock and make the coveted sleep that much more likely to happen.
Additionally, choosing and using a practice time is a once a day thing - and I suggest doing it early. Your ability to make and follow through on challenging choices wanes with every decision you make throughout your day, meaning that while you may find it doable - even easy - to turn down a pop tart at 7am, if you have to make that same choice 3-6 times during the rest of your day, the 5th time is likely to be a time when you throw in the towel and take the pop tart (or fill in any processed treat of choice).
Instead, if you begin with choosing and using a yoga practice time, once you’ve rolled out your mat or sat on your cushion, the decision is made for the day and most of what you do in that time will make every other decision in your day easier, clearer and more likely to trend to your and others’ well being. The exercise you get during this time will make every eating choice easier to make healthfully, because once you have released some endorphins, balanced the hormones of satiety and hunger and balanced your blood sugar naturally, cravings have less hold and even begin to swing to the healthy side.
You might have noted that I say choose and use quite often, and this is intentional. A choice is still a mental action: for it to matter - to be real choice - it must have consequences in the world of action and sensation. I may choose to rise and meditate at 4am (I recently did, actually), but if 4am rolls around and no way Jose am I waking up, that choice didn’t result in action - I didn’t use the system I’d selected (and I didn’t, ‘cause 4am). BUT, that choice-action loop can inform the next choice I make, hopefully within a week, to wake and practice at 6am, a much more sustainable choice.
Every action is an input into the balancing act your body naturally performs: every bite, every step, every drink, every bitter or spacious thought. Every one. Initiating a yoga practice is one of the most powerful choice-action inputs for this system because it has effects in every other system.