I was recently in a talk with the holistic psychologist and something she said got me thinking. She asked people in the room to raise their hands if they didn’t know what their nervous system was. I was surprised, by how many hands went up.
Understanding the nervous system and its function is crucial to wellbeing.
I first learnt about my nervous system in detail when I did a course in Trauma Release 10 years ago. I will do my best to explain it simply.
What is the nervous system?
The nervous system is a complex network of cells and fibers that transmit signals throughout the body, allowing us to perceive and respond to the environment around us. It's basically like the body's electrical wiring system.
The nervous system lives throughout the body, with the brain and spinal cord comprising the central nervous system (CNS), and the nerves and ganglia comprising the peripheral nervous system (PNS).
The nervous system has many important functions, including regulating the body's internal environment (like body temperature and blood pressure), coordinating movements and reflexes, and processing sensory information (like touch, taste, and smell). It also plays a crucial role in our emotions, thoughts, and behaviours.
Now, let's talk about the difference between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. These are two branches of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates the body's involuntary functions (like heartbeat, breathing, and digestion).
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the "fight or flight" response, which prepares the body to respond to perceived threats. It increases heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure, and diverts blood flow away from the digestive system and towards the muscles and brain.
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is responsible for the "rest and digest" response. It promotes relaxation and digestion, and helps to lower heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure.
Sympathetic Nervous System
Your sympathetic nervous system is there to react to stress and danger. When your brain senses a threat it sends a message to the sympathetic nervous system.
“The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes the "rest and digest" response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.”
Several different factors can activate the sympathetic nervous system, including:
- Psychological stress: Stressful situations, like a work deadline or an argument with a loved one, can activate the sympathetic nervous system.
- Physical stress/ danger: Physical stressors, like injury, illness, or surgery, can also activate the sympathetic nervous system.
- Exercise: Intense exercise, particularly high-intensity interval training or other forms of high-intensity exercise, can activate the sympathetic nervous system.
- Caffeine and other stimulants: Stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, and certain medications can activate the sympathetic nervous system.
- Low blood sugar: Low blood sugar levels can also trigger the sympathetic nervous system.
Modern living is causing a lot of us to be in chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and this can have negative health consequences. Here are some health issues that have been linked to chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system:
- Cardiovascular disease: Chronic stress has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. This is because chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can damage the cardiovascular system over time.
- Immune system dysfunction: Chronic stress can also lead to immune system dysfunction, making individuals more susceptible to infections and illnesses. This is because chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system can suppress the immune system's ability to fight off pathogens and infections.
- Digestive issues: Chronic stress has been linked to a range of digestive issues, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This is because chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system can slow down digestion, decrease blood flow to the digestive system, and increase inflammation in the gut.
- Mental health issues: Chronic stress has been linked to an increased risk of mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is because chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to changes in brain chemistry and structure, including reduced serotonin and increased cortisol levels, which can impact mood and mental health.
- Sleep disorders: Chronic stress can also disrupt sleep patterns and lead to insomnia, sleep apnea, and other sleep disorders. This is because chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system can interfere with the body's natural sleep-wake cycle and increase levels of stress hormones, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Parasympathetic nervous system
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is responsible for the "rest and digest" response. It promotes relaxation and digestion, and helps to lower heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure, improving quality of life and health.
Understanding the balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems is crucial for maintaining good health and wellbeing. By finding ways to activate the parasympathetic system and promote relaxation, we can help to counteract the negative effects of chronic stress and live happier, healthier lives.
It's important to find ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and promote relaxation and rest. This can include things like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, spending time in nature, the food you eat and engaging in relaxing activities.
There are several plants and mushrooms that have been scientifically shown to help regulate the parasympathetic nervous system and promote relaxation
- Reishi mushroom: Reishi mushroom is another adaptogenic herb that has been used in traditional medicine for centuries to promote relaxation and reduce stress. Studies have shown that reishi may work by modulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and reducing cortisol levels.
- Passionflower: Passionflower is a plant that has traditionally been used to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. Studies have suggested that passionflower may work by increasing GABA levels in the brain, which helps to promote calmness and relaxation.
- Holy basil: Holy basil is an adaptogenic herb that has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety by modulating the HPA axis and reducing cortisol levels. Studies have also suggested that holy basil may promote relaxation by increasing GABA levels in the brain.
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