Today’s blog is for the “doers”, the “givers”—for those of you who find relaxation to be unproductive and tend to work way beyond 40 hours a week at your job, with your children, around the house, caregiving, listening to friends or family member’s problems or whatever it is that keeps you “on.”
We’re discussing the nervous system and why it is essential to support yours, so you do not become what’s called “sympathetic dominant.” This is a term which refers to someone who is stuck in “fight-or-flight” mode and can’t find their off switch.
Your autonomic nervous system is the unconscious control system of bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, urination, and sexual arousal.
Within this nervous system are two branches: the sympathetic or “fight-or-flight” and the parasympathetic “rest and digest.”
Working, texting, driving, kids, fighting with your spouse, family, or other family members, intense exercise—these all shift us OUT of rest and digest into “fight-or-flight” mode.
The body cannot function properly, let alone heal when it is in “fight-or-flight” mode and studies now show that over 85% of us live this way!
Moving into a state of rest and digest is pivotal in ALL healing protocols AND a crucial aspect of being able to CHOOSE happiness no matter WHAT is going on in your life.
Your nervous system is connected with every part of your physical body.
The human body has two nervous systems; the voluntary nervous system and the autonomic nervous system.
Our voluntary (or somatic) nervous system is part of the peripheral nervous system which handles bodily movements. The peripheral nervous system connects the brain to motor neurons which control our muscles, glands, and sensory neurons, which are the nerve cells within the nervous system responsible for converting external stimuli from the individual’s environment into internal electrical impulses.
The good news is that because this branch of the nervous system is voluntary, we have control of it and we can use it when we want and rest when we want. A good example is using your arm to wave hello.
While the somatic nervous system is voluntary, the autonomic nervous system is involuntary, meaning we do not have conscious control of this system—it will happen without us thinking about it.
The autonomic nervous system regulates the function of our internal organs, such as our stomach, lungs, and heart. Essentially, it keeps the show running without us having to do anything, even while we are sleeping.
Within the autonomic nervous system, there are two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (arousing/fight-or-flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (calming/rest-digest-heal).
Both are necessary for regular human function; the sympathetic nervous system provides the body with energy, stimulation, and fuel to take flight from danger.
The parasympathetic nervous system is all about rest and relaxation, which is essential for proper digestion and healthy reproduction.
When there is danger or stimuli, our body senses the danger, moving into a fight-or-flight mode. With this, our adrenal glands are activated, which stimulates the catabolic (breaking down) hormone cortisol. Our breath shortens (to increase O2) and we tense up. Our pupils dilate, our heart rate increases, and epinephrine and norepinephrine, two excitatory chemical messengers in the brain, are secreted. All telltale signs that we are ready to fight (or run away or just freeze in shock).
The parasympathetic nervous system is where our body is during downtime (or 80% of the time)—the natural state we should be living in when not in danger.
Our heart rate slows down, our breath is calm and relaxed, our digestive system is stimulated and hormones are balanced.
All healing occurs in a parasympathetic state; this includes healthy digestion, detoxification, and cellular regeneration.
This is an important reason why we always recommend not eating on the go or in your car. It is difficult for your digestive tract to work correctly when you're trying to drive a car or walk down the street. When we are in a consistent state of “fight-or-flight,” this can lead to:
While both nervous systems are working simultaneously, there is always one which is more active. Almost like yin and yang, when we have a healthy balance between the two it allows our body to be at ease and able to heal.
We can become sympathetic dominant by working too hard, receiving too much stimulation from phones, computers and technology, over-exercising, or just being too stressed in general.
Someone who is sympathetic dominant usually has a hard time relaxing; they are always working. Our 21st-century lifestyles have set up our nervous systems to be more sympathetic dominant but with some consciousness around it and consistent positive lifestyle and dietary choices, we can support our bodies back into homeostasis.
Remember the feeling you get after a great yoga class or massage?
That is your body finally relaxing—tension and muscle aches have dissolved and you can think more clearly.
These are the telltale signs that your parasympathetic nervous system has taken over.
Besides yoga and massage, here are 11 highly effective things to do to make sure you have a healthy balance between your parasympathetic and sympathetic response.
1: Meditation And Breathwork
Five minutes a day of deep breathing through the nose is clinically proven to reduce stress levels and click you in to your parasympathetic nervous system. We recommend starting with the 4-7-8 breath. This involves inhaling through the nose for a count of four, holding for a count of seven, and exhaling through the nose for a count of 8.
Gentle yoga classes and regular breathwork such as alternate nostril breathing can also be fantastic for moving the body out of a stress response.
The sympathetic nerves act to accelerate heart rate, while the parasympathetic (including vagus) nerves slow it down. Breathing through your heart can support the parasympathetic nervous system. Heart-focused breathing is about directing your attention to the heart area and breathing a little more deeply than usual. HeartMath has been able to stop panic and anxiety attacks within 5 minutes. You can download the HeartMath app, or pick up the HeartMath device here.
3: Cold Showers
Cold water stimulates our immune system and activates our vagus nerve, which reduces our stress response. This is a nerve that is part of our autonomic nervous system and the nerve that connects the brain and digestive tract. Think of it as the communication highway between your brain and gut.
The vagus nerve regulates our heart rate and our digestive system and how each function.
If our vagus nerve is not working optimally, it can lead to slowed motility in our gut, weight gain, anxiety, high-stress, and nutrient deficiencies. This makes it easy to understand the long-term digestive effects of stress, including irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and SIBO.
4: Supporting Your Sleep Cycle
Striving for a balanced circadian rhythm is essential for healing and building a strong immune system. When we are sleep-deprived, we have increased levels of stress hormones and poor cognitive health. The majority of us need 8-9 hours of sleep a night, yet the typical American sleeps 4-6 hours a night. Add a lavender diffuser to your bedroom, and be sure to turn off all screens one hour before bedtime. Also make time to watch our Food as Medicine episode on this topic called Understanding Circadian Rhythm and Sleep where we give you practical, food-based ways to do this.
Learn how to strategically use adaptogens such as holy basil, Rhodiola Rosea, ashwagandha, and ginseng to modulate the stress response (and thyroid and immune response) during times of stress. Adaptogens can be very supportive and healing to the adrenals and the nervous system as a whole. Ashwagandha is one of our favorites for those who experience anxiety and spend a lot of time in fight-or-flight. It’s clinically proven to reduce cortisol (our main stress hormone) output and is as effective as anti-anxiety medication within 21 days of use. Be sure to watch our Food as Medicine episode that teaches you how to customize your use of these four adaptogens. It’s called The Top 4 Adaptogens for Natural Stress Recovery and Management.
6: Magnesium, Sodium, and Potassium
Make sure you are taking 400-800mg of magnesium bisglycinate (taking citrate will exacerbate nervous system issues and cause electrolyte imbalances) daily during times of high stress as well as drinking a natural electrolyte drink with sodium and potassium. Our favorite is GOODONYA hydrate. Also drinking ¼ teaspoon of Himalayan pink salt in three ounces of water before bed helps to regulate melatonin and serotonin, improving sleep and warding off hot flashes and depression.
7: Change Your Relationship with Caffeine
Coffee and caffeine-containing teas can be very stimulating for the nervous system. Choosing less caffeine, changing the time you consume it, or having a caffeine-free tea is a better choice. I love a good cup of coffee, and sometimes I need it more than love it, but when reliance becomes a regular thing, it’s time to pull back a bit. If you’ve been struggling with anxiety, sleep, or digestive problems for any length of time, consider our 10 am coffee challenge.
Most of us don’t give our bodies the breakfast of healthy protein, carbs, and fat we need to feed our cells and produce energy. Instead, we KICK our adrenals with a cup of coffee and force them to secrete cortisol (stress hormone). This locks us into a vicious cycle of “living on stress hormones”. What you do first thing in the am that sets up your hormonal “experience” for the whole day.
We challenge you to WAIT to have your coffee until 10 am and to have it with a small snack containing protein, carbs, and fat and/or to add lion’s mane to your coffee, which is a powerful nerve tonic.
Caffeine increases heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, and homocysteine. It also stimulates the excretion of stress hormones, which can produce increased levels of anxiety, irritability, muscular tension and pain, indigestion, insomnia, and decreased immunity.
An excess of it leads to anxiety and irritability, mood disturbances associated with excess caffeine consumption, as are depression and attention disorders.
Diabetics and hypoglycemics should avoid caffeine. Caffeine stimulates a temporary surge in blood sugar followed by an overproduction of insulin, causing a blood sugar crash within hours.
If you experience a burning sensation in the stomach after drinking coffee, it may be because coffee increases the secretion of hydrochloric acid. This can lead to an increased risk of ulcers.
The majority of the population has mineral deficiencies. Caffeine inhibits the absorption of some nutrients and causes the urinary excretion of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and trace minerals—all essential elements necessary for good health.
Many people find in their 40s that they can no longer tolerate the same level of caffeine consumption as they could in their 20s and 30s. Production of DHEA, melatonin, and other vital hormones decline, and caffeine speeds up that downhill drop.
And lastly, caffeine consumption exacerbates adrenal exhaustion. All good reasons to choose tea over coffee whenever possible. We love Tulsi Tea because it contains the adaptogen Holy Basil which reduces stress while balancing blood sugar. We also love Pique Teas because they are processed by cold brew crystallization which extracts phytonutrients and antioxidants at maximum potential.
8: Support with Food
A diet which includes healthy servings of fruits and root vegetables can be nourishing to the nervous system. While this transition can take some time, often a few weeks to a few months, it can be very healing to the system. We typically advise against a ketogenic or low-carbohydrate diet if you are experiencing stress or tend to run a bit nervous/anxious. Please watch our Food as Medicine TV episode called The Dangers of the Ketogenic Diet, as well as the show called Using Carbs to Beat Anxiety, and incorporate the healing foods for the adrenals and nervous system listed below.
9: Exercise Smart
Often when we are stressed, we tend to gravitate towards cardio and high-movement activities. While this can be healing for some, many people find this to be too stimulating and taxes their adrenals and nervous system even more. A grounding type exercise such as yoga, walking, or pilates can be very nourishing to a nervous system stuck in fight-or-flight. Remember, stress (and cortisol) is addictive so we often crave what will continue our imbalance, such as running fast or kick-boxing, which might stimulate us vs. engaging in an exercise better suited to downregulate an overactive nervous system.
Acupuncture has been used for millennia to help regulate the nervous system and is used in the treatment of many nervous system diseases. Acupuncture points stimulate the central nervous system, which creates chemicals and energy that encourage a parasympathetic response throughout the body. This turns on your body’s natural healing abilities. Acupuncture works best when you receive treatment on a routine basis—a community clinic is a great and affordable option.
Getting bodywork, such as massage, rolfing, abdominal massage, chakra balancing, craniosacral therapy or reflexology are all amazing at turning off your stress hormones and allowing your body to chill so that it can heal—and we often need to somatically release toxic stored emotions, which these modalities allow us to in a graceful way.
These therapies have been known to help release deep trauma and tension which are deep down within the body, and by doing so, the body can start to heal and recover.
If you are suffering from an over-stimulated nervous system or taxed adrenals, it is essential to try a few of these recommendations on a regular basis. Through repetition and consistency, we can bring our body back into balance.
Balancing our parasympathetic nervous system and sympathetic nervous systems are so essential for healing—it allows us to not only better digest our food but it also improves our experience of life physically and emotionally in untold ways.
Try 3-4 of these to support your nervous system, and let us know in the comments below what modalities relax you.