How healthy we are depends a lot on how balanced our autonomic nervous system is! We can eat the most amazing diet (which is, of course, extremely important), but if our nervous system is out of balance, even the best diet won’t keep us in a healthy state.
Our autonomic nervous system plays a role in maintaining many functions within our body that we consciously can’t control. These include the beating of our heart, our digestion, our respiratory rate, immune function, the activity of the endocrine glands and more……
The autonomic nervous system functions in two states: Sympathetic mode or parasympathetic mode.
Our body is in constant calibration between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. They work together continuously to maintain harmony and balance within the body.
SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
If we are constantly rushing through our day trying to tick off our to-do list, always on the go trying to reach dead lines or are involved in events that the body perceives as being under threat; our body goes into sympathetic mode. Regardless of the cause of stress, our body responds with an increase in stress hormones which then puts us into hyper alertness. It’s like the body is going into acceleration mode. This results in physical symptoms; increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, tensing of muscles, heightened senses and other physical responses. All the body’s combined reactions to stress are also known as ”fight or flight” responses. Our body puts all of it’s resources into what it needs to do in order to deal with the perceived stress that’s occurring. It then shunts its resources away from other less important immediate functions (eg. digestion, sex hormones, detoxification etc.)
When we look back at our ancestors, our sympathetic mode was critical in keeping humans alive. We needed to react quickly when we came under threat from a predator in the wild or in another life threatening situation. When the threat subsided, thankfully, our body was then able to quickly revert back to a state of equilibrium.
However, in our modern lifestyle, the human body has a physical response to many non life-threatening stressors, for example, running late for work. Long term, this results in dysregulation in our body, which can then express itself as anxiety, stress, hostility, irritability, aggression, short temper and anger.
PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
Once the threat is over, our parasympathetic mode kicks in. It’s quite the opposite of the sympathetic state. It’s like putting on the brakes. In contrast, when this is dominant, it slows down our heart rate, releases hormones that relax our body/mind, our blood pressure reduces, our respiration slows and we return to a more relaxed state. This is the time when our body goes into rest and repair. Our digestive tract works optimally, our body detoxifies, our immune function is enhanced and our metabolism slows down. During this time, we are calmer and far more emotionally stable.
However, today, it is a lot harder to maintain this equilibrium!
It’s a lot harder for our body to be able to switch over to a parasympathetic mode. Why? We are constantly bombarded with modern day stressors every which way we turn; computers, mobile phones, social media, traffic, televisions, WIFI.
Therefore, it is essential that we’re able to find moments throughout our day that we consciously bring our body out of the sympathetic mode and into a parasympathetic state.
Some effective strategies are:
- Deep breathing
- Gentle exercise or yoga
- Time in play and laughter
- Massage, acupuncture, chiropractic or another alternative therapy
- Time in nature
- Read a book
- Take a bath
- Listen to music or play an instrument
- Singing or gargling
- Paint, draw, sew or another favourite hobby
- Prioritise restorative sleep
- Avoid stimulants and implement a diet that is individualised to your needs
Knowing how to turn on our Parasympathetic nervous system is a vital tool required to manage our stress and to deal with life’s ups and downs.
We can’t constantly drive with our foot on the accelerator! If we do, it will lead to an empty fuel tank, burn out and eventually a state of illness.