Let’s have a check in before we start this, shall we?
How are you feeling—calm or hungry? How about wired and tired?
Whichever one you answered, is directly tied to your nervous system. You see, the nervous system dictates and regulates our stress reactions but it also helps to regulate general homeostasis in the body. It is the command center for how we react in almost every situation.
Parts of Your Nervous System and What They Do
With every good command center, there are several moving parts (for instance, you should see my dual screen set up), our bodies don’t work any differently.
There are two main parts of the nervous system, the Central (CNS) and the Peripheral (PNS).
The CNS is broken down into the brain and spinal cord. The CNS processes incoming information from external sources and controls the body’s reactions to them through the PNS and the endocrine system.
The PNS is broken down into three different parts. The autonomic nervous system, the somatic nervous system (our chosen muscle movement), and the enteric nervous system (the vagus nerve—digestion/CNS feedback loop).
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic system is the one we end up paying the most attention to because it controls the things that happen without our active thought like blood pressure, body temperature, bladder emptying, sweating, etc. and it is most affected by our state of stress.
The autonomic nervous system can broken down into two very specific types of systems, the sympathetic system (stress state) and parasympathetic system (resting state).
When we are in a state of stress, our sympathetic nervous system takes over, this is fight or flight mode. Blood and nutrients are shunted outward to our muscles and energy is removed from anything that isn’t necessary to sustain life in the moment—this is typically digestive secretions, deep breathing, and reproduction. This is good during exercise, thinking on your feet, and any activity that involves movement.
Our parasympathetic nervous system is where our bodies recuperate, this is rest and digest mode. This is where we digest our meals, absorb nutrients, get in the mood for love and sex, can take deep comfortable exercise and take our time thinking through problems.
We can’t not talk about the nerves here. They are the way all the signals travel around our bodies, afterall!
Our nerves function sort of like a wire, they have a coating so that the impulses aren’t released in random places, shocking organs and muscles into function when they don’t need to be. The coating is called a myelin sheath and it is made out of at least 70% fat. Myelin sheaths can become frayed through trauma, if a person isn’t eating enough good fats, or if the body isn’t able to use the fats efficiently. This can be painful and cause the body to react with a stress response.
How Your Nervous System Works
Now that you know the essential elements of the nervous system we can talk a bit about how it actually works together.
The basic function of your nervous system is to communicate from your brain to your body and back through electrical impulses.
Throughout our days, we are in a consistent state of sensory overwhelm. We’re taking in an extraordinary amount of information and there is no way to process all of it at once. Our central nervous system takes the sensory information we collect to our brain, which is a fatty muscle that the uses the same electrical impulses to sort through it all and make decisions.
The brain (CNS) sends the decision through electro-signals to the hypothalamus, which is a little part right in the bottom, middle of the brain. The hypothalamus acts as an interface between the CNS and the endocrine system, which uses the PNS (along with the bloodstream) to send messages to different parts of the body.
The two main systems involved in the PNS are the neurocrine system and the neuroendocrine system.
The neurocrine system uses the electric impulses that fire directly into tissues. This is how muscles are told to work and follicles are told to secrete, I think of these messages as direct actions that need to happen quickly.
The neuroendocrine system nerves are responsible for releasing hormones into into the bloodstream. Here, the hypothalamus tells the pituitary gland (this is the gland that controls hormone secretion) what the body needs in order to react appropriately to the internal and external environment.
The Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis
I know this is complicated (and this is just the basics, pffsh) but hey, if you’ve followed so far, you’ll pick this up no sweat.
You’ll see “HPA Axis” thrown around all the time if you go to any natural healthcare practitioner. It sounds all fancy and important because honestly, it is. This is the stress control center of our bodies, it is one of the most primitive systems in the existence of our species and we owe our survival to the efficiency and effectiveness of this system.
Simply put (now that I’ve added sufficient drama to the article) the hypothalamus-pituary connection that I mention above sends signals of stress or nonstress to the adrenals. If there is a stress signal, the adrenals react—and fast. That surge of energy you get when you see an old flame or when you realize you’re late for a meeting, they’re caused by the same stress hormone—adrenaline.
The body reacts by immediately moving into your sympathetic nervous system and your external senses light up.
If it’s used to often or for too long, this can be burnt out, or in a consistent state of stress hormone production.
How to Go From Fight or Flight to Rest and Digest
Do you remember what you answered to the check in question at the beginning of this article?
Our society has a tendency towards that consistent stress hormone production and many of us are in a constant state of fight or flight (or wired and tired). Stress is useful sometimes, like when we’re momentarily scared or exercising or thinking quickly to solve an immediate problem, but when it’s a part of our everyday lives, we can get burnt out. Here are a few ways to switch to your parasympathetic nervous system.
Follow a deep breathing exercise. I would suggest using the one in the respiratory cleanse article. It’s built to help calm down from stress (and indeed, I’ve used it!)
Close your eyes and daydream. Think about laughing with your friends, time spent with your partner, blue skies, or winning the lottery—whatever it is that brings you to your happiest place, go there and stay there until you feel your muscles relax.
Smell really good food. Cinnamon rolls are my go to, or a turkey dinner, or a really yummy pot of cheese fondue (are you getting hungry? good). The idea is literally to make your mouth water. We don’t do that when we’re in our sympathetic nervous system.
How do you get into your parasympathetic nervous system? Tell us in the comments!
Ohlone Herbal Center