The Autonomic Nervous System + 7 Tips to Restoring Balance

Do you need help balancing your nervous system?

Modern life, challenging times and overwhelm can put a strain on your nervous system and impact your health. While you can’t control external stressors like radiation and other environmental pollutants, you can work to improve choices and habits that support better health.

The Autonomic Nervous System + 7 Tips To Restoring Balance

Why Is a Balanced Nervous System Important?

The state of your nervous system is directly related to virtually every part of your physical body and overall well-being.

In fact, the complex collection of nerves and cells that make up your nervous system are direct transmitters throughout your body.

Balanced, harmonious signals will nourish your nervous system and support your health. Let's talk about the "how".

How Does the Autonomic Nervous System Work?

The human body has two nervous systems; the somatic, voluntary nervous system and the involuntary, autonomic nervous system.

In this post, we'll focus on the autonomic system because it controls all of your vital functions (like digestion and heart rate), many of which you aren't consciously aware of.

And it's because for most of us, the autonomic nervous system is generally out of our conscious control that it can be harder to balance.

However, the cortex of your brain, normally associated with conscious thought, can change your autonomic nervous system to some degree which is why positive thinking is so beneficial.

Within the autonomic system there are two branches: the sympathetic or “fight-or-flight, or freeze response” and the parasympathetic “rest, heal and digest response.”

Both are necessary for everyday human function -  the sympathetic system provides the body with energy, stimulation, and fuel to fight or take flight from danger.

And the parasympathetic system is all about rest and relaxation. It's your “downtime mode” and is where your body should be 80% of the time. Your overall health relies on it for functions like, proper digestion, hormonal balance, normal blood pressure, cellular regeneration and maintaining a healthy weight.

What Is Sympathetic-dominant?

It’s very easy to 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.

If you’re sympathetic-dominant you'll likely have a hard time relaxing and switching off from work and everyday stressors.

Unfortunately, modern life has set up our nervous systems to be more sympathetic-dominant. But with some consciousness around your habits in the form of consistent positive diet, nutrition and lifestyle choices, you can support your nervous system and bring it 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, your stomach starts gurgling and you can think more clearly. These are the telltale signs that your parasympathetic system has taken over. Yay!

7 Tips for Restoring Balance to Your Nervous System

Besides yoga, here are 7 top tips to help you improve the balance between your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system response.

1. Change Your Relationship With Caffeine

Here’s some reasons to ease up on your caffeine intake if this is an issue for you:

Coffee and caffeine-containing teas can be very stimulating for the nervous system. Caffeine increases heart rate, blood pressure and also stimulates the secretion of stress hormones, which can produce increased levels of anxiety, irritability, muscular tension and pain, indigestion, insomnia, and decreased immunity.

An excess of caffeine leads to anxiety and irritability, mood disturbances are also associated with excess caffeine consumption, as are depression.

Caffeine also exacerbates adrenal exhaustion and stimulates a temporary surge in blood sugar followed by an overproduction of insulin, causing a blood sugar crash within hours.

These are all good reasons to choose tea over coffee whenever possible. I like Tulsi Tea because it contains the adaptogen Holy Basil which reduces stress while balancing blood sugar.

Choosing less caffeine, changing the time you consume it, or having a caffeine-free tea is a better choice. I’m not suggesting that you go without what you love, but sometimes it can be more of a need and when reliance becomes a regular thing it’s time to pull back a bit.

Most breakfasts don’t give the body the 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 in the morning sets up your hormonal “experience” for the whole day. Having your coffee with a breakfast that contains a healthy balance of protein, carbs, and fat is a better option.

2. Support Your Nervous System With the Right 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 your nervous system.

If you're experiencing stress or tend to run a bit nervous / anxious here are some foods that you can incorporate into your diet which will help to support a balanced nervous system - avocados, bananas, bone broth, carrots, cherries, coconut water, leafy greens, liver, sunflower seeds, salmon, tropical fruits and walnuts.

3. Be Mindful and Focus on One Thing at a Time

I love writing to-do lists. They make me feel productive and organised, especially when I can cross tasks off. But here’s the downside to-do lists, it leads to multitasking and when you focus on more than one task at a time inevitably you let go of mindfulness and switch up a gear, or two, by stimulating the sympathetic part of your autonomic nervous system.

Multitasking by it’s shere nature will throw the nervous system out of balance, so if you’re a list writer like me, try to focus on one task at a time and give it your full attention before moving onto the next one.

4. Promote a Healthy Sleep Cycle

Striving for a balanced circadian rhythm is essential for a healthy nervous system and strong immunity. When you are sleep-deprived, you will have increased levels of stress hormones and poor cognitive health. The majority of us need 8-9 hours of sleep a night, yet typically most people average 4-6 hours of sleep a night.

One suggestion is to use a pillow mist with a premium diffused lavender essential oil. My favourite is Tropic’s So Sleepy Pillow Mist which you can find info on here. And be sure to turn off all screens one hour before bedtime.

5. Exercise for Balance and Energy

It’s easy to gravitate towards cardio and high-intensity activities when stressed. While this can be beneficial for some people, many find this to be too stimulating and even more taxing on their adrenals and nervous system.

A grounding type activity such as gentle yoga, walking, or pilates can be very nourishing to a sympathetic-dominant nervous system. Stress (and cortisol) is addictive so we often crave what will continue our imbalance, such as running or lifting too heavy weights, which might stimulate. Instead engage in an exercise better suited to downregulating an overactive nervous system.

6. Use Bodywork to Release Toxins and Restore Balance

Getting bodywork, such as hot stone massage, myofascial release, abdominal massage, visceral therapy and EFT (emotional freedom technique) is an amazing way to turn off your stress hormones and allow your body to relax so that your nervous system can return to it’s harmonious, balanced state.

There's often a need to somatically release toxic stored emotions, which these modalities allow you to do in a gentle way.

These therapies have been known to help release trauma and tension which are stored deep within you, and by doing so, your body can restore and rebalance.

7. Engage in Cold Bathing and Showers

Cold water stimulates your immune system and activates your vagus nerve, which reduces your stress response. The vagus nerve is part of your autonomic nervous system.

While you want all of your nerves functioning well, the vagus nerve is the most crucial to your health as it connects your brain to most of your organs, including your lungs and digestive tract.

If cold water swimming isn’t an option try turning your shower to cold for a few minutes before you get out. I promise you, you'll feel great after a cold water blast.

If your vagus nerve isn't working optimally, it can lead to slowed motility in your 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, crohn's, and SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth). If you'd like to learn more about the vagus nerve, read my post for why it’s so important and ways to strengthen vagal tone.

Positive Changes Lead to Beneficial Results

If you're suffering from an over-stimulated nervous system or taxed adrenals, it's essential to try a few of these recommendations on a regular basis. Through repetition and consistency, you can bring your body back into balance.

Balancing your parasympathetic nervous system and sympathetic nervous systems are essential for healing and health. It allows you to not only better digest your food, but it also improves your experience of life physically and emotionally.

Do try some of these top tips to support your nervous system, and let me know in the comments below what balancing modalities work best for you.

Nicola x

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Meet Nicola - blog posts

Meet Nicola

Hi, I'm an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, Pain & Stress Management Therapist, and Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner.

I help people elevate their mind and body health by addressing diet, nutrition and lifestyle symptoms. Let's work together to optimize how you feel and function.

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