Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System

When you are under stress, you enter into what we call a “fight or flight” response. So what does this actually mean? To understand this I have to explain normal physiology. The autonomic nervous system is a branch of our nervous system that regulates all automatic processes in the body. Automatic processes are things that we do not have to think about: our heart rate, our breathing rate, blood oxygen levels, blood flow to certain organs and our digestion.

There are two sides to the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system.  Certain bodily functions are turned on when you are in either of these states. The parasympathetic system tends to promote relaxation and restoration processes such as food digestion, detoxification and preparing for sleep. Think of “para” like a parachute it tends to slow things down.

The sympathetic nervous system turns on “fight or flight” processes in the body. This side of the nervous system is stimulated under stress and it turns on all the processes that are needed to respond to it, such as increasing blood flow to the muscles to fight off the stressor, increasing glucose levels for extra energy and increasing feelings of anxiety to make you retreat. Under immense stress the sympathetic nervous system tends to dominate and the parasympathetic system tends to down-regulate. This is all good short term, but we now live in a society where the sympathetic nervous system tends to be stimulated more often time due to chronic stresses inherent in our environment.

The parasympathetic processes like digestion, detoxification, relaxation, sleep and cellular restoration are down-regulated chronically. We need these parasympathetic processes for optimal health: to digest the nutrients in our food, to enter into restorative sleep to rebuild tissue and to remove waste products. We really need to cautiously take some time  each day to calm the nervous system and promote the parasympathetic processes. It doesn't have to be much, a little can really go a long way with promoting optimal health.

So what are some things you can do to calm your nervous system?

  • Attempt to be mindful and present while doing everyday tasks such as cleaning, laundry, walking.

  • Get outside and be in nature.

  • Spend time with friends and develop positive relationships in the community.

  • Stop multitasking

  • Take breaks and just breathe

  • Treat yourself to a spa treatment, massage or a facial

If you find that you cannot relax, you may need to add some additional botanical herbs to help or supportive care from a health provider.  An amino acid called L-theanine helps promote alpha waves in the brain similar to meditation and promotes Gaba in the brain. Gaba is a neurotransmitter that has a  calming effect on the brain. For some people, 5-HTP helps to naturally improve serotonin levels, a natural feel good neurotransmitter.

I have also added some new treatments into my practice to help support the parasympathetic / relaxation response.  The Elapromed transdermaporation treatments are more commonly used in the European aesthetic community. However, I've been using this treatment for two other uses, those being pain management and relaxation! I am getting fantastic results for muscle and body pain using this treatment. I also believe it naturally stimulates endorphins and feel good hormones. There are so many wonderful hydrotherapy treatments that can also be used to reduce stress as well.

So next time you are at the spa or taking a hike, remind yourself that relaxing activities and therapies are needed to balance our nervous system in our modern, over paced society!

By Dr. Nathan Jeffery ND., BSc.