We may think that we are mostly in control of our bodies. You think about your arm moving, it moves. This is known as the somatic nervous system. This system is in control of most of our conscious behaviors, like movement. There is another system at play, one that is always watching over our unconscious thoughts and feelings. This is what is known as the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is in control of unconscious behaviors like digestion, sexual function, stress response, and hormone release. If you encounter stress, the ANS is in charge of regulating the release of hormones to deal with that stress. It makes sure that systems are down-regulated or up-regulated when they need to be.
The ANS is split into two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic is in charge of our stress response, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. When we encounter stress or the brain thinks about something stressful, epinephrine and norepeniphrine are secreted out to increase heart rate. The stress hormone cortisol is released to tap into energy stores. Blood flow to the digestive tract is slowed down to make more room for flow to the muscles. Kidney function is also slowed down to retain water. This is done by the anti-diuretic hormone vasopressin. All of this is done within seconds of encountering or thinking about stress.
The parasympathetic nervous system is know as the “rest and digest” system. Resting heart rate is decreased. Hunger is increased. Blood flow is diverted from the muscles into processes that we associate with rest. Digestion is increased, as well as growth and energy storage. Picture how you feel after a large meal. Your parasympathetic nervous system is taking blood flow away from the muscles and diverting it into the digestive tract. You body is storing energy or synthesizing protein for muscle growth.
The Problem With Overstimulating Either System
In a perfect world, the two branches of the ANS would work effortlessly together to balance our bodies reactions to stress and the need for rest when not in a stressed state. The sympathetic system would kick in when we need spurts of energy, either during a workout or when we need to escape danger. The parasympathetic system would only be active while we are resting and recovering. This system would work in concert in a natural setting, like our previous history as hunter gatherers. In our modern life the stimuli are completely different. Our brains are overstimulated with information. The stress we encounter on a daily basis is mostly related to non physical things like money, relationship, traffic, our jobs. We are surrounded by these stressors constantly.
When we think about these stressful things we have a very real physiological response. Our heart rate increases, the hormone glucagon increases circulating levels of glucose for energy, and inflammation increases. If we have a parasympathetic stress response to every situation we find ourselves in, problems start to arise. Our immune function goes down. Our blood sugar is elevated constantly. Our blood pressure is elevated chronically. The result of all of this is that our likelihood of having heart disease goes up. We are more susceptible to getting sick. Chronic stimulation of the fight or flight response is seriously damaging to our metabolic processes. This paper outlines how chronic sympathetic stimulation encourages the development of obesity, hyperglycemia, insulin resistance, and hypertension. This can even occur in “healthy” athletes that are over training. Constant hard workouts stimulate the sympathetic system just as much as modern stress.
When the sympathetic system is overtaxed and the adrenal glands just can’t keep up with the hormonal demands, the parasympathetic system will kick in and take over the same pathways that the sympathetic system was occupying. When this happens even more issues pop up. Chronic low levels of cortisol, DHEA, testosterone, and insulin levels appear. Uncontrollable weight loss persists. Heart rate variability decreases with a resting heart rate that is too low. Basically, the rest and digest function of the body is constantly turned on. When one system is overtaxed, the other will take its place and also become overtaxed.
Practices That Balance Your ANS
- Learn stress reduction practices like mindfulness meditation or deep breathing. A favorite technique of mine is 2-1 breathing. The concept is to simply make your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations. When we exhale we primarily activate our parasympathetic system. This study demonstrates how practicing this technique for 5-7 minutes a day lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and symptoms of stress.
- Stimulate the bodys natural internal movement of the digestive tract and organs known as peristalsis. When we are in constant fight or flight mode, blood flow to the organs is limited. This creates more stress on the body. If we focus on low intensity movements like walking, gentle yoga, squatting, or gentle swimming, we don’t raise our heart heart enough to activate the sympathetic nervous system. With these movements we strengthen the muscles along the pelvic floor, the abdominal wall, as well as our diaphragm. This will support the organs if we have been in a constant state of stress.
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. This means avoiding high omega-6 foods like vegetable oils, processed meats, roasted nuts and seeds, and processed carbohydrates. Focus on high omega-3 foods like fatty fish and pasture raised animal products. This will help to bring down inflammation brought on by constant elevation of stress hormones.
- Get more deep sleep. Sleep is the time that our body takes to recover, repair, and growth. This is extremely crucial to repairing an overtaxed ANS. Learn proper sleep hygiene like avoiding blue light after dark, stopping eating at least an hour before bed, and making sure the temperature of the room is around 68 degrees for ease of sleep.
That’s it everyone. Got any other techniques for balancing the ANS? Leave any questions or comments below!
Elliot Steele is a Primal Health Coach based in Chelan WA. He strives to empower those looking to regain their health after a lifetime of misinformed practices. This is the essence of Steele Back Your Health, to truly learn how to be healthy with sustainable habits. Check out the coaching and blog page for more info!