How your nervous system can impact your everyday health: Part one

How your nervous system can impact your everyday health: Part one

Author -  Good Health

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Parasympathetic nervous system: The rest and repair branch

The parasympathetic nervous system is the rest, digest and repair branch of our nervous system. It is activated when we are truly at rest and is essential for us to feel relaxed and to recover after a stressful event. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, our blood-pressure is stable, breathing is diaphragmatic and our mind is clear. Although stress is a natural, evolutionary response, once the stressful event has passed, our nervous system should regulate, and the parasympathetic nervous system should take back control. However contemporary stress levels are on the rise and often we do not even realise how stressed we are. Work, family, and finances all demand out attention, and with our phones and emails always by our side, we are not relaxing as we used to. This can take a toll on our health and wellbeing, as mental and physical rest, proper digestion and cellular repair is crucial to a well-functioning body and mind.

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Sympathetic Nervous System: The fight or flight response

Our adrenal glands are two small walnut-sized glands that sit above the kidney. During times of stress, your body demands more energy and the brain sends a message to the adrenal glands to increase production of hormones. These hormones cause your sympathetic nervous system takes control and your body goes into “fight-or-flight” mode. Breathing, heart rate and mental awareness increase and blood is directed towards large muscles and away from what is considered ‘non-essential’ areas. With this response, you have extra energy, and are ready to face danger or run away. However your immune system, reproduction and digestive health all suffer as a consequence. As hormone production increases, adrenaline spikes a rise in our blood sugar levels which leads to the production of insulin, our primary fat storage hormone. Cortisol is also released, and although it helps to buffer the effects of insulin, excess cortisol production can eventually cause us to have lower than ideal levels upon waking; this leaves us reaching for that (often sugar-filled) 3pm energy fix.

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Constantly stressed? You may have adrenal fatigue 

Although ‘fight-or-flight’ is a natural and essential response to stress, our stress hormones are only designed to be secreted when our body needs them as a matter of survival. Due to the busy modern lifestyle, our adrenal glands can over secrete our stress hormones. This overwhelms our adrenal glands, reduces our body’s ability to function optimally and causes the body to be in a constant state of ‘fight-or-flight.’ The body may adapt to the new level of hormones initially, so that stress becomes the new normal, however as our body continues to resist there is a reduction of the amount of hormones available. This continuous cycle eventually exhausts the adrenal glands, and leads to a condition labelled adrenal fatigue.

Common symptoms of Adrenal fatigue:

  • Feeling wired but tired
  • Emotionally and physically burnt out 
  • Increased energy in the evenings and an inability to get to sleep or stay asleep
  • Waking up feeling tired
  • Relying on caffeine to get through the day 
  • Craving salty or sugary foods
  • Weight gain and inability to lose weight 

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Any stressful situation can produce an imbalance within our body. Our modern lifestyle is full of stressors and no matter what the source, our bodies are not designed to cope with them long-term. Although we may not be able to stop stressful situations from happening, we can control how we choose to respond to them. Make sure you reflect on how you are responding to stress so that you can help your parasympathetic nervous system take back control. Use diaphragmatic breathing or drink a calming herbal tea in the evenings, so that you are allowing your body to rest and repair. Controlling how you respond and recover from stress can steer you in the right direction towards maintaining good health, happy relationships and a good night’s sleep that will leave you feeling energised for the day ahead.

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