Updated: Jun 15, 2022
What is your nervous system and how does it affect your daily well-being and overall health?
Please note that this article offers a simplified explanation of the nervous system to make the information as accessible and applicable as possible, there is a great deal more complexity at play but if we are able to begin to comprehend things at their most basic level we can begin to take control and better understand how trauma and stress manifest in the body over time.
The human body is essentially made up of two nervous systems. The Sympathetic Nervous System is commonly known as the Fight or Flight (Freeze, Fawn) system and the Parasympathetic Nervous system is commonly known as the rest & digest system, although I like to refer to this as the Calm & Create system as it is when the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant that we are able to respond to life with calm and creativity as opposed to reactive stress-driven responses. There is also a 3rd more subtle system according to the research of Dr Stephen Proges, our social or communal nervous system which can be described as a playful mixture of activation and calming that operates from unique nerve influence. The social engagement system helps us navigate relationships and read and respond to our environment.
Gaining an understanding of my nervous system and how it affected my health and overall well-being was one of the most life-changing experiences I've had. Once you gain an understanding of these systems you can begin to take your health back into your own hands and understand how to heal and balance not only your mental wellbeing but your physical health as well.
This will not be an in-depth and technical exploration of anatomy and the nervous system but rather an accessible explanation of how these three systems affect your life and what you can do to have control and power over which system rules.
Fundamentally our bodies and brain are still quite primitive in the way they respond to stress, when stress is triggered in the brain, it activates the release of a cocktail of hormones and chemicals into your body, these consist of stress hormones - dopamine, epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and especially cortisol. This stress hormone cocktail triggers the body to activate the Sympathetic Nervous System, which tells your body that you are in danger and you probably need to run away or fight your way out of this situation; because in our primitive incarnation this would have been the case, you would have been confronted by a predator trying to eat you. So your body prepares you for this by taking blood from the organs and digestive system and diverting it to your extremities so you can run and fight. By speeding up your breath so that you are taking shorter more shallow breaths and as such raising your heart rate. The psoas (hip flexor) muscles, as well as the pectoral and trapezius muscles around the neck and chest, tighten in preparation for action.
These are only some of the effects of the Sympathetic Nervous System being triggered the list goes on and is quite complex but to serve this article, I will leave it there. Basically, your body does what it believes is necessary for you to survive and it does this with the intention that you will take quick action and either escape to safety or be dead so the intention is never for the body to stay in this state for an extended period of time. But due to the nature of our modern stressors, this process no longer looks quite the same. What happens in our modern environment is that stress is pervasive and mostly mental. It is based on worries, concerns and fears for our financial survival or some other non-physical fear-based narrative or imagined threat and is seldom based on an actual immediate physical threat. So the body doesn’t do what it was designed to, it experiences the rush of stress after the email, or the call from the boss, or the unreasonable deadline, or unexpected bill, or the story on the news and instead of using the stress hormone cocktail and running or fighting our way to safety we sit, we stay still in front of our laptop, in the car, in the meeting, staring at the TV or our phone. Our brain then believes that we have frozen out of fear and to try and save us it sends more of the stress cocktail into our system, and so what is known as the stress loop or Sympathetic Overload or Overdrive takes hold. This state over time results in a litany of physical, mental and emotional maladies, you only have to type “stress-related illness” into google to be shocked at what a scourge this is on our human experience, stress is by far the biggest threat and killer we have ever confronted. BUT there is a simple solution and it's in your hands to access it.
Here comes the hero in this story, your Parasympathetic Nervous System! When the Parasympathetic Nervous System is in control, or better yet the Parasympathetic and Sympathetic systems are in balance and activated appropriately the body returns to normal healthy function, it moves out of survival mode and into thrive mode. Blood circulation normalises, breath deepens and slows, the digestive system re-ignites, the heart rate stabilises and the hormones and chemicals that make us feel happy, calm, creative, clear-minded and at peace flood the system. The immune system self-regulates by lowering acidity creating a stronger immunity and a more alkaline environment (it is important here to also understand that stress leads to high acidity in the body and all viruses and diseases including cancers can only survive or take hold in an acidic environment, an alkaline body cannot sustain disease) This makes us physically healthier and more resilient as well as lowering anxiety and lifting depression.
A simple way of accessing the Parasympathetic Nervous System is by understanding and stimulating the Vagus Nerve.
What is the vagus nerve? The vagal nerve originates in the brain as cranial nerve 10 and is the longest nerve in the body, it travels down the neck and throat and passes around the heart, lungs, digestive system, liver, spleen and pancreas. This nerve is the major player in your Parasympathetic Nervous System, which as discussed above is our ‘Rest and Digest / Calm & Clear system. The name Vagus nerve comes from the Latin for “wandering” as this nerve innervates so much of our body it was aptly named the wandering nerve or vagus nerve.
Ok, so how do you alchemise the nervous system and increase health? We focus firstly on Vagal Tone. The tone of the vagus nerve is key to activating the parasympathetic nervous system. We measure vagal tone by tracking your heart rate alongside your breathing rate. Your heart rate speeds up a little when breathing in, and slows down a little when breathing out. The bigger the difference between your inhalation rate and your exhalation rate, the higher your vagal tone. A higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress. Meaning that you are more likely to quickly and more easily switch back into the Parasympathetic Nervous System after stress.
What does that mean for your health? High vagal tone improves the function of many body systems, causing better blood sugar regulation, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, improved digestion via better production of basic stomach and digestive enzymes, as well as reducing stress-induced migraines and headaches. Higher vagal tone is also associated with better mood, less anxiety and higher stress resilience. One of the most interesting roles of the vagus nerve is that it essentially interprets and decodes the gut microbiome and initiates a response to modulate inflammation based on whether or not it detects pathogenic versus non-pathogenic organisms. We understand through much research into the connection of the gut to mental and physical wellbeing that the gut microbiome has a direct effect on your mood, stress regulation and overall inflammation, so we want the ability of the vagus nerve to read and interpret these signals from the gut to be high.
What happens to your body if your vagal tone is low? Low vagal tone is directly associated with cardiovascular conditions and strokes as well as depression, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, cognitive impairment, and much higher rates of inflammatory conditions. Inflammatory conditions include all autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, endometriosis, autoimmune thyroid conditions, lupus, this list goes on and on.
So what do you do now? This is the good news part! You have total control over and access to increasing your vagal tone and activating your Parasympathetic Nervous System on your own, but it requires commitment and regular practice. To some degree, we are all genetically predisposed to varying levels of vagal tone, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t change it. Here are some ways that you can tone the vagus nerve and switch on your Parasympathetic Nervous System: Breath: By using a simple 2-to-1 breathing technique you can easily stimulate the vagus nerve and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. Simply place your hands on your belly and your heart, then breathe deeply into the belly allowing the diaphragm and lungs to expand for 4 counts and then very slowly breathe out for 8 counts. If you are very stressed already and find it difficult to do a whole 4 counts in and 8 out then start smaller with 3/6 or 2/4 counts and work your way up. Movement: Practising conscious breath and movement based exercises such as yoga and Pilates can hugely assist in increasing vagal tone as well as activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System. Chanting, Humming or Singing: Since the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, humming mechanically stimulates it. Chanting OM is a really simple practise that works brilliantly or even just humming a tune you like or if you’re a better singer than me then sing!
Meditation: Personally, I believe that meditation is the answer to all life’s questions but a 2010 study by Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kik found that loving-kindness meditations such as Tonglen increase positive emotions leading to increased social closeness and an improvement in vagal tone.
Probiotics: Balancing the gut microbiome - the presence of healthy bacteria in the gut creates a positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve, increasing its tone. By simply taking a daily probiotic the effects and implications for your overall health, and in particular on inflammation are far-reaching. If you suffer from any inflammatory condition, digestive upset, high blood pressure or depression, I highly recommend you investigate your vagal tone. Stress / Trauma release positions: We’ve known for years that breathing exercises and meditation greatly improve our health, but it is so incredible to learn and understand the mechanism by which they work. To add to these practices we can create a physical feedback loop from the body to the brain to tell the brain that we are not in danger. This can be done by using a simple position such as Supta baddah konasana or bound angle pose. To get into this pose lie with your feet together and your knees splayed apart in a diamond shape, place pillows or supports under your knees so that you are not straining to maintain the position, then let your arms drop open slightly above you with your palms up and hands open, support your head and neck with a pillow. Basically, make sure that you are as comfortable as possible in this position and allow the whole front of your body to be open and fully exposed.
Cold Water: By simply splashing your face with cold water or using a jolt of cold water at the end of your shower you can stimulate your vagus nerve. The mechanism here is not fully known, but cold water has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve. Check out the Wim Hoff method if you are interested in a deeper understanding of the study of the effects of cold on the nervous system and your health https://www.wimhofmethod.com/ I hope that by reading this article you feel a little more empowered and feel like you have the keys to begin alchemising, accessing and understanding your physical and mental well-being a little bit better.