The Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous System & How They Affect Our Daily Life

In today’s day and age, people are under heightened states of stress more than they’ve ever been before. Stress in our daily life has a direct effect on the hypothalamus in our brain, which governs hormone synthesis in our bodies. The result of this is a stimulation of our sympathetic nervous system, and in turn, our parasympathetic nervous activity is reduced.

During sympathetic nervous system activation, adrenaline and noradrenaline are released as an evolutionary signal from the brain to the body that the body needs to protect itself from a direct threat. Our pulse and respiration rates increase and the “fight or flight” response kicks in. Another stress hormone, cortisol, is also released and at the same time, functions such as digestion are suppressed, as the brain considers these to not be essential towards survival from immediate threats.  

Therefore, it is easy to see why being under a constant state of stress means that our digestion is seldom functioning optimally, meaning that the food we consume is not being adequately broken down to release the nutrients we require from our food for optimal health.  This can lead to a variety of nutrient deficiencies, and if not corrected, the development of illnesses as a result. 

Prolonged periods of stress can also lead the cortisol resistance.  Under normal conditions, our cortisol levels are the highest first thing in the morning, and this is what helps us to get out of bed and get on with our day.  Cortisol levels normally decline through the day and should be at their lowest level by our bedtime.  Melatonin patterns are normally opposite to those of cortisol and are meant to be at the highest levels in the evening, allowing us to get to sleep and stay asleep.  Any disruption to these patterns, such as prolonged periods of stress, means disrupted sleep patterns will often occur.  Cortisol resistance can also lead to blood sugar dysregulation.    

There are many things we can do, in order to modulate our nervous system and increase parasympathetic nervous system activity.  These include:

  • During meal times, put your phone down, step away from the work desk, and take a few deep breaths to relax before you start to eat.  If possible, eating outside in the fresh air and sunshine is also helpful.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing – take a deep breath in for 4 seconds and as you do so, think of breathing into your sides.  Hold your breath for 4 seconds, then breathe out for 4 seconds.  Repeat a few times. 
  • Exercise most days of the week, even just 20 minutes a day will make a difference. Yoga is excellent for stress reduction.  
  • Reduce screen time, and especially eliminate altogether an hour before bedtime as blue light from screens disrupts melatonin production.
  • Diffuse some essential oils around the house, such as lavender or chamomile, or another blend of essential oils made for this purpose.  
  • Meditation. This can be done sitting up or lying down, it can be done outside or inside. There are some great apps available such as Calm and Insight Timer, if you prefer to do guided meditations. 

Implementing these things in daily life will go a long way towards improving our health outcomes in the long term.  Naturopaths can further help to optimise the healing process in various ways, such as modulating nervous system activity with herbs and nutrients, improving digestive health, addressing any dietary deficiencies, and also considering lifestyle factors.

Other modalities such as acupuncture, hypnotherapy or myotherapy can also assist with stress reduction and nervous system modulation. 

The naturopaths at Brisbane Natural Health are highly experienced in nervous system manifestations, so if you would like to start taking steps towards better health, call Brisbane Natural Health on 3367 0337.