Written by Ashley Von Arx | Wednesday, 19 April 2023
The nervous system is incredibly complex, and its state of function is inseparable from the overall health of our bodies. Have you ever noticed that when you feel stressed or anxious your digestion, sleep, and mood can play up? That is a pretty common experience, so let’s take a look at the why behind it and some very simple ways to help regulate your nervous system.
The nervous system can be divided into a few different categories, but the focus here is going to be on the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is responsible for many things our bodies do automatically, like managing heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, digestion, and sexual arousal. There are three further subdivisions of the ANS – the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric nervous systems. To avoid overcomplicating things, we can narrow the focus once more to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
So, just as a recap, when you are in SNS mode, your body is ready to react to stress by fighting, fleeing, or freezing until the perceived threat has abated. Digestion doesn’t function optimally in this space because your body is pumping your blood to your heart, lungs, and muscles rather than your digestive organs. The trouble for many of us is that the perceived threat has become relentless, and we find ourselves stuck in this state.
How do you shift gears to allow yourself to enter PSNS mode so that you can rest, relax, and digest properly? Stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from your brain, down through your trunk, and ends in the gut, can help to regulate the nervous system so that you can find your way to rest and digest mode.
You can stimulate your vagus nerve by:
This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination, but these particular activities are easy, effective, and accessible. So, for example, when you get home from a busy day at work, after driving through hectic traffic or navigating crowded public transportation, and then turn on the news to hear about the latest round of disasters, your body will likely be in an SNS state. So how do you regulate the nervous system to move into PSNS mode so that you can digest and assimilate the nutrients in the dinner you are about to eat, and then settle in for a restful sleep? Switch off the news and put on some music to sing along to (or hum if you are too shy to sing). Sit down with your meal and pause momentarily to take three slow, deep breaths before you begin to eat. Call a friend or family member who cracks you up or pull up a funny cat video on the internet and have a good laugh. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
Short but frequent doses of these activities are more beneficial and accessible than longer, infrequent doses. Taking three deep breaths before each meal is probably easier than sitting down to do 30 minutes of focused breath work twice a week. Supporting your body’s ability to move between SNS and PSNS states helps to build stress resilience and overall well-being, particularly when paired with a nutritious diet, adequate movement, restorative sleep, and a solid support network.
While these activities can be incredibly helpful, they don’t take the place of care from qualified health professionals. If you need support with stress, mental health, or any other health concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to your GP, a mental health professional, or a natural health practitioner such as a nutritionist or naturopath as is appropriate for your circumstances.
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Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus nerve as modulator of the brain–gut axis in psychiatric and inflammatory disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9, 44. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
Browning, K. N., & Travagli, R. A. (2014). Central nervous system control of gastrointestinal motility and secretion and modulation of gastrointestinal functions. Comprehensive Physiology, 4(4), 1339–1368. https://doi.org/10.1002/cphy.c130055
Mayer, E. A. (2018). The mind-gut connection: How the hidden conversation within our bodies impacts our mood, our choices, and our overall health (First Harper Wave paperback edition). Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Waxenbaum, J. A., Reddy, V., & Varacallo, M. (2022). Anatomy, autonomic nervous system. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539845/
Ashley Von Arx
Ashley is a practicing naturopath and Endeavour graduate (BHSc Naturopathy, Dux) based in Melbourne.
Ashley's journey into natural health and complementary medicine began as a desire to be in a helping profession combined with an interest in holistic healthcare. Her clinical practice has a focus on gut health, mental health, and the connection between the two, however, she works with people of all ages and with a broad range of health concerns. She is enrolled for further study to deepen her knowledge in the field. You can read more about Ashley at https://osok.com.au/practitioners/ or on her Instagram page @ashleyvonarx_naturopathy.