The parasympathetic nervous system is the most important thing we can focus on when it comes to maintaining longevity and wellness.
The sympathetic nervous system, or the “fight or flight” response, prepares our bodies for action. All of the organs involved in getting ready for a challenge (“fight”) or preparing for a retreat (“flight”) are activated through this system. The parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) helps produce a state of relaxed equilibrium in our bodies.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system activates a part of the adrenal gland which then releases hormones (adrenaline) into the bloodstream. These hormones activate the target muscles and glands, causing the body to speed up and become tense, as well as more alert. The body interprets all stress (mental and physical) as a reason to activate the sympathetic nervous system. While most of us are not faced with life-threatening situations on a daily basis, our bodies perceive that this is the case – triggers can even include adrenaline rushes from caffeine, work deadlines, and traffic. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your breath rate increases, your pupils dilate, your muscles contract, your saliva production is reduced, your digestion slows, to name a few changes in your body. All of these changes prepare you to fight or run.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic, or “rest and digest” system, is a much slower, more relaxed system. This system is responsible for restoring the body to a state of calm and balance, allowing it to relax, recover, and repair. When the parasympathetic system is activated, digestive enzymes are released, your heart rate lowers, breath rate decreases, your muscles relax, your pupils constrict, your urinary output increases. These changes are designed to promote long-term health, improve digestion, conserve energy, facilitate recovery, and maintain a healthy balance in your body’s systems.
Our bodies are intelligently designed; built-in mechanisms allow us to handle and adapt to stress. The body’s sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous systems balance each other out. Ideally, our body spends the majority of its time in a parasympathetic state and would only use the sympathetic nervous systems for true life-threatening emergencies. Exercise, and movement in general, are a necessary component to optimal health and help us to manage stress, depression, and anxiety. However, the body still experiences exercise as a stressor. The more intense the exercise, the more we trigger a sympathetic response. Meditation and mindful, connected movement are two very powerful techniques to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. However, the effectiveness of this work, as with anything in life, depends on your desire to practice and your own physical and mental response. Remember this is a learned skill.
We are all under some level of chronic stress. By learning to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and reducing the effect of your sympathetic nervous system, you can reduce the stress on your heart, digestive system, immune system and more. This will not only make you a happier person in your daily life, but it can also help to avoid many of the diseases and conditions that are associated with chronic stress and adrenal fatigue.
If you can become more conscious of the way that your body reacts to stress, it will pay enormous dividends in the future. And the best news is that you can!