The nervous system (NS) is the most sensitive of all the body’s physiological functions. It is also the least understood. Comprised of the brain and spinal chord, along with all the peripheral nerves and neurons that originate in the spine, the nervous system is powered by electrical impulses. Unlike the digestive, circulatory or respiratory systems, which involve the predictable exchange of solids, fluids and gases, the electrical impulses propelling the NS are less structured and more subtle.
The bulk of the NS operates on autopilot. It is called the Autonomic Nervous System and controls all other physiologic functions and their respective organs and glands. The voluntary, or Somatic Nervous System controls our musculature and is under our conscious command. In this blog we will focus mainly on the Autonomic Nervous System, that which is “automatic” and not typically under conscious control.
The Autonomic Nervous System is made up of two components, which act opposite to each other. The “Rest and Digest” system, commonly known as the parasympathic nervous system (PSN) counteracts the “Fight of Flight” system, otherwise known as the sympathic nervous system (SNS). Together these 2 systems help regulate the other involuntary systems in the body such as digestion, respiration, circulation and the like.
Optimally, the two systems are balanced and function harmoniously in equal and opposite ways. For example, input from both the PNS and SNS is needed for the regular contraction and release of the heart, allowing it to effectively pump blood to all parts of the body.
Predictably, problems arise when the SNS and PNS are out of balance. High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, digestive issues, asthma, low back pain, anxiety, depression and headaches are often indicative of such an imbalance. In children, nervous system imbalances can also manifest as ADD/ADHD and learning disorder types of symptoms.
Approximately 5 million Americans suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), for example, and stress is the main catalyst. The process of digesting depends on nerve enervation to control and regulate what is being digested along with the various chemical involvements. So if the NS is being over-activated with stress, which propels it into a SNS “fight or flight” response, then it no longer spends energy on digestion. (Food allergies and their related digestive problems have also become endemic, but this is a topic for another day)
If my stress is elevated because I have lost my cell phone or am stuck in traffic, or have a big test coming up, my system responds in the same way as if I’m trying to run from the tiger. From a physiologic perspective this means that there is reduced blood flow going to the digestive organs; the stomach, spleen, kidneys, liver, pancreas and intestines. All the energy is going to the muscles so that I can run. In this way, despite our advanced mental acuity, our physical body remains, in many ways, in the Stone Age.
In order to counter the effects of modern living on the nervous system it is vital that we understand how to activate the PNS. And it is subtle. We cannot force it into action, but rather have to relax for it to function.
“Yet how can I relax when I am stressed out?” you might ask. So here’s the secret. Breath offers a direct line to the PSN. While respiration is typically under the control of the automatic nervous system, it is one unconscious function that can be brought under conscious control.
Breathing actually overrides the automatic NS. It is the one point of access to that part of the NS that is generally inaccessible. The breath and the NS are going to have the same experience. The NS cannot be in harmony if the breath is in disharmony.
Asthma is a great example of what we are talking about. And stress is a common asthma trigger. When we are stressed, it is that SNS taking the reins and similar to asthma, stress alone may bring on shortness of breathe, anxiety, and even panic. Stress and asthma create a positive feedback loop, with one triggering and enhancing the other.
According to the Centers for Disease Control nearly 25 million people in US suffer from asthma including 7 million children. And that number is only growing. It is a big problem in our society and is typically treated with pharmaceutical products, primarily steroid-inhalers. According to the Mayo Clinic, these products come with the risk of significant side-effects, which can lead to “serious health problems”. Yet, what many asthma sufferers are not told is that the condition can be effectively aided with conscious breathing.
With asthma it is not that people can’t breath. It’s that they can’t exhale. So, what’s exhale? It’s tied in with this idea of relaxation, with the parasympathetic nervous system. When someone is breathing well, the SNS and the PNS are working equal and opposite in harmony, yet in the case of asthma, it’s the SNS in charge. It’s as if the SNS is saying, “Let’s go, the tiger’s coming, I need some air”. It’s not properly regulated. That smooth, balanced, rhythmic breathing is missing.
Conscious breathing is a guaranteed way to bring the Nervous System back into balance. Activities such as yoga, walking, swimming, running and biking can also be helpful, but sometimes stressed out individuals just make these activities stressful as well. In general, the more stressed out we are the harder it is not to stress out.
This idea of stress management cannot be over emphasized. We have to be proactive in not being stressed out. Slow the body. Slow the mind. Slow the breath. That’s the key.
Long slow inhale. Long slow exhale. Try it now. Take 10-15 long, slow breaths. Experience the results. Harmonize your nervous system and you will feel better forever.