Although you don’t notice it, your nervous system is always in action. This vital system is one of the largest determinants of how we interact with the outside world. The nervous system helps control important functions of the body, like heart rate and blood pressure, depending on certain stimuli.
However, when we face a lot of stress or do not give our bodies time to relax, our nervous system may start to react inappropriately. If you have a hard time trying to calm down when it comes time to relax, you may be experiencing a dysregulated nervous system. Fortunately, there are some steps to take to regulate it.
What Makes Up the Nervous System?
The autonomic nervous system works to control involuntary bodily functions, like your heartbeat and digestion. The autonomic nervous system is made up of two parts — the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for responding to stressful situations, while the parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite.
For a healthy balance, these two systems should work in tandem, allowing you to react to stressful situations when necessary and helping you relax when appropriate. Each system has multiple roles, while the vagus nerve helps signal to each to determine your body’s response.
Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight or flight response, which puts your body in high-alert mode, helping it to determine how to respond to threats. This part of the nervous system helps you respond to tangible and intangible stressors, from potential physical threats like a fight to other circumstances like financial stress.
However, the sympathetic nervous system can become overactive as it attempts to respond to threats that are no longer present, a symptom of dysregulation.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for helping you calm down and rest. This system works to bring your body back to a calmer state of homeostasis once a threat or period of physical activity has passed. During a resting state, the parasympathetic nervous system helps you to maintain a consistent heart rate, manage blood flow, and digest food. When the nervous system is dysregulated, the parasympathetic nervous system may struggle to override the sympathetic nervous system and bring your body back to a relaxed state.
How Does the Nervous System Become Dysregulated?
Many factors can disrupt and dysregulate the nervous system in our daily lives. The nervous system is responsible for interpreting stimuli and managing the body’s physiological conditions to ensure it responds appropriately.
When you are exposed to a stimulus that demands a stress response, your nervous system will act accordingly. If your nervous system is consistently working to respond to stressful events and stimuli, it will likely operate in a constant state of stress.
Eventually, your nervous system may forget how to calm down and differentiate between threats and non-threats. This can happen due to an overload of stress, trauma, extensive fatigue, or overexercising. Other aspects like internal thoughts and biochemical factors can also dysregulate the nervous system.
A dysregulated nervous system may cause a lot of disorder in your daily routine and overall physical functioning as your body struggles to respond appropriately to internal and external stimuli. You may notice some considerable effects of an out-of-order nervous system, impacting both your mental health and physical health. Some of the symptoms may include:
- Trouble sleeping or staying asleep
- Difficulty focusing
- Challenges regulating emotions
- Digestive problems
- Unexplained physical symptoms like headaches or random body pains
- Physiological symptoms like a rapid heart rate or dizziness
How Can You Support Your Nervous System?
Although the programming of your nervous system may be influenced by many environmental factors you may not be able to control, you do have the potential to reprogram it by changing the input. You should focus on self-care and reducing stress to regulate your nervous system. Self-care looks different for everyone, but there are some key steps you can take to calm and regulate your nervous system.
1. Focus on Breathing
Mindful, deep breathing is a shockingly powerful tool, especially when it comes to recalibrating your nervous system. Focusing on your breathing is a great way to reduce stress. Deep breathing causes the vagus nerve to lower your heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. Cortisol is the hormone necessary for the stress response.
Breathing exercises can help tell your body that there is no immediate danger and reduce the stress response, especially when it is not necessary, helping to regulate your nervous system and prevent hyperactivity.
2. Allow Your Mind To Wander
When your nervous system is riddled with overstimulation, a great way to recenter yourself is to try and distance yourself from all forms of stimulation. Letting your mind wander is a great way to do that. You should try to create a positive image in your mind and release your thoughts into it, taking in the scenery and visualizing the feelings of being a part of the image.
Meditation is another great practice for the nervous system, allowing you to become mindful of your thoughts and sort through them. This can help you calm your nervous system, manage stressful thoughts, and handle your response to stressful events in the future, preventing dysregulation down the road.
3. Incorporate Better Sleeping Habits
Sleep can cause and exacerbate many issues in the nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system helps relax your body, calm your heart rate, and support good sleep. On the other hand, poor sleeping habits can make it difficult for your body to differentiate between rest and activity. By practicing healthy sleep habits, like avoiding screens and intense exercise before bed, you can train your body to relax.
Sleep is also very important for regulating the nervous system since it allows your sympathetic nervous system to rest. Therefore, you should aim to get between seven and nine hours of sleep every night.
4. Do Some Mild Exercise
During exercise, both parts of the nervous system work to control your heart rate. The sympathetic nervous system works to elevate your heart rate to support the body’s ability to perform, while the parasympathetic nervous system helps to prevent the heart rate from getting too high. Putting these systems to work healthily can help restore regulated function.
When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, the hormones responsible for making you happy. These hormones help tell your body that you are not in danger and help to reduce the stress that taxes your nervous system. As a result, your parasympathetic system will engage to better help you relax.
If you prefer intense exercise, include a warm-up and a cool-down to allow your nervous system to differentiate between exercise and rest, preventing the sympathetic nervous system from overpowering the parasympathetic. Either way, a little exercise each day can help regulate the nervous system.
5. Include Omega-3s in Your Diet
Certain healthy fats support the nervous system, and omega-3s are the best example. Regular consumption of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) may have a significant impact on the function of the central nervous system. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in the membranes of many cells throughout the body, and DHA helps make up the foundation of many neural cells supporting healthy growth and function.
At the same time, EPA acts as a regulating force in the body as it creates eicosanoids which help to support homeostasis in the body, regulating nervous functions like heart rate and blood pressure. As a result, EPA works closely with and supports the functions of the parasympathetic nervous system.
These two omega-3s are most commonly found in fatty fish, like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and more. However, not everyone wants to eat fish — whether that's because of dietary preference, environmental concerns, or animal welfare beliefs. Fortunately, another great source of omega-3s is algae, which is rich in DHA and EPA.
iwi life’s unique algae-based omega-3 supplement makes it easy to get your daily intake of these essential fatty acids without any fishy smell or aftertaste so that you can provide support for your nervous system and overall well-being.
Start Supporting Your Nervous System
Both parts of your nervous system are vital to your body’s daily functioning. Short-term stress can act as a healthy guide for your body in dangerous or pressing situations, but when stress hangs out long-term, well past the urgent scenario, it can negatively affect your overall health and wellness.
By providing your body with vital nutrients and incorporating healthy daily practices, you can help regulate your nervous system. Try our iwi life omega-3 supplement for yourself so that you can provide your nervous system with the support it deserves.
How the Parasympathetic Nervous System Can Lower Stress | HSS
5 Ways To Regulate Your Nervous System, According to a Neuroscientist | Well+Good
(PDF) Omega-3 Fatty Acids and their Role in Central Nervous System - A Review | Research Gate
Understanding cortisol, the stress hormone - Healthy Relationships | Michigan State