By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
Do you feel like something is missing with your health? That no matter how hard you try, you keep coming back to the same place? Or perhaps you have improved 70%, but that last piece is not budging? Does ‘tired and wired’ describe the state you’re often living in?
The piece we often don’t look at is the role of your nervous system in health and healing. We tend to focus on the physical, the biochemical and even the emotional parts of wellness, but if your nervous system is out of balance, it creates a huge obstacle to recovery. Quite simply stated, “your body only heals in a state of rest.”
For most of us, our nervous systems get out of balance from going too fast without a break. The non-stop lifestyle with a never-ending to-do list, rushing through the day, and usually not even getting enough sleep. Other ways your nervous system can get out of balance are:
- Chronic stress and worry
- Illness – infections, chronic fatigue syndrome, mold exposure, chronic pain
- Constant stimulation – screens, wifi, emails
- Pace of life – the pattern of never relaxing
- Past trauma
Signs that your nervous system is out of balance:
You’re probably thinking that everyone lives a life like this, and why would it affect you more than someone else. This can depend on the duration of high stress, your genetics in terms of stress tolerance, your childhood especially if there is early childhood trauma, and your ability to relax when you have a break.
Here are some signs that your nervous system may be out of balance:
- You’re unable to relax, even when you have some time off
- Anxiety & insomnia
- Startling easily
- Heart palpitations (especially lying in bad at night)
- Frequent urination
- Cold hands and feet Chronic headaches or migraines
- Poor digestion (acid reflux and constipation especially)
- Fatigue, dizziness, light-headedness
- Chronic pain or increased pain sensitivity
All of these symptoms point to a nervous system that is stuck on high alert. There is an imbalance where you’re constantly living in the sympathetic nervous system state, and not moving into the parasympathetic nervous system state. This can be called “sympathetic nervous system predominance.” In studies, this state has been associated with poor sleep, cognitive decline, inflammation, and increased pain.
Tools for Nervous System Regulation
If you see yourself in these symptoms, and recognize that this is an essential step to your health and wellness, there are many tools you can use to rebalance your nervous system, and especially activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Remember that the parasympathetic branch is the ‘rest and digest’ side of nervous system regulation. These tools are all deceptively simple – the key is that it is important to build them into our lives regularly.
1) The simple practice of building in breaks
Your nervous system as a rhythm: the sympathetic nervous system (focus, action and doing) is meant to rung for 2-3 hours; and then we’re meant to switch to the parasympathetic nervous system (resting, digesting, breathing) for 20-30 minutes. By building in regular breaks in your day, you support this physiological rhythm which keeps your nervous system in balance. A break could be getting some fresh air, making a cup of tea, socializing, stretching, remembering to breathe fully… if done regularly, small things work extremely well.
2) Allowing rest and downtime after a period of high stress
Whenever we go through a period of high stress, whether it’s for a few hours or a few months, it is important to allow for extra rest and downtime on the other side. This is something I learned from a stress coaching course years ago, and when you pay attention to this, it can prevent burnout, and also getting stuck in the “sympathetic nervous system predominance.” For example, if you’ve had a really busy and stressful week, taking time on Saturday morning to sleep in, have a slow morning and let yourself rest, will allow your nervous system to reset. Similarly, if you’ve just been through a stressful period at work with lots of demands and late nights, make sure you take a break or a vacation to reset afterwards.
3) Breathing exercises – practicing with a slow exhale
When you breathe with a slower exhale than the inhale, it automatically activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Try this simple exercise:
- Sit or lie down and begin to breathe smoothly through your nose.
- Count the duration of both the exhale and the inhale while you’re breathing normally, and first adjust your breathing so that they are equal duration.
- Now, without altering the duration of the total breath cycle, adjust your breathing by slowing the exhalation, and quickening the inhalation, to achieve a 2-to-1 ratio. For example, breathing out for the count of 4, and breathing in for the count of 2.
- Continue to breathe in this pattern for a few minutes, and feel your body begin to relax.
4) Moving and breathing
Some people find it hard to take a quiet break and sit or lie still in the beginning. There are many ways of moving and activating the parasympathetic nervous system. For example, a gentle yoga class, Tai Chi, Qigong, or walking meditation will also work very well. Some people also find activities like walking in nature and gardening helpful to slow down the thoughts and stresses.
5) Increasing heart-rate variability
Heart rate variability is a measurement of the variation in time between each heartbeat. A higher heart rate variability reflects a more relaxed state, and is a marker of how well your body tolerates stress. This can be measured by several devices – smart watches, Oura ring, and HeartMath tools to name a few. All of the tools above and below should result in a gradual improvement in your heart rate variability over time, and this is a useful marker to track and measure to see how your nervous system is doing.
Bodywork is another excellent tool for nervous system regulation, especially craniosacral therapy, osteopathy, acupuncture, massage and reflexology. Putting your body physically into a relaxed state can have a lasting effect on your health and well-being.
7) Using supplements to balance stress neurotransmitters and hormones
As a naturopath, we often use supplements to reduce anxiety, balance the cortisol rhythm, or nourish your nervous system. Supplements may include Lactium, Reishi mushroom, Lavender, Ashwaghanda, L-Theanine, Probiotics, B-vitamins and Magnesium (to name a few). They can be helpful to create more of a state of calm in the the mind, and a more balanced physiological response to stress. Please check before starting new supplements however, as some may interact with medications, and not all are safe in pregnancy or while breastfeeding.
8) Simply rest
The most simple solution for nervous system balance is remembering to rest. As I was writing this morning, a short article called “We need to learn to relax without guilt” caught my attention, because this is truly at the root of the issue. Here is a quote from this article:
“At the heart of our attitude to rest is this ambivalence: we yearn for rest, but then feel anxious that we’re being lazy. We feel we’re not making the most of our lives and really should be doing something. And these days, for most of us, “doing something” is defined very narrowly. It means, being busy. And not just some of the time, but all of the time.”
What if the best thing you could do for your health right now, is to lie down and rest for 15 minutes twice daily. Getting horizontal helps your body to trust that all is well, and it’s OK to relax. This simple practice can have a profound effect on you!
9) Other things your nervous system likes:
There are many other things you can do to support your nervous system, and reduce body stress that creates the imbalance. Here is a short list:
- Sufficient sleep
- Blood sugar stability and regular meals
- Daily movement
- Community and friendship
- Regular quiet time
- Time in nature
- Un-programmed days
The big take-home message from this article is that your body heals in a state of rest. If you’re constantly stressed, overwhelmed or simply busy, you may not be allowing your body to repair and recover.
If this article rings true with you, and you need more support to balance your nervous system, there are many ways naturopathic care can help: assessing and treating stress hormone imbalance, supporting neurotransmitters and mood, and creating a healthy self-care routine with optimal nutrition, sleep, exercise and rest for your body. Please ask during your next appointment so we can find the best tools for you.
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