Balancing the Nervous System: The Key to Managing Sympathetic Overload

Balancing the Nervous System: The Key to Managing Sympathetic Overload

Sympathetic overload

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body’s “fight or flight” response and takes over in dangerous situations. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is an autonomic nervous component responsible for the “rest and digest” response. Balance of these crucial systems is required to experience good health. Unfortunately, due to constant modern-day stress, many people experience an overactive nervous system, leading to digestive problems, sleep disturbances, and oral health issues. Simple lifestyle changes can help you bring balance to your nervous system and correct what is termed sympathetic overload.

Understanding the two branches of the Autonomic Nervous System 

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is a complex network of nerves responsible for regulating the function of our organs and muscles. It is crucial for essential functions such as our heartbeat, digestion and breathing – all taking place without conscious thought. 

The ANS is divided into two branches:

  • The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
  • The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)

The role of the sympathetic nervous system and its response to stress

Your sympathetic nervous system activity plays a critical role in balancing your body functions in response to stress, danger, or other stimuli. It is often referred to as the “fight or flight” system, as it prepares the body to react to perceived threats by increasing heart rate, dilating pupils, tightening muscles, and diverting blood away from the digestive system and towards the limbs. This rapid response is designed to help the body respond quickly and effectively to potential danger.

In everyday life, the sympathetic nervous system is activated by events such as public speaking, a deadline at work, or a tense conversation, even if the situation doesn’t pose an actual physical threat. This can lead to a state of chronic stress and overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system and have negative and long-lasting impacts on physical and mental health.

However, it is important to note the sympathetic nervous system is not inherently “evil,” and it serves a crucial function in the body’s defence mechanisms. Getting back into balance and reducing sympathetic overload can enhance your overall health and well-being.

Balancing the Nervous System: The Key to Managing Sympathetic Overload

Activation of the PNS is crucial for balance

The parasympathetic nervous system operates in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system. The PNS is responsible for the “rest and digest” response, promoting the slowing down and calming of various physiological functions.

The PNS operates through the release of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, and activates various functions such as increasing the secretion of digestive juices, slowing the heartbeat and relaxing the muscles in the bronchial tubes and gut, among others. This system helps to conserve energy and promote relaxation and digestion.

Your ‘rest and digest’ nervous system plays a crucial role in maintaining homeostasis, or balance, within the body. In a healthy individual, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work in harmony to regulate various functions, but in times of stress, the sympathetic nervous system may become dominant and cause an overloaded sympathetic system.

An overactive sympathetic nervous system and its physical and emotional symptoms

Excessive sympathetic overload is a state in which the sympathetic nervous system becomes excessively activated, leading to a prolonged state of stress.

With a highly active sympathetic nervous system, the body remains in a heightened state of stress, even in the absence of immediate danger. This can lead to a range of physical and emotional symptoms, such as: 

  • Digestive issues
  • Dysregulated and disturbed sleep 
  • Anxiety and depression 
  • Fatigue and exhaustion 

It can also have negative impacts on overall health and well-being, including oral health and cardiovascular health.

The goal is to find a balance between the activation of the two ‘opposing’ nervous systems, so the body can respond appropriately to stress while also allowing for rest, digestion, and healing. To mitigate the effects of an overactive nervous system, it is important to adopt strategies to promote relaxation and calm.

1. Breathe deeply with diaphragmatic breathing 

Belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is a simple yet effective technique for balancing the PNS and promoting relaxation. Here’s how to do it: 

  1. Find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly.
  3. Breathe in slowly through your nose, filling your belly first and then your chest.
  4. Hold your breath for a few seconds.
  5. Breathe out slowly through your mouth, deflating your belly first and then your chest.
  6. Repeat the process for several minutes, focusing on slow, deep breaths.

By engaging the diaphragm and breathing deeply into the belly, you stimulate the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. This stimulation can help to slow down your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and promote feelings of calm and relaxation.

2. Walking barefoot on natural surfaces can reduce sympathetic overload

Earthing, also known as grounding, involves connecting directly with the earth’s surface by walking barefoot on natural surfaces like grass, sand, or soil. This practice is believed to support your PNS by helping to bring stress levels down and promote relaxation.

The earth has a natural negative charge, and when you come into direct contact with it, you can absorb its electrons, having a balancing and grounding effect on your body. 

In addition, studies have shown earthing can help to lower cortisol levels, the hormone associated with stress. It can also reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improve sleep quality.

3. Soak in an epsom salt bath  

Epsom salt is made up of magnesium sulphate, which is easily absorbed through the skin. Magnesium is known for its relaxing effects on the muscles and nervous system.

Soaking in an Epsom salt bath can also help to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which can disrupt the balance of the nervous system and contribute to feelings of anxiety and stress. Try incorporating the following practice into your routine:

  1. Fill a bathtub with warm water and add 2-3 cups of Epsom salt.
  2. Soak in the bath for 20-30 minutes, allowing your body to absorb the magnesium and sulphates in the Epsom salt.
  3. As you soak, try to focus on deep breathing.
Balancing the Nervous System: The Key to Managing Sympathetic Overload

4. Eat a nutrient-dense diet

A nutrient-dense diet can play a key role in supporting mood and reducing stress. 

Here’s how:

  1. Adequate protein: Consuming enough protein is important for maintaining healthy neurotransmitter levels, the chemicals in the brain that regulate mood, sleep, and appetite. 
  2. Essential fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids, are important for brain health and can help to reduce inflammation and improve mood.
  3. B-vitamins: B-vitamins are essential for the production of neurotransmitters and play a key role in maintaining healthy brain function.
  4. Vitamin C: Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps to reduce oxidative stress and protect the brain from damage. 
  5. Magnesium: Magnesium is a mineral essential for healthy brain function and can help to bring down stress and improve sleep. 
  6. Probiotics: Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help to maintain a healthy gut microbiome, which can impact brain health and mood.

5. Plan ahead and prioritise urgent tasks to reduce stress

It is not uncommon for individuals to find themselves in a state of heightened stress or anxiety as a result of feeling overwhelmed by the demands and responsibilities of daily life. 

One effective strategy is to plan out tasks and allocate a specific amount of time for each one. This helps to take some of the pressure off and provides a more structured and focused approach. When planning, it is also important to prioritise activities based on urgency and importance, rather than attempting to tackle everything all at once.

By taking the time to prioritise tasks and activities, individuals can gain a clearer understanding of what needs to be done and when. This can help to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety and promote a more balanced and relaxed state of mind.

6. Consciously slow down during everyday activities 

Slowing down and taking a more mindful approach to daily life can play a critical role in reducing stress and promoting a more relaxed state of mind. 

One way to consciously slow down is by eating meals more slowly and savouring each bite. This allows for greater awareness and enjoyment of the food and supports proper digestion. Another way to slow down is by reducing the number of activities scheduled during weekends or other time off and focusing on rest and relaxation instead.

It’s important to note everyone’s experience of stress and sympathetic overactivity may be different, and what works for one person may not work for another. It’s important to listen to your body and find what works best for you, recognise when your sympathetic nervous system is dominating, and take steps to support the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Taking care of you – and your nervous system

To achieve harmony within your nervous systems, it’s important to recognise the signs of nervous system overactivity and take steps to create nervous system balance. By incorporating lifestyle changes such as deep breathing, grounding, and prioritising self-care, you can help regulate your autonomic nervous system, reducing hypertension and oxidative stress.

The activation of the ‘rest and relax’ nervous system through practices like diaphragmatic breathing can stimulate the vagus nerve, promoting relaxation and digestion. By focusing on slowing down and being mindful in everyday activities, you can reduce stress, better manage chronic inflammation, and maintain homeostasis within your body.

It’s important to remember everyone’s experience of stress and sympathetic overactivity may differ. Listening to your body and finding what works best for you is crucial to ensuring the nervous systems work together in harmony. By adopting these strategies, you can effectively manage nervous system overload, improve your heart rate and reduce high blood pressure, and enhance your overall well-being.