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Your Autonomic Nervous System – how stress affects you

10 Dec 2013 12:48 PM-

What does the autonomic nervous system do?

The autonomic system is responsible for regulating the functions of our internal organs such as the heart, stomach and intestines by regulating involuntary body functions, such as heartbeat, blood flow, breathing and digestion. We are often unaware of the ANS because it functions involuntary and reflexively. For example, we do not notice when blood vessels change size or when our heart beats faster.


This system is divided into two main branches: the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system.  The two branches work in opposition to each other, one will dampen down as the other elevates and vice versa.

The ANS is most important in two situations:

  • In emergencies that cause stress and require us to “fight” or take “flight” (run away). In these types of situations, your sympathetic nervous system is called into action – it uses energy – your blood pressure increases, your heart beats faster, and digestion slows down.
  • In non-emergencies that allow us to “rest” and “digest.” The parasympathetic nervous system works to save energy. This is when blood pressure can decrease, pulse rate can slow, and digestion can start.


Fight or flight? – The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)

SNS deals with immediate, rapid responses to changing environmental conditions.

It lights up when an organism has to do something actively to preserve its equilibrium. Your autonomic nervous system brings about this ‘fight or flight’ response by activating the sympathetic neurons. In an emergency, you breathe more quickly, your heart rate shoots up and you start to sweat.  For our ancestors, this response was vital for survival but for us, it remains a reaction to stressful situations, like when we feel threatened or when we are being deceitful.


Much SNS activity is not particularly dramatic. For example, standing up would cause

a big drop in your blood pressure if the SNS did not compensate by momentarily

increasing it. Similarly, just before you wake up, sympathetic activity increases,

getting your body ready to be active.



Rest & Digest – The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)

The PNS conserves energy in your body and is responsible for ongoing, mellow,

steady-state activity. The feeling of it is relaxation, often with a sense of contentment.


The parasympathetic nervous system:

• Opens (dilates) blood vessels leading to the GI tract, aiding digestion.


• Stimulates salivary gland secretion and accelerates gut movements, helping the

absorption of nutrients.


• Engorges the male and female genitals


• Constricts the bronchioles of the lungs.


• Dampens the sympathetic nervous system.


Both systems evolved to keep animals, including humans, alive in very harsh and potentially lethal environments, and we need them both.

Long Term Sympathetic Stimulation

Because of our stressful lives, many people live in a state of chronic sympathetic stimulation.  The sympathetic nervous system is only meant to be active for short periods before the parasympathetic nervous system reactivates and settles the body back to normal.

Chronic stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to a range of health issues including: insomnia, anxiety, nervous tension, irritability, muscular tightness, irritable bowel symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, weight gain and sugar cravings, menstrual irregularity and other hormonal imbalances.

Restore the Balance

It is vital to your health to spend as much time as possible with the parasympathetic nervous system active and the sympathetic nervous system turned down.

There are many things that help to activate that parasympathetic nervous system including: laughter, fun, exercise (gentle/moderate), deep diaphragm breathing, relaxation techniques, meditation, pleasurable sex, massage and acupuncture, enjoyable meals with family and friends, listening to pleasant music……….you get the idea.

The best way to maintain balance is to try to balance your stressful activities with as many of the above activities to give your body a chance to rest, recover, digest, nourish and repair all the organ systems and immune system.

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