This blog was originally authored and published by Dr. Sara DeFrancesco.
Our autonomic nervous system innervates internal tissues, organs, and glands. It controls the things we do, but don’t think about like heart rate, respiratory rate, and digestion. Even though we don’t think about it, it affects how we think, act, and feel.
The autonomic nervous system has two divisions, the sympathetic “fight or flight” mode or the parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode.
The sympathetic nervous system innervates tissues in almost every organ, including or digestive organs and adrenals. When activated, the sympathetic nervous system prepares us to react to extreme danger. It not only makes you feel like you either have to run or fight, but it prepares your body to handle either choice.
This accurately named “fight or flight” mode causes the adrenals to secrete cortisol and adrenaline. It also causes increased heart rate and contraction force, dilation of the lungs and skeletal muscle vessels (so you can high tail it out of there). Which is great, if you are in a dangerous situation. But our nervous system doesn’t know the difference between a lion or tiger and an approaching deadline or boss who makes our day-to-day difficult.
If the body is chronically primed for danger, our health suffers. The blood flow is shunted away from digestive organs and peristalsis (gut motility) slows. This prevents us from properly digesting and absorbing food. (And is why you should never eat a meal with someone who upsets you. Invite them to tea instead. Order chamomile or peppermint.)
The chronic release of cortisol and adrenaline suppresses immune function and contributes to blood sugar dysregulation, difficulty sleeping, carbohydrate cravings, and weight gain (especially around the belly).
Unfortunately, many people live in this state of stress – experiencing an activation of “fight or flight” mode when they are:
- Running late for work or an appointment
- Overwhelmed with tasks or to-do lists
- Overwhelmed by emails, texts, alerts, and phone calls
- Stressed about an event or deadline
- Stressed about traffic or other hold ups
- Engaging in difficult or uncomfortable conversations or social situations
- Insufficient time with loved ones
- Insufficient time in nature
- Insufficient sleep
- Insufficient fun or relaxation time
Reducing Stress for Digestion
However, you have the power to shift out of danger mode and back into the parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode at any time.
The parasympathetic nervous system slows heart rate, respiratory rate, and stimulates digestive function. Specifically, saliva (where digestion begins), stomach activity, gallbladder function, and peristalsis & intestine activity. This is the state we want to be in as much as we can, especially while we eat and when we are learning, working, or making important decisions.
Ways To Stimulate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System & Relieve Stress
1. Take a deep breath
Taking 5-10 deep and slow breaths is one of the fastest and easiest ways to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve.
2. Schedule daily & weekly self care
Do something fun every day and schedule at least one hour per week where you engage in an activity or hobby you love. Put it on your calendar and do not compromise this time. It could be as simple as time to read or take a bath or something like going to a yoga class or float tank session. It could also be an exercise class, sport, or hobby you love.
3. Take a daily pause
Meditating by sitting silently and focusing on following your breath in and out for as little as 2-5 minutes per day is beneficial.
4. Share meals with people you love in a relaxed state
Avoid eating meals with people you don’t like and keep stressful conversations away from food. Train your body and your family that meals are a time for relaxation. This is commonly overlooked and stress at meals can be a root cause for digestive dysfunction.
5. Give and receive hugs
When we share a hug, the hormone oxytocin is released which decreases cortisol, one of the main health concerns of sympathetic dominance.
6. Daily gratitudes
Using a daily gratitude journal or alarm on your phone to remind you to stop and say 3 gratitudes outloud can have remarkable effects on lowering stress. When you remind your brain about all the positive things you are experiencing, it trains your brain to scan the world looking for the positive instead of the negative.
7. Automatic writing
Free writing for 10 minutes – the old fashioned way – with pen and paper can help us express and release stressors. You don’t have to keep or show the writing to anyone. You can shred it or burn it.
8. Be nice to yourself
Give yourself a break and the benefit of the loving pep-talks you easily give to your friends and family.
9. Nourish your nervous system and adrenals with botanical teas, encapsulated herbs, or alcohol extracts (called tinctures) that contain nervine herbs like:
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): Skullcap is a restorative nerve tonic and mild sedative. It is used for nervous tension, the stress effects of overwork, and insomnia.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): Chamomile is an antispasmodic and mild sedative, well known for its effects on the nervous and digestive systems. It is used for nervous tension, especially when accompanied by a “nervous stomach” (often intestinal cramps, flatulence, or colic).
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Lavender is a mild nerve tonic and mild sedative that is used for anxiety, worry, depression, and insomnia.