The sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PSNS) nervous systems are channels of neurons that work hand in hand to control your physical and emotional state. Both are part of the Autonomic Nervous System, which controls involuntary functions, and without which you’d have to command your pupils to dilate, your stomach to digest, and your sexual organs to get sexy.
In a perfect world you wouldn’t have to know a thing about either the SNS or PNS. But in today’s physically, chemically, and emotionally stressed-out atmosphere, we need all the information we can get to make better lifestyle decisions that support our health and wellbeing. If you’re reading this article while sipping a mug of coffee, hands and head abuzz, you’re probably going to want to learn about the Sympathetic Nervous System first.
The sympathetic nervous system: how to avoid becoming bear food
Known as the “fight or flight” system, the SNS is made up of very short neurons that fire quickly to help you evade threats on sight. You know that freaky sensation when you react to a spider before you’re even conscious of seeing it? That’s your SNS in action, and that’s how freakishly fast it works.
The electrical impulses from your SNS trigger a release of norepinephrine and adrenaline, which increase your heart rate, convert fat into fuel for your muscles, and restrict bodily functions that aren’t immediately required for escape—all helpful things when you’re trying to outrun a bear. Without the sympathetic nervous system, our ancestors would have been cross-legged and singing kumbaya while bears gnawed on their legs like corn on the cob.
SNS - bear threat = stress.
But today’s domesticated world doesn’t have nearly the same need for the SNS. The threats we face usually don’t have fangs or claws, and they aren’t things we can run away from. Yet the SNS still exists. And, in lieu of physical threats, it responds to our mental and emotional “tigers and bears”—like angry bosses, or to-do lists that would take ten of you with ten hands each to accomplish.
Your pupils dilate, your breath quickens, your mouth dries up, and your heart wants to beat out of its chest...that’s when you know your sympathetic dominant, which isn’t exactly the coziest state. But, curiously enough, most of our habits today favor the sympathetic nervous system.
Coffee, especially in the amount it’s now frequently consumed, is a primary offender: triggering the SNS via a chemical release of adrenaline. Our breathing patterns are second in line. We get so focused on our tasks and screens that we hunch over, inhale from our chest, and breathe shallowly and rapidly; all of which unconsciously stimulates the fight or flight option. Sleep deprivation does the same. But when you can’t run or punch your way out of a situation, your stress hormones linger and create a chronic feeling of stress or anxiety. Unless, of course, you know how to hack your parasympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system: how to ensure survival of the species
The parasympathetic nervous system is made up of long, slow-firing neural fibers which facilitate the process of “rest and digest”, or, “feed and breed.” It’s easily the sexier of the two systems, with its main purpose being to rebuild the body and to propagate the species. That’s scientific lingo for “make babies”.
In order to “propagate”...people have to feel comfortable and rested—the opposite of how you feel after being chased by a bear. The PSNS controls salivary production, the release of gastric juices, peristaltic contractions (digestion), and blood flow to sexual organs. When you’re in parasympathetic dominance, you’ll yawn, stretch, laugh, breathe slowly through the belly, and—if the time is right (or maybe even if it’s not)—you’ll jump your partner.
Our ancestors SNS/PNS regulation was balanced. After the hunt or chase, they naturally relaxed into restful activities and didn’t have to worry about deadlines, or which spouse had to pick up the kids from soccer and basketball that evening. Their diets were chemical-free and anti-inflammatory. They also got plenty of sleep—which, next to sex (they got plenty of that, too!), is as parasympathetic-dominant as it gets.
PSNS in our fast-paced society
Flash-forward to now. If you’re like most adults, you get five to seven hours of sleep at most. You’re continually stressed: by politics, work, relationships, health problems, or any number of modern issues. And, even if you’ve consciously chosen organic foods as an adult, your system has been buffeted by toxins and carcinogens for years.
What can be done?
With the right supplements and lifestyle changes you can balance your autonomic nervous system and regain your health—and sanity.
Eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and de-stressing your life are keys to regaining parasympathetic dominance. Ditto for deep breathing and mindfulness exercises. But if you’ve been sympathetic dominant for years—low sleep, high coffee, high stress—your body can have a difficult time transitioning back into “feed and breed” mode. That’s where adaptogenic herbs, like ashwagandha, maca, and eleuthero, come in.