Parasympathetic and sympathetic systems refer to the two branches of our nervous system. Both are extremely important for our body to run at optimal levels. However, these systems have opposite functions.
Consider your sympathetic system to be your survival instinct. This is the system that gives you the fight or flight reaction. A very important system indeed. It is, however, not meant to be used on a regular basis. Unfortunately, stress turns this system on. If you are in traffic and have to get to an important meeting, say it is like you are in a parking lot on the freeway, you are looking at your watch several times, checking the news reports for accident reports, calling your meeting, maybe a little screaming in the car for the traffic to go away…. you get the picture. Your sympathetic system is firing like no one's business!! It is ready to fight or flee the freeway. Heart rate increases, digestion stops, breathing is short and rapid.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body's rest and digestion return when the body is relaxed, resting, or feeding. This system undoes the work of the sympathetic system after a stressful situation or that traffic jam. The parasympathetic nervous system slows your respiration and heart rate and increases digestion. This is also when the body repairs and heals.
Unfortunately, most of us live in fight or flight mode on a daily basis. Living in a prolonged sympathetic state, your body goes into a sympathetic dominance state. The sympathetic system does not shut down to allow the parasympathetic system to take over. This leads to fatigue, sleepless nights, digestion issues, anxiety and depression, chronic pain, the list can go on and on.
Our goal is to live in the parasympathetic state the majority of the time. A calm state of mind and body.
What causes the sympathetic system to flip on is STRESS. The increased stress will also cause your cognitive abilities to decrease, affecting your memory and decreasing your ability to focus. Sleepless nights become normal.
If you don't sleep well at night, you can't go into the parasympathetic, you wake up exhausted and you start your day like that. This is not a great way to start your day.
You can see how these systems complement each other, how they are primal innate characteristics, and how our body works better when they are balanced.
The key is to decrease your stress levels and increase parasympathetic activities, giving your brain a break and putting your mind and body back into a calm space.
Here are a few ways that you can get into a parasympathetic state.
Meditation, deep breathing, massage, yoga, and tai chi are very effective in helping you return into a parasympathetic state.
Practice self-care. Self-care is different for everyone, but it is something that when you're doing it, you can just get lost in it. Self-care can be anything from taking a bath, reading a book, gardening, or going on a hike in nature. Sitting outside for your morning coffee before anyone in the house wakes. Keep it simple.
Swimming is another activity that is very good for this. Swimming laps in particular. Not swimming as hard as you can, but gently enjoying laps in a methodical way. If you don’t think you can do laps, a few sessions with a swim teacher will have you going in no time. When you finish your laps, you will feel at peace!
So as not to increase your stress while trying to incorporate self-care (trying to fit it into your busy days), try to do your activities for 10-20 minutes a day. Start easy.
Let me know how it helps you!
Yours in health
Dr. Lavonne Pineda, DC
Founder and CEO