If you’re interested in living a wellness-forward life—or just follow people on social who are—odds are you’ve heard lots of chit-chat about the nervous system, particularly in relation to stress.
Turns out, this body system plays a pretty massive role in how we feel on a daily basis—and, for many of us, it likely needs a little more TLC. Here, functional medicine practitioners explain exactly what the nervous system is, how it influences our health and wellbeing, why stress is like a sucker punch to its ability to function optimally, and exactly what you can do to support balance.
The Nervous System, Explained
Before you can grasp what happens when the nervous system is malfunctioning—and why—you need to understand what the nervous system is. Ready?
The nervous system is one of the systems in the human body that helps us detect and react to environmental changes, explains Dimitar Marinov, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of hygiene and epidemiology at Medical University in Varna, Bulgaria. Made up of two separate parts—the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system—the nervous system helps us adapt to our environment by sending electrical impulses to the rest of the body and all other systems and organs.
Put simply, the central nervous system is the body’s processing system. Made up of the brain and the spinal cord, the central nervous system controls nearly every function in the body, including how and what you think, say, hear, smell, move, and do, explains holistic health expert and doctor of chiropractic Suzanna Wong, D.C., founder of Twin Waves Wellness Center in San Diego. Even our internal organs and muscles are influenced by the central nervous system.
Because the central nervous system includes the hypothalamus (a portion of the brain), which is in charge of regulating the pituitary gland, it is considered the main regulator of the endocrine (a.k.a. hormonal) system, Marinov adds. Yep, this means the central nervous system has a major hand in hormone function.
The peripheral nervous system, meanwhile, is in charge of communicating the intel from the central nervous system out to the rest of the body. “A collection of nerves throughout the body, the peripheral nervous system’s job is to take the signals from your central nervous system and deliver them to the rest of your body,” Wong explains.
Yes, Your Nervous System Can Malfunction
In healthy individuals (in a healthy environment), the nervous system carries on doing its thing automatically—easy peasy. “But when you’re under intense levels of stress, high amounts of cortisol (the stress hormone) get released into the body,” explains Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and author of Ancient Remedies. And that can impact the nervous system’s (and ultimately the entire body’s) ability to handle stress and function optimally.
Unfortunately, as the list of modern day-to-day emotional, physical, and mental stressors gets longer, more and more people find themselves plagued by suboptimal nervous system function. You see, the nervous system was designed to help humans respond to big, life-endangering stressors (like being chased by a lion). These days, we are no longer at risk of getting attacked by big lions but get similarly triggered by stressors like work emails, “can we talk” texts, and the like.
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Because the nervous system controls almost every other system in the body, nervous system malfunction then causes a variety of symptoms to crop up. The most noticeable symptoms, though, are the result of cardiovascular or hormonal disarray, says Marinov. “Elevated cortisol levels, libido changes, blood sugar spikes, cravings, increased blood pressure, and irregular heart rhythm are all common symptoms that your nervous system is overstressed,” he explains.
Some other symptoms of an overworked nervous system, according to functional medicine nurse practitioner Christine Patterson, D.N.P., NP-C, owner of Vital Journey Wellness, include:
- Unexplained weight gain or loss
- Onset chronic pain
- Nagging injury
- Unending feelings of stress
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Generalized fatigue
- Mental unrest (depression, anxiety)
- Bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and other gut issues
- Changes in fertility
How To Support Your Nervous System
Noticing any of these aforementioned symptoms? It’s time to check in with a holistic healthcare provider who can help you come up with a personalized plan for addressing both your symptoms and their underlying cause. “While these signs are rarely serious at first, they may increase your risk of more serious conditions in the long term if left unchecked,” Marinov says.
That said, there are a number of things we can all do to protect the balance of our nervous system—and help it regain homeostasis when it’s been working overtime.
1. Take Regular Breathers
Hands down, the best way to support your central nervous system is to incorporate more rest into your days. Beyond just reducing overall instances of stress, “slowing down can help us notice what triggers stress in our bodies, as well as how our body responds to stress,” says Marinov.
Exactly how you choose to ease off of the gas pedal depends on your personal rest preferences. For some people, slowing down simply means taking a full 30-minute lunch break away from the computer. For others, it entails a daily before-bed phone break.
The only real goal: Take more time to do things that you know lower your stress, says Wong.
2. Spend More Time Outside
Get into the habit of drinking your morning cold brew outside or going on an afternoon stroll through the park. “Spending time in the sun can help regulate your nervous system and your circadian rhythm,” according to Wong.
For an even bigger bang for your outdoor buck, spend time outside while barefoot! “Standing or walking outside barefoot allows you to connect with nature directly,” explains Wong. It might sound a little woo-woo, she acknowledges, but it literally grounds you. “Touching the dirt directly enables the Earth’s electrons to transfer directly to your body, which has been shown to offer benefits such as less stress, lower inflammation, and improved sleep,” she says.
In fact, in one 2020 study on the practice (called “earthing”) published in Explore, researchers went as far as to call it, “a GROSSLY overlooked factor in health and healing”.
3. Consume More Magnesium
Eating a well-balanced diet is essential for keeping your entire body in tip-top shape—and your nervous system is no exception.
Magnesium-dense foods like spinach, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, black beans, and avocado are especially important for nervous system health. “Being deficient in magnesium impacts how effectively your neurotransmitters and nerves are able to function,” Wong says. That’s bad for your nervous system as a whole.
4. Consider Supplementing With Ashwagandha
Given that unmanaged stress can impact the nervous system’s ability to function optimally, you might also want to experiment with supplementing with ashwagandha.
“Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that can be used to help the body adapt to fight the effects of stress,” explains Axe. “In Ayurvedic medicine, supplementing with the herb is generally believed to help support a healthy response to stress, to bolster a positive outlook, and to boost energy levels, among other benefits.” Indeed, one study published in Pharmaceuticals found that the root doesn’t just have the potential to help you fend off stress, but also to support overall quality of life.
Axe recommends supplementing with about 200 milligrams once daily to get started.
5. Monitor Your Movement
As far as your nervous system is concerned, the best exercise routine adheres to the Goldilocks principle; too little movement is not ideal for its health, while too much exercise can also do more harm than good, according to Patterson.
“For people who are already on the brink of nervous system deregulation, a regular high-intensity workout routine can throw it over the edge,” she says. That’s why she suggests that anyone who would describe themselves as “high strung,” “stressed out,” or “burnt out,” alter their movement practice to prioritize lower-intensity activities like yoga and walking.
6. Hone In On Your Sleep Hygiene
Sabotaged snoozes are one of the main symptoms of nervous system distress. But sleep doesn’t just reveal symptoms of nervous system distress; it can also be used to ward it off. “Prioritizing sound sleep habits to promote quality and quantity of sleep is essential,” says Patterson. After all, sleep is when your system gets to relax and restore itself.
To start, crawl between the sheets (without your phone) an hour before you want to go to sleep, which gives your body time to wind down from the day prior to dozing off. “You also want to alter your sleep space so that it’s as cool, dark, and quiet as possible,” she says.
If you’re someone who has had previous positive experiences with weighted blankets, Axe suggests throwing one onto your bed. “While everyone’s different, some adults sleep better when they have the sensation of being hugged,” he explains.
7. Edit Your Social Life
Do you leave certain social interactions feeling like you just donated a pint of blood? Patterson suggests editing those kinds of people—colloquially dubbed “energy vampires”—out of your life, or at least reducing the amount of time and brain space you donate to them.
Instead, spend your time with people who fill you with joy, light, and energy. “Healthy, fulfilling connection with others is a foundation of restoring a part of the nervous system known as the social engagement system,” she explains.
Long term, spending time with people who add to our stress has a cumulative and debilitating effect on the nervous system, she says. Not ideal for anyone trying to do their health (and social calendar) a solid!