Are you more bothered by loud noises than the people around you? Do you feel unusually jittery after drinking coffee, taking pre-workout, or even trying certain supplements? You might have what experts refer to as a “sensitive nervous system.” Here, experts help you better understand the signs of a sensitive nervous system, as well as how to tweak your lifestyle habits to stay balanced and calm.
What Does The Nervous System Do, Again?
Think of your nervous system as the processing unit in your computer. “Your body is the hardware; it is the software,” explains functional medicine chiropractor Brook Sheehan, D.C. “It controls all functions necessary that keep you alive and well, storing information (memories) and responding to outside stimuli in an effort to keep everything balanced.”
This vast network of nerves spans from your brain, through your spinal cord, and into every corner of your body, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Through a process called nerve signaling, this system collects and interprets information about your environment so that you can respond accordingly.
In doing so, your nervous system influences everything from your memories and feelings, to your heart and breathing rate, to your digestion and ability to sleep and heal.
Enter: The ‘Sensitive Nervous System’
The thing is, some people legitimately have more sensitive nervous systems than others, which basically means that their systems are more easily triggered than others. So, a stimulus that might not elicit much of a reaction in a non-sensitive nervous system may have a profound impact on those with sensitive systems, explains Sheehan.
What happens when a nervous system gets triggered? In simple terms, it believes you’re dealing with some sort of threat and activates the body’s “fight-or-flight” mode in order to deal with it. In this high-alert state, the body’s production of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline is increased. While each serves an important purpose at the right time and place, chronically high levels can impact everything from sleep and immunity to your weight and mood.
Though a balanced nervous system only switches into this high-alert mode in the face of actual danger (like a bear attack), a highly sensitive nervous system gets triggered so often that it has a negative impact on your health and well-being.
According to functional physician Tiffany Mullen, D.O., CEO of Vytal Health, people with sensitive nervous systems typically fall into two categories. “The first is those who are easily startled, who feel easily overstimulated, or who are unusually sensitive to stimulants (like caffeine),” she explains. And the second: “Those whose nervous systems are primed for health disorders, such as migraines (which can be triggered by light, sound, and smells) or chronic vertigo (which can be triggered by certain movements).”
How Do You Get A Sensitive Nervous System?
About 15 to 20 percent of people are actually born highly sensitive, according to Sheehan. In fact, she says that scientific literature has identified a particular combination of genetic variations involving important neurotransmitters as an indicator of a highly sensitive nervous system that might be more prone to shifting into fight-or-flight mode unnecessarily.
However, not everyone with a sensitive system has been that way forever. Instead, many shift into this state through cycles of life stressors, such as chronic illness, autoimmune disease, major physical or emotional trauma, or allergic reactions. “This primes the nervous system for the constant firing of nerve cells and eventually it can no longer tell when the stimuli are present or gone,” Sheehan explains. When this occurs, a now-sensitive person may notice they can’t handle certain foods, supplements, or even pain as well as they once did.
How To Support A Sensitive Nervous System
Needless to say, this constant fight-or-flight struggle wreaks havoc on your nervous system, ultimately creating quite the vicious cycle.
Thankfully, there are several proactive steps you can take to rein it back in. The following expert-backed tips will help you create a more calming environment for your body to quiet that nervous system down—and then build up its resiliency.
According to Mullen, physical exercise can be very helpful in calming a sensitive nervous system (as well as decreasing anxiety in general). “Being able to ‘run off’ some of the accumulated adrenaline in the body can help reverse the fight-or-flight response,” she says.
In fact, one study published in Medical Archives found that regular aerobic physical activity (such as swimming and running) reduced levels of adrenaline in the body in just three weeks.
Though you should first consult with a physician, who has a sense of your specific needs, before starting a routine, 30 minutes of movement (whatever type you find to be most effective at shaking off stress) most days is a good place to start. Whether it’s running, lifting, yoga, or Pilates, what you do doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you do it—and regularly.
Meditation impacts the nervous system in a lot of different ways—but most importantly, it allows the body to spend less time in fight-or-flight mode and more time in rest-and-digest mode, says Sheehan. In this more relaxed state, we can properly digest our food and do any necessary healing.
One review of 38 studies published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine even found that “mindfulness meditation led to a small decrease in pain and significant changes in quality of life.”
Not sure where to start? “Even just five minutes a day can make a big impact,” Sheehan notes. “You may find, especially in the beginning, that it feels awkward, or that you catch your mind running all over the place. That’s okay. Let it happen. Don’t try to control that. Meditative practice is like going to the gym. You don’t build muscle overnight. It takes time and consistency.”
When in doubt, try a guided meditation, which allows you to direct your attention to the facilitator, Sheehan recommends.
3. Incorporate Calming Herbs and Supplements
Another natural way to help soothe a sensitive nervous system: with calming compounds straight from Mother Nature.
One option is the ever-popular CBD. You see, “as humans, we have an endocannabinoid system that is highly correlated with nervous system regulation,” explains chiropractor and functional medicine provider Demetris Elia, D.C. While we normally produce endocannabinoids to prevent overstimulation, incorporating CBD (an external source of cannabinoids) can help our system to better maintain balance.
Elia recommends starting with 100 milligrams of CBD per day. (He personally takes two 50-milligram drops every evening.) As always, check in with your healthcare provider before updating your routine.
Mullen also recommends incorporating calming herbs, such as lavender, lemon balm, and chamomile, into your routine. “Lavender, for example, is a very versatile oil that can be used in many ways,” she says. “Diffusing the oil and reaping the calming benefits via aromatherapy is one way—and even carrying a small bottle of lavender essential oil to use as needed (just open and sniff!) can be helpful.” Chamomile, meanwhile, is easy to sip on in tea form. Try it after dinner alongside a good book.
4. Take Cold Showers
Believe it or not, simply exposing yourself to some chilly water in the shower can help you build resilience to stress, according to Elia. That’s because when you blast yourself with cold water, your body initially interprets it as a stressor, activating your fight-or-flight response. However, “you can train yourself to override that response and increase your [rest-and-digest] instead,” he says. “By repeating this, you will gain control over your nervous system.”
Here’s what you do: To control your response to that cold jolt and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, focus on singing or gargling water instead of on how cold you are. This activates your vagus nerve (the main component of your parasympathetic nervous system), which connects your brain to your gut, Elia says.
5. Eat a gut-friendly diet
In case you didn’t think your diet impacted your nervous system, here’s a newsflash: “Calming down a highly-sensitive nervous system starts by nourishing the gut,” says Sheehan. “You can do this by removing processed foods like refined sugars and replacing them with vegetables, fiber-rich carbohydrates, and probiotics.”
The reason your diet matters so much? “Because the gut is the ‘second brain,’” Sheehan explains. “Not only is 70 percent of ‘feel-good’ serotonin made in the gut, but the vagus nerve also completes its journey in the gut.”
So, “when you have a healthy, functioning gut and great communication with your brain via the vagus nerve, your overall brain function begins to improve,” she explains. In a nutshell, the more balanced your gut microbiome is, the less likely your nervous system is to activate unnecessarily.
6. Cut down on caffeine
Caffeine may be a normalized part of our daily routines, but it might not work for people with sensitive nervous systems. In fact, Mullen says that decreasing caffeine consumption can be really helpful for these people. Research published in Recent Neuropharmacology actually suggests that highly sensitive people limit caffeine since even lower amounts can trigger anxiety, nausea, headaches, and more.
7. Talk to a therapist
Exploring your emotions and working with a trained professional can ultimately be one of the most helpful ways to work to reset an overtaxed nervous system. “If your nervous system is sensitive and jumpy because of a history of trauma, working with a therapist who is an expert in this area can be very helpful,” says Mullen. “Using a multitude of techniques, they can help reframe your experience and allow your body and mind to become less triggered by sights, sounds, smells, and memories.”
Of course, living during a global pandemic is enough to make even cool-as-a-cucumber types grapple with anxiety, but those dealing with nervous system sensitivity may find therapy particularly helpful right now. Not only can it help you cope better with day-to-day anxiety, but research-backed protocols you work with may help you get to the root cause of your sensitive nervous system.