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Switching off the sympathetic system

06 November 2018 12th Health
Switching off the sympathetic system

Imagine you are on the start line of your 100m final race in an Olympic stadium, the crowd has gone silent and you were about to kneel down to get into your start position. Your heart begins to race, you begin to sweat and your breathing increases. You have just entered a state of sympathetic stimulation.

Our nervous system comprises of the voluntary and involuntary nervous systems. We are going to concentrate on the involuntary or autonomic nervous system which we don’t ‘voluntarily’ cause to be switched on. The autonomic nervous system is split into the parasympathetic and the sympathetic system. The sympathetic system is coined as the fight or flight system. It gets your body prepared and ready to fight the lion or run away from it. It is present so that we can have a mechanical advantage to be able to escape or get through a stressful situation. In order to prepare the body for this, several things happen including increased blood flow to the muscles, dilation of pupils, increased breathing rate and the release of certain hormones known as epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. Norepinephrine (noradrenaline) is the initial hormone released to get us prepared and also to bring us back to neutral once the situation is over. Adrenaline is released to enhance our system so we become ‘superhuman’ to get through our stressful situations.

We may not be faced with a lion attacking us in our day to day lives. However, we are constantly effected by regular 'stressors' day in day out. These can range from family and work stresses to psychological and physical stresses. In the era we live, the constant speed of events and things to see and do creates a regular stress response within the body.

Opposite to the sympathetic system we have our parasympathetic system. Also coined as the ‘rest and digest system’. This system allows our body to assimilate and process our healing, digestion and restoration. Ideally it should be switched on most of the time in normal life, it is most dominant when we sleep during the night.

One of the problems we face is that our sympathetic system is constantly active! Which means our body concentrates on our peripheral joints and increases our heart rate, pressure and breathing rate. This can lead to constantly contracting muscles, tight respiratory muscles, increased blood pressure, poor blood sugar control and others. Our body needs a balance and this is also in sync with our lifestyle that needs a balance between being active and energetic and taking time to meditate and concentrate on self-development.

This week we have a meditative practical (Mindful Eating), try practising this and see the difference it makes to the clarity of your mind and the energy you have. Remember if our mind is constantly racing it probably means we have sympathetic system on high alert ready to sort the situation! Even though there may not be an emergency to deal with. So the autonomic system may very well be autonomic and involuntary but we have control of putting ourselves into situations that may tip the ‘balance’. The better awareness and understanding we have the better prepared we can be and start making life choices in a different way.