How to Activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System

According to The American Institute of Stress, about 33 percent of people report feeling extreme stress, 77 percent of people experience stress that affects their physical health and 73 percent of people have stress that affects their mental health.

Key takeaways:
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    More than three-quarters of Americans experience stress on a daily basis.
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    The parasympathetic nervous system plays a key role in bringing a state of relaxation to your body, helping you cope with stress.
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    Dysfunction of the parasympathetic nervous system can result in everything from higher blood pressure to problems elsewhere in your body, including digestion and vision problems.
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    Stress can normally be handled through exercise, meditation, spending time in nature, playing with animals and children, and getting enough sleep.
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    For those with diabetes, controlling blood sugar levels is key to reducing stress. Otherwise, seek advice from your healthcare professional.

Stress is usually caused by psychological causes, such as constant anxiety about losing a job or family problems. In other cases, anxiety can be caused by an approaching deadline or going to work during a busy time.

Regardless of the cause of the stress, high levels of anxiety cause the human body to respond by releasing cortisol or adrenaline, which results in physiological changes such as palpitations, increased breathing, muscle tension, and sweating. All the combined reactions of the body to stress are known as a fight or flight reaction.

Why is the parasympathetic nervous system so important?

Without the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), the monitoring and regulation of everyday body processes would be impossible. Further, the parasympathetic nervous system plays a vital role in maintaining both mental and physical health by helping the body to calm down from stress reactions that elevate blood pressure, dilate the pupils, and divert energy from other body processes to fighting or fleeing.

Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems

The central nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord, and all the nerves within our body.

The autonomic nervous system is the part of the central nervous system that regulates involuntary body functions.

Within the autonomic nervous system, we find the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which both control the same parts of the body and same general functions of the body, but with opposing effects.

The parasympathetic nervous system affects the same body functions as the sympathetic nervous system, but in a completely different way. It works to slow down certain responses and bring about a state of calm to the body, allowing it to rest, relax, and repair itself.

The primary function of the parasympathetic nervous system is to maintain long-term health and a healthy balance across all the body’s functions. Parasympathetic responses include an increase of digestive enzymes, decreased heart rate, constriction of bronchial tubes in lungs, and more relaxed muscles.

How do I improve my parasympathetic nervous system function?

There are many techniques a person can use to strengthen and activate their parasympathetic nervous system, causing a relaxation response in their body. For example:

  • Spend time in nature.
  • Deep breathing: focus on taking breaths all the way down into your belly that expands your diaphragm as you inhale.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Get a massage.
  • Practice meditation: spend 10 minutes quieting your mind and focussing on your breathing.
  • Touching your lips: this part of the body has many parasympathetic fibers running through them.
  • Focus on a word that is soothing such as calm or peace.
  • Playing with animals or children.
  • Practice yoga, chi kung, or tai chi.
  • Playing sports.
  • Try progressive relaxation.
  • Do something you enjoy, such as a favorite hobby.

Parasympathetic nervous system dysfunction

Dysfunctions within the PSNS can be varied and may only affect one or more organs. If the nerves in the system are damaged, this can interfere with messages being sent between the brain and organs such as the heart, blood vessels, and sweat glands.

If there is a surplus of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, this can result in some side effects.

As this neurotransmitter sends signals to organs of the body involved in the PSNS, too much of this can result in cramps, muscular weakness, paralysis, diarrhea, blurry vision, and the overproduction of tears.

If the PSNS is underactive due to nerve damage, this could result in symptoms such as constantly high blood pressure and heart rate. This is because the parasympathetic is unable to function properly to calm down the body after times of stress, so you may find someone being in a constant state of stress when there is no visible trigger to this.

Autonomic dysfunction is a condition whereby the autonomic nervous system and its divisions do not work properly. This dysfunction can develop when nerves of the autonomic nervous system are damaged and can range from mild to life-threatening.

The most common cause of autonomic dysfunction is diabetes, but there could be hereditary reasons, as well as aging, Parkinson’s disease, or chronic fatigue syndrome being some of the possible causes.

Symptoms

Here are some other symptoms of damage or dysfunction within the PSNS:

  • Issues with digesting food – Not being able to digest properly or at a slower pace than normal.
  • Bladder dysfunction – This could result in incontinence or urine.
  • Abnormal sweating – The sweat glands may be producing too much or too little sweat.
  • Lack of pupillary response – The pupils may be unable to constrict after a stressful situation, so may always be appearing larger than normal.
  • Lack of salivation – This can result in food not being digested properly.
  • Bowel issues – This could be either constipation or too many bowel movements.
  • Being unable to control internal body temperature.
  • Visual problems, e.g. blurriness.

Treatment

Autonomic dysfunction can be treated depending on the symptoms being experienced.

For instance, if the cause of dysfunction is due to diabetes, controlling blood sugars will be the primary treatment. In many cases, treatment of the underlying disease (if applicable) can allow damaged nerves within the ANS to repair and regenerate.

Autonomic dysfunction can be diagnosed by a doctor taking their time in order to understand what exactly the issue is. For example, using blood pressure monitors to test for high or low blood pressure, or using an electrocardiogram to measure heart rate.

Although medical conditions cannot always be treated, there are some quick solutions that may be useful in order to activate the PSNS if taking a while to recover from a stressful situation. For instance, taking deep abdominal breaths can help in resetting the PSNS and bringing the heart rate down.

Similarly, activities such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga have all been shown to help in relaxing and could even help bring the body to return to homeostasis. For more serious parasympathetic dysfunction, seeking a doctor’s advice is always recommended.