The modern world isn’t exactly set up for calm. Technology, deadlines, to-do lists…
We finish one task and another follows soon after. We certainly have more convenience on offer than ever before, but how can we be calmer too?
In this article, a few strategies will be outlined that you can use to soothe an overactive sympathetic nervous system naturally.
First, let’s get some context on how having a less active sympathetic nervous system and a more active parasympathetic nervous system can lower the risk of burnout.
Symptoms of an overactive sympathetic nervous system
Although they’re rather wordy descriptions, the ‘‘sympathetic nervous system’’ and ‘‘parasympathetic nervous system’’ are worth paying attention to.
Why? Because they produce very different reactions in the body.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) rules over the ‘‘fight or flight’’ response (1). This division of the nervous system activates when a threat or need for physical activity is detected.
When we’re not in a situation of stress, we enjoy the ‘‘rest and digest’’ way of living. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) controls this mode.
The SNS and PNS affect everything from the eyes, to the heart, gut (and more) (2).
You’re probably familiar with some of the symptoms of an activated sympathetic nervous system, such as:
- Feeling anxious
- Heart beating faster
- Mouth becoming dry
- Needing to urinate
- Shallow breathing
- Tense muscles
When the SNS is overactive, many of these symptoms can occur more often than normal.
We may feel more on edge, irritable, or fearful.
In the long-term, the symptoms listed above and their accompanying emotional reactions can lead to burnout.
SNS activity causes energy expenditure to increase (3). But the body is only built to use up so much energy on a daily basis.
The even bigger issue here is that sympathetic nervous system overactivity is linked to a range of health conditions (4).
Time to focus on the positive — strategies and natural treatments you can use to address an overactive sympathetic nervous system.
Soothing strategies for an overactive sympathetic nervous system
The body is intelligent, more intelligent than humans have yet to fully understand.
Whilst stress is an unavoidable part of life, we do have some control over how much stress we expose our body to.
Thankfully, there’s a range of strategies that people frequently use to ease their nerves.
Here’s a quick list that you can choose from if you want to encourage your body to relax
Want a fast way to access the ‘‘rest and digest’’ parasympathetic nervous system?
Breathing slower and deeper into the belly is a great place to start.
The reason deep breathing is so useful is that it stimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is one of the central parts of the parasympathetic response (6).
Blood pressure and heart rate decrease when the vagus nerve is stimulated. Bodily relaxation and digestion, meanwhile, both increase.
You shouldn’t feel guilty for having some time for yourself. Taking the foot off the gas can restock your energy levels so that you’re more productive in other areas of life.
Protect some time each day for a self-care activity if this is possible. The activity doesn’t need to be too long. Five or ten minutes is better than nothing.
What’s viewed as a relaxing and enjoyable activity is, of course, personal to each individual. But if you would like some ideas, people often feel calmer after a hot bath, reading a good book, receiving a massage, or spending an extra thirty minutes in bed.
Gratitude practices are popular, these days. You may have heard of entrepreneurs and celebrities talking about how they can’t do without their gratitude diary.
Maybe you think that taking some time each day to write down what you’re grateful for sounds cheesy.
This may feel unnatural at the start because you won’t be used to the process. With time, though, the practice should come more easily.
People report that within ten weeks of starting a regular gratitude practice, they feel happier and more optimistic about their lives (7).
And the best part is that it’s free to try. All you need is a pen and paper, or simply use your smartphone notepad.
Natural treatment for an overactive nervous system
Feel like the strategies above aren’t quite enough? Several natural treatments can also help to calm an overactive sympathetic nervous system. These include:
If you think that you could be suffering from an anxiety disorder — which can trigger an overactive sympathetic nervous system — then seeing a psychotherapist may be a sensible option to consider.
There are many different forms of psychotherapy. In CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy), people are guided to observe their thought patterns, examine the validity of these patterns, and shift negative loops of thought that are worsening anxiety.
There’s also MBSR (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy). This treatment combines cognitive therapy with Jon Kabat Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction approach.
Bioresonance therapy also has wonderful results at helping to reduce anxiety and other nervous system symptoms.
You may be interested to try herbal medicine remedies which we use frequently here at the London Clinic of Nutrition.
Valerian root has been used to support people with sleep and anxiety issues by reducing GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) breakdown (10).
In simple terms, this means that there’s more GABA in the brain and nervous system, which helps to regulate impulses in the nerves.
Nutrition is an underrated treatment for calming anxiety. But there are many different foods that have been found to be beneficial for the nervous system.
Turmeric is often referred to as a ‘‘superfood’’ for its long list of health benefits.
Salmon is another. Wild sources of the fish are a great source of vitamin D in particular (16).
A fascinating study showed that a sample of people eating salmon three times per week for six months experienced lower levels of anxiety than people eating chicken, or the red meats of pork and beef (17).
And here’s one to celebrate for the chocolate lovers out there…
Dark chocolate, which is packed with healthy flavonols, can improve brain function by increasing blood flow and providing nerve-protective benefits (18).
Nobody wants to feel ‘‘tired and wired.’’
If you want to soothe an overactive sympathetic nervous system and lead a calmer life, the only option is to start changing how you live day-to-day.
For advice on calming your nervous system, contact us here or call 020 3332 0030 for a free 15-minute consultation.
Words by Thomas Davy.
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The London Clinic of Nutrition is a multi-disciplined health practice offering personalised nutritional medicine and naturopathy using the functional medicine approach.
100 Seymour Place
020 3332 0030