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What are the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous systems?

Posted by John Cawley on

What are the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous systems?

The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for intense physical activity and is often referred to as the fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response is the human body’s automatic reaction to a perceived harmful event, attack or stressful situation. Our ancient ancestors would trigger this response if they were about to be attacked by a wild animal or face some natural disaster, but in the modern world we trigger it continually all throughout the day in our family life, work life, trying to meet project demands etc. The human body doesn’t know the difference between these different situations and the sympathetic nervous system will trigger the fight or flight response due to any of these different events.

The parasympathetic nervous system has almost the exact opposite effect and relaxes the body and inhibits or slows many high energy functions. When you take time out and rest and recover and practice meditation or just relax and carry out other mindfulness techniques you enhance the parasympathetic nervous system and receive the benefits it produces. 

If you already have a stressful work and family life and then also do too much exercise of a high intensity you will continually cause the sympathetic nervous system to trigger a fight or flight response and raise your stress hormones. The key is to have a balance of effective exercise and very good rest and recovery so your parasympathetic nervous system can help your body heal and repair.

The Sympathetic nervous system’s primary function is to process or stimulate the body’s fight or flight process but it is constantly active at a basic level to maintain homeostasis, (which is control of the body’s temperature). To remain in good health it is best to have both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in balance as they are both constantly operational. One or the other is always more active. The yin and yang pull of these two systems keeps our body in homeostasis, or balance. Together they ensure that we have enough resources, in the right places, at the right time. Running from a tiger, or late for a business meeting? Your SNS sends blood to your leg muscles and oxygen to your lungs to propel you along. Kicking back and relaxing after a busy day? Your PSNS will relax your skeletal muscles and send blood to your organs to speed digestion.

One of the main side effects of an overactive sympathetic nervous system and constantly triggering fight or flight is adrenal fatigue. So it is best to minimise factors in your life that can trigger this response regularly.

Both of these nervous systems are part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is made up of the following parts;

  • The sympathetic nervous system
  • The parasympathetic nervous system
  • The enteric nervous system

The autonomic nervous system, (ANS) regulates the functions of our internal organs such as the heart, stomach and intestines. The ANS is part of the peripheral nervous system and it also controls some of the muscles within the body. Some people can be trained to control some functions of the ANS such as heart rate or blood pressure and we would highly recommend learning about the Wim Hof method which as been scientifically proven to allow people control many functions of the ANS with cold exposure and effective breathing techniques. Watch this amazing documentary on Wim Hof here.

The other part of the ANS, is the enteric nervous system, also referred to as the brain in the gut, and it control’s many of the gut’s functions and is another very complex nervous system that we will cover in a future blog article.

The main point we want you all to take away from this is to realise the importance of good rest and recovery, time to relax and rest your mind, meditation, and mindfulness in your day to day activities to enhance parasympathetic nervous system function and improve your quality of life.


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