Our nervous system constantly receives information from the outside world. All of our senses, including touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing provide information about our surroundings, and our nervous system, including our brain, spinal cord, and all the nerves in our body, responds. Information is sent to our brain, where we appraise the information – is it a threat? Are we safe? Do we want to focus our attention? Depending on the information, we may run away from a threat, recognize a friend and begin a conversation, or reach for another serving of food. Our nervous system is working constantly to help us interact with our environment.
Our nervous system interacts with our endocrine system, the system that controls hormone production and release, as well as our musculoskeletal system, digestive system, and immune system. These pathways are complex but very effective. While we often say that health begins in the gut, we need the nervous system to communicate that the gut is healthy – or dysfunctional (Gut-Brain Connection). If the nervous system is damaged, this communication becomes dysfunction, leading to a variety of symptoms and conditions. The nervous system can be damaged or dysregulated through a variety of mechanisms, including chronic stress, genetic issues, nutritional deficiencies, and gut inflammation. But we can support our nervous system through simple, daily lifestyle practices.
1. Change Your Appraisal
Stress begins in the brain. It is our amygdala, the emotional integration centre of our brain, that determines whether or not an alarm signal is sent to the hypothalamus, an area of our brain that plays a large role in the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, a hormonal communication system in our body. If we determine something to be a threat, our nervous system sends signals to cause the release of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol, potent stress chemicals that, when released chronically, can increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, decrease neuron formation, and deplete certain brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine (1,2,3,4). An exaggerated fear response has been linked to anxiety disorders (5).
We can begin to circumvent this response by changing our appraisal of stressful situations (7 Ways To Change Your Relationship With Stress). Rather than assuming that something is stressful, change the script. Is it possible that what is occurring is exciting? Is it providing an opportunity to ask for help? If you’re feeling overwhelmed, what might you learn from this experience that you can take into the future? Simple changes like turning off our phone notifications, or silencing our phones, can help with this; rather than being suddenly (and loudly) alerted to something, we can choose to engage with our phones when the timing is right; this simple switch allows for an out-of-control stressor to become a conscious decision.
2. Rest & Digest
Stress compromises our digestion. Instead, we can promote parasympathetic system activity, the branch of the nervous system that allows our body to rest, digest, and heal. Certain activities help to encourage this response, such as deep breathing, floating, yin yoga, walking in nature, and meditation. Since we want this branch of our nervous system to be active when we eat, to aid in digestion, mindful eating where we eat slowly, thoughtfully, focused, not distracted
3. Balance Your Circadian Rhythm
Not surprisingly, our nervous system needs sleep. It is rare that our nervous system experiences the kind of break from external stimuli it experiences during sleep. Additionally, regular sleep in a dark and cool room helps to balance your circadian rhythm, the internal clock we have that regulates hormonal release over 24-hours. Our nervous system and endocrine system are intricately connected; healing our hormonal cycle positively influences the nervous system, and vice versa (6 Easy Ways To Keep Your Circadian Rhythm Under Control).
4. Heal Your Gut-Brain
The health of our nervous system is greatly influenced by the health of our gut (Gut-Brain Connection). The latest research is linking gut dysfunction to neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s, depression, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s disease (6-8). Healing our gut can help support the enteric nervous system, the nervous system that resides in the gut, as well as the brain, due to the strong connection the occurs between the gut and the brain. Healing the gut typically involves the ‘5 Rs’ – repair the gut lining, replace digestive components (such as enzymes, bile, and hydrochloric acid), reinoculate with good bacteria, remove harmful foods and toxins, and relaxation (5 Steps To A Healthy Gut).
5. Feast on Nervous System Supporting Foods
Our nervous system communicates using chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are released by neurons, to exert an effect (such as stimulation or inhibition) on another neuron. You’ve probably heard of serotonin and dopamine – they are examples of neurotransmitters – and there are many others that have wide effects on our nervous system.
Neurotransmitter synthesis requires certain building blocks, such as tryptophan and choline. Additionally, many nutrients are required to participate in the synthesis process, acting as cofactors. Examples of cofactors are B6, vitamin C, zinc, iron, and vitamin B12. Our nervous system requires many food sources of these nutrients to ensure sufficient amounts of neurotransmitters can be made. Additionally, our nerves need certain nutrients to conduct a signal throughout the nerve. Including a wide variety of nourishing foods can help provide support to your nervous system:
Sources of B1 – nuts and seeds, beef, liver, eggs (9)
Sources of B6 – dark leafy greens, red meat, organ meats, turkey, avocado (10)
Sources of B12 – beef, lamb, fish, shellfish, nutritional yeast (11)
Sources of Magnesium – dark leafy greens, fish, avocados, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds (12)
Sources of Choline – eggs, salmon, liver, chickpeas (13)