Sympathetic Nervous System: Function, Dominance, & Regulation
I always felt that the name “Sympathetic Nervous System” was an oxymoron of a title. The name appears totally harmless, and my first thought is that the sympathetic nervous system must nurture us and empathically care for us.
While the sympathetic nervous system, SNS, certainly does care for us in a time of need, it’s not quite the peaceful, motherly warmth you might imagine. Instead of feeling like you’re receiving cookies and milk at grandma’s kitchen table, the SNS is more like you and your barbarian father are sprinting through the wilderness with a club in hand trying to actively chase down your supper.
The opposite of this system is the parasympathetic nervous system. The term “para", meaning closely related to or alongside of, gives an inferior implication to this system.  However, we equally need both systems to work properly in order to survive and thrive as a species.
The SNS is your body’s Batman alter ego. When a threat appears, the bat signal goes up in your body, and you automatically slip into your batman suit. You become superhuman with heightened senses, faster with greater strength, enhanced mental agility, minus access to sweet weapons and cars.
Unfortunately, in today’s society, we often get stuck in a sympathetic nervous system state. You go to bed in your batsuit. The batsuit is made to deflect bullets not act as your favorite onesie!
Our bodily systems react to perceived stress all day long whether that looks like a work deadline, heavy traffic, a demanding email, or even a toxic terrain or food sensitivity. Our bodies tend to activate and stay in a sympathetic nervous system state chronically. Even so, we often find ourselves nearly addicted to that state of being.
Learning how to control the bat signal, so that you can enjoy the luxurious, calm life of Bruce Wayne, will greatly improve the quality of your life and overall health.
What is the Autonomic Nervous System?
The autonomic nervous system is just as the name implies. Your body automatically perceives stimuli and automatically responds. Ancient medicine considers your central nervous system one of your three brains with the gut acting as the second brain and heart as the third brain.
The autonomic nervous system controls specific body processes, such as blood circulation, digestion, breathing, urination, heartbeat, etc. Simply put, the autonomic nervous system maintains homeostasis in the body without you even being aware of it!
Your SNS institutes the fight-or-flight response. For example, if you see a toddler step towards a moving vehicle, your outside perception triggers your sympathetic nervous system to kick into gear. Your adrenaline releases, heart rate increases, energy is sent to your limbs, and your brain becomes hyper focused on reacting by quickly reaching out and saving the toddler.
You briefly put on your bat suit. After a short period of time, your heart rate and breathing slows back down, and your energy returns to your restful, parasympathetic state. Essentially, you put your bat suit up for the foreseeable future.
The parasympathetic nervous system allows your system to rest, digest, and repair. When your environment signals that no threat exists, your energy returns to your digestive system, slows your heart rate, and allows your brain waves to slow and therefore properly rest.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the autonomic nervous system relates to the Fire element as well as the small intestine and the heart. These organs contain emotions such as anxiety, depression, isolation, joy, love, and gratitude.
Function of the Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system, aka your Batman alter ego, operates as the body’s “fight or flight” response. The SNS manipulates the blood vessels in order to send more blood to the brain and muscles and away from your digestive system.
In this case, your heart rate increases, which puts a greater demand on your heart during a SNS state. In addition, the SNS stimulates glucose release from your liver, which increases blood sugar and signals the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine from the kidneys. The SNS instinctively signals the relaxation of the bladder and constriction of the rectum.
All this occurs behind the scenes without you consciously knowing it.
Unfortunately, your SNS does not understand that the email from a disgruntled customer you just received, or the argument with your spouse, or an inflammatory response to a food sensitivity.
Because of the SNS, you hyper focus when a deadline approaches, and your ability to quickly and diligently react to someone pulling out in front of you on the road. It literally can save your life or someone else’s.
As with everything, balance is key.
Signs of Sympathetic Nervous System Dominance
Your nervous system should switch on and off like a light switch, but when your system requires more of Batman and less of Bruce Wayne day after day after day, you risk becoming sympathetic nervous system dominant.
Symptoms of sympathetic nervous system dominance include:
Difficulty falling asleep
Difficulty staying asleep
Slow to recover from injuries
Difficult to calm
Experiencing a nervous stomach
Heart rate increases after eating and during times of rest
Anxiety and/or Depression
Sympathetic Nervous System Regulation
While the SNS may save your life in crucial moments, your parasympathetic state allows for your body to rest, digest, and repair, so your body must access your ability to alternate fluidly. Therefore, intentionally adopting self-care habits will support your body’s nervous system resiliency. The following include tips and tools to incorporate when your body needs to retire the batman suit.
Aligning the spine helps the central nervous system communicate and properly flow throughout the bodily system.
Your digestion suffers greatly when chronically in the SNS state. Therefore using colonics and coffee enemas help stimulate the bowels and signal the central nervous system.
According to researchers, infrared saunas benefit the parasympathetic nervous system, which opposes the “fight or flight” reaction of the sympathetic nervous system.
Several recent studies prove the health benefits of breathwork. Not only does breathwork aid in the lymphatic drainage but also calms your central nervous system bringing you into a parasympathetic state. Deep belly breathing, in particular, activates the PNS.
To learn more about research-based breathwork, we encourage you to seek a breathwork coach either in person or online or listen to this podcast: link.
Lower Your Perceived Stress
We often find ourselves noticing an automatic switch to our SNS from the PNS state in simple, unthreatening situations. For example, you burn the candle at both ends at work and find that every time the phone rings, your pulse increases and your body temperature increases. Your body perceived a threat that didn’t exist based on your previous history.
Lowering your body’s perceived stress takes diligent self awareness. When the phone rings and you recognize the signs of stress, utilize positive affirmations and breathwork to quickly return your nervous system to a relaxed state. This self aware technique retrains the brain to react differently in future circumstances.
Replace Your Nutrients
As stated earlier, your SNS and PNS utilize specific minerals and nutrients. The SNS will also perceive stress when the bodily system dysfunctions. Therefore, replacing the minerals and nutrients by eating a healthy, nutrient dense diet minimizes the body’s perceived threats as well as gives the PNS what it needs to function properly and power on when needed.
Meditation, Yoga, Journaling
Much like breathwork, meditation, yoga, and journaling are powerful tools to help you calm your energy and central nervous system. These methods also help you lower your perceived threats as you become more aware of your internal energy and work through emotions.
Herbs such as hawthorn, red sage, and CBD help the nervous system achieve resiliency.
Use Essential Oils
Calming oils such as lavender, chamomile, and holy basil greatly benefit the nervous system and counter the effects of a sympathetic nervous system dominant state.
Get Out in Nature
You likely see a trend in nervous system resiliency tools - calming, grounding techniques such as walks and connecting to nature activates the PNS state.
In order to rest, digest, and repair your system both as an athlete and a human being, you’re best served to master the techniques of regulating the sympathetic nervous system. I mean, being Batman is great, but who wouldn’t want the comfortable life of Bruce Wayne more often than not?