How To Know If Your Sympathetic Nervous System Is in Overdrive
Today we are afflicted with a silent plague. Our culture drives us to perform in stressful work environments, but even in our own homes we are unknowingly bombarding our bodies with a host of environmental stressors. Doctors are calling stress the black plague of our generation, and chronic stress triggers a condition of the sympathetic nervous system known as sympathetic overdrive.
All of these signs point to the Sympathetic Nervous System or SNS. The Autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches called the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The SNS is responsible for the fight or flight stress response.
When our sympathetic nervous system is activated our body experiences a rush of survival mechanisms. A sequence of nerve cell firing occurs as chemicals including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol are released into the bloodstream. Our respiration rate increases along with our heart rate as blood is channeled away from our digestive tract into our muscles and limbs. Our pupils dilate as our awareness is honed to a razor edge. We are now prepared to fight or flee the danger.
The fight or flight response was discovered by Harvard physiologist, Walter Cannon. It corresponds with the hypothalamus, responsible for initiating a sequence of nerve cell firing and chemical release to prepare our bodies for survival.
Our brain's logical reasoning mechanism is ignored when our body perceives an attack. That is why we are easily overstimulated in a world of rush hour traffic and pinging notifications. Unfortunately, the same mechanism with the ability to save our life can also become a threat in and of itself.
If we were to compare our body to a car, the SNS would be the gas pedal. The fuel flooding our system in this case would be the stress hormones. You wouldn't press the gas pedal of your car down to the floor and drive at 120 mph until you were out of gas, but that is what sympathetic overdrive does to our bodies. The accelerator becomes stuck in SNS, forcing us to face the world on hyper alert.
If you suffer from any of the following symptoms you may be a victim of sympathetic overdrive:
- Acid reflux
- Frequent urination
- Low libido
- Heart palpitations
- Adrenal fatigue
- Poor digestion
- Compromised immunity
Your body doesn't know the difference between a perceived threat and an actual threat. When your boss puts pressure on you at work, your life is not in danger, but that is how the body's stress response perceives it if your SNS is stuck in overdrive. We are responsible for determining a healthy response to stress.
The amygdala in our brain dictates autonomic response and processes emotions. This bundle of ganglia acts like an alarm bell on either side of the brain, triggering the eruption of hypothalamus chemicals. The hippocampus inhibits the amygdala with the command to stop ringing, but here is the scary part: the neurons composing the hippocampus are eventually killed off by the constant flood of excess cortisol in sympathetic overdrive.
This vicious cycle makes us increasingly vulnerable to stress. If our bodies are in a state of sympathetic overdrive we simply will not function properly.
Sympathetic overdrive compromises our ability to:
- Fight off illness
Sympathetic overdrive is a loaded gun. If we keep pulling the trigger we will inflict damage to ourselves by succumbing to the cumulative buildup of adrenaline and cortisol. If these stress hormones are not metabolized over time it can lead to disorders of our autonomic nervous system such as autoimmune disorders. These stress hormones are acidic in nature, and they accelerate the aging process.
The opposite of the Sympathetic nervous system is the Parasympathetic nervous system. This is the body's brake. In this relaxed state, our digestion, detoxification, and immune function is optimal. On a chemical level, the release of stress hormones is suppressed.
The vagus nerve connects our brain to our gut. This wiring activates the Parasympathetic switch in a healthy body. Your autonomic switch only functions in SNS and PNS. Stress flips your switch into SNS and relaxation flips your switch into PNS. It is very important that we are not in SNS mode all the time, or we will burn out like a tired light bulb.
Strong vagal tone regulates every function in our body for optimal health:
- It regulates the brain by assisting in the production of feel-good hormones like seratonin.
- It regulates the stomach by stimulating peristalsis and promoting adequate HCL production.
- It regulates the pancreas by stimulating enzyme production and release.
- It regulates the liver by stimulating detoxification and blood sugar regulation.
- It regulates the gallbladder by stimulating the release of bile.
- It regulates the heart by promoting a healthy heart rate and blood pressure.
- It regulates the bladder to allow bladder retention.
- It regulates the reproductive organs by supporting fertility and libido.
I believe the majority of Americans today are stuck in sympathetic overdrive. Our fast paced lifestyle leads to a pattern of stress and chaos, but we do possess the ability to reverse this vicious cycle.
Here are 5 strategies I have employed to reverse my sympathetic overdrive:
1. Sleep is critical in order for the body to heal and repair. I limit my screen time in the evenings because the blue light emitted by such devices has been linked to disruption of circadian rhythm by stimulating our brains to believe it is daytime. My goal at bedtime is to flip my autonomic switch to PNS. I always sleep better when I put away electronics at least an hour before I go to bed.
2. Nature is a great way to flip the autonomic switch to PNS. In Parasympathetic mode, I experience healing as I get outside and enjoy the fresh air. Exercise promotes anti-stress hormones such as dopamine.
3. Every day I set aside a little me time. I put my electronics aside and unplug from all the noise with a good book or a hobby I enjoy.
4. Each mealtime and at bedtime I apply an essential oil blend to my brain stem to stimulate the vagus nerve for optimum digestion and rest. I use the Parasympathetic blend by Meo Energetics.
5. I ensure I get enough calcium, magnesium, potassium, B vitamins, electrolytes, and minerals. Stress depletes all of these vital nutrients that act as armor to combat stress in a healthy way. My favorite way to absorb my electrolytes and potassium is by drinking coconut water.
I have personally experienced many of the symptoms of sympathetic overdrive. I suffered from insomnia, constipation, poor digestion, and chronic anxiety for years. Then as I began to do my research, I discovered that I was a victim of sympathetic overdrive. I corrected my nutritional deficiencies, eliminated stress, and began applying essential oils to activate my Parasympathetic nervous system. One by one my symptoms began to disappear. Now I am no longer stuck in sympathetic overdrive, and I want you to experience the same liberating sense of control over your autonomic switch.