Most likely, you’ve heard the adage, “You are what you eat.” Certainly, healthy food goes a long way toward improving your overall state of being. However, this sentiment may be also expressed as, “You are how you digest what you eat.” This is because your digestion is directly linked to your health and well-being in every way. And your digestion is facilitated by the powerful autonomic nervous system.
There are specific functions that each of your nervous systems must perform effectively in order for your body to process and utilize the food you eat. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) work along with glands and hormones in your body. Together, they play an essential role in how well your digestive system performs.
The information here regarding the nervous system and digestion includes:
- Effects of the sympathetic nervous system on the body
- Digestion and the parasympathetic nervous system
- How relaxation can improve your digestion
Effects of the Sympathetic Nervous System on the Body
The sympathetic nervous system is known for its activation of the fight or flight responses. It is also referred to as the reactive mode called the Red Zone, because it is the source where worry, fear, and stress lie in wait. The reaction of this system is faster than the parasympathetic system, because it causes the body to become more alert and ready to fight or run away quickly.
This system moves along short neurons and activates a portion of the adrenal gland, which releases hormones that target muscles. This causes alertness, speed, and tenseness. If you’ve ever been in a dangerous situation, you may have felt an increase in your heart rate, muscle contractions, and a dry mouth, all of which are sympathetic nervous system responses.
Other automatic reactions which occur when the sympathetic nervous system is activated include dilation of the bronchial tubes and the pupils. More glucose (blood sugar) is produced by the sympathetic nerve system, since glucose is the fast burning fuel that gives you the energy you need to fight a stressful situation.
The sympathetic nervous system directs blood away from your digestive tract, which slows down digestion. The body may react to this with constipation, diarrhea, or bloating. The reason that non-essential bodily functions are slowed or shut down (such as the immune and digestive system) is so that your body can reserve energy needed by vital organs like the heart and lungs. In this state, your body can concentrate on taking action that will alleviate the danger.
However, remaining in this state of heightened alertness is not good for your health. Relaxation of the body and mind must be returned to avoid the prolonged effects of stress on your body. This is why the parasympathetic nervous system is so vital. As the danger, or perception of danger, lessens, the PNS starts to kick in.
Digestion and the Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous symptom is designed to produce the “rest and digest”, among other responses, in your body. It is a slow-moving system that moves through long pathways. The responses caused by the parasympathetic system control the balance of your body’s systems. It produces the calm that allows your body to repair itself. The parasympathetic nervous system pulls the body to the so-called “Green Zone”, a state of relaxation and awareness that provides you with a healthier mind, body, and spirit.
Digestion is to break down what you eat into an absorbable form which is carried to your cells for energy and nourishment. PNS stimulates digestion through increasing the blood flow directly to your digestive tract. As opposed to the SNS response, your salivary gland is stimulated; increasing the saliva that contains enzymes which aid in the initial chemical process of digestion.
Another function of the PNS is to increase peristalsis, which is the constriction and relaxation of the intestine (sphincter) muscle. This motion pushes the contents through the intestines. As, such peristalsis is essential to food and nutrient absorption. Without it, natural waste elimination is not possible.
Your body’s entire immune system could be compromised without a well-functioning parasympathetic system, since 70% of the immune system is found in the digestive tract. The PNS also regulates the functioning of production of gastric acid in the stomach, which impacts overall digestive health.
Rather than using glucose for fuel (as with the SNS), your body fat is utilized via the parasympathetic system. Without a properly functioning PNS, it can be more than difficult to store, and to burn, body fat.
How Relaxation Can Improve Your Digestive System
A poor or malfunctioning digestive system can cause a wide range of health disorders, some of which can be life threatening. If you can imagine being in a constant sympathetic nervous order response, you can picture what a hit the tension and anxiety your digestive system will take. Medical research has concluded that if one nervous system is persistently activated, adverse health can very well be the result.
Give your digestive system the best chance possible by engaging in techniques designed to provide the relaxation and balance it needs. Millions of people have used these techniques to leave the “Red Zone” by turning off the stress response. Deep breathing exercises before and after eating improve digestion because they relax your stomach area, making elimination easier. It also helps with brain functioning after you’ve finished eating.
Overall, yoga is the natural way to resolve issues which prevent you from self-connection. There are several yoga techniques that specifically target digestive issues. Benefits include relief from constipation, elimination, and cleansing of the liver. Tai Chi is an effective stress reliever that boosts the immune system as well as improves digestion.
In conjunction with fueling your body with healthy food and getting sufficient rest, protecting and maintaining digestive health will reward you with the best your body has to offer. Start now and soon you will enjoy the invaluable benefits of having your stomach, mind, and body working together to maintain your greatest self for the rest of your life.