The Importance of a Healthy Nervous System For Healing

You’re going along on your healing journey–eating nourishing foods, fueling your body fully, and prioritizing YOU. You’re feeling pretty good, but something is still off. This is often unique to the individual and is something from their past. A common one I see is anxious thoughts and worrying about things coming up again. An example would be a woman that has PCOS that achieves a regular cycle but is constantly stressed that she isn’t going to ovulate and is watching her chart like a hawk. She doesn’t trust her body.

Another example of this I often see would be a woman doing everything “right” but not seeing results–she still struggles with painful periods, waking at night, poor energy, acne, etc. This person often needs more time because their body is clearly still trying to catch up to all of the changes they have made and is soaking it all in. I also see this show up quite a bit with digestion. A woman that experiences constipation and has had some relief but continues to go back and forth. The issue isn’t always food–sometimes it’s deeper.

What is the connection between all of these examples? Our nervous system and specifically whether or not it is regulated.

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

Our autonomic nervous system is the big player in our essential bodily functions and how we respond to stress. Our ANS is responsible for:

  • Automatic Bodily Functions–digestion, heart rate, respiratory rate, urination, sexual arousal, hormonal release, metabolism, sleep-wake cycle, tissue repair.
  • Flight, fight freeze energies–our survival energies and what keeps us safe or allows us to go into shock.
  • Social Engagement with Other Humans/Pets

When looking at the ANS breakdown below, it’s important to remember that we move in and out of these different parts of our nervous system. If we look at how the ANS breaks down, it’s into two main systems:

  1. Sympathetic Nervous System–this is our fight or flight response and is how we respond to stress.
  2. Parasympathetic Nervous System–this is our rest and digest state that has a healthy and unhealthy response.

In the chart below, you can see the spectrum with the less healthy side of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) on the left. This is our frozen mode and leads to a decrease in heart rate, oxygen, and metabolism. It’s what allows bears to hibernate and is what mode we go into when in shock.

In the middle, we have the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), which increases heart rate, blood sugar, and blood flow to respond to stress. We release cortisol, which does all of these things and energizes us to fight or flee.

On the right end of the spectrum, we have our healthy version of our PNS. It is unique to mammals and allows us to learn, connect with others, and lets us engage in our environment.

We can see that as we respond to stress we move into the SNS and then ideally go back down to the PNS and can rest and recover from that stress.

We should be able to move in and out of these freely. That shows a healthy, regulated nervous system. When we cannot do this and spend too much time in one mode, we often don’t feel our best (frozen, frazzled, wired but tired, etc.), and it shows us we have signs of a dysregulated nervous system.

The Connection To Stress

We are all wired to handle stress differently. Our life experiences create this differentiation, which means our environment can shape how we handle stress. This is a good thing! It means we can rewire that stress response (overtime) and improve how our bodies respond to stress. I think understanding the body’s physiological response to stress helps (like we outlined above with the nervous system), and remembering it takes time to rewire that response.

Why do our responses get messed up in the first place? The world we live in is very different from our natural habitat. We aren’t in nature often anymore, and our light exposure is all off. We are constantly stimulated by our devices with little downtime to relieve that stress leaving us in a state of imbalance.

I love this quote by stress researcher Hans Selye. Stress is a part of life–we will always have it; it’s how we respond to it that matters. Suppose we have so much stress from a significant traumatic event or living in a constant state of go-go-go or even smaller stressors that we didn’t quite recognize growing up. In that case, overtime these can create some dysregulation in our nervous system. This dysregulation can come up when you’re on the healing journey and make you feel stuck. I don’t necessarily have all of the answers for this, but I felt called to bring this to your attention. This has come up in many of my client sessions over the last few weeks, which usually means it’s coming up for those in my community. If you resonate with this and want some next steps, check out the resources section below!

Resources For Nervous System/Stress Support

There are a number of resources that you can consider when wanting to improve the health of your nervous system. A lot of these are very well supported by also working with a therapist. This is an option for everyone, but if you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed, it’s something to consider.

Course To Take

I love Irene Lyon (great follow on IG) and her 21-Day Nervous System Tune Up course.

Books To Read

  • When the Body Says No by Gabor Mate
  • The Body Keeps Score by Bessel van der Kolk
  • Waking The Tiger. Healing trauma. by Peter Levine

Podcast episodes to listen to from the Are you menstrual? Podcast

reminder: i’m currently taking on 1:1 clients. if you’d like to explore what it would be like to work together and if we are a good fit, fill out this form to get more details!​

Amanda Montalvo

Amanda Montalvo is a women's health dietitian who helps women find the root cause of hormone imbalances and regain healthy menstrual cycles.

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