The Nervous System's Role in Your Body
The nervous system plays an essential role in the body's function. It is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and a vast network of nerves that relay information to and from the brain. It is responsible for controlling and coordinating the body's activities, from breathing and digestion to movement and thinking. It also helps to regulate bodily functions such as heart rate and blood pressure. Furthermore, it can be affected by conditions like stress, anxiety, and depression.
The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that regulates different functions within the bodywhich are automatic. The autonomic nervous system allows our heart to beat, our blood vessels to expand and contract, our lungs to expand and many more functions all without conscious thought. The autonomic nervous system has controlover these functions, but frequently the organs carrying out these essential functions also communicate back to the nervous system, creating a bi-directional communication system.
The autonomic nervous system has two primary modes in which it functions; parasympathetic and sympathetic. The parasympathetic nervous system is associated with the body’s “rest and digest” response, as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the body’s “fight or flight” response. When the body is in the parasympathetic state, it is in a relaxed, restful state. This state is beneficial for the body’s organs, as it allows for proper digestion and efficient blood flow. The parasympathetic state also allows the heart to slow down, reducing its workload. All of these actions and more allow the body to repair itself and recharge for the next “fight or flight” response. Conversely, the sympathetic state requires more energy from the body and utilizes the lungs and heart to their fullest capacity. When appropriately utilized the sympathetic state can help the body to practice essential functions and when not over-utilized, can be integral to building healthy hearts, lungs and muscles.
The Heart's Role in Your Body
The heart's role in the body is both simple and complex. The heart pumps oxygenated blood and nutrients to the brain, nourishing the cells and allowing the nervous system to function properly. Additionally, the heart is responsible for regulating blood pressure, providing communication between the brain and other parts of the body, and helping to maintain a healthy balance of hormones. The heart's primary role of distributing energy in the form of oxygen and glucose throughout the body and removing waste in the form of CO2 through partnership with the lungs is linked very closely to which function of the autonomic nervous system is "switched on". If the nervous system is in a sympathetic state, the heart will work to increase blood circulation, thus the heart rate will increase, the blood vessels with constrict and the heart will have to work more intensely. Alternatively, in a parasympathetic state, the heart rate will slow down as there is less necessity for energy to be circulated quickly throughout the body.
In order to monitor the physical strength and condition of the heart (including any changes to the number of beats per minute, the size of the veins and arteries and more) the nervous system has to get feedback from the heart. The heart, like many muscles and organs within the body, is directed by the brain through the nervous system. However, the heart also communicates messages back to the brain through the nervous system. Modern medical science has allowed us to begin to understand the complex connected nature of the systems of the body and has led to the realization that there are very few one-way communication channels within the body. The nervous system and mind provide direction to the heart, but the heart also communicates back to the brain. New studies on the vagus nerve, a complex and long nerve that innervates many areas of the body including the heart and the gut, have allowed us to understand that the heart regularly sends messages to the brain. This bidirectional communication means the heart and nervous system are closely connected. The interconnected nature of the nervous system means that the performance of the nervous system affects the organs which it directs, while the performance of those organs also affects the nervous system. This is the connected nature of the many systems of the body which work directly and indirectly, keeping our physical health strong through constant communication and adjustments.
This bi-directional communication means that if the heart rate starts to increase, the nervous system will assume it's time to switch to the parasympathetic tone and if the nervous system recognizes a threat or a stressor, the heart rate will increases. This essentially means that both the heart and nervous system are advising each other on what the proper action or tone is at any given moment.
How Nervous System Health Impacts the Health of Your Heart and Vice Versa
As we've learned, the heart and nervous system consistently provide feedback to each other and the state of one is closely interrelated to the state of the other. If the heart is unhealthy it will hamper the functionality of the nervous system's autonomic states and if the nervous system is unhealthy it will cause challenges for the heart.
When the heart is not functioning correctly, it can cause problems with the nervous system, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, dizziness, fainting, confusion, and even serious conditions such as stroke or heart attack.
When the nervous system is not functioning correctly it can overwork the heart. It is important to find a balance between parasympathetic and sympathetic states for heart health, as the heart can be overworked when it is constantly in a state of “fight or flight.” Unhealthy levels of stress can cause chronic elevation of the sympathetic nervous system, which can lead to long-term heart health problems. Just like any muscle in the body that is constantly worked without rest, the heart will eventually begin to develop signs of overuse and fatigue. Similarly, if the body is almost never in a parasympathetic tone and/or if it enters a parasympathetic tone without physical activity, the heart does not get to learn to function to its full potential in moments of physical exertion. This can also lead to a weakened heart.
How to Keep Your Heart and Nervous System Healthy
There are two primary ways to keep your heart and nervous system happy; learn to regulate your nervous sytem and exercise! You can learn about nervous system regulation and stress management from specialists like me (if you're interested book a functional stress management session here). Finding the right kind of exercise for your body is also important to help complete stress response cycles and to utilize the energy mobilized by the sympathetic response properly.
Nutrition also plays a key role in supporting nervous system and heart health. Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, avoiding stress and getting enough sleep are all important components of a healthy lifestyle. Eating foods that are high in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids can help protect your heart and nervous system.
Taking steps to improve your blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels can also help reduce your risk of cardiovascular and nervous system diseases. Finally, seeing your doctor regularly for checkups and screenings can help you identify potential health issues before they become serious. Taking these steps can help you maintain a healthyheart and nervous system which will allow you to live your life to the fullest!