Health Mastery: How To Take Control Of Your Own Wellbeing

PART 1: Your Nervous System Explained

Have you ever wondered exactly how stress affects the body? I think most of us know there is a direct correlation between the stress in your life and the symptoms you are expressing, but the actual cause isn’t really well understood.

Well I want to change that for you today.

There is a lot to unpack here, so this blog will come in three parts (and a webinar!).

Let’s start with some basics, to set the stage…stick with me, it gets juicier soon!

The structure and function of the nervous system. 

The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord. Think of this as your master control centre, where all orders are given, with constant feedback from the body, to operate you.

Attached to the CNS is the peripheral nervous system (PNS) which I like to think of as communication pathways from the brain to our various organs (and vice versa), including the vagus nerve (we will come back to talk about him more in part 2).

The PNS can be divided into two subsets based on function:

  1. The somatic nervous system i.e. things we can sense or control such as smell, hearing and muscle control.
  2. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) i.e. things that are automated and outside of our conscious control such as breathing, gastric motility and heart rate.

The ANS is divided into the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).

I hope you’re still with me at this point!

Let’s look at a picture because picture’s always make more sense.

Image credit:

As you can see, when the SNS is engaged, we are in ‘fight or flight mode’ and preparing to run away from a bear (or big hairy spider, you get the gist). Our brain is in full fear mode, pumping out our stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, diverting blood away from major organs and functions to the arms and legs, and pulling glucose into the blood stream so we have the energy to run away from what is chasing us. I mean who needs to digest food at this time? It makes sense when you think about it.

Meanwhile we are sitting at the dinner table, worrying about a fight we just had with our partner (hello low gastric acid and poor digestion), or in traffic running late for an appointment or staring at the ceiling at 2am worrying (who doesn’t love a bit of insomnia?).  People wonder why they are tired all of the time. The stress response, when we are stuck in it all of the time, is exhausting.

When the PSNS is engaged, we are in ‘rest and digest’ mode. This calms things down, we can digest our food better, our heart rate and blood pressure return to normal and we can function as a human again.

Emrys Goldsworthy wrote this about the SNS AND PSNS in his recent book:

“On the one hand, the body requires mechanisms to confront or escape from immediate threats; on the other, it needs avenues to recuperate, restore energy, and heal.” 

Please reread those last nine words.

If we are to restore energy and heal, we need to recuperate, rest and get ourselves out of this constant fight or flight mode.  If we do not address this, we will not heal. 

This is literally the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle for most of my clients and when they really understand this and take steps to actively engage their PSNS function, the magic happens.


Part 2: The vagus nerve and cholinergic pathway – how you can reduce chronic inflammation, fatigue and pain

Part 3: How your thoughts create emotions and their impact on your physical health