Using Exercise to Balance the Nervous System

It is generally accepted that if you need to lose weight, are stressed out or want to put on muscle mass, you need to hit the gym and hit it hard! While this approach will work for some people, most people’s eating habits and lifestyle choices will cause high intensity workout sessions to have a detrimental influence on their health. That’s because of the effect these sessions have on a person’s nervous system.

Without getting too embedded in the physiology, the nervous system has two main parts: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS represents the largest part of the nervous system and includes the brain and spinal cord. The PNS consists of all the other nervous structures that do not lie in the CNS. The large majority of what are commonly called nerves are considered to be in the PNS.

 

Autonomic nervous system (ANS)

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is that part of the PNS that acts as a control system, maintaining balance in the body. The ANS controls and regulates all life-sustaining functions you don’t have to think about; it’s your ANS that keeps you alive when you are asleep or when you get knocked unconscious. The ANS is divided into two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It is these two branches of the nervous system that we are interested in, so a brief description is in order.

 

Sympathetic nervous system (SNS)

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is often called the ‘fight or flight’ nervous system because the SNS prepares the body to fight or run from danger. When the SNS becomes the dominant branch of the nervous system, blood is shunted away from the internal organs and into the muscles and the periphery of the body (the arms, legs, etc.) to facilitate action. Since there is an increased utilization of nutrients and hormones, as well as greater tissue destruction when the SNS is engaged, it produces a catabolic (break down) effect on the body. The SNS is dominant when you are exercising, working or doing something that requires increased delivery of blood to the muscles; this includes stress.

 

Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)

In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for digestion and elimination and serves to regulate restoration, rebuilding and repair of the body, making it more anabolic (building/repairing). The PNS also stimulates immune function at night while you are sleeping.

 

It is important to realize that when the SNS is dominant, the functions of the PNS are proportionately shut down. Over time, over-stimulation of one system over the other can lead to clear-cut signs of imbalance:

SNS Dominance PNS Dominance
Poor digestion/⇓ salvation Strong or excessive digestion
Constipation Hyperactive bowel; colicky
Anxiety Incontinence
⇑Respiratory/heart rate Drop in blood pressure upon rising
Poor sleep quality; restless Poor sleep quality; hibernation
Night sweats ⇓ Perspiration
Orgasm/sexual inhibition Genital stimulation/increased libido
Waking un-rested ⇓ Respiratory rate
Nervousness e.g., restless/agitated Nervousness; depression; somnolence
Jittery ⇑ Mucus secretions
⇑Muscle tension Hands warm and dry
⇑ Inflammatory conditions ⇑ Gag reflex
⇑ Susceptibility to infection ⇑ WBC count

When you are thinking about what kinds of exercise would be beneficial, first begin by looking at each of the indicators above; the more symptoms a person has under one system, the greater the relative imbalance between the branches of the ANS. Although even one indicator, when chronic, can indicate an imbalance of significance, it is generally reliable to assume that the greater number of chronic indicators you find, the greater the problem and the more critical it becomes to modify diet, exercise and lifestyle factors to encourage balance.

 

Balancing the ANS with Exercise

A general rule of thumb is that if you can’t perform an exercise comfortably on a full stomach, the exercise is stimulating your SNS. With that in mind, you can easily envision how the great majority of exercises serve to further stress the SNS; keep in mind that SNS stimulation keeps the body in a catabolic (breakdown) state. If you are stuck in a SNS dominance in response to the stressors in your life, exercises that stimulate the SNS will only serve to perpetuate an already dysfunctional situation. Many people experience this as poor sleep, illness, anxiety, poor digestion and/or increased muscle tension.

 

If you are in a SNS dominant state, focus on chi balancing exercises to help rebalance your nervous system; these include gentle yoga, Tai Chi, Qi-gong or simply walking.

 

As your system rebalances, you will be able to tolerate more and more SNS stimulation through exercise. Start with one or two compound exercises (full body, pushing/pulling), keeping the training sessions under 30 minutes and supplementing with stretches that specifically restore muscle balance to improve overall nervous system balance. When you see sleep quality, energy levels, mood and response to exercise improving in concert with a reduction of chronic SNS dominance indicators (from the table above) you can carefully add more challenging exercises and increasing exercise duration and intensity.

 

We must let go of the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy. Instead think in terms of ‘train, don’t drain!’, and listen to your body tell you what it needs to function optimally. Nutrition also plays a key role in helping to rebalance your nervous system and keep you functioning optimally – feel free to contact us for more information.


12 Comments

  1. Dear sir,
    I am sns domienent and have anxiety. I m confused as some people say thst aerobic exercise will help to bring ans into balance but some say that yoga should be practiced . and also let me know what are the best foods to be taken to balance ANS

    • Greetings Sonal,

      You are certainly not alone in your confusion on this matter, which is what prompted me to write this article to begin with. Being SNS dominant, you would most likely benefit from more calming (less intense)forms of exercise that also focus on calming the mind. Examples include yoga, tai chi, Qi gong and walking or mild aerobic exercise. The key is to NOT push yourself to failure or fatigue; you simply want to get the blood flowing, work on flexibility, burn some calories and calm the mind and body.

      In addition, establishing a daily (or several times daily) meditation and/or prayer practice would also be beneficial.

      Keep in mind that it can take weeks, months and in some cases years to reestablish balance in the nervous system assuming you are addressing the underlying dietary, lifestyle and/or environmental causes that brought about the imbalance in the first place. Be patient and be kind to yourself.

      Thanks for the question and good luck!

      Dr. Chad

      • Liset

        Dear dr. Chad,

        Thank you for your information. I’m curious what a good diet would included to reduce the sns.
        Could you give me some suggestions, or a website where I can find more information about this subject?

        Thank you very much in advance.

        • admin

          Hi Lisette,

          This is a great question! Unfortunately, there isn’t a direct answer as in this case, we would first need to determine WHY the SNS is overstimulated and then use nutritional interventions to address that/those reason(s). However, there are a couple things you can do that will generally help: (1) increase B-vitamin rich foods, including nutritional yeast; (2) increase healthy fats, including deep-sea fatty fish and/or a high-quality daily fish oil as well as avocado, raw nuts/seeds and coconut oil; (3) avoid most/all processed foods (i.e., anything in a box, package or bag that is filled with gas so it balloons out); (4) decrease/eliminate fried foods and any foods that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils; (5) increase vegetable and fruit intake, trying to get in as many colors as possible (the deeper/brighter the better); (6) drink plenty of water throughout the day; (7) avoid any/all artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or additives, including artificial sweeteners; (8) take a few deep breaths before eating and chew each mouthful of food until it is a liquid before swallowing.

          There are of course a multitude of tests that can be run to determine each persons exact nutritional needs. If you’d like our help to determine your exact needs and which tests would give you the biggest bang for your buck, just give us a call.

          Good luck – and please let us know if we can be of further assistance –

          Sincerely,

          Dr. Chad

  2. Sabrina Wolby

    Hello,
    I have reactions to breathing chemicals such as paint that indicate CNS upset.
    How can I balance my CNS when it is reactive after exposure.
    Thank you

    • Hi Sabrina,

      Great question! Based on the information you shared, you are most likely correct that there is an imbalance in your nervous system, probably due to a detoxification and/or immune imbalance. In order to determine how to best address your situation, more testing would be necessary. If you don’t have a provider near you that works with these types of imbalances, please give us a call. We do consultations and conduct testing with people all over the world and would be happy to assist you.

      Good luck – please let us know if we can be of further service –

      Sincerely,

      Dr. Chad

  3. Sabrina Wolby

    Where is your practice located ? I am in the Los Angeles area. If you are not nearby, do you have any recommendations to find a good practitioner.
    Thank you

    • We are located in Madison, WI, but we have clients all over the world. There has to be many great practitioners in the Los Angeles area, although I know not how to find them.

      If you cannot find the provider you are looking for, please don’t hesitate to give us a call.

      Sincerely,

      Dr. Chad

  4. leslie bacon

    I am 63 and have always suffered from panic attacks, however in the last 3 years I have had 3 attacks that included severe nausea, passing out and the last one in November I had a sezuire. I am going through severe effects of menopause and feel like my whole body is out of control. I seem to be SNS dimonate I have become a prisoner in my home as I am afraid I will pass out when I drive I am to see a neurologist in Feb. and have been advised to seek counseling, I currently am taking 3 5mg valiums per day and been told to get off of the hormones as that increases the chances of a stroke. I am in good shape loss 12pounds weigh 135 walk 35 min 4x weekly have healthy sex life my doctor said I in great shape whats going on? I really worried.

    • Hi Leslie,

      Thanks for contacting us. It certainly sounds like there is one or more underlying metabolic and/or nutritional imbalances that are affecting you. Please give us a call and set up an initial phone consultation so we can collect some more information to see how we can help get you feeling better.

      I look forward to speaking with you!

      Sincerely,

      Dr. Chad

  5. Hellow

    After reading about sns or cns im not sure where I fall, due to at times I got very used to muscle tensing just by having negative thoughts, its especially more prominent on one side of the body, when Im positive and calm they are not as present, however I get strange sensations through out body. exercise, when im calm and keep a calm, during a work out I feel great, however if any parts are raw and tense it will worsen. any ideas on what this could be..im thinking ptsd..you’re thoughts are appreciated.

    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for the comment. Given the information you supplied, it would be difficult for me to ascertain with any degree of certainty what may be happening. Please give us a call and set up an initial phone consultation so we can collect some more information. Once I have some more information, I’ll be in a much better place to comment and steer you in the right direction.

      I look forward to hearing from you –

      Sincerely,

      Dr. Chad

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