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  • Writer's pictureCaitlin Walters

The Parasympathetic System, Sleep, and Healing

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

We've all heard the pneumonic, "You can sleep when you're dead," but did they ever realize that a lack of sleep or rest would be our death? Here's the important role that the parasympathetic nervous system plays and why rest is essential to our wellbeing.


What is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)?

The Autonomic Nervous System helps operates the subconscious processes of the body, including heart rate, breathing, digestion, and more. It operates via nerves spread throughout the body stemming from the head and spinal column. There are three parts to the body's Autonomic Nervous System:

  1. Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) - Which enables you to react to immediate stresses.

  2. Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) - Which operates the body maintenance during states of rest.

  3. Enteric System (ENS) - AKA the "Second Brain" which manages how your body digests food.


The PNS is important, because it stores up energy to use on body function such as digestion, urination, reproduction, immune defense and other operations of the body. In other words, it takes care of the "business of living" while the SNS ensures that the body survives times of stress (fight or flight). The PNS and SNS work to maintain a balance of function within the body and are interdependent on one another. When our bodies are stressed however, all energy and focus is diverted into fueling the SNS.


How to activate the PNS

Some sources site that the PNS is activated in the non-REM stage of sleep. however there are many other methods of activating your PNS without falling into deep sleep. These include yoga, meditation, forest bathing, grounding, massage, focusing on the task at hand (activities like sewing, drawing, gardening, reading, ect.), listening to calming music (especially 432 hz), Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR), and many others (HYNS Team).


These methods activate the PNS by slowing down or switching off the sympathetic nervous system. In essence, establishing a stress-free space. When energy and activity levels slow down, the body registers this as a safe environment where the PNS can then work on body maintenance.


What benefits does sleep give the body?

Since PNS and sleep are so closely tied together with their effects on the body, we will dive a little deeper into the effects of sleep on the body.

Physically, everything has a cycle of rest and activity as is evident with night and day or winter and summer. Sleep enables our bodies to heal, solidify knowledge, regulate our emotions, produce germ-fighting genes, and facilitate the other operations of our bodies. Not only is it encouraged to sleep in order to promote healing, but also in order to create novelty solutions to complex problems. Even a seemingly small four hour decrease in sleep results in a 70% drop of immune fighting cells in the body (Matt Walker, TED). There are some essential bodily functions that only occur when we are asleep.


Effects of lack of sleep on the body

The negative effects due to a lack of sleep quickly compile on the body from instigating anger, impulsivity, compromising immunity, poor memory recall, and poor judgement.


As a means to rally energy, sleep deprived persons may even turn to stimulants such as caffeine, sugar, and nicotine. Some then use alcohol as a means to suppress this stimulant rush in order to fall asleep. Repetitive sleep deprivation and attempt to self-regulate through these means can develop into detrimental habits.



Helpful notes and links:

The biggest advice with insomnia if you're tossing and turning and simply can't calm the brain enough to sleep, is to leave the bedroom. Enter a new space where you brain and body and gear shift. Conditioning yourself that your bedroom is only a space for rest and sleep -yes, making it as dark as possible, turning off electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime, decreasing stimulants (audio, caffeine, electronics, work, ect.) prior to sleep, and maintaining your bedroom as a work-free relaxing haven will help establish it as a place of rest and condition your body's automatic response when entering the space. This is also why many massage therapists encourage quiet in their cozy dim-light massage studio with soothing ambiance in the background.


For those who want to calm the brain chatter, here are some audios on YouTube to help you drift into deep sleep. When I have a difficult time falling asleep, I default to 432 Hz music which is purported to aid in healing deep sleep. Try these and see how they help you!

Sleep Stories for Kids (a personal favorite in our house)


In Conclusion

Hopefully you're able to take a little extra time in embracing rest and allowing your body to heal in significant measures this season. Sleep and rest are essential to bodily functions, emotional health, solidifying knowledge, and creating efficient solutions. If you give thanks for anything today, perhaps extend some gratitude to your Parasympathetic Nervous System and all the good it contributes to your wellbeing.





References:

Aura Health Team (2023, July 1). The Stress and Creative Benefits of the 432 Hz Frequency [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.aurahealth.io/blog/unlocking-the-benefits-of-the-432-hz-frequency#:~:text=This%20can%20lead%20to%20reduced,%2C%20muscle%20tension%2C%20and%20fatigue.

Aura Meditation Guide (2023, June 12). What Is Brown Noise? Exploring the Benefits and Uses of This Unique Sound [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.aurahealth.io/blog/what-is-brown-noise-exploring-the-benefits-and-uses-of-this-unique-sound#:~:text=Brown%20noise%20can%20be%20an,overall%20health%20and%20well%2Dbeing.

Cleveland Clinic (2022, June 15). Autonomic Nervous System [blog post]. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/23273-autonomic-nervous-system

Cherry, K. (2023, May 9). Overview of the Autonomic Nervous System? [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-autonomic-nervous-system-2794823

CrashCourse (2015, April 20). Parasympathetic Nervous System: Crash Course Anatomy & Physiology #15 [Youtube video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qqU-VjqjczE&t=70s

Dr Matt & Dr Mike (2020, February 18). Sympathetic versus Parasympathetic Nervous System | Nervous System [Youtube video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9S_EkxbZSA

HYNS Team (2023, October 12). 43 Techniques to Activate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System and Lower Stress [blog post]. Retrieved from https://healyournervoussystem.com/45-techniques-to-activate-your-parasympathetic-nervous-system-and-lower-stress/

Long, C. (2021, August 30). How the Parasympathetic Nervous System Can Lower Stress [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.hss.edu/article_parasympathetic-nervous-system.asp#:~:text=There%20are%20many%20ways%20to,your%20diaphragm%2C%20even%20nature%20walks.

TED (2019, June 3). Sleep is your superpower | Matt Walker [YouTube video]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/5MuIMqhT8DM?si=xRJeqClM5XyXbQ7j

TED (August 14, 2013) Why do we sleep? | Russell Foster [YouTube video]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/LWULB9Aoopc?si=UKP0EEDArTc5Qd8H

WIRED Events (2023, April 20). Life Time: The New Science of the Body Clock with Russell Foster | WIRED Health [YouTube video]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/B6Ewb0aJf_s?si=ih8ns0ynxaCP7DnW




Additional Sources:

ADDA Editorial Team (2023, June 5). What Is Brown Noise and Can It Help People With ADHD? [blog post]. Retrieved from https://add.org/brown-noise-adhd/#:~:text=Improved%20focus%20and%20productivity%3A%20This,its%20deeper%20frequency%20and%20sound.

Aura Meditation Guide (2023, June 12). What Is Brown Noise? Exploring the Benefits and Uses of This Unique Sound [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.aurahealth.io/blog/what-is-brown-noise-exploring-the-benefits-and-uses-of-this-unique-sound#:~:text=Brown%20noise%20can%20be%20an,overall%20health%20and%20well%2Dbeing.

Calamassi, D., & Pomponi, G. P. (2019). Music Tuned to 440 Hz Versus 432 Hz and the Health Effects: A Double-blind Cross-over Pilot Study. Explore (New York, N.Y.), 15(4), 283–290. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.explore.2019.04.001

Norman, J. (2020). Braindrops:™ An Approach Promoting Self-Regulation [academic article]. Retrieved from https://synergeticeducation.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Braindrops-Neuroscience-FINAL.pdf



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