When most people think of a chiropractor, it’s all about the spine. Finding bones, or more specifically, joints, that aren’t moving, and making them move. Some chiropractors will also address the soft tissue, muscles/tendons/ligaments, to ensure they are functioning properly as well. The last component to be addressed is neurology - to ensure the nervous system is functioning and all of our movements are coordinated and well orchestrated. We like to call this neuromuscular re-education - practicing healthy, safe, and efficient functional movement patterns.
Today’s blog will be focused on the nervous system and its different components and how we can ensure we are functioning at our best.
It’s time for a quick anatomy review! The nervous system is broken down into two main categories - the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (everything else). The peripheral nervous system is further broken down into the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The somatic nervous system is responsible for conscious control of skeletal muscle (how we move deliberately), while the autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating all of our unconscious physiological processes such as heart rate and digestion.
The autonomic nervous system is further broken down into two subdivisions - the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. These two systems work in harmony with one another to ensure that we are well adapted to the situations around us. If we are being chased by a tiger, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into overdrive - blood is sent away from organs and to skeletal muscles, heart rate increases, breathing increases, and a whole host of other changes take place to help us either run or fight for our lives. On the flip side, if we kick our feet up after a hearty meal, the parasympathetic nervous system helps us to begin digesting that meal and helps us to relax by slowing our breathing and lowering our heart rate.
The autonomic nervous system is intimately tied to our health. Despite the sympathetic and parasympathetic doing nearly opposite functions, they are interconnected and require constant calibration to maintain balance between the two - this is homeostasis.
If we rarely leave the couch and exert ourselves, the body can become overly dependent on the parasympathetic nervous system. This can lead to feelings of depression and overall fatigue and malaise. Furthermore, it can also actually cause the sympathetic nervous system to have to work extra hard when we do need it - similar to trying to accelerate your car while also pressing on the brakes - the sympathetic nervous system has to overcome the parasympathetic in order to attain its goal.
On the flip side, if we spend too much time in the sympathetic nervous system, we can experience stress and anxiety, higher blood pressure, constipation, and suppression of the immune system and the body's ability to heal.
A good example of this is when we immediately leave the gym without a cool down period. When we put our body through that stress of a workout, in a sympathetic dominant situation, we want to make sure that we are able to bring those levels down and begin parasympathetic activation so that we are able to relax, resume digestion, and have the body begin to heal and grow as soon as possible.
Essentially, just like anything else in life, it’s all about balance. Not only do we want to vary the physical positions of our bodies with standing, sitting, walking, and exercising, we also want to vary the states of our bodies between exertion and stress to relaxation and meditation to maintain homeostasis and well-being.