When it comes to health and wellness, it has to start with us. And when our thoughts and behaviors begin to shift, either in a good or bad way, that is due to how we regulate our nervous systems.
In today’s tone of self-induced pressure and growing negative self-talk, it’s so important to regulate your nervous system properly to reclaim your happy, joyous and grateful self.
Much like the mantra “if we don’t take care of ourselves first, we’ll never be able to take care of others”, if we’re unkind to ourselves, then how will we ever be capable of being kind to others?
Keep reading to find out how to regulate your nervous system using nutrition, fitness, and other self-care techniques.
None of the information presented in this post is meant to provide or replace medical advice. Consult with a qualified mental health practitioner.
This post contains affiliate links*. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.
What is the Nervous System?
The nervous system (NS) is a sophisticated network of neurons that allows us to interact with and within our environments through speech, language, thinking, learning, memory, feelings, and sensations. (1)
There are two separate sub-systems of the nervous system that are responsible for different bodily functions known as the central (CNS) and peripheral nervous systems (PNS). (1,2)
The central nervous system is comprised of the brain and spinal cord and is responsible for “receiving, processing, and responding to sensory information”, while the peripheral nervous system is comprised of every other neural network within the body. (2)
The nervous system is adaptable to situations we’ve never encountered before through the plasticity of NS cells, and then the neural stem cells create new connections based on those adaptations which could include anything from euphoria to injury.
Without a nervous system, we’d never be able to adapt to any situation we’re thrown into, good or bad. (1)
And now more than ever, people are starting to recognize changes in their own nervous system regulation through changed behaviors and unresolved past trauma.
Nervous System Dysregulation vs. Burnout
With the increase in awareness of mental health and wellness, you’ve probably heard about the nervous system’s role in regulating thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions, and reactions.
Oftentimes, we’re completely unaware that our nervous systems have fallen out of regulation. The signs and symptoms slowly build on top of one another until you hit a breaking point.
And with a dysregulated nervous system, stress management can be even harder to achieve.
Sometimes mistaken for “burnout”, nervous system dysregulation is often the result of burnout, which is defined as “prolonged exposure to work-related stress”. (3)
Work is one of the most widely reported factors contributing to stress. And while in the moment it may feel impossible, but work is luckily something within our control.
And while work is only one contributing factor to stress, there are several other factors both within and out of our control.
This might include past traumas, familial upbringing, loss of a loved one or pet, grief, finances (often related to job or career satisfaction), partnerships, relationships, friendships, mental or emotional wellness, nutrition, and physical fitness.
Signs of Nervous System Dysregulation
So how exactly do you know if your nervous system is out of regulation? It may manifest itself as (4):
- Atypical outbursts of anger or lashing out in an emotionally reactive manner
- Frequent bouts of crying
- Difficulty concentrating or racing thoughts
- Increased heart rate
- Labored or uneven breathing
- Purposeful isolation
- Feeling disconnected from yourself & those around you
- Brain fog (i.e. inability to explain a basic task or function, lack of focus, memory loss)
- Loss of appetite, weight loss and/or stomach pangs
- Negative outer and inner thoughts/speech
- Excessive sweating
- Lack of basic hygiene
- Lethargy coupled with insomnia
- Feeling anxious, overwhelmed, uneasy and as if you’re a bother to those around you
- Increased procrastination/decreased productivity
- Overthinking and/or overexplaining
How to Regulate Your Nervous System
Hopefully, by now you no longer feel alone on this healing journey.
Nervous system dysregulation can make us feel insane but know that this is far from the truth. It’s merely a chemical and physical reaction to the stressors around us.
But it won’t just go away on its own. There’s work to be done in order to re-regulate your nervous system back to its optimal state.
Thankfully, there are quite a few ways to do so, as long as you can commit to yourself and your own healing without any harmful self-judgment along the way. Imperfect progress is still progress!
One of my favorite experts to follow in the wellness space is Dr. Nicole LaPera, owner + founder of The Holistic Psychologist + The SelfHealers Soundboard Podcast, which I highly recommend checking out.
I love her philosophies because she takes the traditional workings of classical psychology and employs a holistic approach with an emphasis on healing and self-kindness through self-reflection, patience, and awareness.
She highlights this by giving us permission to be kinder to ourselves on our healing journeys in times when we may feel like our progress is regressing, which she says is a sign that you’re growing and healing.
When we regress in our healing progress, that is our body’s way of going back to a state of comfort.
Our bodies prefer familiarity, and it’s much easier for the body to go back to its old ways when attempting to make drastic mind shifts.
Therefore, she notes to celebrate those moments when waves of sadness or anger return because that’s your body resisting the changes you’re actively making.
I learned to regulate my own nervous system using her teachings, and I’m excited to share some of them with you here, along with some of my own, unique techniques as a registered sports dietitian nutritionist and holistic cannabis practitioner.
Nutrition + Gut Health
Touted as the “second brain”, our gut health is crucial to our wellness, and one controllable way to regulate your nervous system.
Not only can harmful gut bacteria cause digestion issues, but they can also lead to irritability, bloating, and overall discomfort.
Additionally, without proper nutrition, it’s very possible to exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and depression which are leading causes for nervous system dysregulation.
Fat is a key source for the brain. In fact, the ketogenic diet was originally developed in the 1920s to treat young children with epilepsy to help control and prevent episodic seizures.
So strive for a balanced mix of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats such as salmon, avocados, walnuts, and eggs.
And of course, don’t forget about those dark, green leafy vegetables packed with vitamins and minerals that act as coenzymes to regulate metabolic and neurological processes.
The water-soluble B vitamins play a critical role in both the CNS and PNS through “cellular energetic processes, antioxidative and neuroprotective effects, and both myelin and neurotransmitter synthesis”. (5)
B vitamin deficiencies can lead to irritability, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and possibly psychosis. (6)
Therefore, increasing your B vitamin consumption, specifically vitamins B1 (thiamin), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folate), and B12 (cobalamin), is one way to repair your nervous system, synthesize neurotransmitters, and improve brain health.
B1 (thiamin) breaks down carbohydrates for fuel to the cells of the body and brain.
B6 (pyridoxine) is critical for the creation of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) which allows us to feel a sense of calm, peace, and safety.
B9 (folate) regulates homocysteine levels in the body, which can cause inflammation and damage to the blood vessels and can lead to anxiety, depression, and psychiatric disorders.
This is also another reason why folate is heavily encouraged in pregnant and postpartum women. Not just for the health of your growing baby, but to help stave off postpartum depression.
But good news! Even if you lack this vitamin during pregnancy, you can make up for it later by using CBD in your postpartum recovery. More below.
And B12 (cobalamin) is necessary for nervous system maintenance by acting as a coenzyme with deficiency leading to damaged myelin sheaths, which support and protect the nerves and brain. (6)
B vitamins are water-soluble and found in a variety of foods, such as:
- Beef, chicken, turkey + pork
- Dark, green leafy vegetables
- Fortified bread + cereals
- Milk + eggs
- Mussels, clams + oysters
- Organ meats
- Salmon + trout
- Sunflower seeds
If you’re vegan, vegetarian, or heavily B vitamin deficient, you may need to consider a B-complex vitamin supplement since many B vitamin sources are of animal origin.
Strive for ~1 mg B1, ~1.3 mg B6, ~400 mcg (micrograms not milligrams) B9, and ~2.4 mcg B12 daily.
Pregnant women or those looking to become pregnant should strive for 400-1000 mcg of folate for optimal fetal spinal cord development.
Consult your primary care physician before starting any supplement regimen
Vitamin D has been heavily researched for its anti-depressive abilities.
Unfortunately, vitamin D is a bit tougher to come by dietarily as food sources are limited, and one of our best sources of vitamin D comes from sunlight.
And during the winter months when days are shorter and you’re less likely to go outside, many people experience what’s known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a somewhat fitting acronym.
Therefore, a vitamin D supplement may be beneficial in addition to dietary sources (which also happen to be excellent B-vitamin and healthy fat sources) like:
- Egg yolks
- Fatty fish
- Fortified bread and cereals
- Organ meats
- Red meat
Strive for at least ~15mcg or 600 IU per day. If depression symptoms are very heavy, you might be able to start with more and then taper off once your symptoms start to subside.
However, be careful not to overdo it with vitamin D (no more than 100 mcg or 4000 IU) as it is a fat-soluble vitamin that is stored in large amounts in the body and toxicity can lead to high cholesterol (even in the absence of dietary cholesterol), and in extreme cases, death.
Consult your primary care physician before starting any supplement regimen.
Magnesium is often overlooked as a preventive and treatment method for nervous system dysregulation.
It’s an essential mineral involved in nerve transmission and neuromuscular passage, and it protects against excessive cellular action that can lead to neural cell death a.k.a excitotoxicity. (7)
Some magnesium-rich foods include:
- Dark chocolate
- Dark, green leafy vegetables
- Fortified cereals
- Low-fat dairy
- Mineral water
- Nuts + seeds
- Whole grains
Men should strive for ~400 mg per day, and women should strive for ~320 mg per day.
Sometimes when you’re feeling “stuck” mentally, the best way to combat that is through movement. And that movement can be as intense as you want it to be.
Whether that’s something gentler like yoga or walking to a HIIT workout or max deadlift day, physical activity activates the pleasure centers in our brains as another means to regulate the nervous system.
In this article written by health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., she states that:
“Scientists have long speculated that endorphins are behind the high, but research shows the high is linked to another class of brain chemicals: endocannabinoids (the same chemicals mimicked by cannabis)—what neuroscientists describe as “don’t worry, be happy” chemicals.”.Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.
In addition, exercise can boost your confidence as you build upon your own skills (that’s why tracking PRs is a good thing, not a vanity thing), give you a greater sense of joy, and provide you with the bravery to try new things!
Whether you’re a novice or a pro, you should be able to find beautiful brain benefits from activities such as:
- Strength training
- Sprinting (short bursts of activity can provide quite a euphoric effect)
- Walking/jogging/running or really any form of cardio that you prefer (I love the stepmill but absolutely hate running)
- Yoga and stretching/foam rolling
And if you’re new to fitness, start low, and go slow. The last thing you want to do is injure yourself by trying to get after it before you’re physically and mentally capable of doing so.
None of the information presented is meant to provide or replace medical advice. Consult your primary care physician before starting any fitness or exercise regimen.
So what are some other ways to regulate your nervous system?
The short answer…anything that brings YOU joy! Whether that’s solitude with a good book and hot beverage, pampering yourself with facial or skin treatments, or hanging out with people who are good for your mental health and soul.
Laughter can be contagious, so socializing can be an excellent form of self-care if that’s what brings you peace. However, don’t hang around with energy vampires just for the sake of socialization.
Sometimes it’s very healthy and critical to learn how to be comfortable being by yourself. Literally and figuratively unplugging is another great way to reset your nervous system.
Be kind to your eyes too. Opt for non-prescription blue-light blocking lenses and avoid electronics 1-2 hours before bed. This should also make it easier to fall asleep.
This may sound like voodoo magic to some but you need to manifest your nervous system back into alignment through positive affirmations and daily meditation.
I’ve grown to love 2 different apps (I know, I know, I literally just told you to unplug): I Am + Balance.
I Am is a positive affirmation app that provides you with hourly positive and uplifting affirmations as widgets that pop up on your phone based on the frequency schedule that you set.
I literally just received one as I was typing this sentence!
Meditation + Breathwork
And then Balance is a daily meditation app utilizing breathwork that provides guided meditations and breathwork therapy in various ongoing categories including:
- Morning Brew
- Midday Reset
- Immersive Dream Scenes
And then there are “singles” for you to tap into whenever that unexpected need to reset occurs:
- Breaking Habits + Breathe
- Commute, Concentrate, Couples + Creativity
- Eating + Energize
- Gratitude + Grief
- Holiday Stress
- Pain, Positivity + Procrastination
- Quick Refocus
- Sick Day + SOS
The guided versions in the shorter durations (3 minutes) are perfect for the wandering mind, which is something that is constantly encouraged to allow and then just refocus on the activity.
Like any muscle, you need to exercise your brain to understand these new activities. So you need to practice your mediations daily in order to create this healthy habit and to be able to increase your session duration.
Balance is offering all of the features listed above free for 1 year or you can pay whatever you want. I chose to pay $5 for accountability. Regardless of what you choose to pay, you’ll get it all.
Cold Exposure Therapy
This is another technique encouraged by Dr. Nicole LaPera as well as many psychology professionals and athletes use as an instant way to reset and regulate your nervous system.
It’s also a great way to build the habit of self-discipline. This is by far one of the most challenging practices to get into, but if you can commit to it, the results truly are remarkable.
Most will suggest starting with a 30-second cold shower daily, and then working your way up. It could take well over a year before you’re ready for longer than 30 seconds, and that’s a-okay. Any progress is better than no progress.
For those more experienced, you can try submerging in cold water or ice baths like the Sci Savage. Athletes do this very often not only for muscle recovery but for mental recovery. No better way to get in tune with your body than when you’re trying to regulate body temperature.
Holistic Healing, Here We Come!
Now that you’ve got a few different techniques under your belt to help you regulate your nervous system, take the time to journal what does and doesn’t work. Not every technique will work for everyone nor will they necessarily work each time you try them.
Be kind to yourself as you start to heal because it will come and go in waves. Some days you’ll wake up ready to conquer the world, and others you’ll want to isolate yourself from the world.
Please know that this is a very normal part of the healing process and it will be an ongoing journey. Much like how we can bring our nervous systems back into alignment, a small trigger can bring us right out of it.
When this happens, take a long, deep breath and start back at the beginning using some of the techniques mentioned here. Even if that’s all you do all day. Just one deep breath can instantly relieve stress or sadness.
I’m confident that you can get back to the happiest version of yourself! I’m here to help you every step of the way because that’s all I want for YOU!
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