How Does Ayurveda Treat the Nervous System?
According to Ayurveda, soothing the nervous system is a requirement for maintenance and balancing of one’s health. There are numerous time-tested strategies to calm the nervous system.
Stress of all kinds, whether it is mental, emotional, physical, or even spiritual can have a negative impact on one’s health.
When the nervous system is overwhelmed or under excess stress, the body is designed to adapt and compensate for this stress—but only for short periods of time. Excessive stress, which seems to be the new normal in today’s culture, can easily overwhelm, break down, and prematurely age the body.
According to Ayurveda, the nervous system is governed by vata, which is made up of air and ether. As both air and ether are light, dry, quick, and moving, they parallel the functions of the nervous system. Too much cold, too much movement, or too much stress will aggravate vata and strain the nervous system. The seat of vata is in the large intestine.
Don’t know your Ayurvedic mind-body type? Take our quiz!
The Importance of the Microbiome
New research has found that the large intestine is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria that make up the microbiome, which comprises about 90% of the cells in the human body.1
When under stress, whether mental, emotional, or physical, the microbes in the intestinal tract feel and respond to this stress, sending emergency alarm messages to the central nervous system and brain via a bidirectional gut-brain access.
When we are under stress, the gut microbes perceive threat and send emergency messages to the brain, which then sends emergency messages to every cell of the body. In an evolutionary sense, these emergencies were typically short-lived, triggering a fight-or-flight response to flee from a bear or climb up a tree to save one’s life.
Once the life-threatening emergency is over, the body moves into a restoring chemistry—activating digestion for nutritional replenishment, structural support, and rejuvenation of the body to pay back any exhaustive debt incurred from the emergency.
New science has confirmed that neurotransmitters, which regulate how the nervous system reacts to stress and stabilizes moods, are produced and stored within the intestinal tract. In fact, 95% of the body’s serotonin is found inside the large intestine, and only 5% is found in the brain at any given time.2
Understanding the mechanisms of stress has allowed Ayurveda to design logical and effective ways to soothe and calm the nervous system. Many of these ancient strategies are incredibly simple, amazingly effective, and now supported by science.
For example, meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises or even a hike in the woods can be perceived as a calming trigger by the intestinal microbiology, which will deliver a message of peace and calm to the brain, central nervous system, and, ultimately, every cell of the body.
In addition to engaging in these rejuvenative practices to calm the nervous system, supporting the health of the intestinal tract and its microbiology are proven practices in Ayurveda.
Studies suggest that strong digestion will deliver nutrients to the small and large intestine, supporting proliferation of healthy, beneficial microbes that are in charge of immunity, neurotransmitter manufacturing, and direct messaging to the brain regarding the state of emergency or lack thereof.
10 Simple Ayurvedic Protocols to Soothe the Nervous System
Meditation has been shown in numerous studies to rebuild, support, and strengthen the nervous system. Research has shown that meditation can increase length of telomeres, linked to optimal health and longevity. These telomeres are chromosomal caps, sort of like plastic caps on the ends of shoelaces.3
If you are unfamiliar with meditation, have trouble meditating on a regular basis, or don’t feel like you are getting benefits from your meditation practice, please watch some of my free videos and check out my meditation eCourse, the Transformational Awareness Technique (TAT): Six Meditations to Emotional Freedom.
Surya Namaskar or the Sun Salutation is deep nasal breathing in conjunction with a series of flexion and extension yoga postures that support the body’s flexibility and structural strength.
This combination has been found to support flow of cerebral spinal fluid, which lubricates and washes the brain and central nervous system.4 Aging is associated with a 50% reduction in production and flow of cerebrospinal fluid in otherwise healthy individuals.4
We RecommendThe Little-Known Benefits of the Sun Salutation
Cerebrospinal fluid washes the brain and central nervous system of over three pounds of toxic particulates every year. These brain toxins are drained into newly discovered brain and central nervous system lymphatics, called the glymphatic system.
Our next strategy for calming and balancing nervous system is exercise, a profound way to support healthy lymphatic flow.5
In my first book, Body, Mind, and Sport, we conducted research comparing mouth breathing to nose breathing during exercise. We found that when people breathe through their mouth in a very shallow, upper-chest fashion, the fight-or-flight nervous system is activated. When people breathe through their nose, the calming, restorative, digestion-boosting parasympathetic nervous system is activated.
Learning how to exercise while breathing deeply through your nose to activate parasympathetic nervous system response can train the body to handle higher amounts of stress from a composed place.6
In Western science, it is thought that ojas may be a combination of certain neurotransmitters, hormones (such as oxytocin), and strains of highly functional microbes that support ojas-related functions.
It is hard to ignore the peace and calm that exists in the natural world. Living in the rat race going 90 mph, seven days a week, working 40-60 hours every week, with stress mounting at home and at work is the antithesis of peace and calm.
Many people use nature, a hike in the woods, running, camping, skiing, snowshoeing, or backpacking as sources of exercise—but they are also requirements for peace of mind.
Studies show that when you give yourself a massage with attention; give someone else a massage; or hug, touch, or care for another in a loving way, the longevity- and health-promoting hormone oxytocin is released.7
Ayurveda suggests giving yourself a daily oil massage, which can be done either before or during a shower. The oil is traditionally blended with herbs as a natural food supply for the skin microbiome, or the microbes that live on your skin.
We Recommend5 Reasons for Self-Massage (Abhyanga)
There are also millions of nerve endings on your skin. Whenever something touches your skin, you feel it. Putting oil on your skin will enhance that sensory experience, creating a neurological and global calm in the body. This is a fascinating and incredibly nourishing technique to calm and soothe the nervous system.
New science has discovered that microbes in the soil change from one season to the next. These microbes are attracted to certain plants, which grow in each of the seasons. Winter is when warmer, heavier, high-protein, and high-fat foods are harvested. These heavier foods are naturally balancing and supportive for the central nervous system.
Eating seasonal foods is a very logical dietary strategy, and understanding the value of seasonal foods motivates us to reconnect to nature—a fundamental component of Ayurveda. Warming, high-protein, and high-fat foods are the perfect antidote to the cold, dryness, and nervous system overstimulation that occur during winter.
I publish a free monthly eating guide with Seasonal Grocery Lists, superfoods, and recipes each month of the year. It is called the 3-Season Diet Challenge. Please make sure you are receiving these monthly emails and get reconnected to eating with the seasons. Sign up now!
There are specific plants that have unique properties to bring balance to the nervous system and support nervous system calm. These are called adaptogens. Perhaps the most powerful nervous system adaptogen is an Ayurvedic herb called ashwagandha (Withania somnifera).
Studies suggest ashwagandha supports rejuvenation of the nervous system, offering stable energy levels and increasing the body’s natural ability to calm and soothe itself during times of stress.8,9
Eating in a relaxed manner activates the calming and soothing parasympathetic nervous system, while eating on the run or under stress activates the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system.
Make it a point to plan ahead for meals so that you have enough time to relax, dine, and enjoy the process of eating. This is best without distractions, such as TV, smartphones, reading, or driving. Calming music or conversation is best.
Eating A Big Lunch
Some scientists now suggest that circadian (essentially lifestyle) medicine may revolutionize medicine as we know it. Ayurveda teaches that living in sync with the natural cycles of nature is Medicine 101.
Eating a light breakfast, a big lunch, and a light dinner is a strategy that has been used for thousands of years around the globe. Today’s science is showing that eating this way will destress the body and allow it to function in harmony with circadian rhythms.11
Sleep: Early To Bed, Early To Rise
As part of re-connecting to natural circadian rhythms, getting 7-8 hours of sleep each night is key for the rejuvenation and detox of the nervous system—which happens while we sleep! New science also suggests that it matters when we get to sleep.
Benjamin Franklin coined the phrase, “Early to bed, early to rise makes you healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Available research may not be able to confirm the “wealthy and wise” part, but there is more and more evidence that numerous health markers are supported by getting to bed early and getting up early.12,13
Learn more in my article WHEN You Sleep Improves Weight, Mood + Energy.