When stress or anxiety strikes, it’s common to choose your favorite comfort food to soothe the overwhelm. But these impulsive choices can actually worsen your stress. So, even though a donut or plate of fries seems tempting after a fight with your co-worker or when someone cuts you off in traffic, you can learn to choose foods that support your nervous system, enhance your stress response, and help you feel your best.
Nervous System 101
What is the Nervous System?
Your nervous system is similar to how an electrical grid manages power in different regions. For example, the electrical wires or nerves transmit information or impulses between various control centers (your brain and spinal cord) to regulate all of your body functions. As a result, it allows you to experience your environment and plays a role in almost everything you do. However, it wouldn’t be as effective without the central and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Central vs Parasympathetic Nervous Systems
The nervous system is quite complex. It involves two main parts which are then broken down into smaller parts.
- The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord. It processes and interprets sensory information to serve cognitive functions, such as thinking, memory, emotions, and voluntary muscle movement, and the spinal cord serves as a pathway between the brain and the peripheral nervous system.
- The peripheral nervous system includes all the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord and is divided into the somatic and autonomic nervous systems.
- The somatic nervous system controls voluntary movements and transmits sensory information from the body to the CNS.
- The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates involuntary functions like heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. Yet the nervous system lesson isn’t over just yet. The ANS further contains the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions, which work against one another to maintain balance in the body. For example, the sympathetic triggers your fight-flight-or-freeze response to protect you, while your parasympathetic system returns your body to homeostasis after the stressful event.
Tips to Activate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System
Discovering how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system during stressful moments is key to emotional regulation and improving your well-being. Follow a few of these tips to help you respond vs. react.
- Cold plunge. That’s right. Breathwork followed by a cold shower can create equanimity in your daily routine.
- Immerse yourself in nature. A walk through the forest or even barefoot in your backyard anchors you in the here and now.
- Connect to your inner child. What creatively brings you joy? Painting, journaling, drawing? Whatever it is, tune into that voice when you feel overwhelmed.
- Cuddle. Whether it’s your loved one or your fur baby, welcome the snuggles and benefits of the love hormone oxytocin.
- Meditation or meditation alternatives. Connecting to your mind and body builds emotional resilience and improves your stress response.
16 Best and Worst Foods for Your Nervous System
10 Best Foods for Your Nervous System
1. Leafy greens
Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, and Swiss chard are rich in vitamins and minerals like folate, vitamin C, and magnesium that support nerve function and optimal cognitive performance. So, drink your greens or eat a high-energy salad to reap their superfood benefits.
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and cranberries are packed with antioxidants that protect the brain and nervous system from oxidative stress and free radicals. Try spinach and quinoa with toasted cashews and cranberries to provide your body with a powerful boost of benefits.
3. Nuts and seeds
Everyone is nuts for nuts lately, and there’s a reason why. They contain several nutrients that support nerve function beyond fatty acids and protein. For example, vitamin E shields cells from damage, and magnesium improves mood and reduces anxiety. Therefore, enjoy them as a snack or add them to your breakfast to give your body a brain-enhancing treat.
4. Whole grains
The nervous system needs carbohydrates to function properly, and whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and oats provide the necessary energy to achieve the goal. Additionally, they’re high in fiber, which improves blood sugar control, maintains nerve function, and boosts gut health: a winning combo for our brain.
5. Dark chocolate
Thanks to the cacao in dark chocolate, you can eat this guiltless pleasure daily to lower cortisol levels and other stress hormones to balance your nervous system. But choose a chocolate bar with a higher percentage of cacao for the best benefits.
Thankfully, you can eat avocado toast for breakfast every day. They’re high in monounsaturated fats that protect nerve cells and provide vitamins like E and B6 for healthy nerve transmission.
7. Eat the rainbow
Bananas, pomegranates, beets, and celery provide various benefits for the nervous system.
- Bananas help produce serotonin and melatonin to lower stress levels
- Pomegranates contain antioxidants and compounds that protect the brain from neurogenerative diseases
- Beets contain betaine, which protects nerve cells from damage, reduces inflammation, and decreases stress
- Drink celery juice or eat this veggie as a snack because it delivers active compounds that combat oxidative stress, inflammation, and age-related memory loss
6 Worst Foods for Your Nervous System
1. Refined sugar
Despite its delicious taste, sugar is one of the worst foods for your nervous system. For example, it causes inflammation and oxidative stress and can lead to impaired learning and memory. Scary! Therefore, protect your brain and learn how to curb sugar cravings.
Coffee in moderation is okay, but too much can trigger the central nervous system and can lead to anxiety, insomnia, and even panic attacks. Therefore, try these energizing alternatives to boost your morning without the risk.
3. Excessive alcohol
A glass of wine can provide cognitive benefits, but like everything in life, consume it in balance. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which means it lowers your serotonin, can exacerbate existing depression, and weakens communication between the brain and the body. Even more, long-term drinking can damage the nerves and lead to problems with memory and learning.
4. Foods high in trans fat
While it may seem like your favorite go-to fried food or processed food offers a comforting feeling, the high percentage of trans fat can actually increase inflammation, damage the nervous system, and even increase your risk of heart disease.
5. Refined grains
White rice, white flour, and white bread are refined grains that lack essential nutrients and fiber. Their empty calories can lead to blood sugar fluctuations that contribute to weight gain and can affect the brain simultaneously. Therefore, prioritize whole grains to safeguard your central nervous system and well-being.
6. Processed foods
Even though they’re convenient, it’s always better to avoid processed foods to protect your health. Indeed, packed with artificial additives, preservatives, and chemicals, processed foods can potentially trigger the nervous system, resulting in heightened anxiety, sleep disturbances, and other concerns.
Remember, indulging in your cravings is perfectly fine, but it’s equally vital to understand the impact of different foods for your nervous system. This knowledge empowers you to make choices that contribute to your overall well-being, leading to a happier, less stressful life.
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