A healthy nervous system is essential for overall well-being. Natural ways to maintain and support one’s nervous system include adequate hydration, a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals, regular exercise, and managing stress with mind-body techniques and good sleep habits.
What is the Nervous System?
The nervous system is a complex network of nerves and cells that transmit signals between different parts of the body. It controls and coordinates all bodily functions, including movement, sensation, and thought. The nervous system is divided into two main parts: the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, which includes all the nerves that connect the central nervous system to the rest of the body.
The central nervous system is the control center of the body. It receives information from the senses and sends instructions to the muscles and organs. The brain is the most critical part of the central nervous system. It is responsible for processing information from the senses, controlling movement, and regulating bodily functions such as breathing and heart rate. The spinal cord is the long, thin tube that runs from the brain down through the center of the back. It acts as a relay between the brain and the rest of the body.
The peripheral nervous system transmits information between the central nervous system and the rest of the body. It is made up of nerves that connect the brain and spinal cord to the muscles, organs, and other tissues. The peripheral nervous system divides further into two parts: the somatic nervous system, which controls voluntary movements such as walking and talking, and the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary functions such as heart rate and digestion.
Foods and Nutrients to Maintain a Healthy Nervous System
To maintain the proper functioning of cells and fibers that transmit signals between different parts of the body, consuming a variety of nutrients from foods and dietary supplements is essential. If you have a specific nervous system health condition or do not consume enough of these crucial nutrients, your physician may recommend dietary supplements to provide additional support.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function and development. Omega-3s are found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, as well as in flaxseeds, walnuts, and other nuts, seeds, and oils. Studies show that Omega-3 fatty acids support a healthy brain by reducing inflammation in the brain, which plays a role in healthy cognitive function (Read more on whether you are getting enough Omega-3s in your diet).
B vitamins are a group of water-soluble vitamins that are essential for nerve function. They include thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, biotin, folic acid, and cobalamin. Good sources of B vitamins include whole grains, meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, and leafy green vegetables. Your physician may prescribe B-vitamin supplementation, particularly B12 and methylated folate, which are essential for proper nerve function.
Antioxidants protect the body’s cells from damage caused by free radicals. Some of the best sources of antioxidants are fruits and vegetables, especially those that are brightly colored, like berries, citrus fruits, and leafy greens. The antioxidant vitamin C in foods and vitamins protects the nervous system from oxidative stress and damage. Other powerful anti-inflammatory antioxidants are in culinary spices, such as turmeric, ginger, oregano, garlic, cinnamon, and sage.
Magnesium is an essential mineral for the nervous system. Magnesium helps regulate the transmission of nerve impulses and has been shown to reduce anxiety and promote better sleep. It is available in supplement form or foods such as spinach, almonds, and avocados. There is strong data to suggest a role for magnesium in migraine and depression, and emerging data suggesting a protective effect of magnesium for chronic pain, anxiety, and stroke.
Mushrooms contain a key nervous system-supporting compound, ergothioneine, which acts as a powerful antioxidant in the body and helps to protect the nervous system from oxidative stress, which can cause damage to nerve cells and may lead to cognitive decline. Mushrooms also contain other compounds, such as beta-glucans and polysaccharides, that have been shown to have immune-boosting properties. These compounds help support the immune system, which can help protect the nervous system from damage and disease. Read more on mushrooms for mental health.
Herbal Medicine to Support a Healthy Nervous System
Naturopathic doctors have used herbs for decades to promote nervous system health. Some of the most effective herbs for this purpose include valerian root, passionflower, and chamomile. All are available in various forms, including capsules, teas, and tinctures. However, patients should take them under a physician’s supervision as they may contradict prescribed medications and react with other dietary supplements (learn more about how naturopathic physicians treat anxiety).
- Valerian root is a natural sedative that can help calm the nerves and promote relaxation. It has been used for centuries to reduce the risk of anxiety, insomnia, and other nervous system disorders.
- Passionflower is known for its calming effects on the nervous system. It can help reduce anxiousness, promote relaxation, and improve sleep quality.
- Chamomile is a gentle herb known for its calming and relaxing properties. It can help promote relaxation and improve sleep quality.
Adaptogens for Addressing Stress to the Nervous System
Adaptogens are a group of herbs that are known for their ability to help the body adapt to stress by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress. They include a long list of herbs, including Adaptogens known for the following benefits:
- Supporting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is responsible for regulating the body’s response to stress. By supporting the HPA axis, adaptogens can help to reduce the negative effects of stress on the body, including the nervous system.
- Reducing chronic inflammation, which supports healthy cognition and a nervous system.
- Adaptogens like holy basil, ashwagandha, and schisandra have been shown to have antioxidant properties, which can help to reduce oxidative stress. By minimizing oxidative stress, the body can lower the production of free radicals and reduce the damage to cells and fibers within the nervous system.
Movement and Mind-Body Techniques for Nervous System Health
Regular exercise to improve nervous system health and cognitive function is no less important than eating right. It’s not necessary to run a marathon; activities such as yoga, walking, and swimming are great options. Anytime you can integrate meditative breathing from yoga or meditation into your movement routines which improves nervous system function by improving blood flow to the brain. This increased blood flow gives the brain the necessary oxygen and nutrients to function properly.
Another way exercise supports the nervous system is by increasing the production of neurotrophic factors, which are proteins that help to promote the growth and survival of nerve cells. Exercise has been shown to increase the levels of these proteins, which can help to protect against neuronal damage and promote the growth of new neurons.
And, of course, after you’ve had a busy day eating right, exercising, and working, sleep can help reduce stress and anxiety. Sleep is when the brain regenerates, and the nervous system cannot replenish without enough sleep. Aim for 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. If you have trouble sleeping, read more from naturopathic physician Catherine Darley in this article and video.
Incorporating the right foods and nutrients into your daily diet, exercising, and sleeping can help keep your nerves functioning properly and reduce your risk of developing neurological disorders. If you are looking for a physician trained in nutrition, stress management, movement, and whole person health as it relates to nervous system health (or any other health concern), please go to INM’s Find an ND directory.
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