According to Ayurveda, calming and soothing the nervous system is a requirement for the maintenance and balancing of one’s health. There are numerous time-tested strategies to calm and soothe the nervous system that I will discuss in this article.
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, breakdown 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. New research has found that the large intestine is the home of trillions of beneficial bacteria that make up the microbiome, which comprises about 90 percent of the cells in the human body. (1)
When under stress, whether it is 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 bi-directional gut-brain access. When we are under stress, the gut microbes perceive this 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 the digestion for nutritional replenishment, structural support and the rejuvenation of the body to pay back any exhaustive debt incurred from the emergency.
New science has confirmed that our neurotransmitters, which regulate how the nervous system reacts to stress and stabilizes moods, are produced and stored within the intestinal tract. In fact, 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is found inside the large intestine, and only five precent of that 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 delivers 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 rejuvenating 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 intestines, supporting the 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 Protocols to Calm & 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 the length of the telomeres in the body, which are linked to optimal health and longevity. These telomeres are the chromosomal caps; sort of like the 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. The first module in this course is called the One Minute Meditation, and is available for free.
Surya Namaskar or the Sun Salutation is a combination of 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 the flow of the cerebral spinal fluid, which both lubricates and washes the brain and central nervous system. (4) Aging is associated with a 50 percent reduction in production and flow of cerebrospinal fluid in otherwise healthy individuals. (4)
The 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, which is a profound way to support healthy lymphatic flow. (5)
3. Nose Breathing Exercise
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 a parasympathetic nervous system response can train the body to handle higher amounts of stress from a composed place. (6) Learn how to nose breathe while exercising.
4. Nature Therapy
According to Ayurveda, getting outside and being in nature increases ojas in the body. Ojas is the substance in the body that is believed to be responsible for vitality, immunity, and a radiant and glowing complexion. 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 miles per hour, 7 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, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or backpacking as sources of exercise—but they are also requirements for peace of mind.
5. Daily Massage
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.
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. Learn how to give yourself an Ayurvedic massage.
6. Seasonal Foods
New science has discovered that the 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. The winter months are 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 logical dietary strategy, and understanding the value of seasonal foods motivates us to reconnect to nature—a fundamental in Ayurveda. Warming, high-protein, and high-fat foods are the perfect antidote to the cold, dryness and nervous system over-stimulation that occurs during winter.
7. Adaptogenic Herbs
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 that ashwagandha supports the 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) Learn more about Ayurvedic herbs for the nervous system.
8: Eating Relaxed
According to Ayurveda, how, when and what you eat all play roles in supporting the nervous system and the ability to stay calm. (10) 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 your food. This is best without distractions such as TV, smartphones, reading or driving. Calming music or conversation is best.
9. Eating a Big Lunch
Some scientists are now suggesting 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 de-stress the body and allow the body to function in harmony with the circadian rhythms. (11)
10. Sleep—Early to Bed, Early to Rise.
As part of re-connecting ourselves to the natural circadian rhythms, getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night is key for the rejuvenation and detox of the nervous system—which happens while we sleep! New science is also suggesting 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.” The research may not be able to confirm the “wealthy and wise” benefits, 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 here, “WHEN You Sleep Improves Weight, Mood and Energy.”
I publish a free monthly eating guide with Seasonal Grocery Lists, superfoods and recipes for 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!
- Nutr Rev. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 Feb 1. PMCID: PMC3426293.
Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 Feb 1. PMCID: PMC2694720
- Ann N Y Acad Sci. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2011 Mar 15. PMCID: PMC3057175.
- Altern Ther Health Med. 2009 May–Jun; 15(3): 54–60.PMCID: PMC2842089
- J Physiol. 2016 Aug 1;594(15):4267-82. doi: 10.1113/JP271757. Epub 2016 Apr 9.
- Int J Neurosci. 1996 Apr;85(3-4):301-8.
- Altern Ther Health Med. 2012 Nov-Dec;18(6):11-8.
- Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. 2011; 8(5 Suppl): 208–213. Published online 2011 Jul 3. doi: 10.4314/ajtcam.v8i5S.9. PMCID: PMC3252722
- Indian J Psychol Med. 2012 Jul-Sep; 34(3): 255–262. doi: 10.4103/0253-7176.106022. PMCID: PMC3573577
- Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Apr; 97(4): 728–742. Published online 2013 Feb 27. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.045245. PMCID: PMC3607652
- Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013 Dec;21(12):2504-12. doi: 10.1002/oby.20460. Epub 2013 Jul 2.
- Sleep Breath. 2010 Feb;14(1):71-5. doi: 10.1007/s11325-009-0282-2. Epub 2009 Jul 15.
- Sleep. 2011 Oct 1; 34(10): 1299–1307. Published online 2011 Oct 1. doi: 10.5665/SLEEP.1266. PMCID: PMC317483