I had a big miscommunication with a friend the other day that resulted in each of us standing alone in a parking lot, waiting for the other to show up.
Thanks to the power of cell phones, we corrected the misunderstanding quickly and had a lovely walk together in the end. But as I waited for her to arrive, I began to think about how important good communication is.
And because I’m always thinking about how things relate to our health, I couldn’t help comparing this mishap to what happens when our body systems aren’t communicating well.
When that happens, unlike the quick fix I found with my friend, it can take a long time to get things back on track. That’s why it’s so important to know how the systems communicate messages throughout our body, and what we can do to keep the communication consistently clear.
I’ve talked a lot about the endocrine systems and the importance of balanced hormones to good health. I’ve also spent some time discussing the nervous system, particularly in relation to the stress response and what happens when your nervous system is in overdrive.
Although these are two distinct systems in the body, when one faces dysfunction, they both suffer. That’s because there are elaborate connections between the two that keep your body functioning well as a whole. Both systems are vital to communication within the body.
Let’s explore how each impacts internal communication and how the two systems impact one another. Then I’ll give you some quick tips on keeping the messages flowing properly to maintain great health.
What is the nervous system?
Your nervous system is the network of neurons that allows signals to travel between the brain and the rest of the body. These neurons use electrical signals to convey their messages. There are up to 1 trillion neurons in these networks. That’s a lot of potential for a signal to get garbled somewhere along the way!
There are two parts to the nervous system: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Each plays an important role in the overall communication of messages throughout the body.
Central nervous system
The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord. These are the communications hub, vital to human life and functioning. If these become damaged, communication becomes far more difficult. That’s why your body has so many layers of protection around these vital areas, including bone, meninges (membranous tissue), and cerebrospinal fluid.
Every physical sensation and thought you have is processed by the CNS. Your body is full of receptors that gather up sensory information, delivering it to the central nervous system for interpretation. When the CNS interprets sensory information correctly, all is well. But sometimes, it operates more like bad translation software, mixing up the information it receives and sending out the wrong response.
Communication flows the other way as well; the central nervous system sends out messages to other parts of the body to control movement, actions and responses to stimuli.
Peripheral nervous system
The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is made up on nerves outside the central nervous system. This system controls a lot of vital functions in the body. There are two systems within the PNS: the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system.
The somatic nervous system, made up of sensory and motor neurons, carries sensory information. This system guides voluntary movement and action.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for all of those involuntary functions that keep you alive: heartbeat, respiration, digestion, and blood pressure. The ANS also dictates emotional responses like crying and perspiring.
The ANS is also broken down into two systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The first is what makes your body respond to a threat. Activation of this system creates the “fight or flight” response. When this happens, your body slows digestion, increases heart rate and breathing, your pupils dilate and you perspire.
The parasympathetic nervous system calms this response once the threat is gone, allowing it to resume normal activity. Many need more activation of the parasympathetic nervous and less of the sympathetic nervous system.
What is the endocrine system?
Your endocrine system is where hormones that carry crucial messages to regulate major body functions are secreted. These functions include growth and development, metabolism, reproduction, sexual function, tissue function, sleep and mood. Again, just imagine what miscommunication within this system could do with all those vital functions at stake.
Each gland in your endocrine system pumps specific hormones into your bloodstream that carry specific messages in order to create a specific response in other cells, tissues and organs.
If any one of those glands isn’t working properly, the hormone levels in your blood become imbalanced, which may then prompt the wrong response. This can lead to symptoms like fertility problems, fatigue, weak bones, weight gain and difficulty managing stress.
And here’s the worst part – one wrong message can send your whole system into a downward spiral, since each gland depends on the others to keep things working smoothly.
How they work together
When the nervous and endocrine systems are both healthy and in sync, they’re like best friends, communicating clearly and working well together. When something goes wrong, however, it can be like a neighborhood gossip has come between those friends, shutting down communication and sending things off course.
The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that keeps your body balanced internally, a state called homeostasis. The hypothalamus links the endocrine and nervous systems through its control of the pituitary gland which produces releasing and inhibiting hormones that have a direct effect on the production of other hormones in endocrine glands.
The hypothalamus receives a great deal of information from the nervous system, involving it in many functions of the autonomic nervous system. This includes the regulation of basic necessary functions such as sleep, hunger, thirst and libido, as well as activating emotional and stress responses.
When there’s a problem in the hypothalamus, communication breaks down, messages are skewed, and you may experience problems in both the endocrine and nervous systems. Left out of homeostasis for too long, your body suffers in multiple ways.
5 Ways to Support Healthy Nervous and Endocrine Systems
With two systems to consider, you may think it will be overwhelming to do everything you need to keep them healthy. But the truth is, the steps you take to support one will also support the other. So really, these are tips for keeping your whole body healthy.
Good nutrition promotes good health
You’ve probably heard me say before that food is the best medicine available. What we put in our bodies makes the most difference in how we will feel long term.
That’s why I always promote eating organic whole foods as often as possible. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables will help ensure that you get all of the vital nutrients and minerals your body needs to keep both systems functioning properly. Protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates are also important elements in a balanced diet.
To protect your nervous system, be sure you are eating foods rich in B vitamins, which help the nerves deliver impulses from the brain to the rest of your body.
Potassium and calcium are also crucial minerals that regulate these impulses. For potassium, eat plenty of bananas, oranges and pomegranate seeds. To get enough calcium, enjoy leafy greens, milk and eggs.
Here’s something that may surprise (and delight) you: dark chocolate can help keep your nervous system healthy too. That’s because it contains tryptophan, an amino acid that functions as a neurotransmitter sending signals from one nerve ending to another.
Organic food can help you eliminate some of the biggest endocrine disruptors that come from pesticides. If you can’t buy everything organic, at least look at the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen to learn which foods are heaviest in pesticides. Garlic can help keep the endocrine system working well by helping you maintain even blood sugar levels, reducing cholesterol.
Because it can be tough to get all of the nutrients your body needs from food, consider taking supplements to promote healthy nervous and endocrine systems. This is especially important if you notice slight warning signs that something is off.
A little supplementation before things go too awry can make a big difference. I recommend that all women take a high-quality multivitamin, along with essential fatty acid supplements.
Regular exercise balances both systems
Exercise is the best partner for good nutrition in maintaining overall health and wellness. Exercise helps reduce stress, boosts hormones that keep you feeling good, and keeps joints and muscles flexible and strong.
Yoga and stretching are particularly good for the nervous system because they allow you to slow down, focus on your breathing, and relax. This activates the area of the nervous system that regulates breathing and heart rate. When attention is given to slowing these down, cortisol levels are reduced, improving the overall health of your nervous system.
While you’re at it, don’t forget to exercise your brain, too! Writing actual letters, playing strategy games like chess, doing crossword puzzles, brain teasers or Sudoku puzzles can all help keep your mind sharp and healthy.
When considering endocrine function, remember not to overdo the exercise, especially if you already have imbalances to correct. Regular exercise can boost hormone levels, strengthen receptor sites, increase metabolic rate and blood flow, reduce stress, and help regulate blood sugar. So it IS important – but you have to find the right balance.
Reduced stress leads to increased balance
Stress isn’t always a bad thing, despite the negative connotations the word conjures up.
Healthy stress keeps you out of danger’s way. But when it’s chronic (and it is for almost everyone these days), serious problems can develop. Take time every day to do something to reduce the stress in your life and in your body. It doesn’t have to take long; even deep breathing for five minutes will help!
Try to build to a point where you have at least half an hour to do something that helps you relax completely and let go of your stress. Yoga, meditation, relaxing with a cup of tea, taking a bike ride or walking, dancing, playing an instrument, or writing in a journal are all good options – but there are plenty more.
The key is to find what makes you feel good, then make time for it each and every day.
Quality sleep promotes higher quality of life
Sleep is crucial to all of the systems in your body. It helps strengthen circuits in your nervous system, leading to improved memory and cognitive function.
Sleep is when your body repairs itself and regenerates healthy cellular function. To ensure that you are giving your body the rest it needs, establish (and stick to) a regular bedtime and routine – even on weekends.
Be sure your sleeping environment is cool, quiet, dark and comfortable. Turn off electronics two hours before you want to fall asleep and leave them outside the bedroom at night.
Reduce exposure to toxins – of any kind
The world we live in is full of things that can disrupt our endocrine and nervous systems.
From chemicals to toxic stress, constant exposure takes a big toll on the body. You can’t avoid everything but you can reduce what you expose yourself to.
For instance, you can pay close attention to what’s in your beauty and cleaning products, turn off the wifi when you’re not using it, use an air fryer instead of a microwave, and refuse to spend time with people who regularly raise your stress levels (even if they’re family).
You have a lot more power than you may realize about what you choose to let into your life. All of these toxins activate the stress response. When your body is always on high alert, you’ll end up with imbalanced hormones and a dysregulated nervous system.
Keeping your body healthy and strong isn’t as complicated as it may seem.
Paying close attention to a few important areas — sleep, nutrition, stress and toxins – helps maintain the flow of communication throughout your body. And when your endocrine and nervous systems can send clear, appropriate signals, your health will thrive!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD