What is the Parasympathetic Nervous System?

Mar 18, 2024
stressed woman


In today's fast-paced world, stress and burnout have become all too common, affecting individuals of all ages and backgrounds. It's a theme I heard multiple times a day from multiple patients while working in primary care.

If you're a woman over 35 grappling with stress and burnout, you're certainly not alone. The demands of career, family, and personal responsibilities can take a toll on your physical and mental well-being. However, amidst the chaos, there's a powerful ally within your body that can help you find balance and relief – the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

In this comprehensive guide, we'll delve into the intricate workings of the parasympathetic nervous system, understanding its role in combating stress, and exploring practical strategies to activate and nurture it for optimal well-being.

Understanding the Function of the Parasympathetic Nervous System:

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) plays a crucial role in regulating involuntary bodily functions, including heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and more. It comprises two main branches – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). While the SNS is often associated with the body's "fight or flight" response, the PNS acts as its counterpart, promoting relaxation, rest, and restoration.

Sympathetic And Parasympathetic Nervous System. Sympathetic And Parasympathetic Nervous System. Difference. diagram with connected inner organs, brain and spinal cord. vector illustration autonomic nervous system stock illustrations

Key Functions of the Parasympathetic Nervous System:

  1. Rest and Digest: One of the primary functions of the PNS is to facilitate digestion and nutrient absorption by increasing blood flow to the digestive organs. When activated, it stimulates the release of digestive enzymes and promotes peristalsis, the rhythmic contraction of the gastrointestinal tract. Having bloating with meals? It could be that your eating at a stressful time - think lunch meeting 😒

  2. Heart Rate Regulation: Unlike the SNS, which accelerates heart rate during times of stress, the PNS works to decrease heart rate and promote a sense of calm and relaxation. This helps conserve energy and maintain cardiovascular health.

  3. Stress Reduction: Activation of the PNS triggers the release of neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, which counteracts the effects of stress hormones like cortisol. By dampening the body's stress response, the PNS helps restore equilibrium and promotes a sense of well-being.

  4. Immune System Support: Chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness. The PNS plays a vital role in modulating immune function, promoting anti-inflammatory responses, and enhancing overall immune surveillance.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System and Stress:

If you're experiencing chronic stress and burnout, the delicate balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems can become disrupted. Prolonged activation of the SNS, coupled with inadequate PNS activity, can lead to a range of health issues, including hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders, insomnia, and mood disturbances.

The Effects of Decreased Parasympathetic Activity:

When the parasympathetic nervous system is underactive or suppressed, it can have significant repercussions on both physical and mental health. Here are some common effects of decreased parasympathetic activity:

  1. Increased Stress Responsiveness: A diminished PNS response can lead to heightened sensitivity to stressors, making it more challenging to cope with everyday pressures. Without adequate parasympathetic tone, individuals may find themselves more prone to anxiety, irritability, and emotional dysregulation.

  2. Impaired Digestive Function: Since the PNS is responsible for promoting digestion and nutrient absorption, decreased activity in this system can manifest as gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, indigestion, constipation, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Chronic stress and reduced PNS activity can disrupt the balance of gut bacteria and contribute to gut-brain axis dysfunction.

  3. Sleep Disturbances: The parasympathetic nervous system plays a vital role in facilitating relaxation and sleep initiation. When PNS activity is compromised, individuals may experience difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or achieving restorative sleep patterns. Insomnia and sleep disturbances are common manifestations of impaired parasympathetic function.

  4. Cardiovascular Dysfunction: Inadequate parasympathetic tone can disrupt heart rate variability (HRV), which is a measure of the variation in time intervals between heartbeats. Reduced HRV is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including hypertension, heart rhythm abnormalities, and atherosclerosis. Restoring PNS activity through relaxation techniques can help improve HRV and promote cardiovascular health.

  5. Immune Dysregulation: The parasympathetic nervous system plays a crucial role in modulating immune function, promoting anti-inflammatory responses, and maintaining immune homeostasis. Decreased PNS activity can impair immune surveillance and increase susceptibility to infections, autoimmune disorders, and chronic inflammatory conditions.

  6. Emotional Imbalance: PNS dysfunction can contribute to mood disturbances such as depression, irritability, and emotional lability. Without the counterbalancing influence of the PNS, individuals may experience chronic sympathetic dominance, characterized by a constant state of arousal and hypervigilance.

How to Activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System:

Fortunately, there are various techniques and lifestyle modifications that can help stimulate the PNS and promote relaxation and well-being:

  1. Deep Breathing Exercises: Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is a powerful way to activate the PNS and induce a state of calm. Practice mindful breathing techniques such as belly breathing, box breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation to elicit the relaxation response. If you've been following along, you know my favorite is the 4-7-8 breath! Click HERE to get a video guide on how to do it. 

  2. Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment, which can help reduce stress and enhance PNS activity. Set aside time each day for meditation practice, focusing on your breath, bodily sensations, or a guided meditation script. Two great apps for this are headspace and insight-timer.

  3. Yoga and Tai Chi: Both yoga and tai chi combine gentle movements with breath awareness, promoting relaxation and PNS activation. Incorporate these mind-body practices into your routine to reduce stress, improve flexibility, and enhance overall well-being. Qi-gong is another great option.

  4. Nature Exposure: Spending time in nature has been shown to have a calming effect on the nervous system, reducing stress levels and promoting relaxation. Take regular walks in green spaces, go hiking, or simply sit outdoors and immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of nature.

  5. Social Connection: Cultivating meaningful connections with friends, family, and community can provide emotional support and buffer against the negative effects of stress. Make time for social activities, engage in heartfelt conversations, and seek support when needed.

  6. Healthy Lifestyle Habits: Prioritize a balanced diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and stress management techniques to support overall health and PNS function. Avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption, which can overstimulate the SNS and disrupt sleep patterns.


While navigating the complexities of modern life, prioritizing your well-being is paramount. By understanding the role of the parasympathetic nervous system and incorporating stress-reducing practices into your daily routine, you can cultivate resilience, find balance, and reclaim your sense of vitality and joy. Remember, small changes can yield significant results, so start today and embark on a journey toward greater health and happiness.

I'd love it if you would share this post with someone who could use this information! 

Want to make sure you're not missing out - make sure to joint the newsletter below! 

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.