The human body is complex. Imagine a web of an intricate and interconnected parts, and at the heart of this intricate web is the nervous system. This complex network of nerves, cells, and neurotransmitters is responsible for transmitting information throughout our bodies and plays a major role in maintaining our overall health and well-being. Many factors affect our nervous system, including nutrition and mental health.
Understanding the Nervous System
The Nervous System is made up of different parts:
Central Nervous System (CNS): Serves as the command center of the body, consisting of two main components:
Brain: The brain is the center of all our thoughts, emotions, and actions. It is divided into several regions, each with distinct functions, such as for decision-making and processing visual information.
Spinal Cord: Acts as a communication highway between the brain and the rest of the body. It is responsible for transmitting signals that control movement, reflexes, and sensory information.
Peripheral Nervous System (PNS): Extends beyond the central nervous system, connecting it to the limbs and organs. It has two primary divisions:
Somatic Nervous System: This part of the PNS controls voluntary muscle movements, allowing us to consciously move our limbs and perform a variety of actions.
Autonomic Nervous System: The ANS controls involuntary bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion, and breathing. It has two branches:
-Sympathetic Nervous System: Activated in response to stress or emergencies, it prepares the body for the "fight or flight" response by increasing heart rate, dilating pupils, and redirecting blood flow to vital organs.
-Parasympathetic Nervous System: Often known as the "rest and digest" system, it promotes relaxation and recovery, slowing the heart rate, and facilitating digestion.
Enteric Nervous System (ENS):
The enteric nervous system is a part of the nervous system, located in the GI tract. It controls digestion, gut motility, and other digestive functions independently of the CNS but can also communicate with it.
The nervous system has an incredible ability to adapt and reorganize itself throughout life. This means that the nervous system can form new connections, repair damaged pathways, and adapt to changing circumstances. This adaptability is a lifelong process and can be influenced by daily practices and experiences. Daily practices such as mindful movement, fueling adequately, prioritizing sleep, learning stress management, all positively impact the nervous system's health. These practices support overall well-being and can enhance neural plasticity, cognitive function, and emotional resilience.
Eating Disorders and Their Impact on the Nervous System
Malnutrition: When one doesn’t consume sufficient nutrients to sustain their bodies, malnourishment occurs. Chronic malnutrition can result in a lack of essential vitamins and minerals needed for proper nervous system function. This deficiency can lead to a range of physical and neurological symptoms such as:
Tingling, numbness, weakness, and pain in the extremities
Difficulty concentrating, memory deficits, and impaired problem-solving abilities
Contribute to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, as the nervous system relies on certain nutrients for the production of neurotransmitters that regulate mood.
Nutritional deficiencies can affect the optic nerve, leading to vision problems
Weakness in the muscles responsible for swallowing and speaking
Electrolyte Imbalance: ED can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance from malnutrition or purging. Electrolytes are crucial for maintaining nerve function, and disturbances in their balance can have serious consequences for the nervous system, including the ones listed above but also:
Irregular Heartbeat: Potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium are essential for maintaining the electrical activity of the heart. Imbalances in these electrolytes can lead to arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms), which need to be cared for right away.
Headaches and Migraines: Electrolyte imbalances, especially fluctuations in sodium levels, can trigger headaches and migraines in some individuals.
Difficultly breathing: Severe imbalances can affect the nerves that control breathing, potentially leading to respiratory distress.
Hormonal Imbalance: Eating disorders can lead to hormonal imbalances, such as decreased levels of sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone), insulin, and thyroid hormones. These imbalances can have a profound impact on the nervous system because hormones play a crucial role in regulating mood, energy levels, and overall functioning.
Neurotransmitter Changes: Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that transmit signals between nerve cells. Eating disorders can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. This can result in mood disturbances, including depression and anxiety, which are closely tied to the functioning of the nervous system.
Autonomic Nervous System Dysfunction: The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate.
Increased Stress Response: Eating disorders can put significant stress on the body, and chronic stress can lead to changes in the nervous system. Elevated stress hormones, such as cortisol, can negatively impact various bodily functions and contribute to mood disorders.
How does Trauma affect the Nervous System?
Trauma can have a profound impact on the nervous system, leading to both short-term and long-term changes in how the nervous system functions. Trauma can affect both the CNS and PNS in various ways:
Fight or Flight Response: When a person experiences trauma, their body often activates the "fight or flight" response, which is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This response involves the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, increasing heart rate, and diverting blood flow to muscles to prepare for a physical threat. This response can be helpful in immediate danger but can become dysregulated in cases of chronic or severe trauma, leading to symptoms like anxiety and hypervigilance.
Changes in Brain Structure and Function: Trauma can lead to structural and functional changes in the brain. Areas of the brain involved in emotion regulation, such as the amygdala, can become hyperactive, while the prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functions like decision-making and impulse control, may become less active. These changes can contribute to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and difficulty in managing emotions.
Dissociation: In response to overwhelming trauma, some individuals may experience dissociation, a defense mechanism where they disconnect from their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. This can lead to a sense of being disconnected from reality and is a way for the brain to cope with extreme stress.
Chronic Pain: Trauma can increase the risk of chronic pain conditions. This is partly due to the sensitization of the nervous system, where the threshold for experiencing pain is lowered.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Trauma can lead to the development of PTSD, a mental health disorder characterized by intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety. These symptoms are often associated with changes in how the brain processes and responds to traumatic memories.
Neurobiological Changes: Trauma can lead to long-lasting changes in the neurobiology of the brain and the body. This can include alterations in neurotransmitter levels, hormonal imbalances, and changes in the sensitivity of the stress response system. These changes can contribute to mood disorders, sleep disturbances, and physical health problems.
Altered Nervous System Regulation: Trauma can disrupt the balance between the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which regulate arousal and relaxation. Dysregulation of these systems can lead to chronic stress, sleep disturbances, and physical health problems.
It's important to note that the impact of trauma can vary from person to person, and not everyone who experiences trauma will develop these symptoms or conditions. Trauma at times is the beginning of an Eating Disorder, due to the use of it as a coping mechanism. Having an ED is also considered a trauma. The information below on hope and healing is for trauma and ED recovery. As ED and Trauma survivors, understanding the nervous system can bring light to why one many feel a certain way in certain times and bring clarity for how to respond.
Recovery and Healing
These effects from the ED and trauma on the nervous system may seem daunting but there is hope for healing! Choosing the steps toward recovery is the the bravest decision you can make. It takes a team of support and personal motivation. It is possible, and choosing to bring healing to the nervous system is an essential part of this process.
While you can't completely "heal" the nervous system in the sense of restoring it to a pristine, untouched state, you can promote its health, resilience, and adaptive capacity through daily practices and lifestyle choices in ED recovery, such as:
Nutritional Rehabilitation: A crucial step in healing the nervous system is addressing malnutrition. This often involves working with a registered dietitian or nutritionist to develop a balanced and nutritious meal plan that meets the individual's needs. This will look different for everyone, but consistency of nutrients and energy over a long period of time is needed. Including all of the macronutrients and vitamins make a major impact!
Therapy/Counseling: Therapy plays a vital role in addressing the emotional and psychological aspects of eating disorders. It helps you develop healthier coping mechanisms and a more positive self-image, as well as get to the root and find healing for emotions and trauma.
Medication/Supplements: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to calm the nervous system. Some helpful supplements are Magnesium, Gaba, Chamomile Tea, Melatonin for sleep, multivitamin.
Stress Management Techniques: such as mediation, gratitude practices, journaling, animals, finding a hobby, being with loved ones, listening to music, etc.
Support Network: Building a strong support team is crucial for recovery. That is what we are all about here at EmpoweredRX!!
Mindful Movement Practices: such as yoga, deep breathing exercises, and weightlifting can play a significant role in healing the nervous system during ED recovery and trauma healing.
Let's dig into this a little more since it is our passion here at EmpoweredRX!
Yoga: encourages being fully present in the moment without judgment, helps individuals reconnect with their bodies, cultivating a deeper awareness of physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts.
Deep Breathing Exercises: activate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the "rest and digest" system. This helps counterbalance the overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system ("fight or flight") that can be heightened during EDs. Deep breathing triggers a relaxation response, promoting overall calmness and reducing anxiety and tension.
Weightlifting: Eating disorders often result in muscle loss, weakness, and bone density issues. When approached mindfully and under the guidance of a qualified professional, returning to strength exercises can help rebuild muscle strength and improve bone health.
This physical strength supports the nervous system's functioning, encourages body awareness, focuses on breath work, and improves mental health. We are trauma-informed coaches, who take a unique perspective in helping individuals return to sport.
Healing your Gut: is a crucial component of ED recovery, and it can have an impact on the healing process of the nervous system. Due to the gut-brain connection by the Enteric Nervous System, disruptions in gut health can contribute to both physical and psychological symptoms.
Here's how healing the gut can help in the recovery of the nervous system during ED recovery:
Nutrient Absorption: A healthy gut is essential for the proper absorption of nutrients from the food we eat. Nutrient deficiencies from the ED can negatively affect nerve function and overall neurological health. By healing the gut and improving nutrient absorption through adequate food intake and stress management, individuals can provide their nervous system with the necessary building blocks for recovery.
Microbiome Balance: The gut is home to trillions of microorganisms, the gut microbiome. This microbiome plays a big role in maintaining gut health and influencing brain function. Disruptions in the microbiome, which can occur due to many factors can lead to GI issues and impact mental health. Restoring a healthy balance of gut bacteria can positively affect mood and cognitive function, supporting emotional well-being during ED recovery.
Inflammation Reduction: Chronic inflammation in the gut can trigger systemic inflammation throughout the body, including the brain. Inflammation has been linked to various neurological disorders and mental health conditions. By addressing gut inflammation gut-healing protocols, individuals can reduce the inflammatory burden on the nervous system, potentially leading to improved mental and emotional stability. Digestive enzymes, Pre/Probiotics, and supplements for lowering stress are common protocols.
Regulation of the Enteric Nervous System: A dysfunctional ENS can lead to GI problems, which are common in individuals with EDs. Healing the gut can help restore the proper functioning of the ENS, improving digestion and overall physical comfort.
Reduction of Stress and Anxiety: Stress, trauma, and anxiety can disrupt the gut-brain axis and exacerbate GI symptoms. Gut issues can also trigger stress and anxiety. By healing the gut, individuals can reduce these stressors, leading to a more balanced and calmer nervous system.
Support for Mental Health: Healthy gut microbiome can positively influence mental health by producing neurotransmitters like serotonin and regulating inflammation. A well-balanced gut can help stabilize mood and emotions, making it an essential component of overall mental health during ED recovery.
Eating disorders take a profound toll on the nervous system, affecting both physical and mental health. Recovery is possible and understanding the importance of caring for our nervous system is a crucial aspect of this journey. Viewing health holistically by addressing physical, mental, and emotional well-being is key to promoting nervous system health. A balanced and integrated approach to health is more likely to lead to a resilient nervous system.