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The Nervous System 101

Though we cannot easily see all the components of the nervous system, we can feel its impact in everything we do. Every single movement we make—giving a hug, picking up a suitcase, breathing, digesting food and everything in between—is regulated by the nervous system. Each time we feel a sensation of pain, temperature change or texture, that’s due to the nervous system. Every thought we have throughout the day and every memory we’ve held onto are all thanks to the nervous system. Without the nervous system, we really couldn’t do anything, so it’s about time to give some attention to the system that keeps us being and doing.


Structure

The nervous system is an incredibly complex and highly specialized network of cells responsible for controlling all voluntary and involuntary actions in the body, as well as supporting communication among the many different parts of the body. This includes the brain, spinal cord, sensory organs (eyes, taste buds, olfactory) and all the nerves throughout the body.

The nervous system is divided into many subsystems. Structurally, the nervous system is divided into the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which encompasses the rest of the nervous tissue other than the brain and spinal cord.


Functional subsystems include the somatic nervous system (SNS), responsible for all voluntary movements, autonomic nervous system (ANS), responsible for involuntary movements, and the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is in the gastrointestinal tract.


Finally, the ANS is divided into two components: the sympathetic nervous system, which forms the “fight or flight” response to danger, stress, etc.; and the parasympathetic nervous system, which forms the “rest and digest” response when the body is resting, sleeping, and feeding.


Two types of cells are specific to the nervous system: neurons and neuroglia. Neurons, or nerve cells, transmit electrochemical signals throughout the body. There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain alone! Neuroglia, also known as glial cells, are small cells that surround the neurons to protect, nourish, and insulate it. Nerves are long bundles of neurons. Unlike other types of tissue in the body, once nerve cells are damaged, they cannot regenerate.

Function

The nervous system has three major functions: sensory, integration and motor. The sensory function of the nervous system involves gathering information from the sensory receptors (nerve endings and sensory organs) and transmitting the information to the CNS. Information is then integrated in the CNS. All the signals that come in at a given time are compared, used for decision-making, discarded, and/or committed to memory as necessary. Finally, once the CNS has processed all the sensory information and has made a decision, a signal is carried to the affected body part to release a hormone or move a muscle in order to respond to the stimuli appropriately.

How Alignment Affects the Nervous System

The body is designed with specific proportion, meaning that in each joint, there is an optimal alignment that allows for the proper amount of space between all parts and allows for ease and efficiency of movement. When in proper alignment, all parts of the body can do exactly what they were designed to do, no more, no less. Unfortunately, no one has perfect alignment. Many factors contribute to improper alignment, such as structural imperfections, our relationship to gravity, and most commonly, habitual use of postures where the weight is uneven distributed on the feet or sit bones. Unfortunately for the nervous system, improper alignment can be incredibly harmful. When the body is out of alignment, compression occurs in some joints. Since nerves are all over the body, compression of the joints may actually compress the nerves. Not only is this incredibly painful, but if the compression is too strong or lasts for too long, it can eventually damage the nerve. Since a damaged nerve cannot regenerate, the nervous system is now one nerve less powerful, and the communication pathway is compromised. Since the spinal cord (a key nerve) lives in the spine, imagine what compression of the spine might do! Focusing on improving alignment will help with basic aches and pains and will help you maintain a healthy nervous system as you age.

Other ways to help keep your nervous system healthy include eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy sleep schedule, and stimulating the nervous system in a variety of ways, such as playing an instrument, solving puzzles, reading, and dancing.

Common Ailments

Hundreds of different diseases and disorders can affect the nervous system. Some of the most common include multiple sclerosis (MS), Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, stroke, concussion, brain tumor, autism, sensory integration disorder, fibromyalgia, and infection.


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