Many people I have spoken to over the last few months have problems with waking up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep again for quite sometime. With our increasingly stressful and fast moving lives, it is not surprising that we seem to have high levels of stress hormones kicking around our bodies, preventing us from getting a good nights sleep.

Most people have heard of the “fight or flight” response of the nervous system, the way in which the body reacts to stress or danger. This is also known as the Sympathetic Nervous System. Many people however have never heard of the “rest and digest” response. This system activates the more tranquil functions of the body; those that help maintain a healthy, long-term balance. This is known as the Parasympathetic Nervous System.

The sympathetic nervous system is faster-acting than the parasympathetic system. The hormones released activate muscles and glands, causing the body to speed up and become tense, as well as more alert. The parasympathetic system is responsible for controlling homeostasis, or the balance and maintenance of the body’s systems. It restores the body to a state of calm, and allows it to relax and repair.

It is much more beneficial to us to spend as little time as possible in the “fight or flight” response. Although it makes us alert and better able to respond to challenges ahead, it takes a huge toll on our bodies and can lead to adrenal fatigue over the long-term. Anything we can do to keep ourselves in the “rest and digest” mode as much as possible is worth the effort, since our future health may depend on it.

To activate your parasympathetic nervous system, you need to work out makes you feel relaxed. This could be exercise; walking with friends; being in the countryside; a massage; meditation or simply trying some deep breathing techniques. If I wake in the middle of the night, I spend a few minutes deep breathing down to my stomach. This will activate the parasympathetic system and allow me to fall back to sleep.

We are all under some level of chronic stress these days. By learning to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and reducing the effect of your sympathetic nervous system, you can reduce stress on your heart, immune system and digestive system. In turn, not only will you feel happier, you will get a better nights sleep and it will help you avoid future associated diseases and problems.