The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are two parts of the autonomic nervous system that keep us in balance and help power our sex lives.
Sexuality is a multifaceted interplay of the body and the mind. While it’s no secret that everything from hormones to happiness can affect our arousal, the vital function of the nervous system is often overlooked.
Understanding the Autonomic Nervous System The body is equipped with a special branch of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system, which is vital for the health and well-being of the human body as it maintains a state of balance. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two separate systems: the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system mediates sexual arousal, reaction to emergencies, and vigilance by increasing your heart rate, boosting your blood pressure, and speeding up your breathing. It’s responsible for the classic “fight-or-flight” response, which is mediated by two main chemical messengers, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine.
The parasympathetic nervous system, in contrast, primarily counters the sympathetic one by mediating the body’s calming and relaxing functions. Eat a big meal, take a nap, meditate, and the parasympathetic is kicking in, slowing down your heart rate, breathing, and so on.
How the Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous Systems Work (or Don’t Work) Together The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems usually function in opposition to one another, creating a balance within the human body. For example, when the heart receives neural stimulation from the parasympathetic nervous system, the heart slows down. On the flip side, when the heart receives neural stimulation from the neurons of the sympathetic nervous system, the heart will speed up.
Problems occur when the autonomic nervous system is out of balance. For example, overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to such problems as anxiety, hypertension, and digestive disturbances. Overstimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system can result in low blood pressure and fatigue..
How Sexual Function and Dysfunction Are Tied to the Autonomic Nervous System Like the rest of the body’s functions, for both women and men, sexual response is affected by both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, and proper sexual function requires an impressive amount of choreography between these two branches of the autonomic nervous system. During arousal, blood flow to the pelvis and genitals increases when the blood vessels relax, and this results in an erection for men and increased blood to the prostate. In women, it creates lubrication and engorgement of the clitoris and other spongy tissue.
When they work in conjunction, these two systems work great, yet mental and emotional factors that are involved in our sexual responses send other signals to our brains. For example, during times of stress, the male becomes too anxious to establish enough parasympathetic input to the penis to get an erection in the first place. The result is stress-induced impotence.
In another scenario, a man can manage to get an erection but then becomes anxious about something, and things rapidly shift from calm, vegetative parasympathetic to adrenaline-surge sympathetic. Things have gone too fast, and he suffers from either loss of erection or premature ejaculation (or both).
Women can experience painful intercourse, lack of desire, and a number of other side effects from an imbalance of the two systems. While it’s difficult in the heat of the moment to think about the science behind your sexual response, it’s always important to remember that there are a number of factors affecting your sexuality.
Source: Dr. Laura Berman