Daily Mail


- Medicine · Science

SCI­EN­TIFIC terms de­coded. This week: Sym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem THE sym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem is one of two parts of a wider struc­ture called the au­to­nomic ner­vous sys­tem which con­trols many of our in­vol­un­tary bod­ily pro­cesses such as heart­beat and breath­ing. The other part is the parasym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem, and they work in con­junc­tion.

The sym­pa­thetic side is re­spon­si­ble for our ‘flight or fight’ re­ac­tions — for ex­am­ple, it in­creases heart and breath­ing rates, blood pres­sure and pupil di­am­e­ter at times of stress or ex­er­cise (the parasym­pa­thetic branch will ex­ert op­po­site ef­fects). It means we are more pre­pared in such sit­u­a­tions; our heart beats stronger and faster, our breath­ing is made more ef­fi­cient, and ar­eas which are not crit­i­cal at that mo­ment — such as the di­ges­tive sys­tem — are in­hib­ited so that more en­ergy can be spent else­where.

The term ‘sym­pa­thetic’ was first used by Dan­ish anatomist Jac­ques-Benigne Winslow in the 1700s, who coined the term in ref­er­ence to parts of the body ‘sub­ject to a com­mon ner­vous in­flu­ence’. The word sym­pa­thetic has ori­gins in the Greek word sym­pa­thes, mean­ing to ‘have a fel­low feel­ing’.

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