Rest and Digest

Last Updated: July 6, 2023

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Rest and digest is like pressing a reset button and giving ourselves permission to just breathe and be at peace. So, next time you feel stressed or overwhelmed, remember to take a moment to rest and digest—it's your body's way of saying, "Hey, let's take it easy and give ourselves some love!"

Rest and Digest Explained

Like the body’s response to stress regulated by the sympathetic nervous system, the body’s ability to rest and digest is equally important for survival. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for this.

The rest and digest process is essential for energy conservation, maintaining vital bodily functions, and promoting recovery. When working properly, the components of this division of the nervous system ensure the body is working in complete cohesion with ultimate energy generation and conservation.

Elements like excessive or chronic stress on the body, either from illness or emotional stress, can overwork the parasympathetic nervous system and switch the body into a constant state of stress. This, in the long term, can be harmful in many ways.

Although the parasympathetic manages bodily functions that are unconsciously working continuously, it is possible to encourage and promote rest through various intentional activities.

What Is Rest And Digest?

To give a more detailed explanation, it is essential to understand how the nervous system in the body operates when in a relaxed state.

The parasympathetic nervous system regulates mood, immune response, digestion, heart rate, and blood pressure. These are only a few processes that this branch of the nervous system regulates.

The parasympathetic nervous system is activated when the body finds itself in a safe, relaxed environment or state of mind. It slows down the heart and breathing rates, decreases blood pressure, produces salivation and digestive enzymes and helps with nutrient digestion.

An Introduction to the Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system is a network of nerves divided into two main branches; the sympathetic and parasympathetic. This article focuses on the parasympathetic, responsible for the entire rest and digest process.

Parasympathetic nervous system

The parasympathetic nervous system is known as the rest and digest mode. Either following stressful events or during periods of relaxation, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in.

This mode allows for relaxation and reducing the body’s energy to conserve energy and complete processes that may have been on hold during high-stress periods.

Many living conditions, life events and diseases can affect the parasympathetic nervous system. Chronic stress can negatively impact the parasympathetic nervous system by desensitizing it, causing the body to ignore and, in some ways, forget it.

Sympathetic nervous system

The sympathetic nervous system opposes the parasympathetic nervous system. Unlike the latter, the sympathetic system activates when the body experiences stress, producing the famous stress response.

When the body experiences stress, the sympathetic nervous system increases the heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and visual acuity. Although beneficial short term, having the sympathetic system activated too frequently or for too long can cause damage to the body.

This stresses the importance of entering rest and digest mode as often as possible.

Entering “rest and digest” mode

Research has shown that to enter rest and digest mode; the body must experience certain stimuli or situations that provide feelings of safety or relaxation.

Acts like breathwork, stretching or yoga, meditation, gentle exercise, and calming music can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and allow the body to enter rest and digest mode.

Once activated, the parasympathetic nervous system releases signals from various bodily glands. In turn, these glands produce various hormones that act as messengers. These messengers produce reactions responsible for functions such as digestion and blood flow.

The Role of the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is one of the twelve cranial nerves originating from the brain. Its main role is to carry information between the brain and internal organs and control the body’s response during rest.

It is a large nerve that has many branches as it communicates in multiple directions, essential to the parasympathetic nervous system functions and the rest mode.

Reducing Stress

Reducing stress is critical in maintaining a healthy parasympathetic nervous system and promoting rest and digestion. This can be done by stimulating the vagus nerve, calming the nervous system, and regulating stress hormones.

Vagal tone is used to describe the function of the vagus nerve. It can provide important physical, neurological, and emotional health information during rest mode.

According to a study done in 2010, researchers found that a positive feedback loop exists between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health.

Stimulation of the vagus nerve is possible and is a great way to increase vagal tone and, in turn, promote rest and digestion within the body. It can be done by cold exposure, deep breathing, laughing and socializing.

There are other ways to calm the nervous system than increasing vagal tone. With hundreds of ways to promote rest through the parasympathetic system, the best way to find the right one is through trial and error.

One can try activities such as:

All of these end up with the relaxation of the body and, in turn, the nervous system.

The stress response begins in the brain at the amygdala, which sends messages to glands to release certain hormones.

Under stress, overactivity of these glands, such as the adrenal glands, can be harmful, thus stressing the importance of managing these stress hormones.

Reducing the occurrence of stress hormone release, such as exercising, switching to a diet focused on lowering blood pressure, and avoiding stressful situations can help.


Breathwork and deep breathing are great ways to not only trick the body into a rest and digest mode but also, in general, promote a state of relaxation.

By practicing various breathing techniques, the vagus nerve is activated; this is a major part of the parasympathetic nervous system, and, therefore, the body begins to rest and recover.

Not only does it promote healthy and vital bodily functions, but it also helps decrease anxiety and boost the immune system.

It is essential to focus mindfully on breathing in and out while taking slow, deep breaths to perform this and obtain the most benefits from this practice.

Rest and Digest Yoga​​

Activating the parasympathetic nervous system can be easily achievable through yoga practices. The following or some yoga poses that can be utilized for this purpose.

  • The Heart Opener allows excess heat to move out of the body, balancing the pitta dosha (heat energy), promoting the relaxation response, and opening the heart and lungs.

  • The Restorative twist pose calms the nervous system, improves digestion, creates space in the spine and ribs, and frees up stagnation from the abdomen. It encourages blood flow to the organs and immune system support.

  • Legs up the wall pose helps with venous drainage, increased circulation, soothing swollen or cramped legs, and stretching of the hamstring and lower back muscles.

  • Supta Baddha Konasana, also called the reclined butterfly pose, opens the hips and knees. It can help stimulate the kidneys and heart, improve circulation, reduce stress, and regulate the nervous system.

  • The side-lying pose allows the knees to be bent and the top leg to be supported by a blanket. A blanket also supports the head, neutralizing the cervical spine. It can allow the nervous system to settle down and calm.

Diet and nutrition

Like any body part, the parasympathetic works best when properly fueled. A balanced diet and proper nutrition are essential to the optimal rest and digest mode function.

A diet composed of the proper proportions of protein, vitamins, and nutrients. All of these components play a vital role in the maintenance and prosperity of the entire nervous system.

It is also recommended to keep caffeine and sugar to a minimum. These are both stimulants for the nervous system and can induce a stress response in the body when consumed in large amounts.

By reducing stimulants, the body can enter rest and digest mode more frequently and easily.


Sleep is the best time for the body to rest and recover. Although the functions and process of sleep remain a medical mystery, the body is known to reconsider and repair itself best during sleep.

Sleeping a sufficient amount every night is the best way to ensure that the body, and the parasympathetic nervous system, in this case, are in good shape and able to perform adequately.

This translates to the body being able to enter rest and digest mode without encountering difficulties or resistance.

Social environment

The social environment also plays a great role in activating the parasympathetic nervous system. As mentioned, the sympathetic nervous system activates when the body is in a stressful or negative environment. This triggers the fight-or-flight response.

When in a positive environment, such as a social setting with friends and family, the parasympathetic nervous system can be activated, as the body does not perceive a threat.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I create an environment that promotes rest and digestion?

Creating an environment that promotes rest and digestion does not have to be fancy. It can be as simple as taking breaks or not eating quickly at one’s desk at work. Rest and digestion will work optimally as long as a relaxed and low-stress environment is maintained.

What can damage the parasympathetic nervous system?

Damage to the parasympathetic nervous system can happen in multiple ways. Autonomic nervous system disorders can damage the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and cause an imbalance.

Chronic stress due to life occurrences or systemic diseases can put the body into overdrive and suppress the parasympathetic nervous system effects.


Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS): What It Is & Function

Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): What It Is & Function

Enteric Nervous System (ENS) - Physiopedia

What Is Vagal Tone and How to Improve Yours

11 Restorative Yoga Poses to Help You Rest and Digest

Fight or Flight versus Rest and Digest

Rest and digest: The parasympathetic nervous system

43 Techniques to Activate Your Parasympathetic Nervous

Parasympathetic nervous system - Wikipedia

The contents of this article are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is always recommended to consult with a qualified healthcare provider before making any health-related changes or if you have any questions or concerns about your health. Anahana is not liable for any errors, omissions, or consequences that may occur from using the information provided.