What Is Your Nervous System?

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on May 12, 2023
2 min read

Fibers called nerves carry important messages back and forth between your body and your brain. That network -- your nervous system -- has two parts:

  • Your brain and spinal cord make up your central nervous system.
  • The nerves in the rest of your body make up your peripheral nervous system.

Everything your body does is connected in some way to your nervous system. It tells your heart to beat. It tells your lungs to breathe. It controls the way you move, the words you say, and how you think and learn. It also controls your senses and memories.

The messages traveling in your nerves are sent through billions of nerve cells called neurons. The spaces between these cells are called synapses. The cells are linked to one another through chemicals called neurotransmitters that move across the synapses to the next neuron. Dopamine and serotonin are types of neurotransmitters.

This process continues until the message gets to the right place. Some messages move faster than 200 miles per hour.

This is also how messages get from your body back to your brain and spinal cord. For example, if you step on something sharp, the nerves in your foot send a message from neuron to neuron to your central nervous system that says, Hey, this hurts. Your brain and spinal cord respond with a message to your foot: Pull away now.

Your nervous system has lots of protection. Your brain is guarded by your skull, and your spinal cord is shielded by small bones in your spine (vertebrae) and thin coverings (membranes). They’re both cushioned by a clear fluid called cerebrospinal fluid.

Still, things can go wrong with your nervous system just like any other part of your body. When a disorder damages it, that affects the communication between your brain, your spinal cord, and your body. Examples of these disorders include:

  • Infections like meningitis, encephalitis, or polio
  • Physical problems like an injury, Bell’s palsy, or carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Conditions like Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or Alzheimer’s disease
  • Issues with your blood vessels, like strokes, transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), or subdural hematoma (when blood collects outside your brain, typically after a serious head injury)

Just like other parts of your body, your brain needs sleep for rest and repair, so a good regular sleep schedule is key. A healthy balanced diet that features foods high in omega-3 fatty acids is important, too. Those include fatty fish like salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, herring, and farmed trout.

Stress also can affect your nervous system, but you can do a few things to manage it:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Give yourself permission to take a break
  • Spend quality time with family and friends
  • Meditate or practice mindfulness with yoga or other activities
  • Limit alcohol
  • If you smoke, quit
  • Control your blood pressure and cholesterol