Do you have any idea how important the limbic system is for your overall body function?
Or, better said, do you really know what the limbic system does and how it affects you?
Chances are, unless you’re a neuroscientist or psychologist, you’ve heard of the limbic system but aren’t quite sure what role it plays.
That’s what this post is all about!
Below, we’ll take a 360-degree look at what the limbic system is, what practical purposes it serves in your body’s function, what happens when your limbic system begins to malfunction, and what you can do to care for it.
By the end of this page, you’ll have a much better idea of how important this particular system is and how it influences you all day, every day.
The term “limbic system” refers to a number of individual structures located in your brain, specifically in the midbrain, diencephalon, and cerebrum.
These structures include :
Once, it was called the rhinencephalon (which literally means “smell brain”) because of the role it plays in our sense of smell. However, over the years, research has proven that the limbic system is actually far more complex and complicated than that.
To understand the limbic system’s functions (of which there are many), you need to understand the brain structures that are part of the limbic system.
The three main structures are :
The hippocampus. These seahorse-shaped structures in each hemisphere of the brain are believed to play a significant role in the creation and storage of memories. Episodic memories are created in the hippocampus, then stored away in the cerebral cortex.
The hippocampus also plays a role in spatial memory and spatial navigation, and is critical for both learning and the understanding and regulation of emotions.
It’s also in the hippocampus that the body turns adult stem cells into new nerve cells.
The hypothalamus. The hypothalamus plays a role in a lot of different internal processes: homeostasis (maintaining a “steady” state in your body), autonomic functions (including sexual activity, hunger, body temperature, thirst, heart rate, and blood pressure), and regulating your body’s natural response to stress.
One important role the hypothalamus plays in your body is to act as an interface between your endocrine system (where hormones are produced) and the nervous system. This is critical for the regulation of both your sexual behavior and the motivation behind it.
The amygdala. Located next to the hippocampus, the almond-shaped amygdala are responsible for regulating your emotional responses: anxiety, fear, anger, and happiness.
Like the hippocampus, it also plays a role in creating new memories. It actually works with the hippocampus to attach emotions to memories, which makes them more readily accessible once they are stored in the cerebral cortex.
The amygdala is also directly linked to the “fight or flight” response, and is responsible for “fear learning” (memories that help us to avoid dangers because of the fear response they elicit).
While the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus are the three primary structures in the limbic system, there are two others that are worth talking about:
The basal ganglia. Located at the base of the forebrain, on top of the midbrain, the basal ganglia regulate our voluntary movements (including our eye movements) and play a role in both posture and balance. The limbic region of the basal ganglia play a role in emotional and cognitive behaviors, particularly the “rewards and reinforcements” methods of learning.
The cingulate gyrus. Located in the cingulate cortex, the cingulate gyrus plays a role in our body’s regulation of pain, emotions, and behavior, as well as our autonomic motor function. It also responds to fear to help us avoid “negative stimuli”, avoiding unpleasant experiences.
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Our limbic system is directly involved in a lot of functions, including:
As one expert explains , “It combines higher mental functions and primitive emotion into a single system often referred to as the emotional nervous system. It is not only responsible for our emotional lives but also our higher mental functions, such as learning and formation of memories.”
The limbic system is also home to the “pleasure center” of the brain. It’s the reason we experience a “high” from certain substances, and is directly linked to sexual arousal and our enjoyment of sex. This means it also plays a role in our survival as a species—it’s the limbic system that causes us to reproduce, feed and care for our young, and respond to stressful and fearful situations with the “fight or flight” response.
If you suffer brain damage (due to injuries, stroke, etc.) and your limbic system is damaged, it can lead to a wide range of problems.
Damage to the amygdala can lead to higher risk-taking behavior because of affected fear processing. You might not recognize the danger of certain situations because your amygdala is no longer able to call on the emotional memories of fear response in that situation.
Damage to the hippocampus can lead to memory problems, as well as an inability to learn new things and form new memories.
Damage to the hypothalamus can impair your body’s ability to produce certain hormones, due to its link to your endocrine system. This may affect both your emotions and your mood.
Limbic system damage has been linked to a number of symptoms , including:
Abnormal biological rhythms
Impairment of the olfactory sense
Agitation, aggression, anxiety, and uncontrolled emotions
High sex drive, low sex drive, and other abnormal sexual behavior
The limbic system also plays a role in a number of cognitive disorders, including:
Autism spectrum conditions
Parkinson’s, Huntingdon’s, and other movement disorders
Suffice it to say, if the limbic system is damaged or begins to malfunction, the results for your body can be both severe and noticeable!
The good news is that you can take small, simple steps to improve your limbic system function every single day. Try:
Exercising. Exercising can be just as effective as anti-depressants  for regulating your emotions and improving limbic system function. Even just 20 to 30 minutes per day can make a huge difference!
Taking supplements. Supplements that contain Omega-3 fatty acids can improve brain health, decrease inflammation, regulate mood, and so much more. Iodine is also great for brain activity, as are phosphorus, B vitamins, and antioxidants.
Reduce and regulate stress. Stress activates your limbic system and keeps your amygdala switched onto the “fight or flight” mode all day long. Reducing stress will go a long way toward improve not only your happiness overall, but also make you more efficient at forming and storing new memories.
Sleep more. Make an effort to sleep a solid 7 to 8 hours per night. Good-quality sleep will improve cognitive function and encourage the limbic system to function at optimum capacity.
Your limbic system is so important for a lot of critical body functions—from memory formation and storage to your fear response to sexual arousal to your behavior. Now that you understand all that it does for you, it’s important to take active measures to keep it healthy and functioning properly.
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