When it comes to health issues the autonomic nervous system (ANS) rules. If the ANS were to remain balanced it would be almost impossible to get sick. If that is the case, why isn’t more emphasis put on testing for one’s ANS status and then utilizing therapies to bring it into homeostasis? Perhaps because in a pharmaceutically oriented symptom based health care system as exists in the U.S and elsewhere, it simply has no place. To ignore it however, is to miss maybe the most important diagnostic picture we could currently obtain from a patient. Correcting this imbalance is what allows the body to heal itself as it is designed to do and is also true prevention against future dis-eases. Autonomic balance explains why people react differently to diet, supplements, and even exposure to pathogens and toxins.
First, let’s define the ANS and explore a basic explanation of how it functions. From there, I’ll concentrate on factors that influence the ANS, how to test for imbalances in a functional medicine paradigm, and therapies to bring it into balance.
Defining the ANS
The ANS is the part of the nervous system that regulates metabolic processes beyond conscious control. It does so automatically. Digestion, circulation of blood, secretion of hormones, and the rate of metabolism are all examples of the ANS at work. The ANS in the brain is located in the medulla oblongata at the lower brainstem. The major functions here are cardiac regulation, vasomotor activity, respiration, and some reflex actions like coughing, sneezing, and swallowing. Just above the brain stem is the hypothalamus which receives ANS input and acts as the conductor for automatic functions.
The ANS is primarily two sub systems. One part is the parasympathetic nervous system and the other is the sympathetic nervous system. These two systems work independently in some functions and interdependently in others. They usually have opposite actions. If one excites, the other inhibits. The sympathetic system is more of a quick acting system whereas the parasympathetic system is slower. The location of the sympathetic system is from the first thoracic vertebra to the second and third lumbar vertebra. The parasympathetic system is located in the brainstem consisting of four cranial nerves, and the sacrum consisting of three sacral nerves.
There are sensory and motor components to the ANS. Sensory neurons keep track of the sugar and oxygen in the blood, arterial pressure, and gut and stomach contents. Taste and smell, although they are conscious functions, are controlled by sensory neurons. The motor component of the ANS is part of sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric functions. The sympathetic components (ganglia) reside close to the spinal cord. The parasympathetic components are located close to organs. The enteric lies inside the digestive tube and can operate independently of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. This why it has been called “the second brain.” An excellent book by that name came out a few years ago that does a great job describing the anatomy and functioning of the enteric system.
Functions of the ANS
The divisions of the ANS are seen by many as antagonistic to each other. What the sympathetic division does the parasympathetic does the opposite. They are in fact complementary because they both have the same goal which is to keep the body in homeostasis. It is rare however, for one’s state of balance to be perfect, just as an airplane is never exactly on course. The pilot is always adjusting to keep the plane on course and so is the body. A few of the sympathetic systems responses include constriction of sphincters, shunting blood away from the intestinal tract, inhibiting digestion and peristalsis, increasing heart rate, dilating bronchioles of the lungs, and increasing blood flow to muscles. These are all part of the flight or fight response. The parasympathetic system is calming, enhances digestion and is generally trying to restore balance.
What goes wrong that can affect people’s health? The biggest problem is functions get stuck in one division of the ANS at the expense of the other. For example, someone may be operating primarily from their sympathetic system and they are not being balanced by the parasympathetic system. The opposite could also be true. When this happens it throws off a myriad of functions within the body and sets the stage for illness at some point in the future. Most treatments focus on effects of this imbalance, but that is only treating symptoms of something much bigger. Until the ANS is balanced there will always be symptoms to treat. Here’s an important point; you can never treat enough symptoms to fix the cause!
If someone’s sympathetic nervous system is chronically hyperactive they can become prone to certain ailments. A few of them are gastroesophageal reflux, colitis, insomnia, insulin dependent diabetes, high blood pressure, and in severe cases congestive hear failure, strokes, and certain psychiatric problems. If they were to get cancer it would most likely be of the tumor type of the breast, lung, or prostate, ovary, and pancreas. Their immune systems tend to be underactive. This person could also have musculoskeletal pain, particularly in the low back, but it could be at any joint. If the adrenal glands (stress glands) are exhausted due to sympathetic overload ligaments weaken affecting the integrity of joints. A simple functional test to demonstrate this is to challenge any joint and test its integrity to oppose the challenge. That can be achieved by doing a light tug on the joint and immediately after testing its strength by having the person resist pressure. Normal physiology would dictate that when a joint is challenged by tugging on it, it would get stronger to resist the stress and prevent injury. When the ligaments are weakened due to adrenal exhaustion the opposite happens. The same result will happen with any joint. This is why more injuries occur when the individual is stressed. The cause of the stress could be anything. Emotional stress, dietary stress and physical stress are all common and they all count. A muscle correlation to the adrenals is the sartorius muscle which connects at the pelvis and the medial knee. If it neurologically weakens the sacro-iliac joint on the affected side will go posterior and medial knee stability will be compromised. If that is the case all it takes is a twisting or rotation of the joint and it could be injured. Even in a contact sport like football, most knee injuries are not contact induced, but rather the wrong movement creating the injury. In other words, when the body is in a stress response it is an accident looking for a place to happen.
The chronic parasympathetic person becomes susceptible to osteoarthritis, angina, anxieties and panic attacks, asthma, heart attacks, depression, severe allergies, skin conditions, and cardiac arrhythmias. If this person got cancer it would be of the non solid type like leukemia. Their immune systems tend to be overactive. Since parasympathetic people can be calcium and protein deficient, they can also experience musculoskeletal discomfort. When they get to the point of severe back pain they will usually display bilateral sacro-iliac weakness which also weakens the gluteus maximus muscles. These are major anti-gravity lifting muscles. When weak, the person will lean way forward when sitting and then push themselves up. In a grocery store they are usually leaning over their carts to take the pressure off their backs.
How does one know if their imbalance is toward the sympathetic or parasympathetic sides? Knowing the duties of each, the symptoms one is presenting with is the first clue. There also some simple challenge tests that can reveal one’s ANS status. For example, the color red stimulates the sympathetic system. If one looks through a red film and it weakens their nervous system as exhibited by muscle testing, chances are good they are on sympathetic overload. Conversely, the color blue stimulates the parasympathetic system. If weakness occurs while looking through a blue film, they are dominant on the parasympathetic side. Another simple challenge test is to have the person take a deep breath in and hold it and monitor for reflexive changes, which would display as a postural shift, or again a muscle test could be done. Once this imbalance is revealed, treatments become more obvious and can be tailored that would inhibit the dominate side and excite the weaker side. There are degrees of severity of imbalances. Questionnaires could also be utilized. Years ago Dr. William Kelley, who did much of the pioneering work on ANS imbalances, developed extensive questionnaires. He identified ten different states of imbalance.
Diet and the ANS
The same diet is not for everyone. What determines why one person may get miraculous results with a particular diet and another person’s health would deteriorate following exactly the same diet? The answer is in the state of the ANS. That is what determines what foods are best digested, and what foods best balance the autonomic state of the person. For example, a sympathetic dominant type is the person who tends to have slow digestion and is on the acidic side. They do better with more plant foods that are easy to digest, and should go easy on meats, particularly fatty red meats. Rich foods should also be avoided. Conversely, the parasympathetic person would do well with more meat in the diet. Their digestive systems are also more efficient. They tend to be more on the alkaline side. Working to balance the ANS individualizes the treatment protocol. Eating with conscious awareness to balance the ANS is the goal. Eating deficient processed foods cannot bring about balance because of the stress they bring to the digestive system and particularly the pancreas. Processed foods also do not contain the nutrients the body needs to thrive. Consuming refined sugar products and commercial wheat foods that spike one’s insulin levels can only produce imbalance in the ANS. High fructose corn syrup is the main source of calories to the average American. Besides being produced from GMO corn, this “food” is a shocker to the ANS. Along with the physical ramifications of consuming these items, there are proven connections to diet and behavior and the state of the ANS and behavior.
Nutrients and the ANS
Just as one size does not fit all with diet the same holds true with nutrients. Like foods, nutrients can be either stimulatory or inhibitory to the ANS. For sympathetic dominant individuals it is logical that it wouldn’t be the best therapy to recommend nutrients that would further enhance that imbalance. Nutrients that would tone down the sympathetic system for example, and stimulate the parasympathetic system would be most beneficial. Again, the work of Dr. Kelley is of importance here. He researched the impact various nutrients had on the ANS. This information is invaluable when attempting to achieve balance. For example, a classic sympathetic dominant person would do well to take Vitamins D, C, B1, B2, B3, B6, Folic acid, K, and the minerals potassium, magnesium and manganese. The parasympathetic dominant person does better with Vitamins A, E, C, B12, inositol, choline, niacinamide, calcium, and pantothenic acid. Based on this research if a patient had a sympathetic disease like breast cancer, it would not be prudent to recommend calcium, which would further stimulate the sympathetic system for example.
I’ll briefly cover some of the ways that balance can be restored in the ANS. As previously mentioned diet and nutrients can and should be utilized to achieve that goal. Beyond that, specific adjustments at the spinal level can be used to either stimulate or inhibit the ANS. I have found cold laser therapy to be of great value. It can reset the ANS to a more normal setting and many times very quickly. For example, if one has adrenal exhaustion, by gently stimulating the joint with repetitive light tugs and at the same time pointing the laser light at the brain stem, there will be a rapid reset of the adrenals. This is from the work of Dr. George Gonzalez, DC,QN. Color therapy is also very powerful. By monitoring reflexes, I find the color that balances the body and incorporate that color into the person’s therapy. The person could look through a colored film, use colored glasses, cover a lamp with the color, and so on. Sound can also work very nicely. If I’m using tuning forks I would test each one until I found the frequency that balanced the body. This will be displayed by the elimination of the postural distortion one displays on my treatment table. Specific exercises can be of value tailored to the imbalance of the individual. Someone on sympathetic overload would not want to do intensive exercise that enhanced the sympathetic system. It would also be beneficial to monitor heart rate. After establishing a base line, if the heart rate is up 10 points or more in the morning it would be best not to train that day. Essential oils are powerful ANS modulators. I will test by having the person sniff each until I find the one that balances the body. If there is emotional stress going on I often employ Bach Flower Remedies. I utilize the testing procedures from Dr. Scott Walker’s N.E.T. system then find which remedy balances the body. The body tells me the correct remedy. I am not making a judgment about which remedy I think might be best. However, invariably after I find it and then read to the person what the remedy is for they are often shocked by how accurate it is.
The notion that autonomic imbalance is the root cause of all dis-ease is not new. Along with Dr. Kelley, Dr. Francis Pottenger was also in agreement. Dr. Pottenger wrote two timeless classics, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration and Symptoms of Visceral Disease. More recently, Dr. Ernst Gellhorn, M.D.,Ph.D. Professor of Physiology at the University of Minnesota provided both laboratory and clinical evidence that autonomic imbalance explains most physical and psychiatric illnesses. Also more recently, Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, who operates a medical clinic treating chronic degenerative disease, including cancer, uses the principles of autonomic balancing. His results with certain cancers, particularly pancreatic, are quite impressive and far superior to “orthodox” cancer treatments. You would think his work would be replicated all across the country. It’s not for reasons that will be a topic for another day, but isn’t it about time that results be put at the top of medicine’s priority list? There are just too many people dying and a lot of them unnecessarily so.
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