Dysautonomia - Autonomic Nervous System DysfunctionDysautonomia, also known as autonomic nervous system dysfunction or disorder, is a blanket label applied to a variety of conditions that develop, at least in part, because of malfunction or faulty regulation in the involuntary nervous system. Generally speaking, there is excessive activity of the sympathetic nervous system and underactivity of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Although dysautonomia is not very well known by the general population, it is a complex and serious health concern that affects millions. Disorders of the autonomic nervous system are not very familiar to most because they are often not to referred to in this manner. You hear about the individual health conditions themselves, instead of being referred to by this broad category definition.
When left unchecked, dysautonomia progresses to a variety of full blown health conditions and syndromes, which have a significant impact on the quality of one's life.
Conditions Related to DysautonomiaMany of the conditions listed below may have a variety of contributing factors, however, an overactive sympathetic nervous system is a significant aspect that must be addressed and is often overlooked.
- Adrenal fatigue
- Candida overgrowth
- Recurring Headaches
- Impotency and erectile dysfunction
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Multiple chemical sensitivity
- Food sensitivities
- Chronic fatigue
- Compulsive overeating
- Food addiction
- Panic attacks
- Heart arrhythmia
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Bowel disorders like constipation and IBS
- Manic depressive
- Circulation disorders
- Attention deficit
- Violence and aggression
- Overactive bladder
- Gulf war syndrome
- PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Excessive sweating with an unknown cause
- Worsening of any mental or medical health condition
2 Parts of the Autonomic Nervous SystemThe autonomic nervous system, also known as the involuntary nervous system, regulates those facets in the body that occur automatically, such as breathing, blood pressure, digestion, heart beat, bladder function and narrowing or widening of the blood vessels. It is composed of two branches - the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system.
Sympathetic The sympathetic nervous system is also known as our stress response system, or the fight or flight system, and it is set into motion when we experience stress. It increases our heart rate and blood pressure, dilates pupils, restricts circulation, slows down digestion, relaxes the bladder, makes us more alert and aware and provides a boost in energy so that we are capable of dealing with the stressful situation effectively. It increases energy and is often referred to as the accelerator of the autonomic nervous system.
Parasympathetic The job of the parasympathetic nervous system is the exact opposite. Once the stressful event is over, it brings the heart rate and blood pressure back to normal, constricts pupils, improves circulation, enhances digestion, calms us down, contracts the bladder and puts us into a state of rest and relaxation. It conserves energy and is often referred to as the breaks of the autonomic nervous system.
What Causes Dysautonomia or Autonomic Nervous System Dysfunction?When the autonomic nervous system is functioning as it should, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system work in perfect harmony together to maintain balance in the body. The sympathetic nervous system provides us with the tools we need to respond to stress adequately and the parasympathetic nervous system restores us to our normal state of peace and tranquility.
Dysautonomia, or autonomic nervous system dysfunction, occurs when these two systems fail to work together in harmony. The most common scenario is the sympathetic nervous system remains dominant most of the time and the parasympathetic rarely turns on, which is referred to as sympathetic dominance.
When this occurs, then the body remains in a state of fight or flight most of the time or at all times. The stress response system never or rarely turns off. If the body remains in a state of fight or flight all the time, then many degenerative processes begin to happen and result in a variety of chronic health conditions and overall poor health like those in our list above, because it is only supposed to be used for brief emergencies.
The stress response system was designed to deal with brief emergencies that threaten survival. It isn't supposed to last very long because the body cannot sustain itself for very long in this state. The natural and preferred state of the mind and body is the parasympathetic state, because it is regenerative. However, it is willing to forgo its preferred parasympathetic state to deal with acute emergencies and will remain in that state if the emergency continues.
If the brain and the body remain in the sympathetic fight or flight state for too long and too often, it is degenerative; it breaks us down. If this cycle continues, then eventually the system burns out. It is this cycle that results in dysautonomia or autonomic nervous system dysfunction.
The instigating factor responsible for putting the body into a constant state of fight or flight is chronic stress or what I call overstimulation of the stress response system. However, when we speak of stress, we are talking about a lot more than emotional stress.
Chronic Stress and the Autonomic Nervous SystemThere are many different kinds of stress or types of overstimulation and each one is perceived by the body in the same way -- a threat to survival that activates the sympathetic fight or flight system. One of my favorite mentors, Dr. Charles Gant, tells us there are 12 different kinds of stress, but underneath each of these categories is a never ending list of possibilities. They are as follows:
- Emotional stress - this is the form of stress most people are familiar with and what comes to mind when they think of the term. This may include loss of any kind like a divorce or break up, loss of a job, loss of abilities or characteristics, depression, conflict in relationships, financial struggles, internal conflict, childhood abuse or neglect, dysfunctional or toxic relationships, employment issues etc.
- Cognitive stress - unrealistic demands or expectations for yourself and/or your life, trying to live up to expectations of others, keeping up with the Jones's, seeing the glass half empty, catastrophizing or awfulizing.
- Sensory stress - chronic pain, loud noise, constant stimulation from external sources.
- Metabolic stress - syndrome x, too much exercise, pH, blood sugar, hypoglycemia.
- Toxic stress - I usually refer to this as environmental toxins. It includes things like heavy metal toxicity, amalgam fillings, mercury in your food, air pollution, electrosmog, pesticides, herbicides, mold mycotoxins, disinfectants, perfume, air fresheners etc.
- Immune stress - food allergies or sensitivities, inflammation, autoimmune disorders.
- Endocrine and neurotransmitter stress - adrenal glands, cortisol, thyroid disorders, hormonal imbalances, menopause, andropause, insulin, dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA etc.
- Purposelessness stress - I call this spiritual stress. Lack of meaning and purpose in life, inability to find gratitude, lack of love and empathy, not connected to the Universe, loss of self.
- Infectious stress - Candida, parasites, viruses, bacteria, lyme etc.
- Oxidative stress - veins and arteries, emphysema, lack of fresh air, sleep apnea, phase 1 and phase 2 detoxification.
- Energetic stress - electromagnetic fields from cell phones, electronics etc., geopathic.
- Structural stress - spine alignment, posture, TMJ, cranio-sacral, physical trauma, etc.
Anytime you experience stress of any kind the sympathetic nervous system, fight or flight system, is activated. Therefore if you are under stress on an ongoing basis, then the stress response system never turns off.
Again to quote my favorite mentor, Dr. Charles Gant, if you rev up the engine of your car for too long, you will burn up the engine. Revving up should take place briefly to get you through a temporary crises, not ongoing. The same applies to the human body.
It's also important to be aware that severe stress or trauma that occurs early in life like childhood abuse, neglect or loss of the primary caregiver, as well as acute life-threatening events in adulthood like a car accident, living in a war zone, rape or other violent acts, or a natural disaster can cause permanent and irreversible damage to the stress response system, which leaves the individual with stress circuits that remain in a hypersensitive state and perpetuate sympathetic nervous system dominance throughout their life. This, of course, leaves the individual highly susceptible to developing any of the conditions associated with dysautonomia.
Why is Chronic Stress Harmful?If you experience only one or two stressors in the list above, your sympathetic nervous system will deal with the situation at hand and you return to the parasympathetic state. However, the more stressors you have to deal with in your life, the more your sympathetic nervous system is activated. When your total stress load, which is the sum of all your stressors added together, becomes too high then dysautonomia occurs. Dr. Charles Gant calls this the web of distress.
When we are under stress, the fight or flight system is activated and the sympathetic nervous system is in control; digestion is shut down, metabolism, immune function and the detoxification system is impaired, blood pressure and heart rate are increased, circulation is impaired, sleep is disrupted, memory and cognitive function may be impaired, neurotransmitters are drained, our sense of smell, taste and sound are amplified, high levels of norepinephrine are released in the brain and the adrenal glands release a variety of hormones like adrenalin and cortisol. In a state of chronic stress, the body remains in this condition continually.
We can easily see how remaining in a state of constant fight or flight would lead to a variety of digestive and circulation disorders as well as high blood pressure. However, it's much deeper than that.
Here's how the stress response system works:
- The Locus Ceruleus in the brainstem is the "start" button for the fight or flight system. It releases norepinephrine/noradrenalin anytime stress of any kind is detected. All of this takes place in a part of the brain called the limbic system.
- This triggers the amygdala which triggers the hypothalamus. The amygdala prompts feelings of anxiety and fear.
- The hypothalamus then releases CRH, which stimulates the pituitary.
- The pituitary release ACTH to stimulate the adrenal glands.
- The adrenal glands release adrenalin and cortisol.
During this process, other neurotransmitters like dopamine, GABA and serotonin are overstimulated as well, which eventually leads to depletion. Neurotransmitters are what govern our moods, thoughts, feelings, behavior, memory and cognitive function, so if they become depleted then many psychological symptoms develop. Additionally, neurotransmitters are needed to modulate the autonomic nervous system and restore the body to the parasympathetic state, so if they are not available in sufficient numbers, then the sympathetic nervous system runs rampant. It is exceptionally important to replenish GABA levels and prevent histamine excess. as both of these fuel sympathetic dominance.
Cortisol is extremely important because it helps counteract some of the negative effects of stress and keep things in balance. It enhances digestion and metabolism, restricts insulin, is a crucial player in blood sugar management, glucose metabolism, immune function and the inflammatory response.
However, excessively high levels of cortisol that occur when the demands of stress are too high result in high levels of anxiety and fear, disruption of the hormonal system, may impair memory and cognition and eventually leads to burn out. If the demands for cortisol remain high and incessant, eventually the adrenal glands can no longer produce enough cortisol.
According to Dr. Charles Gant, when the demands for cortisol are extremely high, a phenomenon called cortisol steal occurs. All the precursors needed for the hormones in the body like aldosterone, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and dhea will be used up to create cortisol and thus these hormones will become deficient and create additional burdens on the body and lead to more degeneration in health. For example, aldosterone is important for regulating blood pressure and the sodium potassium ratio in the body.
It is the combination of these negative effects of excessive sympathetic nervous system activity that lead to dysautonomia. At this point there is a domino effect on other organs and systems in the body, the entire nervous system, immune system, endocrine system, hormonal system, cardiovascular system, digestive system, etc. etc. become affected and degradation in many areas of health may occur.
Dysautonomia or Autonomic Nervous System TreatmentSince the primary root of dysautonomia and autonomic nervous system dysfunction lies in an overactive sympathetic nervous system or activation of the fight or flight system, the ultimate goal in recovery is to restore balance to the autonomic nervous system. In other words we want turn off the sympathetic nervous system and return to the parasympathetic state.
Sympathetic = Degenerative if continues for an extended period of time.
Parasympathetic = Regenerative and healing. The preferred state for the body and mind.
Regardless of which health condition you face, healing takes place in the regenerative state. Healing can't happen in a degenerative state.
The process of restoring balance to the autonomic nervous system requires a complex and comprehensive approach that addresses each and every one of the contributing chronic stress factors that exist for each individual, as well as a variety of techniques and lifestyle changes that encourage activity of the parasympathetic nervous system and oppose the high levels of norepinephrine.
Reduce Your Total Stress Load
One must go through the list of 12 types of stress above, identify each one that pertains to their situation and address them accordingly. If you have a boat filled with water and it is sinking, you take a bucket and toss the excess water out and the boat will stop sinking. The same applies to the stress load. Start tossing them overboard so you can get your head above water.
For example, if you have Candida, nutritional deficiencies, heavy metal toxicity, emotional stress, hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, lyme, low serotonin, structural stress, etc., then each of these issues need to be addressed. Whatever stressors apply to your life, these are the areas you need to focus on to reduce your total stress load.
Get Lots of Rest
Unfortunately in our society we tend to frown upon people who rest and take naps. We are expected to be doing something all the time, and if we aren't then we are often labeled as lazy or lacking in motivation. This attitude contributes greatly to autonomic nervous system conditions, because basically the norm in our society is to run yourself into the ground. Taking time to rest and nap is very healthy and getting plenty of it is a crucial part of recovery for an overactive sympathetic nervous system. This includes insuring that you get your 8 or 9 hours of sleep each night. The adrenal glands, as well as the body in general, does its regeneration while we sleep.
Dr. Charles Gant tells us that a cholesterol level of below 160 is very hazardous to your health. Cholesterol is needed for the synthesis of all our steroid hormones. If you don't have enough cholesterol, you can't produce your life sustaining hormones like dhea, progesterone, estrogen, aldosterone and testosterone and most importantly in regard to the autonomic nervous system, cortisol. Cholesterol is converted to pregnenalone, which is converted to progesterone, which is converted to cortisol. If your cholesterol levels are too low, then they need to be increased.
What you eat has a profound impact on your autonomic nervous system. Sugar, food additives, preservatives, dyes, caffeine, chocolate, pesticides all trigger the fight or flight system and keep the sympathetic nervous system in high alert and should be eliminated. These substances also deplete neurotransmitters. Foods that are high in starches like whole grains, potatoes and legumes break down into sugar in the body and should be avoided or at least greatly restricted as they too trigger the fight or flight and deplete neurotransmitters. Too much fruit also stimulates sympathetic stress and drains neurotransmitters.
Additionally, if the diet does not contain the right amount of nutrients that the body needs to produce hormones like cortisol or for the brain to produce neurotransmitters, then neurotransmitters and cortisol will not be available in sufficient amounts to regulate the autonomic nervous system.
The diet should be high in animal protein and low-starch vegetables, contain a moderate amount of fat, eggs and fish, and a small amount of low sugar fruits, nuts and seeds. If you tolerate dairy, then butter, ghee, cream, and full-fat yogurt can be good for the endocrine and nervous system as well. It is my opinion that a slightly modified version of the Paleolithic Diet is what is best for not only restoring balance to the autonomic nervous system, but for optimal health overall.
Most of the common everyday chemicals found in your cleaning products, personal care products, perfume, cologne, laundry products, air fresheners, pest control, lawn products etc., contain harmful toxins that not only overstimulate the sympathetic nervous system, but are destructive to the endocrine system, immune system, detoxification system and central nervous system as well. This is especially true of pesticides. They are one of the most harmful toxins that exist. And, this applies to mold as well, they emit mycotoxins that can be harmful to the mind and body in the same manner as any other toxin.
It is crucial to eliminate these substances from your living space; eat organic and switch over to environmentally friendly personal care and household products. The autonomic nervous system simply cannot be restored to balance if it is constantly exposed to environmental toxins. You may want to read this page, for a more thorough discussion of how toxins impact our mental and physical health.
Get The Right Kind of Exercise
Getting regular exercise is very important for healing the autonomic nervous system, however the type of exercise that you engage in is even more important. Exercise that is too intense, strenuous or lasts too long will put too much pressure on the endocrine system and add to depletion of cortisol and neurotransmitters in the brain and thus trigger the sympathetic stress response. The body perceives endurance type of exercise as stress. You should not be engaging in traditional cardio or aerobics. Mild, gentle exercise with a few short bursts of intensity will turn off the sympathetic nervous system. This also boosts endorphins, serotonin and dopamine which oppose norepinephrine and turn on the parasympathetic response. If you feel worse after exercising, then you have pushed too hard. Cut back as far as needed.
Replenish Nutrients and Neurotransmitters
People with dysautonomia typically have a long list of nutritional deficiencies they are unaware of. Adequate levels of vitamin c, zinc, pantethine, folic acid, b12, b1, b2, b3, pyridoxal 5 phosphate, as well as a variety of amino acids, fatty acids and minerals are essential for a healthy nervous system and neurotransmitter production and function. Furthermore, lack of adequate nutrients is perceived by the body as stress and will perpetuate the whole fight or flight system. An Organic Acids test is a good place to start for identifying nutritional deficiencies. As we mentioned above, neurotransmitters are key for keeping the autonomic nervous system in balance, and every suggestion that is made on this page will also help with neurotransmitters, but sometimes specific amino acid supplementation and their respective co-factors are needed to replenish them. Methylation may be impaired because of nutritional deficiencies, which can keep one stuck in the stress response system as well, and there are genetic factors that can affect methylation.
Deep Breathing Exercises
Breathwork and deep breathing exercises are one of the most effective and affordable tools you can find for assistance in restoring balance to the autonomic nervous system. With our breath we can use our voluntary nervous system to influence our involuntary nervous system. We can turn off the sympathetic nervous system and turn on the parasympathetic simply by changing our patterns of breathing and also stimulate the feel good, relaxing alpha brain waves and neurotransmitters like endorphins, dopamine and serotonin.However, the type of deep breathing exercise that you use is crucial. If it is not done properly it can produce a counterproductive effect. Please read my pages on breath, and breathing exercises and instant relaxation to learn the types I have found to be most effective for turning off sympathetic stress.
Deep breathing exercises should be practiced every day, in the morning when you get up and in the evening before going to sleep and anytime throughout the day that stress feels particularly high.
Mindfulness Based Meditation
Simple mindfulness based meditation is also very effective for activating the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulating the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and endorphins which help us feel more relaxed, harmonious, balanced and happier.
Mindfulness meditation should also be practiced every day. I prefer to combine my deep breathing exercises with mindfulness based meditation, which enhances the benefits of both.
Meditation and deep breathing are just two of the activities that can be used, but there are many others. Any activity that brings peace, harmony, oneness with the Universe, balance and happiness to your life or makes you feel centered, like art, dance, social activism, love, yoga, tai chi, writing, spending time with nature, smiling more often, massage, etc., will also aid in soothing your stress response system.
Commune with Nature
When you commune with nature, it stimulates your neurotransmitters, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, all of which oppose norepinephrine and turn off the stress response system, which in turns boosts mood, increases feelings of well-being and reduces pain. Spending time with nature should be done daily if possible, but at least several times a week. Take a walk, go to the park, sit in the back yard or simply look at the window if that is all you can do.
SmileYes, I know that when you don't feel good you do not feel like smiling. But if you smile, even though you don't feel like it, it will improve how you feel. The brain takes cues from our actions and thoughts, and when it sees that we are smiling, then it basically tricks the brain into believing we are happy and the brain is hard-wired to stimulate our happy neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, GABA and endorphins) when we smile. So the brain says, "hey, she's smiling so she must be happy, we need to produce some happy neurotransmitters." So when you smile, these neurotransmitters are released, which turns off the stress response system and makes you feel happy. So smile all the time, for no reason at all, and you will find that you feel happier and more relaxed.
The stress response system is also hard-wired to set into action when we are in a rush or hurrying. Earlier in our evolution when the autonomic nervous system was developing, if we were running or rushing, it was because we were trying to escape a rival tribe or wild animal and this would set off the sympathetic nervous system. So anytime we rush or hurry, the brain thinks we are trying to escape danger and it goes into stress response mode. So try and slow it down in all your activities.
Along the same lines, if we pursue something too aggressively, including good health, this too can trigger the old part of our brain to think we are trying to escape danger and set off the stress response system. Having acceptance for where we are in the healing process is crucial for improvement in health to take place.
You must first have acceptance for whatever health condition you face and its impact on your life before moving forward. Understand that healing is a journey that takes time; it is not an event. Be patient and kind with yourself and your body. You must learn to find peace, happiness and gratitude in the midst of the storm.Additionally, the mindset that we aren't supposed to experience any type of discomfort in our lives is a driving force for more stress. Some stress and anxiety is normal and healthy and there is no way to avoid it completely. We must be accepting of discomfort to some degree and learn how to live with it to minimize its impact on our life. The more you resist something, the bigger and stronger it grows. The regular practice of mindfulness that I mentioned earlier can be very helpful with this.
Although an impaired autonomic nervous system influences your thoughts, the way you think also affects your autonomic nervous system. In order to restore balance to your autonomic nervous system, you must change the way you think; letting go of perfectionistic demands, unrealistic expectations, negative self-talk and silencing the inner critic and trying to focus on the positives in your life instead of your symptoms, worries, fears and problems. Whatever thoughts you give the most attention are the ones that will be dominant. If you choose to focus on love, relaxation, appreciation, gratitude and peace, this will encourage the parasympathetic nervous system, while fear, worry, demand, criticism etc., encourage the sympathetic nervous system. Furthermore, if you focus on thoughts about how stressed you are or on symptoms that you experience, they will become stronger as well. To some degree, we can minimize the impact that stress has on our life, by the way we respond to it. Now, granted, if you have dysfunction in your autonomic nervous system, at first this will feel impossible, but as you practice, it will become easier and more effective.
Disconnect From Technology
MRIs of the brain indicate that the constant and excessive stimulation that is caused to the brain by Facebook, Twitter and social media in general is as addictive and bad for your brain as methamphetamine and cocaine. They overstimulate the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain in the same manner as these hard drugs, which results in depletion and then the need for more stimulation. Dopamine is a primary neurotransmitter needed to keep sympathetic stress in check and it is responsible for enabling us to feel pleasure, joy, motivation, energy, mental clarity and focus. Additionally, the constant stimulation of technology is another form of stress that keeps the body in fight or flight.
So, disconnect regularly from your cell phone, laptob, tablet, Ebook readers, computer, etc. Make a conscious effort to get completely away from technology for at least a period of time each day. Try and take one or two days a week when you avoid them completely or as much as possible. Don't use instant notifications from Facebook, email or other social media, as this keeps you in a perpetual state of overstimulation.
Yes, technology and the Internet bring many benefits to our lives, but we must maintain balance.
Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, meth, benzodiazepines, SSRIS, Adderal or any other mind-altering substance all deplete neurotransmitters in the brain, and thus they will not be available to keep the autonomic nervous system in balance and perform there other critical jobs of moderating mood, behavior and thought. Although psychotropics will initially relieve your stress, it is because they mimic your natural neurotransmitters, but as soon as the substance leaves the system you return to an even more stressed out state than you were before because you now have less neurotransmitters. When neurotransmitters are mimicked by artificial substances, then the brain reduces production of the natural neurotransmitter and then one becomes dependent on the mind-altering substance to fill in for the depleted neurotransmitter. This is called addiction. This is also true of nicotine, caffeine and chocolate.
Make Time for Solitude
Spending at least a little time each day, completely alone, and in complete silence is vital for the brain and the autonomic nervous system to rest and rejuvenate, and can provide profound relief from stress and tension. Go inward, contemplate, reflect and just enjoy the peace, quiet and stillness.
Rewiring the Brain or Limbic System Retraining
Dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system takes place in an area of the brain called the limbic system. Some new programs on the horizon are enabling people to rewire their brains and repair their limbic systems, which ultimately helps them overcome a wide variety of autonomic nervous systems disorders like chemical sensitivities, chronic fatigue, adrenal fatigue, fibromyalgia, and many of the symptoms that often accompany these conditions like anxiety, depression, insomnia, headaches and more. There are currently two programs that many people are having great success with. They are called the Dynamic Neural Retraining SystemTM and Amygdala Retraining.TM I have personally found the Gupta program to be an invaluable tool.
When we look over this page, it becomes apparent why Dysautonomia or autonomic nervous system dysfunction are rampant in our society -- because almost everyone is dealing with chronic stress of some sort. Who isn't dealing with a handful of the potential stressors in our list above? Not many.
Therefore, there aren't many people who wouldn't benefit from increasing their parasympathetic nervous system activity. For both those who already have an existing health condition and those attempting to protect their health in the future, preventing or managing overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system is essential for optimal physical, emotional and spiritual health, no mater how you look at it