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The Autonomic Nervous System


Head circuit board

The nervous system includes the central nervous system (CNS), which consists of the brain and the spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which is all the nerves outside of the central nervous system which connect it to all parts of the body.

The peripheral nervous system is further divided into two branches: the somatic and autonomic nervous systems (ANS). The somatic nervous system is composed of the motor system which has outflowing nerves that control the movements of the muscles and the incoming sensory nerves which transmit messages from the body to the CNS. 

The autonomic nervous system controls all the involuntary processes of the body which function largely below the level of consciousness such as heart rate, digestion, respiration, perspiration, urination, and sexual arousal. Although some actions such as breathing, work in tandem with the conscious mind.

There are multiple feedback loops in the body which are continually sending back information about parameters such as blood pressure, bladder stretching and blood chemistry which cause a widely distributed response in body state via the ANS. 

The autonomic nervous system predates the development of the cerebrum in evolutionary terms and the older name for the ANS was the vegetative nervous system which is derived from the Latin vegetare which means to quicken, animate or bring to life. 

The term autonomic is derived from autonomous meaning self-regulating, but recent evidence has shown that it is part of the limbic system or emotional brain and that it is also related to many other parts of the brain. The hypothalamus in the base of the brain mediates the ANS and also the endocrine and immune systems. 

The autonomic nervous system that supplies the alimentary tract is known as the enteric nervous system and is considered by some to be an independent system. This is because the digestive tract can continue to function even in isolation and is truly autonomous for which reason it has been called 'the second brain'.

The ANS has two opposing branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). It is an example of two complementary or opposing systems producing a cohesive functioning system much like the accelerator (gas) and brake pedals used to drive a car (automobile). This is illustrated by the fact that inhaling is associated with the sympathetic nervous system (yang) and exhaling the parasympathetic nervous system (yin).

In health there is a balance of the two systems such that the individual can sleep and rest easily, but can then respond to situations appropriately and swiftly when required.

Most ill health has problems with the regulation of the autonomic nervous system at its heart. And in order to understand a little of what has occurred and why, you need to understand a little about the function of the two opposing systems.

 

The sympathetic nervous system

The sympathetic nervous system readies the individual for speedy action - to fight or flee an aggressor. Only one or the other system can be active at a particular time and the sympathetic nervous system is a powerful inhibitor of the parasympathetic system for survival reasons. This system is about stimulation and excitement and most people tend to heavily favour the SNS not allowing enough down time to replenish their systems.

The adrenal medulla (the core of the adrenal gland) is an outpost of the sympathetic nervous system and when stimulated it releases adrenaline (epinephrine) into the bloodstream which act on adrenoceptors throughout the body producing a widespread increase in sympathetic activity.

The sympathetic nervous system: 

  • Promotes the 'fight or flight' response  
  • Is catabolic ie: breaks down the body to mobilise resources
  • Directs blood away from the skin and digestive tract to the brain, muscles and lungs (blood flow to skeletal muscles can be enhanced 12 fold) ready for action
  • Constricts all the intestinal sphincters
  • Increases adrenaline (epinephrine), insulin, cortisol and the thyroid hormones
  • Increases the heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and heat production
  • Is activated by negative emotions and thoughts including fear, sadness, anger, worry, resentment, and aggressiveness
  • Is activated by too much exercise and over work
  • Causes loss of appetite and loss of weight 
  • Creates stress and tension
  • Causes difficulty resting and sleeplessness
  • Is associated with being focused, goal-oriented, and extroverted
  • Causes the body and extremities to feel cold and the 'cold sweat' of anxiety or stress
  • Dilates the pupils of the eyes and relaxes the ciliary muscles to the lens, allowing for enhanced far vision
  • Stimulates orgasm 
  • Is predominant during daytime and
  • Creates acidity in the body.

 

The parasympathetic nervous system

The parasympathetic nervous system:

  • Promotes healing, regeneration and nourishment of the body, and upregulates the immune system
  • Is anabolic ie: builds up the body
  • Directs blood away from skeletal muscles, lungs and the brain to the digestive organs and promotes digestive enzyme production
  • Increases levels of parathyroid hormone (which governs blood calcium levels)
  • Is associated with decreased thyroid and adrenal gland activity
  • Decreases blood pressure, heart rate, blood glucose and heat production
  • Causes fatigue and tiredness
  • Is activated by feelings of calmness, love, peacefulness, contentment, satisfaction and being appreciated. 
  • Is associated with feelings of 'coming down' and release of tension such as disappointment, grief, shame, guilt, and despair. Laughter and tears are both usually signs of parasympathetic activity.
  • Promotes a good appetite and weight gain
  • Is associated with slowed reactions 
  • Is activated by rest, sleep, meditation, and relaxation therapies
  • Causes the body and extremities to feel warm, and governs perspiration and fever
  • In this state, the mind can see the bigger picture and also turns inward introversion, reflection, receptivity, and depression
  • Constriction of the pupils of the eyes and contraction of the ciliary muscles to the lens allows for closer vision
  • Is also involved in erection/engorgement of the genitals and sexual arousal
  • Predominant during the evening and night and
  • Causes alkalinity

 

This state can be witnessed in people who are ailing and who need lots of sleep and rest. Such individuals can seem lazy, unambitious and unproductive to others. Their bodies are sluggish and they feel tired, apathetic, and tend to get anxious, depressed, despairing and even suicidal. 

Often this is the end result of exhaustion of the sympathetic nervous system where the body flips to a default parasympathetic state.

 

Sympathetic vs parasympathetic nervous systems

There are structural and biochemical distinctions between the two systems as well. 

The cell bodies of the parasympathetic division are either in the brainstem or the sacral spinal cord (lower back). Whereas those of the sympathetic division begin in the thoracic and lumbar portions of the spinal cord (mid and upper back).

Both systems have two neurons between the central nervous system and the organ or system that they exert an effect upon which meet in a ganglion. In the case of the parasympathetic nervous system the ganglia are in the head, and at or near the target organs. Whereas in the sympathetic nervous system the ganglia are in two chains either side of the spine, or in the intestines.

And although the preganglionic neurotransmitter for both divisions, as well as the postganglionic neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system is acetyl choline, the sympathetic postganglionic neurons mostly release noradrenaline (norepinephrine). 

 

Emotions and the ANS

The autonomic tone we have as adults is largely the result of genetic traits coupled with childhood experiences and in particular the development of the relationship with our primary caregiver.

It is thought that in newborn babies the complementary and reciprocal tension between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems is not well developed and that this may be one of the causes of colic. 

When a baby is born it perceives no boundaries between itself and its mother, objects and the environment. It obviously relies totally upon its mother to recognise and meet all its needs including protection, comfort, and sustenance. 

Then, as a toddler, the child learns to discover with huge frustration the limits of his/her capacity. This process is known as the 'terrible twos' and the way these tantrums are handled by the primary caregiver determines whether the infant either learns to manage their emotions or to dissociate from them finding them too overwhelming. 

At this early stage the child's brain learns to integrate information from the body with its feelings and reason and deficits may result in the development of autonomic patterns which will determine the individual's default style of coping with its feelings throughout life.

In Body Psychotherapy the connection between mind and body has long been recognised. This discipline emerged out of the work of Wilhelm Reich and states that both emotional and physical events affect the bodymind and cannot be separated. 

Sometimes when there has been some sort of emotional arousal that has not been dissipated this may be expressed as chronic muscular tension. Wilhelm Reich called this 'character armour' because the location of the armour aims to represent the nature of the conflict. This muscular tension can also impair health by inhibiting breathing, and constricting the blood and lymphatic circulations which are responsible for clearing the body of toxins and feelings. 

 

The autonomic nervous system and illness

What we think of as disease is usually an attempt by the autonomic nervous system to re-stabilise after some impingement. Repeated responses to some factor lay down long-term effects in the ANS and as these become reinforced, the likelihood of chronic illness and addictive behaviour becomes greater.

In chronic and serious illness, according to the dictates of Body Psychotherapy an internal conflict has often caused some kind of compromise in ANS function.

One kind of compromise is that an isolated organ, muscle group or physiological function becomes symptomatic. This limits the damage and also serves as a form of representation whether it be a frozen shoulder, an ovarian cyst, or a sore throat. 

Another kind of compromise is where the two systems battle for dominance. An example would be the typical heart attack victim who pushes themselves on through dissappointments and frustrations until their heart gives out. This can also fuel addictions – using substances to either stimulate (eg: cocaine, coffee) or calm down (eg: marijuana, tranquillisers) to achieve the individual's preferred autonomic state.

A third kind of uneasy balance is achieved where one system becomes dominant for a period and then the opposing system takes over. This causes wild fluctuations in mood and body symptoms which appear, move around, change in intensity and suddenly disappear. Others may regard the individual as being either hysterical or a hypochondriac and often any tests done are returned as being 'normal' but the individual feels tormented and frightened of what their body might do next.  

Last is where both aspects of the autonomic nervous system escalate their functions and become highly unstable. This can result in high stress sympathetic symptoms such as panic attacks, cold sweats, palpitations, nightmares, outbursts of violence, an inability to cope, and rapid changes from hot to cold and back.

When it comes to trauma, the sympathetic nervous system is initially activated, but if the threat cannot be fought against or fled (for whatever reason), the parasympathetic nervous system may then cause paralysis, like the mouse caught by a cat may 'play dead'.

One of the characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disproportionate response to a stimulus which may trigger a blackout or panic attack. If the trauma occurred in infancy at the hands of a caregiver, the likelihood of developing a severe personality disorder is also greatly increased. 

In many cases, the traumatised individual may have a stubborn chronic illness which may be regarded by others as ‘psychosomatic’. This mechanism can perversely be a sign of health – allowing the body to vent strong, unmanageable feelings that could not be expressed at the time in a controlled way.  

 

Toxins and the ANS

The absorption of toxins into the autonomic nervous system nerve endings causes gradual disruption of control of autonomic function of all body systems. This is key to nearly all chronic, degenerative and serious illness.

In particular, mercury tracks up the neurons in what is known as retrograde axonal transport at a steady rate. In so doing it both disrupts and destroys the nerves and means that there may be a gradual worsening of autonomic function weeks or months after the placement or removal of an amalgam filling, or after insertion of another metal such as gold into the mouth or after exposure to electromagnetic fields (eg: an MRI scan). All these procedures increase the amount of mercury vapour produced from amalgam fillings to which the individual is exposed.

This will go largely unnoticed and unrecognised by both doctors and dentists alike - in fact, it will probably be fiercely denied or ridiculed. 

As the body is detoxified, the mercury will gradually be drawn from the nervous system producing symptoms of detoxification (eg: rashes, diarrhoea) and autonomic control will slowly be reinstated. Detoxification of the nervous system generally will result in improved central nervous system function too with improved memory and ability to concentrate and improved peripheral nervous system function with better motor control (eg: typing) and decreased muscle cramps and twitches.

It is said that the neurons can regenerate if the cell body is intact, but that if the cell body has been destroyed that there can be no regeneration of the nerve. However, this is to ignore the fact that there is an energetic blueprint which is orchestrating all the activities of the body.

I am of the opinion that it is possible to regenerate almost any tissue if the toxins that are disrupting function are removed and the nutrients required for regeneration are supplied in sufficient quantities provided that the deficit is not encoded in the blueprint. 

 

Balancing your autonomic nervous system

The following suggestions all help to promote the healing capacity of the parasympathetic nervous system:

Rest Nap if necessary and get a good night's sleep if possible. 

Exercise Avoid overdoing any exercise which is a powerful sympathetic nervous system stimulant but take regular, gentle exercise. 

Eat well The nervous system requires protein and fats especially the omega-3 and omega-6 oils to function properly. These can be obtained by including animal protein such as eggs, meat and oily fish in the diet.

Supplementation The minerals calcium, magnesium, selenium, manganese and zinc are known for their calming effects, as are the amino acids GABA, and L-taurine and the herbs valerian, passionflower, skullcap and hops.

Destress Try to reduce the stress in your life as much as possible. This can include physical stresses such as noise pollution, environmental toxins, electromagnetic pollution and spinal misalignment. 

Think positive Try to promote your parasympathetic nervous system through the use of meditation, affirmations, and through watching, listening to, and reading uplifting books and other media.

Release negativity Aim to steer clear of negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and blame.

Forgive others Do this from a place of power and compassion and release any form of victimhood which will keep activating the SNS. 

Cultivate inner peace Let go of the need to control and choose contentment and peace.

Do not to compare Comparisons based upon your limited understanding of the reality of other's lives causes fear, anger and resentment. 

Choose your company Become aware of who and what energises you and who and what consume your energies. 

Breathe deeply This activates the parasympathetic response and turns the sympathetic nervous system off. 

Meditate Make time to still your system and just be - even if for only a few minutes a couple of times a day.

 

Further resources

You might also be interested in the following: 

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The Second Brain

The Brain and Mercury

The Brain: The First Trimester

The Causes of Cancer

Insomnia: The Hidden Epidemic

Childhood: The Lasting Effects

Brain Repair 

For a comprehensive programme of promoting release of mercury from the autonomic nervous system using a combination of emotional releases combined with supplementation, please refer to The Natural Recovery Plan book

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Stress and Trauma listed under Natural Recovery in the Audio Hub

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Toxic Stress and the Autonomic Nervous System

Mercury & Neuron Degeneration

Part 1 of Dietrich Klinghardt's Fundamental Teachings with remaining parts listed under Natural Recovery in the Video Hub

 

Or for all media use the Search facility at the top of the page

 

Autonomic Nervous System: Article summary

This article looks at how the two complementary arms of the autonomic nervous system - the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems - can become unbalanced causing degenerative illness. It also suggests how to help rebalance the autonomic nervous system. 

 


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The Natural Recovery Plan Ezine December 2011 Issue 24. Copyright Alison Adams 2011. All rights reserved
Dr Alison Adams Dentist, Naturopath, Author and Online Health Coach www.thenaturalrecoveryplan.com

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