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Your Gut and the Autonomic Nervous System

There ought to be an Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) Appreciation Day. After all, our ANS works around the clock to keep us alive. It regulates body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, digestion and metabolism, blood glucose and acidity levels, and water and electrolytes, as well as swallowing, coughing, sneezing, and bladder control. And it does all this without requiring any conscious effort on our part. Oh, and it’s also responsible for the body’s fight-or-flight response to perceived dangers.

We owe our lives to our ANS. Yet, it’s one of the most ignored and neglected systems in the human body. Whenever we suffer from low or high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat, breathing difficulties, blood glucose dysregulation, poor digestion, or a bladder control issue, the last thing we consider is the possibility that ANS dysfunction could be the cause.

This is especially true of digestive dysfunctions. The medical community has all sorts of treatments for acid reflux, diarrhea, constipation, stomach ulcers, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, and irritable bowel syndrome.

But have you ever heard of a treatment for any of these illnesses that considers the crucial role the ANS plays in digestion? Probably not. However, you’re going to hear about it now.

Dysautonomia and the Autonomic Nervous System

The closest thing we have to Autonomic Nervous System Appreciation Day is Dysautonomia Awareness Month (each October). The term dysautonomia describes several medical conditions that involve autonomic nervous system dysfunction, including the following:

  • Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS): POTS can cause lightheadedness, fainting, irregular heartbeat, chest pains, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal upset, shaking, exercise intolerance, temperature sensitivity, and other symptoms. It mostly affects women who appear to be healthy on the outside but sense something very wrong on the inside.
  • Neurocardiogenic syncope (NCS): This most common form of dysautonomia is characterized by fainting spells. In mild cases, an individual may experience only a few fainting spells over the course of her life. In more severe cases, NCS triggers several fainting spells daily, which can result in falls, broken bones, and head and brain injuries.
  • Multiple system atrophy (MSA): This rare form of dysautonomia is a fatal neurodegenerative disorder. Patients usually become bedridden within two years of receiving a diagnosis and die within five to 10 years.

Dysautonomia is often a secondary condition caused by other medical conditions, such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, lupus, Parkinson’s disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, autoimmunity, and chronic stress, any of which can damage the nerves of the ANS.

Symptoms of Dysautonomia

Symptoms of dysautonomia include the following:

  • Difficulty urinating, incontinence, or incomplete emptying of the bladder
  • Digestive disorders, including bloating, diarrhea, and constipation
  • Dizziness/fainting upon standing
  • Erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness, or difficulty having an orgasm
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Inability to alter heart rate with exercise
  • Loss of appetite or difficulty swallowing
  • Muscle weakness or tremors
  • Sweating too much or not enough
  • Vision problems, including blurry vision or inability to respond to changes in light

Even before symptoms become noticeable, ANS testing can detect early warning signs and provide valuable information and insight to explain why someone is not feeling his best or responding as well as expected to treatments for certain conditions.

Results of ANS testing serve as a valuable guide to treatment recommendations moving forward.

ANS testing, which is used to assess ANS neural pathways, can detect certain diseases or dysfunctions that attack the ANS. After identifying the root cause(s), we can develop a personalized treatment plan that targets the cause(s), enabling the ANS to recover and putting you on the path to feeling your best.

The Two Branches of the Autonomic Nervous System

The ANS consists of two branches (subsystems): the sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomous nervous systems, which work together like the accelerator and brake in a car:

  • The sympathetic autonomous nervous system (SANS) controls your body’s response to stressful situations (such as running from a bear or, more commonly these days, driving in heavy traffic). It usually stimulates organs to speed up bodily processes.
  • The parasympathetic autonomous nervous system (PANS) controls your body’s response to relaxation, recovery, digestion, and sexual response. The PANS are continuously active to a certain degree, and activity increases shortly after eating and around bedtime. At this time, it slows the heart rate, dilates (expands) blood vessels, controls body motions (muscle movements), and influences memory.

However, with some systems, such as the digestive and urinary systems, PANS speeds them up, while SANS slows them down. Balance is key.

Imbalances in the Autonomic Nervous System

Ideally, the two branches of the autonomic nervous system accelerate and brake (push and pull) to maintain a healthy balance. When the two branches work perfectly in a healthy balance, the body can maintain metabolism, recover each day, repair itself, remove old cells, and respond appropriately to stressors.

Imbalances between the two branches impair the body’s ability to regulate various bodily functions and repair itself. An imbalance can also cause impair your body’s response to disease and to treatments.

Short-term effects of an imbalance include the following:

  • Digestion is impaired, contributing to nutrient depletions.
  • High levels of cortisol circulating in the body, causing cell damage and inflammation.
  • Hormone disruption/imbalance occurs, possibly impacting sex hormones, thyroid, and metabolism.
  • Neurotransmitters are not generated as they should be, adding to anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping, and more.
  • The liver is unable to detox, adding to the body’s toxic burden.
  • Tissue and cell growth are negatively affected.

Over time, these impairments could turn into long-term, chronic symptoms such as these:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia
  • Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, bipolar symptoms
  • Difficulty falling asleep or frequent waking throughout the night
  • Difficulty with memory and brain function in the morning
  • Dizziness upon standing
  • Gastrointestinal issues (acid reflux, constipation, diarrhea)
  • Hormonal/menopause-like symptoms, especially in ages 35 to 45
  • Morning migraines or headaches
  • Poor circulation
  • Restless leg syndrome or legs swelling at night

The ANS-Gut Connection

If you’ve read this far, here’s the thing we want you to know… autonomous nervous systems imbalance can wreak havoc on your gut.

The nervous system is designed to stimulate muscular contractions and various fluid secretions from glands in the gastrointestinal system when you eat and as you digest food. This helps move the food through the esophagus to the anus, extracting valuable nutrients along the way.

When the nervous system causes too much or too little muscle contraction or glandular fluid secretions, food does not move normally through the digestive tract.

An ANS imbalance can impact both the upper GI (esophagus and stomach) and the lower GI — small intestines, colon, and anal sphincter (muscles of the anus).

Problems associated with the upper GI

When the nervous system fails to send the right signals, as is the case in dysautonomia, the muscles of the esophagus can fail to contract or relax properly, causing the following symptoms of esophageal dysmotility:

  • Heartburn
  • Regurgitation
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • The feeling that food is stuck in the throat or chest
  • Weight loss and malnutrition
  • Recurrent bouts of pneumonia

In the stomach, dysautonomia can cause gastroparesis — slowed digestion and an increase in the time required for the contents of the stomach to empty into the small intestines. Symptoms of gastroparesis may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • A feeling of fullness after eating just a few bites
  • Vomiting undigested food is eaten a few hours earlier
  • Acid reflux
  • Changes in blood sugar levels

Problems associated with the lower GI

When food moves slowly through the digestive tract, overgrowth of bacteria can develop, causing small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This can result in constipation, loose stools, or bloating.

Lower down the GI tract. The anal muscles can lose tone resulting in fecal incontinence — loss of control over defecation. Stools or gas can leak from the rectum unexpectedly.

Dysautonomia may manifest for a variety of reasons and can often confuse both patient and practitioner. It is imperative to work on finding the root cause which may include:

  • Medications include but are not limited to sedatives, hypnotics, diuretics, antihypertensive drugs, cardiac nitrates, and antidepressants.
  • Metabolic diseases, including diabetes.
  • Toxicity from metabolic disease or toxicity from environmental sources (mold, infection, heavy metals).
  • Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, dementia, or concussion.
  • Persistent stress. We have observed in our practice that those who live with chronic stress related to relationships, work, or trauma are more likely to suffer with dysautonomia.

Treating Dysautonomia

Treatments for dysautonomia vary based on its underlying cause(s). Here at BioDesign Wellness Center, we developed a personalized treatment protocol through a supportive, consultative approach and targeted testing.

We do a thorough assessment, identifying the root cause(s) of your symptoms before starting any treatments. As your health improves, we fine-tune your treatment plan to optimize your health.

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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post about dysautonomia and the Autonomic Nervous System is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect current medical thinking or practices. No information contained in this post should be construed as medical advice from the medical staff at BioDesign Wellness Center, Inc., nor is this post intended to be a substitute for medical counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate medical advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a licensed medical professional in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.