Autonomic nervous system imbalance caused by stress is the first place to begin with all healing regimens.
WHAT is the Autonomic Nervous System?
The body’s involuntary functions—digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, tissue regeneration/repair, and immune function—are all under control of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS has two branches of operation: parasympathetic and sympathetic.
See the diagram below to learn the functions of the ANS
and see the seesaw effect of the two branches.
How does the AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM balance its two branches of operation?
Throughout the universe, complementary and opposing forces are at the heart of what maintains balance — night and day, high tide and low tide, protons and neutrons. This yin and yang is also evident in the ANS.
The sympathetic system orchestrates many physiological changes needed to survive a perceived threat. It is our fight or flight system that increases heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, respiratory rate, and blood circulation to the heart and muscles.
The parasympathetic system is activated by the vagal nerve and triggers digestion, immune system function, regeneration, reproduction, and detoxification.
In order to maintain physiological balance in the body, known as homeostasis, both branches of the ANS are necessary for our survival. In terms of keeping our body alive and healthy, one branch protects us from dangers from without (sympathetic) and the other branch from dangers from within (vagal/parasympathetic).
The ANS branches work in binary fashion as they oppose one another.
Homeostasis and the healthy interaction between the systems: You are walking to the bus stop a few minutes later than usual and see the bus about to pull away from the curb. The sympathetic branch kicks in to increase your heart rate and blood pressure as you run the last several steps to the bus before it leaves. You flash a smile of relief at the bus driver and take your seat for the ride to the office. The sympathetic branch turns off as the vagal/parasympathetic branch turns on to stimulate the return to your normal resting heart rate and blood pressure as you relax into your seat and open a book to read during the trip.
What is the value of the sympathetic nervous system?
The sympathetic system orchestrates many physiological changes needed to survive a perceived threat. What we call our fight or flight system is also what mobilizes us to meet many of the positive challenges we face on a daily basis.
If we are being stalked by a mountain lion while hiking through a forest, our sympathetic nervous system prepares us for mobilization. We also shift into a sympathetic state when we perceive our livelihood is potentially at stake as we replay in our mind the repeated warnings from our employer. The sympathetic system also serves us throughout our day while exercising or giving a presentation at a staff meeting. In these instances, the sympathetic system increases our respiratory and heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar to provide the fuel needed for ACTION.
Every stress response turns on the sympathetic system, which in turn shuts off the parasympathetic system. If we are anxious and continue to repeat a negative scenario in our minds, our sympathetic nervous system is continuously engaged. An agitated nervous system becomes our brain’s neuroplastic wiring. This “sympathetic dominance” inhibits all of the functions of the parasympathetic system, which will eventually have a negative impact on our health.
What is at stake when the AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM is imbalanced?
Both branches of the autonomic nervous system are crucial to our survival. A healthy autonomic nervous system requires a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic states, not the dominance of one over the other.
As you can see in the diagram above, the vagal nerve triggers the parasympathetic state, activating all the digestive functions. It triggers saliva production, swallowing, stomach acid production, pancreas production of digestive enzymes, liver production of bile, gallbladder function, and all the muscular functions of the digestive system to move the food through the digestive tract.
If you wake up and dive into the stresses of the day, checking work email and watching the news while trying to eat breakfast, you compromise your body’s absorption of the nutrients needed for the day. Maldigestion from putting food into your stomach without digestive functions being triggered by the parasympathetic system not only prevents nourishment, it also creates the added stress of undigested food sitting in your gut putrefying, fermenting, and rancidifying.
It is important to know that the sympathetic state shuts down digestion. This is the binary or seesaw effect of the ANS. Our bodies have to choose where our energy is expended. The lesson that “How we eat is as important as What we eat” is foundational to being nourished. Are we eating in a parasympathetic state when we are responding to emails, watching the news, struggling with the kids, driving? The answer is no. When Stress is On, Digestion is Off.
If the two AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM branches are opposing, how can they be complementary?
Visualize taking the short time to prepare for your day by successfully feeding yourself while being parasympathetic. The food digests, your breathing is stable, you have the opportunity to feel the morning. You begin the day fueled and are grounded. Consider the parasympathetic response as a “being” state and the sympathetic response a “doing” state. When you get to the office and the first push begins, you have the energy and the centeredness to be resilient. The sympathetic state can jumpstart you into action and then when the intensity subsides the body can shift back to the parasympathetic branch.
What is the long-term impact of a chronic AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM imbalance?
At the center of most metabolic disorders, no matter the disease or condition, is an autonomic nervous system imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic states. In our culture, with our devotion to productivity and go-go-go, our ANS is often stuck in “sympathetic dominance.” When stress is on, parasympathetic functions such as digestion, immune activity, detoxification, sleep, and regeneration are all turned off. This imbalance can also cause many emotional imbalances; you feel edgy, agitated, reactive, and combative. You begin to see life as competition rather than connection.
Importantly for our long-term health, the pattern of being primarily in the stimulated sympathetic state shuts down our ability to fight bugs such as bacteria, fungus, viruses, and parasites. Even our immune system’s surveillance for cancer is inhibited. It is our nature to alternate between those opposing and complementary forces; this is a system of checks and balances. When we get stuck in chronic stress, it creates a dangerous imbalance.
Stress = Sympathetic State
The chronic sympathetic state’s effect on our physiological functions is a primary mechanism of disease. This is why addressing the vagal nerve’s strength and recognizing when we need to be in a parasympathetic state is so critical for all healing, as healing cannot occur without these basic functions.
How can you break out of sympathetic dominance?
The ANS imbalance caused by stress is the first place to begin in all healing regimens. Learning to recognize which part of the autonomic nervous system is active in different parts of your day becomes an essential aspect of healing, whatever your health challenge.
The first place to look is to observe your breathing pattern. The vagal/parasympathetic state maintains an easy breath with relaxed exhalations. You can shift into the vagal state anytime with a deep inhalation and a prolonged exhalation through pursed lips as if you were playing a woodwind instrument. Try placing your thumbs inside your fists and relax your eyes so you can see peripherally (while looking straight ahead, see the ceiling and the floor and the walls simultaneously) to support the shift into the vagal state. A shift in your perspective around your current situation can greatly reduce sympathetic dominance.
Asking yourself “Am I safe? Do I have what I need to survive in this moment?” can provide the perspective you need to shift back into a parasympathetic state. The feeling of being connected to friends and loved ones is a powerful parasympathetic state. One cannot achieve a vagal state without the feeling of safety, and conversely feeling unsafe is always a sympathetic state.
How can you maintain a healthy AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM balance?
As you learn to listen to your body’s subtle cues for the shift into a vagal state, you will develop the neuroplasticity (see “Potential for Neuroplasticity”) for choosing the branch of the autonomic nervous system you want to be dominant at any given moment.
The more we exercise the parasympathetic pathways, the stronger the vagal circuitry will become.
Recognizing when we are in a sympathetic state is also important. Our breath becomes tighter, our eyes dart from here to there, and we shake our leg unconsciously. The sympathetic nervous system makes us want to move.
The capacity to know which branch of the ANS we are in during any given moment, AND the ability to shift into the desired branch, is important to maintaining balance in ANS function.
Neo Myalo/New Mind’s signature product Vagal 2.0 was designed for rebalancing the autonomic nervous system. The practice of using Vagal 2.0 with a deep inhalation followed by a long exhalation will train the brain and the body to restore ANS balance by strengthening the vagal/parasympathetic state.