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The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic
Divisions of the Nervous System
AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM HEALTH
By Lawrence Wilson, MD
Revised © Revised June 2008, the Center for Development
The human nervous system has two major divisions, the voluntary and the autonomic systems. The voluntary system is concerned mainly with movement and sensation. It consists of a motor and sensory nerves, among many others.
The autonomic system mainly controls functions over which we have less conscious control. These include the digestion of food, blood pressure, and heart rate. Its nerves leave the spine and connect to all the major organs and glands, either inhibiting or stimulating their activity.
DIVISIONS OF THE AUTONOMIC SYSTEM
The autonomic system has two branches. These are called the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branches.
* The sympathetic branch activates the glands and organs that defend the body against attack. It is called the fight-or-flight system. Its nerves direct more blood to the muscles and the brain. The heart rate and blood pressure increase, while it decreases the blood flow to the digestive and eliminative organs.
It also activates the thyroid and adrenal glands to provide extra energy for fighting or running away. Nervousness, stress, or feelings of panic are what one feels when in a sympathetic state of readiness.
The sympathetic system is catabolic, which means it tears down the body. Energy is used to prepare for defense, rather than for nourishment or for elimination of wastes. An excellent analogy is to imagine placing all of the nation’s resources in its military defense. While helpful in an emergency, if continued too long, the nation becomes much poorer for lack of productive commercial activity. The feeling of an ‘adrenalin rush’ is a product of the sympathetic system. It may feel good at first, but is always followed by a feeling of fatigue, as this system uses up energy and depletes the body.
* The parasympathetic system of nerves is concerned with nourishing, healing and regeneration of the body. It is anabolic, or concerned with rebuilding the body. Its nerves stimulate digestion, and the immune and eliminative organs. These organs include the liver, pancreas, stomach, and intestines. The parasympathetic nervous system, when activated by rest, relaxation and happy thoughts, is essential for balanced living and for all healing. Moving into a healthy parasympathetic state, and staying there as much of the time as possible, helps heal all health conditions, both physical and emotional ones as well.
The feeling often associated with the parasympathetic state can be one of lethargy or fatigue, as you are so relaxed. Do not, however, believe this is unhealthy. Rather, it indicates a state of repair and rebuilding in progress.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are antagonistic. Either one or the other is activated most all of the time. The sympathetic system, however, always takes precedence, because it is concerned with one’s survival.
To promote balance and healing, the goal is to keep the sympathetic system turned off as much as possible. This allows the maximum healing to occur. Simple ways to do this are to rest, relax and think happy thoughts. As soon as you think fearful or angry thoughts, or become too physically active, the body shifts into a sympathetic stance.
The sympathetic nervous system may be roughly likened to the gas pedal of a car. The parasympathetic is more like the brake. Unlike a car, however, when the ‘brake’ is applied to the body, it begins to heal itself.
Relatively few people today have a strong and balanced autonomic system. Most people favor the sympathetic branch. Learning which metabolic type you are can be very helpful for designing diets and nutritional supplementation to balance the body.
The Balanced Individual. When the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are working as they should, the tendency is to rest often and easily. One can, however, perform at “top speed” with equal ease. When challenged by stress, the balanced person is able to respond with vigor and fortitude.
The parasympathetic system reduces the activity of the brain, the muscles, and the adrenal and thyroid glands. When no situation is pressing, the balanced person can comfortably choose to rest and can sleep deeply.
The Sympathetic Metabolic Type. Some people’s bodies remain in a more sympathetic state most of the time. These people tend to be more outgoing, aggressive, and belligerent at times, and often sweat more, have higher blood sugar and blood pressure levels, and have more frequent bowel movements. They are more prone to anxiety, irritability, and nervousness in general. They have a more active or overactive thyroid and adrenal glands, as these are activated by the sympathetic nervous system.
We can roughly identify the state of the nervous system with a properly performed hair tissue mineral analysis. The proper testing procedures absolutely require that the hair must not be washed at the laboratory. Only two labs in America follow this protocol.
A sympathetic state of the autonomic nervous system correlates most closely with a condition called fast oxidation on the hair mineral test. It is present when the calcium/potassium ratio is less than 4:1 and the sodium/magnesium ratio is greater than 4.17:1.
The Parasympathetic Metabolic Type. These individuals tend to be more fatigued and prone to depression, low blood sugar, metal toxicity, and many other conditions. Their adrenal and thyroid glands tend to be underactive.
On a properly performed hair mineral analysis this condition is generally associated with slow oxidation. This occurs when the hair calcium/potassium ratio is greater than about 4:1 and the hair sodium/magnesium ratio is less than 4.17:1.
Mixed Symptom Pictures. It is important to note that one can have fast oxidizer mineral ratios and yet not be what is called a true fast oxidizer. Often, the fast oxidation is a temporary state, induced by the presence of toxic metals or other stressors. When these are eliminated, the person’s metabolic type switches to slow oxidation or a parasympathetic state.
Thus, many people show a mixture of sympathetic and parasympathetic characteristics that can present a confusing symptom picture. The great value of the hair mineral analysis is that it can guide a practitioner in correcting layers of autonomic nervous system imbalances.
In addition to the sympathetic and parasympathetic body types, many people who are parasympathetic types overuse their sympathetic nervous system. This is a mental or lifestyle tendency more than anything else. The sympathetic system is exhausted, but they continue to use it or stimulate it anyway.
As a result, they do not spend enough time in a parasympathetic state to fully rebuild their bodies. Their bodies eventually become nutritionally depleted and they become quite literally ‘burned out’.
Today, even children are often burned out, in this sense, due to stress, poor diets, and nutritional deficiencies they are born with.
Sympathetic dominance is revealed on a hair mineral analysis as a slow oxidation rate, along with a hair potassium level less than about 5 mg%. A secondary indicator is a sodium/potassium ratio is greater than about 4:1.
Causes of Sympathetic Dominance. The causes for sympathetic dominance are several. As stated above, it is mainly a lifestyle pattern. Some people take on too much work. Others analyze too much or worry excessively.
Others live in fear, anger, or resentment too much of the time. A person in this condition may also talk, think, eat or work at a rapid pace, faster than the optimum for that person. They become toxic and nutritionally depleted, which makes the condition much worse.
A Vicious Cycle Often Occurs. A person can become so used to being tired that if, by chance, they get a lot of rest one day; they use up their energy the next day, instead of continuing to rest. Such people do not allow their bodies to use the energy they accumulated for healing and rebuilding. As a result, they tend to stay depleted and out of balance.
The early signs of staying in a sympathetic dominant state too much of the time are fatigue or even feelings of exhaustion. As the condition progresses, one may feel depressed, apathetic, or moody. Other physical symptoms include aches and pains, weakness, disturbed digestion, or insomnia. If this continues, the stage is set for more serious illness.
This is a much less important and less common situation. It can be of two types, healthy and unhealthy. Healthy parasympathetic dominance occurs very rarely. It occurs only in spiritually developed people. They live most of their lives in the present moment. They are almost always relaxed, do not react to stress, and live in a state of peace and contentment. Their hair mineral analyses would tend to show fairly balanced oxidation rates.
Unhealthy Parasympathetic Dominance. Today, fearful thinking, electromagnetic pollution, toxic metals, and toxic chemicals in the food, air, and water disturb the functioning of the autonomic system.
The end-stage of sympathetic dominance is that one essentially gives up hope of fighting back at all. These people are essentially in a state of give-up or hopelessness about their situation or health condition.
The hair analyses of these individuals may reveal a low ratio of sodium to potassium, usually less than 1:1. They may also slip into another pattern called four low electrolytes. In this pattern, the hair calcium level is less than 40 mg%, magnesium is less than 6 mg%, sodium is less than 25 mg% and potassium is less than 10 mg%.
The causes of the healthy and unhealthy parasympathetic states are quite opposite. Healthy parasympathetic dominance is due to what may be called spiritual development. This is the discipline to think and live differently. One reduces stress and strain on the body by resting and nourishing it so that it can rebuild. Unhealthy parasympathetic dominance is just a late stage of excessive sympathetic activity due to the vicious cycle spoken of in the section above.
Symptoms of the unhealthy state often include feeling depressed and cynical. Some are paralyzed by their fear or anger about their situation. This, coupled with nutritional imbalances, sets the stage for serious illness.
KEEPING YOUR AUTONOMIC SYSTEM HEALTHY
There is much you can do to keep your autonomic system functioning well.
- Keep your thoughts and your emotions as uplifted and positive as you possibly can, all of the time.
- · Do your very best to stay in gratitude. This will help keep you in a positive, uplifted state.
- · Practice forgiveness. This places you in a position of power and compassion. It is much better than allowing you to feel like a victim, which always leads to a fight-or-flight response.
- Cultivate contentment. This is different from feeling you need to be happy all the time. Happiness, as most people know it, is often short-lived. It is often an attempt to overcome feelings of unhappiness. Contentment is a state in which you are at peace with yourself and the world, even if the world around you is not to your liking. You can learn to let the world go and choose contentment rather than attempting always to control the world.
- Do not compare yourself with others. This causes fear, and often anger and resentment. The world never seems fair from our limited perspectives. There is much that is hidden. If you knew more about others’ lives, you would be less anxious to trade places with them.
- Train your mind to stay out of negative emotions. These include worry, fear, anger, and guilt. These emotions turn on the sympathetic system and keep it active. Meditation, affirmations, counseling, and other natural therapies all can help. Also, surround yourself only with uplifting books, tapes, and other forms of media. Pick your friends and relationships carefully. Work, school, and all your activities either contribute to your contentment or detract from it.
- Become aware of whom and what truly give you energy, versus whom and what mainly use up your energy.
· Rest often. Nap often, and sleep at least 8 hours or more each night. The hours before midnight are by far the best for sleeping. Avoid excessive activity of any kind. Even exercise is often overdone. Exercise is a powerful sympathetic stimulant. Avoid getting exhausted by any activity you engage in. Be careful when using exercise to “run away” from stress, for example. More rest is often what is really required.
- Practice breathing deeply. This is one way to control the autonomic system with a voluntary action. Slow, deep breathing by itself turns off the sympathetic system.
- Eat well. The nervous system must be properly nourished to function correctly. Animal protein is particularly helpful for the brain and nervous system as it contains fats and proteins essential for the nerves. These include the omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids. Excellent foods for the nervous system are eggs, meats, nuts, root vegetables, and oily fish such as sardines and salmon.
Supplemental nutrients that calm the sympathetic system are calcium, magnesium, and zinc in particular. Most everyone should take these supplements today, as their dietary intake is often low. B-complex vitamins are also most important and are primarily obtained from nutritional yeast, meats, and eggs. High doses, however, are rarely needed. Other calming nutrients are GABA, L- taurine, and L- carnitine. Herbs that calm the nervous system are valerian, passionflower, skullcap, and hops, among others.
- Reduce your stress level as much as possible. Stress is the main activator of the sympathetic nervous system. It can arise from within the body due to fatigue, muscle tension, spinal misalignment, or nutritional deficiencies, among other reasons. Stress can also come from outside, such as financial, work, or family stress. Other types of stress to minimize or avoid are living in a noisy environment, or in one with contaminated air and water.
Electromagnetic stress is also very real, although it cannot be seen. Reduce your use of computers if possible, and do not keep televisions, computers, and other electrical devices on when not in use. Be sure to turn them all off when you sleep and keep even clocks and radios away from your head in the location where you sleep. Activities like city driving and using cell phones are also stress-producing, even if you are not aware of it at the time. A simple lifestyle is much preferred.
- Follow A Nutritional Balancing Program. This requires a properly performed and interpreted hair tissue mineral analysis that is used to recommend diet, supplements, and perhaps other detoxification procedures such as the use of an infrared sauna. The sauna is excellent for reducing the excessive activity of the sympathetic nervous system and resting the adrenal and thyroid glands.
The health of the autonomic nervous system is an important key to healing that is often overlooked. Most people today have some degree of sympathetic nervous exhaustion. It is, in fact, a major cause of the disease that should receive more attention. On a brighter note, nervous exhaustion can also cause a person to begin searching for answers deep inside. This can lead to changing your lifestyle and eating habits, and developing your inner potential. As more people become willing to change their thought patterns and lifestyles, they will experience a state of contentment and bliss that comes with having a balanced autonomic system.
The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems
|Sympathetic System||Parasympathetic System|
|Function||To defend the body against attack||Healing, regeneration, and nourishing the body|
|Overall Effect||Catabolic (breaks down the body)||Anabolic (builds up the body)|
|Organs and Glands It Activates||The brain, muscles, the insulin pancreas, and the thyroid and adrenal glands||The liver, kidneys, enzyme pancreas, spleen, stomach, small intestines, and colon|
|Hormones and Substances It Increases||Insulin, cortisol, and the thyroid hormones||Parathyroid hormone, pancreatic enzymes, bile, and other digestive enzymes|
|Body Functions It Activates||Raises blood pressure and blood sugar, and increases heat production||Activates digestion, elimination, and the immune system|
|Psychological Qualities||Fear, guilt, sadness, anger, willfulness, and aggressiveness.||Calmness, contentment, and relaxation|
|Factors That Activate This System||Stress, fears, anger, worry, excessive thinking, and too much exercise||Rest, sleep, meditation, relaxation therapies, and feelings of being loved|
This article was originally copyrighted by the Arizona Networking News, 2005.
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