The autonomic nervous system is the part of the central nervous system that controls bodily functions we do not consciously think about (blood pressure, heart rate, blood flow, body temperature, sleep/wake cycles, blood sugar regulation/metabolism, hormone regulation, and gut motility (which is also known as “peristalsis”).
The autonomic nervous system is broken down into two parts:
1) The parasympathetic portion
2) The sympathetic portion
The parasympathetic nervous system keeps bodily functions going when the body is NOT in the alarm or stressed state. On the other hand, the sympathetic nervous system “kicks in” when we are in a stressed or alarmed state, such as exercising or participating in any physical endeavor. The parasympathetic nervous system promotes peristalsis (gut motility) and the sympathetic nervous system inhibits peristalsis (think about it, you don’t want your bowels moving during a physical endeavor!).
When our body is not in an alarmed or stressed state, our sympathetic nervous system (also known as our “fight or flight” nervous system) MUST be inhibited or kept under control. For the most part, it is our frontal lobes of the brain that do this. Many patients with chronic illness have poor frontal lobe activation due to underlying metabolic disorders and are therefore lacking the inhibition of the sympathetic nervous system. They live in a state of “high sympathetic tone” and suffer the symptoms of such a state including migraine headaches, sensitivity to light and sound, vertigo and balance disorders, insomnia, poor blood sugar regulation and thus weight gain/fatigue, hormone imbalances, high blood pressure, breathing problems, frequent urination and urinary tract infections, chronic pain, and CONSTIPATION.
Treatment includes identifying and removing the metabolic factors that are causing poor frontal lobe activation (blood sugar problems, inflammatory disease, nutritional deficiencies, etc.) as well as stimulating the side of the weak frontal lobe with brain based therapies (interactive metronome, eye exercises, oxygen, etc.) to remove the state of “high sympathetic tone”.
In the meantime, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system will go a long way in improving gut motility and constipation. This is done by activating Cranial Nerve X, or the Vagus Nerve, which lies in your lower brain stem (the Medulla Oblongata) and controls much of gut motility. Common exercises to activate the parasympathetic nervous system include the following:
– GARGLING with warm water, humming, swallowing, and gagging with the back end of your toothbrush. These activities should be done for 60-90 seconds in the morning and at night. Humming and swallowing can be done throughout the day.
– Magnesium may also be recommended as a short-term solution.
I hope this was helpful and as always, If you have any questions – we’re here for you!