What is the autonomic nervous system
The autonomic nervous system is a complex network of nerves that controls our body's automatic functions, such as breathing, heart rate, digestion, and more. It's responsible for regulating the things we don't have to think about, like our heart rate going up when we exercise or our pupils dilating in the dark. The autonomic nervous system is split into two main branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ state, as it is activated during times of stress or danger, causing our heart rate to increase, breathing to quicken, and pupils to dilate. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is responsible for ‘rest and digest’ functions, slowing our heart rate and breathing, and promoting digestion.
How problems with the autonomic nervous system can lead to chronic symptoms
Problems with the autonomic nervous system can lead to chronic health conditions because the it is responsible for regulating many involuntary bodily functions. When there is a problem with the autonomic nervous system, these functions may not be properly regulated, leading to a variety of symptoms such as:
- Lightheadedness or fainting
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Bladder problems
- Sexual problems
- Unusual sweating
- Heart rate or blood pressure changes
- Changes in pupil size
- Difficulty swallowing
- Chronic fatigue
- Breathing difficulties
- Loss of appetite
- Anxiety or depression
- Chronic pain
Because many of these symptoms overlap with other conditions, it can take a long time to get a diagnosis of an autonomic nervous system disorder.
What causes problems with the autonomic nervous system
Certain medications and conditions can cause issues with the autonomic nervous system. However, it is thought that the brain plays a role, too. In autonomic nervous system dysfunction, the brain's amygdala and insula may be hyper-aroused. This triggers the sympathetic nervous systems ‘fight or flight’ response which releases stress hormones and results in the accompanying symptoms.
How to treat problems with the autonomic nervous system
Treating autonomic nervous system dysfunction typically involves addressing underlying medical issues, eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and managing stress. In addition, one of the most promising areas of treatment is called ‘brain retraining’. Brain retraining occurs through the repetition of certain exercises which teach the brain and nervous system that they are safe. Over time, this calms the amygdala and insula, and moves the nervous system into a parasympathetic state. One well-known type of brain retraining is The Gupta Program, which is designed to treat autonomic nervous system dysfunction by directly targeting the amygdala and insula.
If you are interested in finding out whether brain retraining is right for you, sign up to the Gupta Program’s free trial.