This branch of our nervous system deals with controlling the involuntary actions of our body (digestion, breathing, blood flow, temperature regulation, metabolism, etc.). It consists of the Sympathetic Nervous System and Parasympathetic Nervous System. The sympathetic side is for “fight or flight” while the parasympathetic side helps us “rest and digest.” Like most things in life, it is all about BALANCE. Think of the sympathetics and parasympathetics on a see saw. If one side is high, the other is low. When your body perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system springs into action. This can happen with either physical or emotional stimuli. If you are walking around your home and you stub your toe, your body performs a number of tasks simultaneously (in addition to the muttering of guttural language). Your heart rate goes up, your eyes dilate, your breathing quickens, and your muscles engorge with blood. The same happens if you’re walking in the woods and see a bear. Why? Because whether the stimulus is physical or emotional, your nervous system detects a threat and it is helping you prepare to deal with that threat by helping you improve your ability to either fight that threat off or run away from it. Eventually, the threat is gone and your body recovers because things are back to normal. You go home and relax and your parasympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. Your blood pressure decreases, your breathing slows down, your digestive juices get ramped up, etc. Pretty cool, huh?
Many of my patients who come in suffering from chronic musculoskeletal pain have also experienced the effects of autonomic nervous system imbalance. When we take the cause of that irritation away, not only does their pain decrease, but they often experience other changes in their health. Some of these changes are obvious, like better sleep, better digestion, improved cognitive function, and improved energy levels. A lot of times, they are able to ditch some of the meds they were taking that were merely covering up these symptoms of nervous system imbalance. Cool, huh?
I once had a patient tell me that when he gets adjusted, it feels like he “took a shower on the inside.” Your own internal hygiene notwithstanding, it stands to reason that any prolonged stress on our bodies can lead to autonomic imbalance, which without a doubt can have negative effects on our health. This is not to say that every single malady, symptom, and sickness can be fixed with chiropractic care (wouldn’t that be nice?) Obviously, emotional stress, lack of sleep, food sensitivities (ahem…I’m looking at you, gluten), overtraining, and other factors can also lead to this problem. However, a healthy spine is a great place to start if you want your nervous system to work at peak efficiency.