8 natural methods for balancing the autonomic nervous system

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

The rate of individuals suffering from autonomic nervous system dysfunctions is fast on the rise, due to our high stress and stimulative 21st-century lifestyles.

However unknown to many practitioners, there are several natural therapies which are proven to help support the balance of the autonomic nervous system such as meditation and often have fewer side-effects and are better tolerated than many pharmaceutical medications.

The autonomic nervous system has two main branches, the sympathetic “fight or flight” branch and the para-sympathetic “rest and digest” system.

The most common stress-induced autonomic nervous system imbalance is an excessive activity of the sympathetic nervous system, coupled with a lack of para-sympathetic dominance or tone as it is often referred too.

We are now seeing an epidemic of individuals suffering from burnout/chronic fatigue syndrome and hpa-axis dysregulation, which is often referred to as “adrenal fatigue”.  Simply put “adrenal fatigue” is the term typically used in the alternative health movement to refer to a lowered output of adrenal gland hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine.

The sympathetic “fight or flight” system was designed to be used briefly in times of danger, such as running away from a threat.  The sympathetic nervous system signals your adrenal glands via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to release hormones such as cortisol to increase energy and concentration to help us survive and cope in these stressful/dangerous type of situations.

However, due to our high stress and stimulative 21st-century lifestyles, many individuals are now constantly living in a sympathetic “fight or flight” dominant state, which can have extremely catabolic and destructive consequences for the individual’s health and well-being long-term.

You’d be surprised how often autonomic nervous system imbalances/dysfunction go completely undiagnosed or are treated poorly with the wrong medications such as anti-depressants or beta blockers, which can actually be dangerous for individuals suffering from hyperadrenergic POTS and other autonomic related disorders for example.

When it comes to health and well-being, there is no substitute for a balanced autonomic nervous system.  Anyone with chronic health conditions should hopefully notice some improvement in health variables from encouraging a healthy balance of the autonomic nervous system.

After all the human body does the majority of its healing, digestion, detoxification and regeneration whilst we are in a rested parasympathetic state.  Stress reduction techniques such as those listed in the article below can be very helpful for supporting and improving health.

I have listed eight of my favorite natural alternative therapies below, which have scientific evidence validating their ability to increase parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system tone, blunt sympathetic “fight or flight” activity and improve overall autonomic nervous system balance.

1. Meditation

Meditation for autonomic nervous system

Meditation techniques are my overall favorite natural therapy for supporting the autonomic nervous system, calming the mind, reducing stress and increasing general well-being.

As someone who lived the majority of their life in a “fight or flight” state of fear and chronic stress, i can personally attest to the significant health benefits that meditation can offer, especially for individuals with the typical autonomic imbalances discussed above earlier.

Personally i feel that no amount of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs or beta blockers can offer the same health benefit that one gets from improving para-sympathetic tone naturally through the use of meditation.  I like to think of meditation as “exercising the mind or nervous system”, just as we require physical exercise to maintain cardiovascular health for example.

Some of the health benefits that balancing the autonomic nervous system can offer is increased energy, improved mood, reduced anxiety and less racing thoughts(especially at bedtime), improved sleep, better digestion, reduction of stress/endocrine hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline plus much more.

A number of studies now confirm that various meditation techniques can increase para-sympathetic activity and dominance, which can help to maintain a healthy autonomic nervous system balance.

One study on the effects of meditation on para-sympathetic nervous system functional status in meditators found that – “The basal cardiac parameters via heart rate and blood pressure were found to be uniformly lower in meditators than non meditators in all age groups, more so in senior meditators. This indicated the presence of parasympathetic dominance in meditators even at resting state.”

The study concluded that – “These observations support that the regular practice of meditation, depending upon the years of meditation as well, increases parasympathetic tone in meditators.” [1]

2. Ice Cold Showers

Ice Cold Showers & Autonomic Nervous System

Initially in the beginning as an individual with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I was unsure as to whether cold showers were a good thing or not for my condition.

I had heard all the rave reviews over the years about the various health benefits attributed to cold shower therapy.  However, i also knew by the way cold showers made me feel that they were an “acute” stress on the body and activated the sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system.  Obviously, something that individuals with chronic fatigue syndrome don’t want is more sympathetic activation.

However, after reading some of the scientific research on cold showers potential as a treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome, I decided to bite the bullet and experiment with cold showers for 30 days.

The brief science that is there on cold shower therapy finds that although there is an initial activation of the sympathetic nervous system as the cold stress hits the body, once you acclimatize to the cold temperature sympathetic activation is actually blunted and there is an increase in parasympathetic dominance.

So the research would confirm that ice cold showers may be another great tool for helping to balance the autonomic nervous system and activating the parasympathetic “rest and digest” branch, which is the state where healing and regeneration occur in the body.

My 30-day experiment with cold shower therapy had me instantly hooked, some of the health benefits I’ve felt from cold showers include increased energy/cortisol levels, more calm, relaxed and better stress tolerance, improved mood, better circulation, libido boost, reduction of eye floaters and a general feeling of increased well-being.

I like to listen to guided meditation music straight after cold showers because I find it enhances the calm and relaxed state significantly.

Those with serious cardiovascular, thyroid or other health problems should consult a professional before attempting cold shower therapy.

3. Deep Breathing Techniques

Deep Breathing Techniques Autonomic Nervous System

Deep breathing techniques are another excellent method for balancing the autonomic nervous system and in particular shutting off the sympathetic “fight or flight” branch.

Diaphragmatic breathing is known to have a beneficial effect on the cardiopulmonary system and enhances parasympathetic activation.

Deep breathing is one of the few methods that we can use to influence our autonomic nervous system balance voluntarily and a huge bonus is that we can practice these techniques anywhere for free.

Slow controlled and deep diaphragmatic breathing plays a central role in meditation and other meditative-movement exercises such as Yoga and Tai Chi, which we will discuss the benefits of shortly.

4. Acupuncture

Acupuncture Autonomic Nervous System Dysfunction

Scientific research has recently uncovered the secrets of how acupuncture really works.  According to the latest science, the key to many of acupuncture’s health benefits can largely be attributed to its ability to balance the autonomic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.

This is great news for those with stress-induced autonomic nervous system dysfunction and many other common health problems which result from disorders of the hpa-axis such as chronic fatigue syndrome/me, post-traumatic stress disorders, depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia and much more.

Acupuncture is a popular natural healing method derived from ancient Chinese medicine and involves the use of fine needles inserted into the skin at certain specific acupuncture points on the body.

I’m a great fan of acupuncture and its broad-spectrum of therapeutic potential in treating many hard to treat health problems.  The only down-side to acupuncture in my opinion is that it can be costly if done privately.

5. Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi-Gong & Other Meditative Movement Exercise

Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong & Meditative Exercise For Dysautonomia

Meditative-movement exercise such as Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong have a long traditional history of helping to reduce stress, calm the mind and support the autonomic nervous system.

Tai Chi, Qi-Gong and even many Yoga forms are low impact exercise choices, which makes them a good choice for those with dysautonomia, who often suffer from some level of exercise intolerance.

Scientific research has also confirmed that yoga and tai chi, both have a beneficial effect on the autonomic nervous system, helping to increase parasympathetic tone and decrease sympathetic activity.

One study on the effect of Tai Chi Chuan on the autonomic nervous modulation in older persons, concluded – “The short-term effect of TCC was to enhance the vagal modulation and tilt the sympathovagal balance toward decreased sympathetic modulation in older persons. TCC might be good health-promoting calisthenics for older persons.” [2]

6. Biofeedback Devices

Biofeedback devices for relaxation and autonomic nervous system

Relaxation is something that comes naturally to most, however, those with the autonomic nervous system imbalances as described above typically have real problems getting themselves into a relaxed and calm parasympathetic state.

This is exactly why the over-prescribing of sedative anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, and sleep medications are steadily on the rise, not to mention the lure of alcohol, which is a popular remedy that many individuals use to “wind down” after a stressful day at work.

This is where I feel biofeedback devices can be a great help for those struggling to get into a relaxed parasympathetic state.

I’ve played around with some of the biofeedback devices on the market such as the GSR2 and feel it was very helpful in the beginning of my journey of trying to balance my autonomic nervous system and reduce stress, particularly at a time when I was struggling to relax.

The GSR2 is a small portable hand-held device in the shape of a computer mouse and you plug earphones into it, the goal is to lower the sound pitch which keeps you in a calm state.  GSR stands for Galvanic Skin Resistance, the biofeedback device measures minute changes in skin pore size and sweat gland activity as it relates to tension.

The main benefit of the GSR2 I felt, was that you could go for a walk and use it in public relatively concealed and re-train your autonomic nervous system whilst out and about.  If you have experienced any type of dysautonomia, you will likely be able to relate to the autonomic nervous system hyper-excitability that occurs when out in public, often for no reason.  The GSR2 was a great way of retaining the nervous system to stay calm in these situations.

Biofeedback devices can range in price from around £40.00 to thousands of pounds for high-tech state of the art equipment such as SCIO.

You can purchase the GSR2 Biofeedback Device, which is available from Amazon for around £65.00.

7. Nervine & Adaptogenic Herbs

Herbs for supporting the nervous system and adrenal glands.

There are a plethora of natural herbs and botanicals which can help to support, nourish and tone the nervous system.

Herbs that have an affinity for nourishing the nervous system are typically referred to by herbalists as “nervine herbs”.

Some examples of my favorite nervine herbs include gotu kola, oatstraw(avena sativa), skullcap, passionflower, valerian root and hops.

Of all these herbs, I believe gotu kola to be the most effective for overall nervous system support.  Gotu Kola also has adrenal gland support properties and can stimulate collagen production/support chronic venous insufficiency.  Gotu Kola has a very mild sedative effect, which can be helpful to calm the mind and reduce anxiety.

Oatstraw is a gentle nervine herb which makes a great herbal infusion that nourishes the nervous system and can be taken daily.

There is another class of herbs commonly referred to as “adaptogens”, which can be very helpful for supporting chronically stressed individuals and those suffering from adrenal fatigue.  Stress-induced autonomic nervous system dysfunction is very common, so if you are an individual under prolonged chronic stress, I feel adaptogen herbs can be an extremely beneficial treatment.

Adaptogens increase the bodies resistance to all kinds of stressors and help to maintain the body to maintain optimal hpa-axis and endocrine hormone balance.  Adaptogens help the body to maintain optimal homeostasis especially in times of stress.

Some examples of adaptogenic herbs include panax ginseng, schizandra berry, licorice root, maca root, medicinal mushrooms such as reishi and cordyceps, ashwagandha, jiaogulan and suma root are some of the best choices.

Always consult a professional before taking any herbs or supplements, as many herbs have interactions with pharmaceutical medications commonly consumed by those with dysautonomia, an example being licorice root and its potential for increasing the effect of steroid medications.

8. Diet, Nutrition & Micro-Nutrient Deficiencies

Diet and autonomic nervous system dysfunction

Many doctors are completely unaware of the vital role that various micro-nutrient deficiencies play in the pathophysiology of dysautonomia.

Prolonged intense stress can have very devastating effects on the body and one result can be low levels and nutrient deficiencies involved in healthy nervous system function.

Some examples of these include the B-Complex Vitamins such as Vitamin B6(pyridoxine), which are very important for the overall function of the nervous system.  Minerals such as magnesium and zinc are also essential and are still common nutrient deficiencies according to research.

Co-Enzyme Q10 is a vitamin-like substance involved in mitochondrial and cellular energy(ATP) production.  Studies have found deficiencies in Co-Enzyme Q10 can cause autonomic dysfunction, depression and chronic fatigue.

For those with dysautonomia with unexplained cause, blood tests such as spectracell can be very helpful for detecting micro-nutrient deficiencies that may be contributing to your unexplained health problems.  Spectracell measures intracellular levels of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and may other nutrients.

Personally after nearly a decade of struggling with health problems such as chronic fatigue and dysautonomia and getting nowhere with doctors, i decided to do lots of private testing including Spectracell.  I found out that from these tests that i had a severe deficiency of Co-Enzyme Q10 and a functional Vitamin B12 deficiency, both of which were significant contributors to my dysautonomia, chronic fatigue syndrome and other myriad of debilitating symptoms.

These serious micro-nutrient deficiencies would have gone completely undetected, hadn’t i gone to the bother of doing them privately and as the scientific research shows some of them are very important to detect early.

Co-Enzyme Q10 deficiency for example has been found in multiple human clinical studies to be a significant risk factor for the early death by cardiovascular disorder in individuals with conditions such as depression and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Functional Vitamin B12 deficiency can often go undetected and can manifest itself it many ways from chronic fatigue syndrome to multiple sclerosis type nerve degeneration symptoms.  Studies have found that despite many individuals having normal serum vitamin B12 levels, that they actually have a functional vitamin B12 deficiency confirmed by elevated homocysteine levels and urine MMA(Methylmalonic Acid) tests.

References

1. A Study on Effects of Meditation on Parasympathetic Nervous System Functional Status in Meditators.

http://www.ijrpbsonline.com/files/51-3276.pdf

2. The effect of Tai Chi Chuan on the autonomic nervous modulation in older persons.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14652490

The information in this article has not been evaluated by the FDA and should not be used to diagnose, cure or treat any disease, implied or otherwise.

Musclefood Ltd

8 thoughts on “8 natural methods for balancing the autonomic nervous system

  • November 25, 2016 at 12:35 am
    Permalink

    Nice article! I’d like to try the cold showers – how long do you stay under, and why do you caution people with thyroid conditions?

    Also, what are your thoughts on trying to quantify this with hrv?

    Thanks, Joe

    Reply
    • November 27, 2016 at 5:09 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks :)

      These days i just do 1 minute of ice cold at the end of my regular hot shower.

      I believe extreme cold stress/showers is contraindicated for individuals with endocrine disorders in general, including thyroid and adrenal insufficiency/addisons disease.

      Here is a study from 2008 on cold showers, and HRV. – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18785356

      Cold exposure increased sympathetic activity, which was blunted after cold acclimation. Parasympathetic activity showed a minor increase in cold, which was enhanced after cold acclimation. In conclusion, cold habituation lowers sympathetic activation and causes a shift toward increased parasympathetic activity.

      Another study ive come across recently on cold showers.

      Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17993252

      Thanks for posting Joe.

      Reply
      • May 1, 2017 at 9:54 pm
        Permalink

        This is something I do when days are chronically stressful and I’m self-aware/accepting enough to know I’m getting ‘hysterical’. Shoving oneself out in the cold or taking a shower may seem like an awful idea but it quickly overrides emotional pain – be it from physical, emotional stress – or both if you’re frantically clinging on to a healthy lifestyle through a tough period. A few minutes outside to calm down in light clothing is a nicer idea to going straight under a colder shower – but either works. I tend to try thinking about what I can do instead – rather than resolving a train-wrecked day. Better for your health but sometimes there’s little choice.

        Reply
  • April 24, 2017 at 2:12 am
    Permalink

    Just curious if you have any recommendations for the reversed condition. I have parasympathetic excess.

    Reply
    • May 6, 2017 at 4:48 pm
      Permalink

      Hey Julie,

      Dr Lawrence Wilson talks a bit about parasympathetic dominance in his article on the autonomic nervous system.

      Unhealthy Parasympathetic States = Most Slow Oxidizers. This is very common. It is revealed on up to 90 % of adult hair mineral analyses, for example. It is basically the end stage of sympathetic burnout. People in this condition have exhausted their sympathetic systems so much, their bodies flip into a default parasympathetic state we call slow oxidation.

      It is a condition in which the sympathetic organs, the thyroid, adrenals and the muscles and brain, in fact, are operating more sluggishly. These people are often tired, apathetic, and tend to get depressed easily.

      This state is far more common in adults than it is in young children. However, it is seen more and more commonly in children, as they are born far more toxic and depleted today.

      This state corresponds to an exhaustion stage of stress according to the stress theory of disease, another important concept to master if one is to use hair analysis properly….”

      Might be worth a read, here is the link in case it helps – http://www.drlwilson.com/articles/AUTONOMIC%20HEALTH.htm

      Reply
  • May 2, 2017 at 9:30 am
    Permalink

    Hi. Great post. How do you treat a functional b12 deficiency? I take a b12 spray orally. Would this be enough to get levels up? Thanks.

    Reply
    • May 6, 2017 at 4:35 pm
      Permalink

      Hey,

      Not that i give specific advice. But generally speaking supplements and/or injectable forms of Vitamin B12 are often recommended to treat severe deficiencies or to compensate for methylation gene mutations such as MTRR, which cause poor recycling of active vitamin b12.

      The active forms of Vitamin B12 such as methylcobalamin are also commonly recommended, over the cheap inactive forms of B12 such as cyanocobalamin and even hydroxocobalamin.

      Best idea would be to get a qualified professional who can do the right tests for you such as homocysteine, MMA, holotranscobalamin etc so you properly assess true vitamin B12 status.

      Reply
  • July 13, 2017 at 4:43 pm
    Permalink

    Great article!!!
    I have CRPS, what helps the sympathetic Nervous system to function normally? I had surgery 6 months ago that caused this to happen.
    Thanks!!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *