What's my Autonomic Nervous System and Why Should I Care?

If you’re lucky you’ll learn a little bit about your autonomic nervous system in high school then  never think about it again because if you’re an adult trying to find more information about it then chances are something is wrong with your body (or a loved one’s) and you’re looking for answers. 


Your autonomic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that you can’t control voluntarily. It controls all the parts, pieces, and systems that you just hope to work normally because if they don’t you can’t just think or concentrate on them to make it better. Your autonomic nervous system controls your cardiovascular system (heart and blood pressure), endocrine system (hormones), lungs, immune system, digestive system, reproductive system, balance, thermal regulation (sweating), sleep, vision, posture… you get the idea, some really, really, really important stuff. 


Where is my autonomic nervous system? (see the picture below)


It’s kind of all over you body, but the main part is at the base of your skull where your head and neck come together and it’s called your brain stem. Science hasn’t always understood exactly how the autonomic nervous system works and why the brain stem is a key part of it, but the “average Joe and Jane” have known there’s something special about the back of the head for 1,000’s of years. For instance… martial arts has been around for a long, long time and they teach to attack the back of the head and neck (brain stem) if you want to quickly disable or kill your opponent.  



How do I fix my autonomic nervous system if it’s not working well?


Treating nervous system problems is one of the last frontiers for modern medicine, which means to say that there isn’t a whole lot medical doctors can do to treat autonomic nervous system problems. They can help people cope and manage some of the symptoms, but not really “fix” the problem. The most effective treatments are the ones that focus on the basic needs of the body… nutrition, sleep, lowering stress, and most importantly proper structural alignment.


Your body’s structure (bones, joints, and muscles) have a huge influence on your autonomic nervous system function. It’s a bit complicated, but basically your autonomic nervous system depends on the nerve messages it receives from the different parts of the body (afferent nerve signals) – that’s the only way it knows how to control it (efferent nerve signals).


It’s like having a CEO of a big factory, but the CEO never leaves the office and the office has no windows. The only way the CEO can make good decisions about how to manage the factory is based on the emails, faxes, and phone calls it gets from the employees who are doing the actual work. If the employees’ messages get to the CEO quickly and accurately then the factory runs well. However, if the employees’ messages are disrupted or inaccurate then the whole factory will begin to suffer because the CEO is making decisions on incomplete or inaccurate information. 

The part of your body that has the biggest influence (sends the most afferent signals) to your autonomic nervous system is your upper neck, specifically the first two bones in your spine (C1 and C2, or “atlas and axis”) and the muscles and ligaments that surround them. For that reason upper cervical specific chiropractic care is one of the most successful, if not the most successful, treatment options for people with autonomic nervous system problems. 

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