The Autonomic Nervous System and its imbalance

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for regulation of all the bodily functions that happen automatically. These include:

  • breathing
  • circulation
  • digestion
  • body temperature
  • dilation and constriction of the pupils
  • kidney function

It takes care of everything behind the scenes and you have little control over how it regulates the involuntary functions.

The ANS is compromised of two parts:

  1. the sympathetic nervous system
  2. the parasympathetic nervous system

The sympathetic nervous system acts in sympathy with your body’s need to survive. It is also known as the “fight or flight” response. When your body senses a threat to your survival, it increases the activity to the sympathetic nervous system to prepare you for “fighting” or “flighting”. Adrenaline is released. Blood, energy and resources are diverted away from the areas not necessarily required to survive in that moment. These include:

  • the gut
  • the reproductive system
  • skin

The blood is diverted to more important areas such as the heart, brain and skeletal muscle.

The parasympathetic nervous system controls the opposite response and is also known as the “rest and digest” system. It helps you store energy, rest, sleep and digest food.

The ANS is an involuntary nervous system. It can turn off each part according to your body’s requirements

Now let’s talk about autonomic imbalance.

While we are sleeping, if the airway collapses, repeated intermittent hypoxia sets in and the body senses a threat to your survival. The sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive. This is prolonged and repeated throughout your entire sleep as you cannot maintain the extended periods of deep sleep.

A chronic, low-grade stress response develops during the night. This happens all night, every night so then it filters in to your daytime, awake hours. Now the low-grade stress response is present 24 hours a day. Sympathetic drive is maintained, parasympathetic drive is suppressed, and so all the parasympathetic functions like digestion, reproduction and calmness are downregulated.

Patients with airway compromise and poor sleep quality inevitably also have comorbidities associated with parasympathetic suppression such as:

  • infertility
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • reflux

They also have comorbidities associated with higher sympathetic drive

  • anxiety
  • heart conditions
  • high blood pressure
  • hormone imbalance -> diabetes, weight gain

The fluctuations in the autonomic nervous system is known as dysautonomia. It drains us of a lot of energy. And the imbalance on the bodily systems in debilitating in the short and long term.