I was first introduced to the concept of Sympathetic Overdrive while attending a lecture about the etiology of autoimmune disease presented by Gary and Rain Klepper D.C. Over ten years later, any skepticism I had regarding the importance of this concept has fully dissolved. There is an array of chronic diseases, including many autoimmune and skin disorders, which are ultimately and intimately related to gut health. Overlooking this single issue can render an otherwise sound treatment protocol slow or ineffective. For successful treatment of gut-related conditions it is imperative that the presence and severity of sympathetic overdrive be assessed and addressed.
Understanding Sympathetic Overdrive
There are two major parts of the nervous system. The parasympathetic, which is activated when we relax, is known as the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system. It stimulates blood flow to the digestive system, brain, extremities and sexual organs. The other part, the sympathetic nervous system, is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. It is activated when our body perceives stress. It reduces blood flow to the extremities, brain and digestive organs in preparation for a perceived survival situation. As we go through our daily lives, our external circumstances and our thoughts stimulate a constant dance between these two aspects of the nervous system. When a person is constantly stressed, their nervous system can be tilted into the state of sympathetic overdrive. The stress can be brought on by various factors including constant worry, skipping meals, not getting adequate rest, not allowing adequate time to carry out tasks and difficult life situations. People who work long hours that involve concentration and active thinking are prone to sympathetic overdrive. This condition is rampant in corporate executives and hedge fund managers. It can also be triggered by situations that remind our subconscious of stressful or scary events from our past.
When a person experiences enough stress to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, they often experience cold hands and feet. Less noticeable but more serious is the reduced blood flow to the digestive tissues. If this only happens occasionally, the system usually has the resilience to recover. However, if the body is in a state of sympathetic overdrive, tissues of the digestive system constantly experience a state of reduced blood flow and oxygen exchange. Elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, can lead to further damage to these tissues.
The effects of reduced blood flow from sympathetic overdrive interferes with the proper functioning of digestive organs, alters the balance of microbes residing within the gut, reduces the proper functioning of the immune system and interferes with proper filtering of nutrients that are absorbed. Many of the beneficial bacteria and fungi growing in our gut only thrive in an oxygen environment. These bacteria are known as aerobes. As the oxygen supply diminishes with circulation, bacteria that thrive in the absence of oxygen, anaerobes, begin to replace the withering populations of aerobic bacteria. Clostridium Difficile (aka C. Diff), a common infection in hospitals, is a classic anaerobic bacterium. Aside from C. Diff., there are likely hundreds of species of anaerobic bacteria that can or do reside in the human gut. So far, it is estimated that we’ve only been able to culture and identify between 1-5% of these organisms. However, we know they exist because we can test for one of their main waste products, beta-glucuronidase. This little waste product can reap havoc on the body’s detoxification systems and will be discussed in another article.
One would expect significant digestive disturbances in this situation. However, some people never experience any digestive symptoms. In the past 15 years I have seen hundreds of patients who tested positive for overgrowth of C. Diff, numerous pathogens or the presence of beta glucuronidase with no digestive symptoms. On the other hand, most of these patients had other significant chronic diseases including eczema, psoriasis, tyramine intolerance, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and fibromyalgia. I want to be absolutely clear that this scenario is only one piece of the puzzle in healing these diseases.
There are very few possibilities to explain how pathogenic bacteria can thrive in the digestive tract without initiating a proper immune response. The most logical explanation is the disruption of proper immune functioning from gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). I suspect that this system either becomes defective or overloaded. As a result, the constant stream of antigens override this system and they are passed along to other parts of immune system in the mucosa associated lymphoid tissue (MALT). As a result, inflammatory conditions, like eczema and joint stiffness, arise in other parts of the body. This too is a very large subject that I will discuss in another article or in my book.
Assessing the Presence and Severity of Sympathetic Overdrive
There are several key signs that suggest a patient is experiencing Sympathetic Overdrive. Many of these were originally observed in the Traditional Chinese Medicine literature under the concepts of Liver Qi Stagnation, Liver overacting on Spleen and/or Stomach. Obviously, there are variations but here are some basic guidelines.
- Cold hands and feet – This symptom can arises when the stress response is fairly pronounced. Of course, it can be caused by other conditions that affect circulation. However, as a general rule, if the patient is experiencing both cold hands and feet, it is usually a symptom of sympathetic overdrive.
- Constipation or sluggish bowel movements without dry stools – the reduction of circulation to the digestive system slows churning in the intestinal tract and can lead to mild constipation or sluggish movement. It is possible to have constipation with dry stools along with this condition but it will not be caused by it.
- Overgrowth of anaerobic bacteria or elevated beta-glucuronidase on a stool and digestive analysis.
- Any symptom that is generally worse with stress is often related to sympathetic overdrive.
Treating Sympathetic Overdrive
There are multiple ways of treating this problem. However, tools that the patient can use several times per day will accelerate progress. The most powerful remedy for this situation is a variation of abdominal breathing that originated from the ancient practice of Qi Gong. This exercise, acts as a pump to restore circulation to the digestive tissues and directly stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Instructions: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your knees slightly bent. Place your hands on the lower abdomen below the naval bringing your attention to this area. Inhaling deeply, extend your abdomen out as if it is a balloon filling with air. Exhale and squeeze the lower abdomen in imagining that you are trying to touch your naval to your spine. The repetitions can be done fairly quickly averaging about 1 every 3-4 seconds or slowly for a deeper meditative effect. You can also do this exercise while driving or lying down. Repeat 5-10 times several times per day or whenever symptoms appear. For amazing abdominal muscles repeat 100-200x per day.
You can find other meditative and breathing exercises in my previous post “Finding Inspiration Through Respiration”
Abdominal heat packs – simply applying heat to the abdominal area can stimulate circulation to these tissues and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Acupuncture is powerfully effective for “resetting” the nervous system and reducing stress. It has been demonstrated to treat the most extreme version of sympathetic overdrive, which we call post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. It is so effective that a few years ago, the U.S Department of Defense funded The Air Force Acupuncture Center. This is a clinic dedicated to treating military personnel who suffer from PTSD. It is used as a practice and training facility for physicians and medical professionals for “battlefield acupuncture”.
Herbs and Homeopathic Remedies that Really Work
Please note that all of these recommendations should be administered under the guidance of a qualified health care provider.
Rescue Remedy – This is available in all health food stores and online. Its intended use was originally for stress and traumatic experiences. I have found it to be incredibly helpful for treatment of gut disorders that involve sympathetic overdrive. Just follow the instuctions.
Psy-Stabil by Pekana – This is another remedy that falls under the practice of homotoxicology, which is slightly different from homeopathy. Its effects are similar to Rescue Remedy but may be a bit stronger. It is also very helpful for relieving anxiety.
Rhodiola – This herb is literally miraculous for restoring circulation to the digestive system and also balancing the nervous system. It is also helpful for treating addiction and some causes of depression. Be careful! It has some interactions with medications. Practitioners, be sure to take the time to inform yourself before prescribing it.
Lactobacillus Rhamanosus – This beneficial bacterium is one of the few that generates hydrogen peroxide. It is very helpful for reintroducing oxygen to the digestive tract and reducing overgrowth of C. Diff and other obligate anaerobes.
Other tips for preventing stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system:
- Don’t skip meals! Every time your body has to accommodate a drop in blood sugar, it stimulates the production of cortisol and initiates a stress response
- Take time everyday to do nothing
- Give yourself the gift of extra time to complete tasks. Cramming more and more tasks into your day increases stress and reduces creativity and the possibility of spontaneity.
- Pay attention to the situations and people in your life who make you feel stressed. Reflect on why they trigger these feelings in you and decide if there are ways of managing your exposure to them.
- Spend time in Nature. This is proven to reduce stress levels.
“Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” – Hippocrates