A Look into the Autonomic Nervous System Part 2: The Craniosacral Connection

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Written by Dr. Georgia Tetlow, MD, Clare Abercrombie, BS and Claudia Green, BS

“We don't directly react to outer circumstances, but to our own thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise from outer phenomena. This means there is a choice, awareness or opportunity of how to respond...and we don't need to control outer circumstances, or be 100% healthy to be in a relaxed state. We can be in a relaxed state as we are now, by being aware of our own feelings and sensations and not reacting to ourselves with fear, but instead with acceptance.” –Georgia Tetlow, MD, ABOIM

Part 1 of our series on the Autonomic Nervous System explored the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). We learned about the importance of this system when we experience stressful or dangerous situations. These situations can be as tangible as a car accident or as subtle as feeling nervous prior to an important event. Our stress response doesn’t depend on the object of our experience, but rather how we are responding to ourselves and our environment.

What about when we are calm, or able to remain in a state of calm, during a stressful experience? What system is active during relaxation? This post will detail the ins and outs of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the part of our autonomic nervous system that controls rest and relaxation.

Balance Between PNS & SNS

The parasympathetic nervous system, or the “calming” side of the autonomic nervous system, activates when the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is no longer dominant. The PNS manages all of our bodily systems on a functional and daily basis. This system calms you down in times of stress, allows you to digest food, reproduce, and excrete waste. While the SNS nerves stem from the thoracolumbar area of the spinal cord, PNS nerves stem from your brain and your sacral region, otherwise known as your craniosacral axis. While the ganglia or “stopping points for neurons” of the SNS are close to the spinal cord, the ganglia for the PNS are closer to or within the effector organs or “end destinations”. This means most of our PNS nerves run directly from our brain to our organs, bypassing the spinal cord.

What are Cranial Nerves?

Aside from a few nerves in the sacral region that innervate your bladder and sexual organs, a majority of PNS nerves stem from the brain. These 12 nerves, referred to as the cranial nerves, affect everything from facial and eye muscles to organs like your stomach. Some of the cranial nerves involve motor fibers that control voluntary motor function, some contain sensory fibers that relay sensory information to sensory organs (i.e. smell to your olfactory nerve to your brain), and other cranial nerves control autonomic or involuntary function. Some cranial nerves actually contain both motor and sensory neurons!

Activating the PNS to Relieve GI Issues

Part of our integrative approach to treating patients holistically involves taking into account “whole body systems”. We frequently ask our patients if they are under stress, or are experiencing feelings of depression and anxiety. These factors can play a significant role in the health and wellness of our body systems. Through reading this post, you may have  learned about the importance of stimulating the PNS to maintain proper functioning organ systems, like your GI tract. It is vital to make a connection between the fast-paced and stress inducing lifestyles many of us live and the way this can affects our body systems.

Integrative medicine recognizes that each patient can benefit from practices that stimulate the PNS and inactivate the SNS. This simple adjustment can bring balance to our autonomic (i.e. automatic) body processes, including our digestion. When the PNS is activated, digestion is more effective as blood flow is increased to the GI tract. Gastric motility is improved due to increased peristalsis (stomach muscle contractions), increased digestive enzymes are secreted to help breakdown food, and our intestines are better able to  absorb vitamins and minerals. Without proper activation of the PNS, our digestive process is compromised, and simply not functioning optimally.

So, how can we activate the PNS and inactive the SNS? One of the best and most basic ways is to breath deeply (by this we mean filling the lungs and breathing at a relaxed and comfortable rhythm), thus increasing intrathoracic pressure and stimulating the Vagus Nerve as it travels through the torso. Craniosacral therapy is a very effective way to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. This hands-on modality can be profoundly balancing, and is can be an important aspect of an integrative treatment plan. Additionally, lifestyle choices can also help to emphasize our PNS including: exercise, massage, playing or listening to music, being in nature, art, yoga, meditation, and even taking a bath, among other relaxation inducing activities.

We frequently recommend mindfulness stress reduction--to help you develop an at home mind body practice. Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, taking in our surroundings, environment, and sensations. It gives you a moment to be aware of your senses in that moment. Other forms of meditation work well, too! We encourage our patients to incorporate techniques that stimulate the PNS such as breathing, mindfulness and other meditation techniques--both sitting and movement based--even if it just 5 minutes a day before sleep!

PIM wants to hear from you! Do you have an experience with managing your stress response? Did you find this article helpful? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Interested in connecting with PIM? Register for our next FREE Group Classes at Cabrini College each from 6:30 -8:00 PM:

3/14/18  Bad Bowels? A Functional Medicine approach to Leaky Gut  (please RSVP here)

4/4/18 Latest in Mind-Body Science: Skills for Mental, Emotional and Physical Health (please RSVP here)

OR Nutrition Classes with our very own Rachel Hershberger, MS, CNS, LDN, tickets just $45 at sign up (limited to 8 participants for individual attention, no walkins, please).

If you or your loved one has ongoing stress, mood or hormone imbalance, or they are suffering from a chronic illness, please consider scheduling a 20 minute free consultation or an appointment with Lauren Houser, MS, MSN, CRNP or Annmarie McManus, MMSc, PA-C, PT, IFMCP.