Sunday, June 12, 2011


Everyone is aware that we possess what is called a voluntary nervous system that enables us to carry out actions at will. The control mechanisms are, of course, in the most developed part of the brain. Many people are, however, ignorant of another part of our complex body communication system. This is known as the autonomic nervous system and its controls are in the lower or more primitive part of the brain, the limbic system and brainstem. The sophisticated thinking part of the brain still has many activities that are still unexplained. We do not understand the true nature of thinking or consciousness. Whether it is a computer or not is unknown. The limbic system and brainstem are clearly vital parts of an extremely complex computer. They control our ability to adapt to all the mental and physical sensory input that we experience throughout life. Most people are aware that we have a bunch of glands collectively known as the endocrine system. They release their respective hormones on cue from messages that are sent out automatically by the lower brain control mechanisms. They are really messengers of the brain and as they return to the brain in the blood, their concentration is carefully monitored and controlled by biofeedback. That is why it is virtually impossible to give people hormones that imitate this for we do not know the required concentration of any hormone at any one time in the twenty-four hour cycle

The autonomic system can be compared to two telephone lines, each of which goes to every organ in the body. They are called sympathetic and parasympathetic and they essentially provide messages to the body organs that oppose each other. The sympathetic “telephone line” is the “action system” and it is capable of initiating a number of reflexes that are important to our survival. The best known of these is the fight-or-flight reflex, aimed at “killing the enemy, for example a wild animal, or escaping from it”. It consumes a great deal of cellular energy and is designed for short term action. After the danger, whatever that may be, is over and survival has been accomplished, the sympathetic system is automatically withdrawn and the parasympathetic arm goes into action. Under its guidance, we can “roll a stone over the mouth of our cave” and we can sleep, eat, have sex and do all the things that we can do in a safe environment. Of course, our stress factors have changed dramatically from that encountered by our ancestors. We now have the modern equivalents associated with our civilization. Most modern stress is mental and does not require a physical response as an escape. It is a very different kind of attack and can unfortunately be prolonged, thus exhausting cellular energy. It must be emphasized here that the word “stress” must be used as the “causative physical or mental input”. It is the response that is the important issue. It may explain, for example, why a given child can come out of a parental divorce without harm whereas another child may not, depending on how the stress is handled.

The prefix “dys” means “abnormality of” and so that is how dysautonomia simply means that the system is not functioning as it should. There are genetic factors, as there always are, but the most important cause of this dysfunction (see the prefix again) is inefficient use of oxygen in providing cellular energy. The brain is the organ that is most dependent on a continuous supply of oxygen and its use in oxidation. This particularly apples to the limbic system and brainstem because they compute 24 hours a day and maintain our survival. For example, the brainstem contains vital centers that control automatic breathing. Thus, as we go to sleep, these centers maintain both the speed and strength of heart muscle contraction as well as taking over the control of breathing. An example of this failure is the awful disaster of sudden infant death where the automatic mechanisms in a rapidly developing brainstem have been compromised. The infant stops breathing or his (more common in boys) heart ceases to beat. Published medical literature points to deficiency of magnesium or thiamine as a common underlying cause, even though the positioning of the infant in the crib is now apparently accepted as the only cause. It is well known that SIDS occurs more commonly where there is poverty and where “junk” nutrition is more likely to be a factor.

A condition in adults known as sleep apnea is one way in which abnormal brainstem function is indicated. There is also a lethal condition called "Ondine's Curse" where the automatic life mechanisms fail. Ondine is a mythological "water nymph" who was jilted by her human lover. As a punishment she cursed him by abolishing these normal life controls and hence he died in his sleep. By far the easiest and most common way to produce changes in these vitally necessary mechanism is to take an excess of sugar since its metabolism is tied to a number of essential nutrients, the most important of which are vitamin B1 (thiamine) and magnesium. In a previous post I described the “choked engine syndrome” that used the analogy of a car engine where there is too much gasoline in the cylinder and either insufficient oxygen or a defective spark plug.

Of particular interest, it has long been known that the autonomic nervous system controls the body organs asymmetrically. For example, the message received by the heart from the right side of the sympathetic nerve system is different from that received by the left side. One of the curious things that happens in the early stages of dysautonomia (the prototype for dysautonomia is beriberi, the disease discussed in some detail in an earlier post) is that the reflex control mechanisms in the limbic system and brainstem become much more reactive to perfectly normal mental or physical sensory input. Blood pressures in the two arms become widely different when measured at the same time. Since our emotions are generated in the limbic system automatically by the kind of input it receives, (for example, an insult initiates anger) affected individuals become much more emotional. Anger becomes exaggerated and may explode in violence that would not be perpetrated if the emotional reflex was normal and influenced by the thinking part of the brain. That is why I have suggested that the school shootings and otherwise inexplicable human reactions in this modern era are related to high calorie malnutrition. I have never seen anyone interested in the diet for a "school shooter". It simply does not exist as a question. A recent medical paper from Japan reported 17 adolescents with beriberi, caused by the ingestion of sodas in their social relationships. Dietary mayhem may be an extremely important factor that is largely ignored in this modern era that we refer to as civilization. The more that we forget our biologic orgins and how our diet affects our energy metabolism, the greater the danger of abnormal behavior and loss of control under the influence of stress.