Dysautonomia: What is it and what can I do about it?

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What is dysautonomia?

Dysautonomia means dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is a self-regulating system in our neurology which means it is autonomous. It involuntarily regulates vital functions such as heart rate, blood flow, breathing, stress responses, digestion and more!

The majority of the brain’s activity goes towards making sure this system is working appropriately, which is a major clue that it’s quite important.

The ANS is divided into two systems: sympathetic (“fight or flight”) & parasympathetic (“rest and digest”). These  systems check & balance each other… well, they should.

What are dysautonomia symptoms?

Symptoms of dysautonomia include:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness upon standing
  • Nausea
  • Heart palpitations
  • Constipation
  • Sudden sweating episodes
  • Dry mouth
  • Fainting
  • Trouble falling asleep

These symptoms occur due to changes in blood pressure or blood volume (too high or low), sudden fluctuations in heart rate, or altered brain signals in the neuronal pools that control these mechanisms.

What causes dysautonomia?

There are many associated causes of dysautonomia, since the ANS travels from the brain, down through the spinal cord and throughout the body to the vital organs. Typical causes are traumatic chest or brain injuries, viruses, environmental toxins, genetics, and autoimmunity, to name a few.

What is POTS?

A common type of dysautonomia we see in our practice is Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), which affects 1 to 3 million Americans.

POTS is characterized by a steep increase in heart rate, responding to a change in posture/position (such as sitting up from lying down). In these cases, there is nothing structurally wrong with the heart or blood vessels. Instead, the sensors that should respond to positional changes, don’t do so appropriately. This insufficiency can create the symptoms of POTS which are commonly lightheadedness/dizziness, chronic fatigue, anxiety or tunneling vision.

Connective tissue disorders, such as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, can make POTS more challenging, yet not impossible, to treat.

How can I check if my autonomic nervous system is working properly?

Though the ANS is an unconscious system, we have the ability to evaluate its function.

If we understand that the heart rate should change in a seated and a laying down position, we may evaluate the autonomic nervous system by checking the heart rate in a seated and a laying down position.

If we understand that the autonomic nervous system controls pupillary constriction and sweat, we may evaluate pupillary constriction and sweat in order to evaluate the ANS. (And so on and so forth)

What is the treatment for dysautonomia?

In our office, we help dysautonomia patients by stimulating the brain areas which control autonomics, which can stabilize and balance their brain’s response to a specific stimulus or trigger. It is all about retraining the brain with the goal of rewiring! This is called neuroplasticity!

For a patient with POTS, where changes in body position are a trigger, our clinicians may place the patient into the position where heart rate starts to increase, and then utilize rehabilitative strategies, such as eye movements or electrical stimulation, to stabilize the heart rate and retrain its response.

Other activities that can improve autonomic control are yoga/mindfulness meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, sleep routines and good dietary habits.

We may also influence ANS function with our conscious mind. If you imagine you’re in a room with a tiger, your autonomic “fight or flight” system will immediately respond as if the tiger is in the room. It will not wait until you see the tiger! This means we can think ourselves into or out of stressful situations by learning to control our autonomic nervous system.

When it comes to dysautonomia, each patient must be evaluated in order to develop an effective treatment plan. We know each patient is one-of-a-kind and we believe your treatment should be too!

Dr. Stephanie Barbakoff DC, DACNB

Dr. Stephanie Barbakoff DC, DACNB

Originally from New York, specializes in women’s health as it relates to post-concussion syndrome, hormones, fatigue, dizziness, and chronic migraines.

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