Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC is a clinician, Naturopathic Practitioner, clinical researcher, author, and adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport. His work has been published in peer-reviewed medical journals and he speaks at conferences around the globe.
A dysregulated nervous system occurs when there is an imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system.
It can present as insomnia, migraines, anxiety, chronic pain, GI distress, and/or high or low blood pressure.
Chronic stress, trauma, metabolic disease, and hormonal imbalances are risk factors for autonomic nervous instability.
The vagus nerve is the primary target for balancing the nervous system through therapies like cold water immersion and breathing techniques.
The sympathetic response can be calmed through limbic retraining and by eliminating hidden stressors.
The gut contains a large portion of the nervous system, and inflammation in the digestive tract can overwhelm your nerve cells.
An elimination and/or elemental diet and probiotics are an effective combination for stopping inflammation.
When we undergo periods of stress for too long, our nervous system accommodates through heightened activity, leaving us feeling overstimulated and generally “frazzled”. This overexcitability is a biological advantage when facing acute stress, but when your sympathetic nervous system is persistently activated by internal or external stressors it can lead to symptoms like anxiety, muscular tension, and insomnia.
What used to be a minor inconvenience, like forgetting where you put your car keys or an annoying text message, now elicits an emotional and physical response that may take hours (or days) to recover from. Over time, a dysregulated nervous system can become an overlooked cause of brain fog, chronic pain, hormonal imbalances, dizziness, and fatigue.
Thankfully, you can restore balance by building up the parasympathetic branch of your nervous system, which controls your “rest and digest” functions. Cold exposure, breathing techniques, and exercise are great ways to fix your nerves, as is addressing emotional over-reactivity through limbic retraining. I find limbic training to be a great option for those who have seemed to hit a wall with their symptoms, and a program like the Gupta Training Program is often enough to break through.
Additionally, a large portion of our nervous system — the enteric nervous system — is located in our gut, making our digestive health particularly vulnerable to disruption. However, this is precisely what makes your GI tract a great target for healing a dysregulated nervous system.
Thankfully, physical and emotional hypersensitivity and over-reactivity don’t have to become a permanent fixture in your life.
What’s a Dysregulated Nervous System and Do You Have One?
Before jumping into how to heal your nervous system, let’s get a basic understanding of what nervous system dysfunction looks like, how it happens, and who’s most at risk.
Your nervous system contains billions of nerve cells, called neurons, that fire electrical signals and act as the body’s main form of communication. Though the brain is the largest reservoir of neurons, they’re located in every organ and control most bodily functions including digestion, breathing, thinking, and emotional response. This is why an “out of whack” nervous system can wreak havoc on the entire body.
A dysregulated nervous system is an imbalance between the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS): the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The ANS controls all involuntary actions, like breathing and heart rate, but, as we will get into later, is not entirely out of your control.
These branches live in harmony with one another, and both are essential for your health. It’s important to understand that in a nervous imbalance, both sides of the coin are affected and will likely need some attention.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) often comes with a bad reputation, as it’s the main driver behind the symptoms of chronic stress and a dysregulated nervous response. But it’s necessary for our survival, and a healthy SNS has many important roles in concentration, physical endurance and strength, sweating, and maintaining blood pressure.
However, when it’s chronically activated, it overtakes the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS — which relaxes your bodily responses), prevents you from properly recovering from a stressful experience, and keeps you on high alert . Over time, a chronically heightened flight-or-fight response can lead to autonomic instability — dysfunction of both the branches of the autonomic nervous system. This instability of nervous function has been coined as “dysautonomia” in the medical field.
Dysautonomia is an umbrella term for many conditions, most notably postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). However, this instability is thought to contribute to many issues including :
High blood pressure or low blood pressure
Inability to sweat
Inflammatory bowel disease
Irritable bowel syndrome
Dysautonomia can significantly lower quality of life and lead to early mortality, but this is uncommon and associated with life-long severe cases.
Though the physical symptoms of autonomic instability can be challenging, it’s the mental health and emotional effects that cause the most concern for many people.
An Exhausted Nervous System Can Affect Your Brain
Mood and cognition can take a heavy hit, and research suggests that emotional dysregulation (depression, anxiety, irritability) is present in 100% of children with a dysregulated nervous system . Additionally, abnormal breathing patterns and heart rate are common signs of autonomic instability and are prevalent in adults with PTSD and panic disorder [3, 4].
Sleep disturbances and cognitive issues like poor memory, difficulty thinking, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are also common concerns . The hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA) plays a large part in these symptoms, as sympathetic over-activation causes a continuous release of cortisol and adrenaline from the adrenal glands.
When these hormones continuously saturate your body, they can feed into low mood, anxiety, and insomnia and disrupt your metabolic health. Research shows that those with depression and anxiety have an overactive HPA , though it’s not quite clear yet which initiates the other.
Cortisol can also blunt memory and the speed at which you process information, in part due to its toxic effects on the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex where most of the neuronal activity for memory storage and thinking occurs .
An overzealous nervous and endocrine system can create a vicious cycle by placing more stress on the body, and, in turn, triggering more nervous activity. Luckily, there are several ways you can break this pattern that we will cover in a moment, but let’s first see who’s at risk for a dysregulated nervous system.
Who’s At Risk for Nervous Burnout?
In truth, nearly everyone is at risk for a dysregulated nervous system, mostly because of our increasingly stressful daily environment. Rush hour traffic, financial burdens, and an inflexible work structure have become a common fixture for many of us, and create a breeding ground for chronic stress.
Certain traits like perfectionism can make you more vulnerable to a dysregulated nervous system, as can too much stress at work or school . There are several other factors that may put you at an increased risk:
History of emotional or psychological abuse [1, 7]
History of traumatic events or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Understanding how a dysregulated nervous system happens and your personal risks can help give you answers for your chronic health symptoms. And, thankfully, even if they seem impossible to change, there’s always a way to heal a dysregulated nervous system.
How To Hack Your Nervous System
There are essentially three ways to restore balance to your nervous system — tone the vagus nerve, calm the sympathetic nervous system, and lower inflammation. Let’s start with the parasympathetic nervous system.
Increase Your Vagal Tone
The vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, and when it’s healthy it slows our heart rate and breathing, stops the release of stress hormones, and regulates our mood [14, 15, 16, 17]. The vagus nerve is a target for many relaxation therapies like meditation and yoga, and increasing its activity is a powerful way to heal your symptoms.
Splashing or dipping your face into ice-cold water, called cold water facial immersion, can “shock” your nervous system back into balance and tone the vagus nerve . Ice massage (rubbing an ice cube on your limbs and torso) is another way to bring cold water therapy into your life and increase parasympathetic activity .
The Wim Hof Method takes this concept quite a bit further and involves submerging yourself into an ice-cold bath while controlling your breath. Repeated exposure allows you to regain control over your stress response to be less excitable , and, as I discuss with Scott Carney on my podcast, this therapy can lower stress, decrease inflammation, and benefit a broad array of health conditions and chronic stress.
Track Your ANS Through Heart Rate Variability
So how do you know if your efforts are paying off? Aside from watching your symptoms, the easiest way is through tracking your heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the fluctuation in the length of intervals between heartbeats and a good way to track your vagal activity .
Higher HRV is considered a marker of a balanced sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, and low variability is linked to poor health outcomes.
While there are no “normal” ranges for HRV [29, 30], smartwatches/fitness trackers can help you get an idea of your personal baseline. HRV is suppressed during periods of stress (like a new exercise routine), which is completely normal, but it should return to the normal range when the stressor is gone.
If your HRV stays low or takes several days or weeks to return to your baseline, your vagus nerve is likely suppressed and your nervous system needs some attention .
Calming the Sympathetic Response: Limbic Retraining
Limbic system retraining can help reduce the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system by targeting the emotional center of the brain. Emotional over-reactivity can be a major cause, and symptom, of a taxed nervous system, and learning to calm these subconscious reactions can be a huge step forward for your health.
Research shows that limbic system retraining helps with anxiety, depression, and functional impairment in fibromyalgia patients and improves fatigue levels by 80-100% in those with chronic fatigue syndrome [31, 32].
Many of the therapies mentioned above like mindfulness meditation, yoga, massage, and breathing techniques help retrain the limbic system and calm the sympathetic nervous system, making them effective as a whole for rebalancing the autonomic system .
My patient, Danielle, benefited greatly from limbic retraining to heal her symptoms of bloating, abdominal distention, nausea, insomnia, constipation, and diarrhea. Unfortunately, trying many other provider-directed therapeutics from restrictive diets to more harmful treatments (drinking bleach) left her with severe fear surrounding her health.
When she came to see me, she was highly anxious and rigid about treatment compliance and physically overreactive to supplements, which were signs of an equally overreactive nervous system. She responded beautifully to the Gupta Limbic Retraining Program and has been able to live a symptom-free life and a life that’s given her mental, physical, and emotional freedom.
Look Out For Hidden Stressors
The most common and obvious triggers of dysautonomia symptoms are heat, alcohol, dehydration, and stress. However, our bodies often interpret something as a stressor, even when we don’t notice. Even small environmental stimuli can trigger an already overwhelmed sympathetic nervous system.
Being proactive about what you see, hear, and feel can be huge in balancing your body’s stress response. The following tips won’t be universal for everyone, but hidden stressors include things like:
Reality TV and violent or scary movies: Researchers are unsure why watching stressful events cause us to feel stressed in return (though mirror neurons may be largely at play ). But it’s clear that stressful TV can make our breathing shallow and heart race, so try to opt for inspirational or “feel good” shows instead.
Aggressive, fast, or loud music: Music’s effects on our emotional state last long after the song is over, making it a good target for stress reduction. Classical music balances areas of the brain associated with emotional reactivity and reduces anxious tendencies [35, 36].
Uncomfortable clothes: Overly tight or restrictive clothing can cause subtle irritation to your nervous system and is a known trigger of dysautonomia symptoms. If you have the option, switch to well-fitted, loose, or soft fabrics with no uncomfortable tags or seams.
Excess clutter: A messy space can lead to overwhelm. Not everyone is stressed by clutter (in fact, some people prefer it), but if your mess is getting in your way, physically or mentally, it’s probably stressing you out.
Social media: This one is a no-brainer, and the release of stress hormones from too much social media even has a term, “doom-scrolling.” A social media vacation does wonders for your mood and nervous system and gives you a break from the constant stimulation of bright light, flashy photos, loud videos, and too many opinions.
Toxic or negative relationships: Being surrounded by pessimistic or negative people day after day can take a toll on your health. Seek out relationships that bring you joy, as research shows that laughter can increase parasympathetic activity .
Don’t worry if thrillers are your favorite genre, as you don’t need to cut out these things forever. But limiting your exposure in the short term while you heal a dysregulated nervous system can have a large payoff in the long run. Remember, there are the vagal toning exercises (mentioned above) that you can do to help calm your nerves should you encounter stressors like these until you can fully integrate the long-term gut healing I’ll cover next.
Heal Your Gut’s Nervous System
Therapies that target the vagus nerve also help heal the gut, as it supplies the majority of innervation to the digestive tract. You can think of increasing vagal tone as a “top-down” approach to healing the enteric nervous system that’s located in your gut.
However, the autonomic nervous system can also be rebalanced by addressing your gut health from the inside. You can read more about the gut-brain axis and its role in your overall health here. But, to put it succinctly, a fried nervous system can benefit from repairing your digestive tract, and it all comes back to stopping inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is the nervous system’s enemy — an unregulated immune response leads to an SNS-mediated release of cortisol in order to control the inflammatory response. Giving your body a rest from inflammation through a targeted “gut reset” and healthy bacteria can be exactly what your nervous system needs.
Give Your Gut a Rest
There are a lot of products and diet trends that claim to heal your gut, but the most effective ones I have found in my clinic are an elemental diet and elimination-style diet. An elemental diet contains all the nutrients you need in a broken-down form that is easy to digest and is healing to your gut lining. Elemental diets are shown to benefit inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, and in some of these cases can be as effective as steroids [37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42].
There’s no right answer on how long you need to stay on an elemental diet, but I generally see that it takes 2–4 days for its anti-inflammatory effects to fully kick in. However, if your symptoms are severe, it’s safe to continue for several weeks, but it’s safest to do so under a doctor’s supervision. We’ve formulated a great-tasting, hypoallergenic elemental diet powder that you can find on our online store that is a strong step in the right direction for getting gut inflammation under control.
Once you max out on the effects of an elemental diet, you can start removing common inflammatory foods like gluten, dairy, soy, sugar, and processed foods from your diet. A Paleo-based diet is an easy place to start, as it’s fairly non-restrictive but still eliminates all the common allergens. You likely won’t need to keep these foods out forever and we have plenty of articles that go further into how to choose and complete an elimination diet.
Calm Your Nerves With Good Bacteria
Inflammation can break down the barrier of the digestive tract, allowing toxic metabolites like lipopolysaccharides (LPS) to slip through the intestinal lining. These metabolites that are produced by your gut bacteria have free reign over the body, traveling to the central nervous system where they cause neuroinflammation.
Introducing beneficial bacteria and yeast through the form of probiotics combats inflammation, heals the gut lining, and promotes a healthy immune response [43, 44, 45]. Additionally, they are a promising therapeutic for a dysregulated nervous system as they have positive effects on the brain’s structure and can slow down atrophy .
It’s likely these effects make them an effective tool for neurological symptoms like brain fog, poor cognition, depression, insomnia, and stress [46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53]. Its benefits have even made them a therapeutic for more advanced conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and fibromyalgia [54, 55, 56].
Most importantly, they are a safe and accessible alternative to prescription medications that are used for autonomic instability, like beta blockers. Adding probiotics to your daily routine can help speed up your efforts to bring balance back into your life — and your nerves.
Stop the Cycle of Nervous Burnout
Healing your dysregulated nervous system and ending the cycle of over-reactivity is possible through rebalancing your autonomic system and healing your gut. Cold water therapy, limbic retraining, and reducing gut inflammation with diet and probiotics are great ways to address your symptoms.
While you work to heal your nervous system, cutting out any hidden stressors can help speed up your recovery. And reach out to the Ruscio Institute for Functional Health today if you need help with healing your symptoms of a nervous system overload.
The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.
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