Sympathetic Response and Impacts on Gut Health | Boulder Longevity Institute

Chronic gastrointestinal issues can be troubling for any adult. Diet alterations and certain types of cleanses can help. What if the issues continue to arise after an otherwise clean bill of health?

It is often forgotten that the nervous system, specifically the autonomic nervous system, regulates life-sustaining functions in our bodies. Breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, and body temperature are all controlled in the background by this system.

The two main, well-known divisions of the autonomic nervous system are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic side is very excitable, eliciting the famous “fight or flight” responses, while the parasympathetic system chills our bodies out after an especially intense moment. The parasympathetic system also controls involuntary functions like digestion.

For those with an overactive, irritable gut, the sympathetic nervous system may be causing the gut to be overcharged. Whether from a stress response or some other cause, an activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to the need to run to the restroom or the inability to go as usual.

We know the parasympathetic nervous system is the key to balancing an overexcited response by the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system may be the key to “turning down” the sympathetic response leading to belly disruption. 

The parasympathetic system is mainly housed in the vagus nerve, with about 75% of the parasympathetic nerve fibers running along this long nerve. The vagal nerves run from the brain all the way to the large intestine, making it the longest of the 12 cranial nerves. 

As the parasympathetic system primarily lies in the vagus nerve and balancing the sympathetic nervous system is the goal, we can logically conclude that stimulating the vagal nerves could be key to controlling the undesired sympathetic response in the gut. 

There are various ways to attempt to achieve the aim of bringing up the parasympathetic tone to balance a sympathetic overresponse. The Xen device can be used to stimulate the vagus nerve. Gabapentin could be introduced to turn down a sympathetic nervous system override. 

Even simple lifestyle changes like practicing yoga, calming strategies, or adding other stress reducers to daily routines could help even out the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses in the gut. 

If you have tried everything to get an overactive, underactive, or just out-of-whack gut under control with no results, think about how the sympathetic response might be involved in your gut health.

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Published November 13, 2022

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