The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a motor system that is part of the peripheral nervous system. It is responsible for regulating the basic processes of the organs in the body to ensure normal function, as well as relaying sensory information to the central nervous system.
It comprises two different parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These both work together to allow us to adapt to environmental changes, which is most noticeable when we are faced with situations that provoke fear or stress. In these situations, the ANS adjusts the bodily functions accordingly, making changes to the heart, lungs, intestine, insulin release, stomach movement and digestion.
The ANS is always working. You may notice it more in the ‘fight or flight’ response, but it is actually working all the time. It has to keep working for the internal bodily functions to continue normally, and if it stops working properly it can lead to autonomic failure.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system, which is found in the middle of spinal cord, is a regulation system that does not require conscious decisions. It is responsible for such functions as sweating and making adjustments to the cardiovascular system.
One of its main jobs is to get us ready for action. Stress or an emergency situation activates the whole sympathetic nervous system, and the response is immediate: we go into ‘fight or flight’ mode.
During this response, the adrenal glands release large amounts of epinephrine. The heart rate goes up, the pupils dilate, adrenaline is released, digestion slows, and essentially this is the sympathetic nervous system preparing the body for danger.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system, which is also located in the spinal cord, has a different role to play. Its job is to conserve energy when the body is not facing dangerous or stressful situations.
The parasympathetic nervous system reduces the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, increases saliva and mucous, controls the secretion of gastric juice and more. It is responsible for what is often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ response, which occurs when the body is at rest. It also makes sure the body functions properly while sleeping.
If there is an imbalance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, this can lead to problems in the body. Abnormalities in the systems can sometimes occur with age, and this can make it harder to adapt to stress as people get older.
It is the risk of such imbalances that is the reason why some people may require ANS testing. This simple and non-invasive testing can provide a review of the situation and find out if any steps need to be taken.
A common symptom of autonomic failure is a feeling of lightheadedness or even fainting after rising quickly or after eating a large meal. Other symptoms may include problems digesting, a bloated feeling after eating and perspiration problems. Disorders can be managed using drugs and other techniques.
Look Out for the Warning Signs
The ANS is a key system for the regulation of internal organs. If it is not in balance, the body cannot function properly. Look out for symptoms that could indicate a problem. If you are ever in any doubt, speak to your doctor, as they may recommend ANS testing to find out if there is anything wrong.
Marcus Anderson is a college professor of many years. When he has some free time, he likes to help others by posting online.