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,Joanne Pizzino, MD, MPH, is board-certified in both Preventive Medicine and Integrative Medicine. She is currently transitioning to telemedicine to allow you to be seen via video conference from the comfort of your home or workplace.  To learn more about Functional Medicine healing, visit our YouTube videos by typing:  Whole Health Solutions Cary into the YouTube search engine.

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Balancing Your Operating System
to Turn on Natural Healing

By Joanne Pizzino, MD, MPH
Medical Editor of Health&Healing

Dr. Pizzino

In my four decades of practicing health care, I have learned one fundamental truth that cannot be overlooked if we are to achieve healing of the mind or body on any level: Healing is an innate, built-in feature of the operating system of the body. Most illness, especially chronic disease, consists of something blocking or restricting the natural healing principles of the body from doing their job. We must discover what that is and free it to fulfill its essential purpose.

Nothing we do—not medications or surgery or other technologies—will heal the body in and of itself. For instance, all the various kinds of antibiotics will not heal someone whose immune system is crippled by HIV or immunosuppressants. If we use the imperfect analogy that your body is like a computer, a highly complex system—the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)—is like the Windows or Mac operating system. The Autonomic Nervous System is running everything in the background. It beats your heart, controls your blood pressure, makes hormones and neurotransmitters, digests your food, etc. Everything else we do to the body is more like an app or software, including nutritional choices, medications, herbs and vitamins, exercise, and so on. If the operating system is not working properly, the apps won’t work either.

SNS and PNS: Our Dual “Operating Systems”

The Autonomic Nervous System consists of two main divisions: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS)and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The sympathetic nervous system is there to save our lives in an emergency—the fight-flight-or-freeze mechanism. The parasympathetic nervous system governs the daily activities of rest-digest-and-repair. For the most part, these two systems do not operate at the same time.

The sympathetic nervous system is there to save our butts, and is only intended to be turned on for short periods of time. For instance, when the gazelle runs away from the lion, its blood is diverted away from digestion or any other activities to pump its muscles. Its blood pressure raises to do this, and blood glucose is released to feed those muscles. It does not stop and take a nap while running away, nor does it take a break for lunch, try to make a baby, or even stop to lick its wounds (all activities of the PNS). It just gets away from the danger at the cost of everything else. This takes a tremendous amount of energy.

One behavior of animals that is often absent in humans is, that once they are out of danger, animals will stop and shake, shiver, pant, or stomp to help discharge this energy overload. They take a break for the blood pressure and blood glucose to go back down, and the other systems to return to homeostasis, the technical term for the body systems being in balance. In other words, they switch out of the SNS.

Another difference between animals and humans is that animals only turn on the sympathetic nervous system for short periods of time in response to real dangers. Humans, with our enormous brains, are able to imagine all kinds of threats and focus on them indefinitely. Deadlines, fear of contagious diseases, impending weather crises, traffic, self-judgment about the way we look, our bank account—these and myriad other concerns can play in the background of our operating system, keeping the SNS running and draining energy away from resting, digesting, or repairing with the PNS. This is one reason that sleep disorders and digestive problems are so rampant in our modern world. And, without repair occurring (during the pit stop of sleep and with proper building blocks from good nutrition), chronic diseases such as congestive heart failure, diabetes, and cancer keep the system out of balance.

Regaining Balance

Just as it is advisable to regularly run computer utilities to turn off unused programs and remove malware, we humans must plan and schedule ways to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system to maintain homeostasis.

First and foremost is sleep. Sleep is not just down time. We must completely shut off those background programs to allow repair of the immune system, creation of neurotransmitters and hormones, and “empty the recycle bin” (detoxification). It has been shown that sleeping less than six hours per night shortens your life. Answering those emails or folding the clothes is just really not worth it.

We must allow some transition time from the go-go-go of our daily lives (which keeps the SNS constantly running) to allow the PNS to be rebooted. Perhaps this is why exercise is so crucial for prevention of everything from heart attacks to dementia to treating anxiety. It allows us to shake and move those limbs, pant, and sweat to discharge the overload on the sympathetic nervous system created by tough bosses, rude drivers, and chemicals in our food.

Balancing the ANS

Of all the techniques found to rebalance the Autonomic Nervous System, mindfulness and meditation have the best research-proven results. For everything from pain control to dropping blood pressure to lowering the stress hormone cortisol, these are techniques that allow us to be in the present moment without judgment and to turn on the “Relaxation Response” (a term coined by Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson). For best results, these techniques need to be practiced at least three times a week for at least 20 minutes at a time. Yes, unlike animals, we don’t automatically switch off the SNS. We must actually schedule our time to let go of running away from the tiger and to nurture ourselves, lick our wounds, and turn on the fabulous healing principle naturally built into our bodies. Then all the other health-conscious apps we do—such as better food choices, nutraceutical supplements, or even chemotherapy—can work better.

A few other techniques can also help turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. Limiting high carb meals and snacks prevents blood glucose from elevating. The body sees this as a threat because it is like flooding the engine, whether or not you have diabetes. Various pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) devices, such as the Ondamed I have used in my clinic also help turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. Being relaxed in nature, which the Japanese call shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing” has also been found to have many health benefits, including boosted immune system functioning, reduced blood pressure, lowered stress, and improved mood and sleep. Most importantly, with the PNS, you must simply “Just Do It.” Make time to encourage your body and mind to balance themselves naturally.