What does erectile dysfunction, Parkinson’s disease and constipation have in common? They may be caused by the improper function of the autonomic nervous system.
The most basic units of the autonomic nervous system, the nerve cells transmit signals electrically within the cells but chemically when signals cross over a gap less than one millionth of an inch to another cell, thus resembling a sophisticated network of living ‘wires’ responsible for switching on and off the digestive system at the appropriate time.
In the case of an average healthy person, autonomic nerves in his head increase the production of saliva as he masticates food during a pleasant dinner. Autonomic nerves in the abdomen increase the activity of the smooth muscle and glands in the stomach and intestines thus promoting peristalsis. After watching TV, this satisfied diner takes a shower, gets ready to hit the sack. While he uses the bathroom, the autonomic nerves in the pelvic region urge him to defecate.
All the nerves actively involved during this relaxing period radiate from two locations: the base of the cranium and the large triangular sacrum bone between the hipbones. This is the ‘rest and digest system’ part of the autonomic nervous system called parasympathetic nerves.
There is an exception to the generally relaxing role of the parasympathetic nerves. When a person has the fright of his life, parasympathetic nerves could stimulate his gut to defecate on-the-spot creating the ‘scared’ effect.
On the other hand, when a person wakes up late in the morning and dresses up in hurry to work, another set of autonomic nerves becomes active. The sympathetic nerves found between his neck and waist, the lower part of his back and along side the backbone prepare him for the stressful situation-increasing the rate of his heartbeat, increasing the flow of blood to muscles and diverting blood away from the gastrointestinal tract thus postponing his urge to defecate.
In this way the sympathetic nerves serve a beneficial purpose in delaying defecation. People who are stressed most of the time, are effectively triggering this ‘fight or flight system’ and training their bowels to eventually go constipated.
Even though the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems have opposite actions in their influences on the digestive organs, they normally work in a complementary fashion to produce fine control of the body’s life-support functions. Traditionally these two systems control involuntary body functions which includes digestion. Sometimes, the enteric nervous system embedded in the walls of the stomach and intestines is listed as an additional part of the autonomic nervous system. It controls digestive movement and secretions. The holistic community calls it ‘the gut’s brain.’
Cat lovers might like to know humans do not suffer alone: there is a kind of autonomic disorder among cats called feline dysautonomia which makes a cat constipated.
Therefore the conventional wisdom of acquiring a calm heart for the sake of health, healthy gut inclusive as a preventive measure makes perfect sense.