9 Can physical health problems be explained by the nervous system?
Updated: Apr 22
Blog / Video #9
Since the dawn of time there have been health problems. In ancient cultures these were understood very differently. We are very focused these days on the idea that if we are sick then we go to the doctor and he or she will fix us. But it wasn’t always like that.
The original response to health issues wasn’t to go to the doctor, because there wasn’t one. Mankind’s original impulse was to seek what might have been considered to be spiritual help. We used to go to the priest, or the shaman, or the witchdoctor. That was plan A.
About five hundred years ago, in the western world, we moved into something often called ‘the age of reason’. This saw us dispense with our old ideas, often written off as superstition, and then replace them with something new and exciting called science. And so modern medicine was born.
Then, about a hundred years ago, one of these doctors did something different. Freud talked to his patients to help them, giving birth to the ‘talking cure’.
So, historically, there have been three different approaches to problems with our health, and we still talk about them today. We have all heard the phrase ‘mind, body, spirit’ and there seems to be something important about integrating them. But how, and what could that mean? The nervous system may have the answers.
Medically unexplained symptoms
There are two kinds of problems that doctors deal with. Those that they can successfully test for and therefore explain, and those that they can’t. Increasingly, doctors in the western world report that they are becoming overwhelmed with the latter. They have even given the problem a name, Medically Unexplained Symptoms, or MUS for short.
This means that the normal medical model of finding some obvious, mechanical cause for the symptom has broken down. Perhaps we can replace it with the nervous system model. What do you think happens to a body when it has a dysregulated nervous system?
As we now know, the nervous system is responsible for regulating our body’s response to threat. If it is dysregulated, then we are either underdoing this or overdoing it. This means we are running too hot or too cold when we should be responding just right for the environment we are in. Imagine what this does to your body.
If you are constantly reacting, physically, like you are running away from a lion, then many of your body’s systems which are meant to be used temporarily, and infrequently, may be on all the time. This can make you hyper-alert, which can tire your endocrine system, flooding you with cortisol and adrenaline, keep you up at night, make you tense, strain your muscles, affect your posture, halt relaxed digestion, and so on. Would you expect this not to take its toll on your physical make up?
Equally, if your body is shutting down in response to a threat which is not actually there, then it is going to feel very lethargic, maybe even chronically tired. Various systems your body relies on may go weak, such as your blood pressure, your heart rhythms, your breath patterns and your appetite. You may sleep too much or feel tired all the time. The body’s natural animus and impulse to heal itself could slow to the point where wear and tear increases, leaving you in pain or less vital.
These are potential consequences of staying long-term in what should have been a short-term state. You might think I’m just making this stuff up, but doctors on the front line of physical healthcare see exactly this. Their surgery time is clogged up by people who they can only label as MUS, and, without a key understanding of the origin of their problems, treatment becomes very ineffective.
Here are some of the medically unexplained symptoms listed on the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ website in the United Kingdom.
· Pains in the Muscles or Joints Back Pain
· Feeling Faint
· Chest Pain
· Heart Palpitations
· Stomach Problems; Pain, Feeling Bloated Diarrhoea and Constipation
· Rapid Heartbeat and Palpitations
· Chest Tightness and Breathlessness
· Dizziness, Faintness and Feeling Light Headed Feeling Strange Or ‘Spaced Out’
· Shakiness and Tremor
· Indigestion, Feeling Sick, Diarrhoea
· Dry Mouth
· Tightness in The Throat
· Numbness and Tingling
· Headache, Muscle Tension and Neck Stiffness Sweating and Feeling Hot or Cold
· Loss of Appetite
· Loss of Weight
· Low Energy
· General Aches and Pains
· Irritable Bowel Syndrome
· Non-Epileptic Attack Disorder
· Somatisation Disorder and Somatoform Disorder Dissociative Disorder
· Health Anxiety
· Body Dysmorphic Disorder
Can you join the dots between a body which is over, or under reacting to threat? Perhaps, therefore, it is time to incorporate the nervous system health model into these areas of physical healthcare, which have become so baffling and poorly treated.
An NS response to MUS
One way to test a medical theory is to deliver the treatment and to see if the symptoms go away. This then let’s you know that your theory was correct. Currently, treating MUS patients with nervous-system referencing therapies only really happens when they are also presenting with what we call mental health problems, and they are lucky enough to get access to nervous-system referencing psychologies.
However, there are other, subtler, nervous system referencing treatments which are now becoming more and more popular, even in medicine. These days you are as likely to be prescribed with mindfulness as you are with a pill if you have MUS. Doctors have noticed that meditation, yoga, and similar practices improve outcomes for all their other not-so-effective solutions. This is then presented as new science, new knowledge, new medicine. But this is actually what was being done thousands of years ago, when mankind went to the temple for help, and not the doctor.
So the nervous system was always the star of the show. You can meditate your way to better regulation, and this in turn will bring your body back into better health. All the things which medicine dismissed as superstition are now making a comeback, precisely because through all the ages, the one thing that remained vital to optimal human performance was great nervous-system health.
You can find some exercises to help with nervous-system regulation on the resources page of the Invisible Lion website and also in the 28-day recovery plan of the book, The Invisible Lion.
You can find some exercises to help with nervous-system regulation on the resources page of this website, and also in the 28-day recovery plan of the book.
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