Key takeaways

Dysautonomia is a condition that affects the autonomic nervous system, which controls automatic body functions like blood pressure, heart rate, and digestion. Recent research has shown that it may be a significant factor in many health conditions.

In clinic, we see patients with a variety of health conditions, many of which may be caused or exacerbated by dysautonomia. By better understanding this condition, we can more effectively treat our patients and improve their overall health.

What is dysautonomia?

Dysautonomia is a disorder of the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions of the body such as blood pressure, heart rate, and digestion.

The autonomic nervous system is made up of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These systems work together to control involuntary actions of the body.

The sympathetic nervous system controls the "fight or flight" response, which is the body's reaction to stress. The parasympathetic nervous system controls the "rest and digest" response, which is the body's way to improve rest and repair.

In people with dysautonomia, these two systems are poorly regulated by the central nervous system and its interaction with the endocrine system, leading to a stress response and dysfunction in a variety of systems.

Dysautonomia symptoms

This dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system can lead to a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fainting
  • A feeling of being bloated or full
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • Abnormal sweating and changes in body temperature
  • Abnormal blood pressure
  • Abnormal heart rate and rhythms
  • Dysregulation of hormones
  • Sexual dysfunction e.g. erectile dysfunction
  • Alteration in muscle function

Therefore, autonomic dysfunction is associated with conditions such as:

Dysautonomia causes

Dysautonomia can be caused by various conditions, including diabetes, certain viral infections like COVID-19, and genetic disorders.

Certain medications can also trigger dysautonomia, such as:

  • sedatives
  • hypnotics
  • tricyclic antidepressants
  • diuretics
  • antihypertensive drugs, or nitrates

Dysautonomia and stress

Stress is one of the key causes of dysautonomia because of the involvement of the autonomic nervous system in the stress response, which can exacerbate the flight and fight response and deprioritise the rest and digest response. Therefore, stress management is a key component of treatment.

How to test for dysautonomia

Your practitioner may test for dysautonomia through a variety of means such as:

  • Blood pressure in a lying and standing position
  • HRV - heart rate variability using an HRV monitor
  • Pulse rate and rhythm
  • Physical examinations of pupil reactions and reflexes

Your practitioner may refer you for more advanced testing if indicated.

Dysautonomia treatment - the functional medicine approach

Treatment for dysautonomia focuses on managing the underlying condition and relieving symptoms. The type of treatment will depend on the underlying cause which may be an internal dysfunction or the result of an external cause such as stress.

Here are some ways that our practitioners help people rebalance their autonomic nervous system to restore health:

Improving vagal tone

The vagus nerve is responsible for the rest and digest branch of the autonomic nervous system, and in autonomic dysfunction, its ability to regulate is impaired. Thankfully there are many ways to improve vagal tone, such as gargling, relaxation, deep breathing, improving social connection, singing or humming. See our article on strategies for stimulating the vagus nerve for more information about this technique.

Exploring and treating underlying factors

In gastrointestinal conditions, investigating causes of gut dysfunction such as parasites, dysbiosis, gastroparesis, yeast overgrowth, food reactions, inflammatory bowel conditions, gallbladder function, and gastric acid function, and addressing those factors.

Addressing blood pressure dysregulation

Exploring underlying causes for changes in blood pressure, such as hormonal balance, kidney function, and electrolyte balance, and correcting those imbalances through diet, nutrient and herbal supplementation that optimises cardiovascular health.

Improving immune function

Improving immune function to combat the chronic effects of viral infections by addressing the immune response and downregulating inflammation.

While dysautonomia can be a debilitating condition, there is hope for improvement.

By working with a functional medicine practitioner to identify and address the underlying causes, it is possible to rebalance the autonomic nervous system and improve symptoms. If you think you may have dysautonomia, we encourage you to reach out to us for help.

mark payne functional medicine practitioner wearing green shirt standing smiling
Mark Payne
Mark has 30 years of experience as a clinical health professional, with a particular interest in health optimisation and longevity, as well as helping those with cardiometabolic conditions, stress-related disorders, and immune disorders achieve a high level of health and wellbeing.
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Mark Payne
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{ "datePublished": "Feb 28, 2024" }