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Agni & Autonomic Nervous System (Part 1)

Namaste and welcome to the Athreya Herbs podcast. These podcasts aim to help the Athreya Ayurveda community by giving them the necessary knowledge to thrive in life. We bring in all these topics to empower ourselves and get informed on leading a long healthy life. Today we'll be starting a new series with Vaidya Victor, who has been practicing Ayurveda for over ten years. He has also written a book on pulse diagnosis. He practices through the International Institute of Ayurveda in northern California's coastal area. Namaste and welcome, Vaidya Victor.

February 02, 2022 | 33 minutes 17 seconds
By Vaidya. Jay Parla

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Victor - Namaste, thank you, Dr. Jay, for hosting me.

Vaidya - For those of you who don't know me, I am Vaidya Jay, a longtime practitioner of Ayurveda. Athreya Herbs is the platform that we use to bring the necessary information to validate Ayurvedic knowledge, empower ourselves and the Ayurvedic community. The topic we have for this series is all about the nervous system. In the past 30 years, an extraordinary amount of research has been done in neuroscience. Without neuroscience understanding, Ayurveda will also be incomplete. I say that because many neuro characteristics or qualities are seen in Doshas. We'll be able to wrap our minds around the complex concept of the neuro system through this discussion with Vaidya Victor. The topic of the nervous system is closely related to the gut. The last ten years of research have exploded with many scientific validation that the gut and the brain have a close relationship. Ayurveda has been advocating this for a long time. For all our listeners who want to know about the autonomic nervous system, Can you please elaborate on that, Vaidya Victor? 

Victor - Yes. Every human and, to a large extent, all animals have an autonomic nervous system. We have a nervous system inside of us, and as the name implies, it is a lot of automatic functioning. It controls things like our heart rate, breath rate, digestive capacities, and functionality. Mostly, it's the type of activity in our body that we're not thinking about. It controls so much that consciously managing everything it controls would have resulted in 1000s of tasks and would have been impossible. We've got this complex system running in the background of our lives at all times, and it drives a lot of our behavior. Let's say that I'm walking down the street, and I hear a rustling in the bushes coming from behind; my auditory sense perception will send a signal to my autonomic nervous system that there may be a threat present. My body's physiology will change dramatically; that's an idea of how the autonomic nervous system works in our day-to-day life. It is largely built into the sense organs, which is why one of the Ayurvedic axioms is that misuse of the senses is one of the primary causes of disease. It has such a profound influence on our autonomic nervous system. 

Vaidya - Beautiful. If we don't know how long it takes the stomach to empty the food eaten, it's up to the autonomic nervous system to determine when the gallbladder secretes into the gut. These activities done by the organs in the digestive system are automatic. Is this the right way to think? 

Victor - Yes. In a western and anatomical sense, the enteric nervous system differs from the autonomic nervous system. The important part is that the autonomic and the enteric nervous system are intricately connected. So you could say what you just said. Unless one is going to be reviewed by a medical committee, they're going to be okay.

Vaidya - The interesting aspect is that unlike enteric, the autonomic nervous system influences the sensory input and how the body is prepared for it.

Victor - That's the connection with Manas. We have a mind-body connection there. That's the word we use in our modern-day.

Vaidya - Absolutely. Let's get into a little more detail. I like the example of some threat or an unprepared situation where you feel threatened. For example, let's say that you are driving and suddenly somebody runs very close to you cuts in front of you. What happens to our autonomic nervous system at that time? 

Victor - The main thing we're going to experience on a visceral level is going to be an increase in heart rate. Usually, that is accompanied by an increase in breath rate and a release of adrenaline. There's a physiological reason for this; unlike your conscious mind, your autonomic nervous system prioritizes keeping your body alive and safe. It activates a defense mechanism when there's a threat present; whether the threat is real or perceived, your body can act out a defense mechanism. Those are typical, fight, flight, or freeze; we all are familiar with those. The important thing from a gut perspective is that when a threat is perceived, it triggers our autonomic nervous system to use the resources in our body. I like to talk about that as Agni resources. It sends a wave from the gut to the periphery. So, we can move and think fast, and everything moves away from the gut. 

Vaidya - I'd like to connect these things that you said. One thing that you said is the excessive or abnormal use of sense organs. In Ayurveda, we have the general causative factors across the border responsible for causing disturbance to the homeostasis where we have the sense organs being taken into consideration. No other science takes the sense organ as seriously as Ayurveda does. When we started the conversation, you said overuse, underuse, or even abnormal use of sense organs is seen. Let's connect that to the adrenal axis, which we discussed, and how the autonomic nervous system is intricately linked to the heart, the adrenal glands, and the gut. I know that it's a very complex mechanism. Can we put a linear process so that it is simplified for our listeners? What does this mean? So, we can tell our listeners that sense organs are important in keeping the autonomic nervous system healthy.

Victor -  Sure. Let's pretend that as a child, we got chased by a dog. As a child, that's a real threat. If that dog catches you and gets you, it can be life-threatening. Our autonomic nervous system has experienced it in the past and encoded what we perceive in the world as threatening or safe. Now, let's flash forward 20 years later, we're walking down the street when we see a dog that has gotten out of his yard and is just staring at us. Now my sense perception is sight; I'm using my sense of sight. Based on my past and my current worldview about dogs, that dog is considered a threat because I'm afraid that it's going to chase me down and harm me. When I see that dog, it's not contained, and I identify it as a threat. The autonomic nervous system automatically sends signals through the Vagus nerve, connected to all the vital organs. That says go from your parasympathetic state, your basic resting state, to a sympathetic state, which is your defense mode. It says to pick a defense that will be the most viable to get away from this threat. Let's say that our autonomic nervous system automatically defaults to flight. Our circulatory system shifts blood resources from the gut to the extremities, specifically the legs and sense organs. So that I can pick up other cues from the environment while running; if there are other threats around or the dog is behind me, I'm going to start using my ears more, things like that. My adrenaline releases, which gives me a huge physical advantage temporarily. I start producing a lot of cortisol, and without me thinking about it, this extreme urge arises in me to run. I start running as fast as I can, and my heart rate is increased to prepare myself for the running; my breath rate has increased, my liver is producing a lot of heat, everything. All that happens just by looking at the dog. Whether that dog comes after me or not, my physiology has already changed. I just ate lunch, and now, I've stopped digesting that food because all those resources are used elsewhere in my body.

Vaidya - The irony is that we face so many sensory threats daily that our autonomic nervous system constantly activates this type of mechanism. Our audience would completely resonate. Looking at something on your handheld iPhone or smartphone that may or may not be directly related to a dog that you were explaining, it may be related to a situation that is triggering the memory of this hostile situation that somebody experienced at their home as a child. In the current situation, they are looking at a post or a video that is subconsciously through the sense, triggering the same pathways that the body must prepare for. The nervous system is constantly triggered by a threat, fear, or some anger.  Is that the right understanding? 

Vaidya - Yes, that's right. That's what's happening to us all the time, and it's what the Ayurvedic sages would call the misuse of the senses. Let's say I have that same fear of the dog. I'm sitting on the couch, watching a movie, and I know for a fact that there's no dog in the room, but my autonomic nervous system doesn't work that way. It's not a part of my conscious apparatus. If I see a dog chasing someone on TV, I may or may not have that feeling inside my body. The stimulus that came through the same sense organ and now runs through my autonomic nervous system will affect my physiology, even if it's not a full-scale flight. It is the source of how a lot of trauma works. Dr. Steven Porges, a modern scientist, wrote about this in the polyvagal theory. We have these things encoded in our autonomic nervous system, and we experience these repeatedly. Let's say I grew up in an unsafe household, I go into a workplace, and my boss reminds me of one of my parents. I will go into an autonomic defense response, even though  I'm no longer a kid or I don't live in my parent's house. That is what stress is, and it will have a physiological impact and cause digestive disorders. It can cause several diseases. 

Vaidya - I think that the importance of the autonomic nervous system is now clear to all of our listeners. Some nerves come from the spinal cord and come directly from the brain. The nerves that come directly from the brain are called cranial nerves, and those coming from the spinal cord are called spinal nerves. The function of cranial nerves is unique. Earlier, Vaidya Victor touched base on the vagal nerve. This nerve comes directly from the brain. I want to ask him why the vagus nerve is important for the autonomic response. Vaidya Victor, please tell us about this vagus nerve and how it's important to keep ourselves healthy.

Victor - The vagus nerve is vital. It's the 10th cranial nerve. It is a huge neural pathway that originates in your brain and connects to all of your sense organs, including your eyes, nose, tongue, and skin. It descends from the brain and connects to a lot of your facial nerves. With the vagus nerve, we communicate a lot with our faces to other people. Those aren't just threat cues but also safety cues. When we smile, we affect the physiology of the person we're smiling at. If we scowl, we're still affecting their physiology because the autonomic nervous system takes the cues into account and assesses the environment based on them. Then the vagus nerve goes into your voice box. It has a lot to do with the tone of your voice and how you use your voice. If you notice, when people get scared, their voice automatically goes to a higher pitch. That's an autonomic nervous system response. A conscious way to manipulate the Vegas nervous is to speak with prosody. Speak with a melodic tone, not monotone. Prosody or a melodious voice is interpreted as safe by the autonomic nervous system, whereas monotone is interpreted as a threat. Things like that are major safety cues to the autonomic nervous system, which explains why people love music so much. It's good for our physiological gut health. The vagus nerve continues down, enters, and connects to the heart, the lungs, diaphragm, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, gallbladder, liver, reproductive organs, pancreas, spleen, all of it. An interesting thing about the vagus nerve, unlike most nerves, is it's a two-way street. It runs from the brain to the lower organs; and from the lower organs to the brain. It means that your gut has as many nerve endings as your brain. It sends messages all the time to the brain about the status of the body. It's giving commands, and it's not just your brain that's in charge. That's a misconception we've developed in our culture. Ayurveda would never have said that in a million years. That's an important thing to recognize. The autonomic nervous system splits into two branches, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. Still, its special function is that it will switch the body out of the parasympathetic nervous system and let the sympathetic nervous system take over. Then it also brings the body back into a parasympathetic state after the threat is no longer present. So it has a vital role in switching our physiological state from threat to the safety and vice versa.

Vaidya - Wonderfully said how the vagus nerve is so important for us. For all our listeners, the cranial nerves are vital. There are 12 cranial nerves, all coming from the same area where the medulla oblongata is in the brain. That region is called the brainstem. The vagus nerve has a common origin with the nerve going to our IB, the optic nerve, the olfactory nerve, the ocular motor. It's mind-boggling that these sense-producing nerves share a common origin with the Vagus nerve, and the vagus nerve is like the control switch, as Vaidya Victor said. It's a wonderful correlation, how the body's auto and non-auto functions are dependent on the vagus nerve. I wanted to spend some time on the sympathetic aspects because those are two new words that our listeners are still trying to wrap their heads around. Can you define the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in a few words? Before we go back to the vagus nerve. 

Victor - Yes. The names Vegas, parasympathetic, sympathetic, are Latin based. The parasympathetic means around the sympathetic, and the reason for that is its physiological disposition. The parasympathetic nervous system has two points of origin: one in the brainstem as a 10th cranial nerve and one in the sacrum. Hence, there is an art form known as craniosacral massage, which accesses the parasympathetic nervous system. It's a huge neural network that envelops your entire body. The sympathetic nervous system originates from the spinal cord behind the heart, spreads out, and connects to all the places that the parasympathetic nervous system does. The two Nervous System acts like a seesaw with each other. When one is going up in function, the other is going down. When the sympathetic nervous system is fully activated, the parasympathetic nervous system is pretty much off and vice versa. That's important because we live in one or the other, for the most part. We're physiologically wired for life, which means that we can only live if we spend most of our time in the parasympathetic nervous system. That does not mean that the sympathetic nervous system is bad; you need it to survive. It can give you a lot of temporary vitality, strength, and ability to act, whether through play, hard work, athletics, or dealing with threats. We never want to paint the sympathetic nervous system as evil or wrong, but we do want you to understand that it's not meant to be active for most of our day. We should spend the majority of our day in the parasympathetic nervous system because that is where we find homeostasis with the Doshas, Dhatus, and Agni. 

Vaidya - Well said. 

Victor - I think that's a good enough definition to start with.

Vaidya - Now is the time to integrate modern science's well-developed and documented knowledge and correlate it to what Ayurveda says about homeostasis in terms of Doshas, Dhatus, Malas, Agni, and Manas. How would we relate this autonomic nervous system to our Ayurvedic physiology? If we want to go towards a healthy state. How would we relate these two?

Victor - We've got our doshas,  and everyone has their Prakriti, their base constitution. The ideal balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems it's created by one's Prakriti. You have a certain makeup when it comes to your autonomic nervous system. and finding the balance point for you is one of the great goals of Ayurveda. Everyone has a unique autonomic nervous system; it's like a fingerprint. Learning one's autonomic behavior and how to modify it is an important part of finding homeostasis. Even though you can't just sit there and think it to be different, you can modify it through your food, Pranayam, Yoga Asana, Meditation, Mantra. All those things are designed to affect the autonomic nervous system profoundly. By doing so, you can keep your body in a parasympathetic state that's per your Prakriti; when you can do that, you're going to remain in homeostasis. Your body will take care of itself if you can keep the autonomic nervous system in balance.

Vaidya - Vaidya Victor, this is fascinating and mind-boggling information. We have the series and would like to learn more about the Doshas' functions. I like how you stated that a person's Prakriti, which Ayurveda emphasizes health promotion and disease prevention, has a unique relationship to the autonomic nervous system. That is an excellent way of looking at how we can blueprint our autonomic nervous system for a specific body type and how we can influence it through pranayama and other practices. In our next podcast, we'll discuss the various aspects of Ayurvedic routines or yogic practices like Pranayama Yoga and meditation; how they influence and keep our autonomic nervous systems in a peaceful and health-promotive state. We can't wait for those questions to be answered. Thank you, Vaidya Victor, for coming today and sharing your wealth of knowledge with our Ayurvedic community at Athreya Herbs. Namaste.

Victor -  Thank you, Vaidya Jay. Namaste.

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