The nervous system is responsible for communicating vital messages to various parts of your body, helping you to act and react, see, touch, taste, and feel. However, if these messages get interrupted, it can lead to a variety of problems. Troubles with the nervous system could be one of the root causes for fibromyalgia syndrome.
What is the Autonomic Nervous System?
The autonomic nervous system is an important part of your body’s central nervous system (CNS). It works automatically to help your body get on with daily living.
The autonomic nervous system works alongside your body’s neurotransmitters and hormones in order to ensure that your body is working correctly. It helps to control a variety of different organs in your body as well as numerous bodily systems.
It has a number of responsibilities, including:
- regulation of body temperature
- maintenance of bowel and bladder function
- maintenance of heart rate
The Two Branches
There are two parts to your autonomic nervous system, which are referred to as branches. These two branches work by sending signals, or messages, using special chemicals called neurotransmitters.
The branches of the autonomic system are:
- The Sympathetic System: The sympathetic system helps you to respond to conditions of stress, such as emergencies.
- The Parasympathetic System: The parasympathetic system is responsible for regulating sleep and digestion.
In order to communicate with one another, the two branches of the autonomic nervous system use special chemical hormones, called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters act as vehicles, carrying information back and forth between your brain and your body.
If something goes wrong with these neurotransmitters, messages from the body to the autonomic nervous system can easily be confused.
Specific neurotransmitters that are thought to play a role in fibromyalgia:
- Substance P: Substance P is a neurotransmitter found in your spinal fluid. It helps to communicate sensations of pain to your brain and body. A number of studies have shown that fibromyalgia patients have up to three times more Substance P in their spinal fluid than healthy people. This can cause enhanced perceptions of pain, making a normally mild stimulus excruciatingly painful.
- Endorphins: Endorphins are hormones secreted by the body in reaction to physical stress, such as exercise or fear. Endorphins are considered a natural opioid and help your body to deal with pain and fatigue. Beta-endorphin is highly involved in pain suppression, but fibromyalgia patients appear to have only 50% of the normal levels of this endorphin. This could explain why fibromyalgia patients experience so much pain.
- Serotonin: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate your mood. It keeps you from feeling overly depressed or manically excited. A number of studies have reported that fibromyalgia patients appear to have low levels of serotonin in their brains. Low levels of serotonin have been linked with depression, anxiety, and chronic headaches. Antidepressants that manipulate the levels of serotonin in the brain seem to alleviate these fibromyalgia symptoms.
Along with neurotransmitters, your autonomic nervous system also relies on hormones in order to stimulate certain bodily functions. Hormones are special chemicals secreted by various glands in your body, helping to trigger growth, fertility, and other functions.
Hormones that are important to your autonomic nervous system include:
- Cortisol: The hormone cortisol is secreted by your adrenal glands. It is released when your body is physically threatened or stressed. Commonly referred to as the “stress hormone,” cortisol function tends to be abnormal in fibromyalgia patients. If you have fibromyalgia, your body often considers itself to be in a stressed state. As a result, you release more cortisol than most people. This can you leave you feeling persistently tired and drained.
- Growth Hormone: Growth hormone is released during exercise and deep sleep and helps to control muscle and tissue growth as well as metabolism. It helps to heal wounds and injuries incurred by your body throughout the day. People with fibromyalgia appear to have very low levels of growth hormone is their bodies. For some reason, the autonomic nervous system doesn’t trigger the release of enough growth hormone to help repair muscles and tissues. To compound this, many fibromyalgia patients don’t get enough deep sleep, which limits the release of growth hormone.
- Norepinephrine: Norepinephrine is a hormone released by your adrenal gland and controlled by your sympathetic nervous system. It helps to control stress responses, such as sweating, increased heart rate, and muscle contraction. Fibromyalgia suffers appear to have lower levels of epinephrine, contributing to pain and fatigue.