COLORADO SERENITY July 2003 (Stress and the Nervous System)


Tracy Saraduke, RN, M.Ac. L.Ac.

3082 Evergreen Parkway, Suite 2

Evergreen, CO 80439

(303) 670-9181


The most common complaints U.S. acupuncturists treat are stress-related conditions such as anxiety and insomnia. Stress induces the fight or flight reaction, controlled by the autonomic nervous system.

The nervous system is divided into the voluntary and the autonomic. The voluntary nervous system is how we are able to control our muscles and movements. The autonomic nervous system works to maintain a state of balance in relation to external and internal conditions through the involuntary regulation of the internal organs, blood vessels and glands.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems make up the two opposites of the autonomic nervous system. Ideally, there should be a balance between these two systems. A long-term imbalance prevents healing and leads to disease.

The sympathetic nervous system controls functions that include those associated with action, fight or flight. The parasympathetic system is passive, controlling the functions of rest and repair.

Stress is the most common cause of sympathetic system activation. Therefore, most patients are sympathetic dominant. That is, their sympathetic nervous system is activated most of the time, interfering with the functions of the parasympathetic. This is a result of our modern lifestyles.

If a person has sympathetic nervous system dominance, they will experience tight muscles (especially neck), rapid pulse, shortness of breath, reduced digestion and elimination, dizziness, cold extremities, headaches, sleep disturbances, bacterial infections, heart palpitations, low back pain, joint pain, etc. After long-term sympathetic dominance, the adrenals become depleted.

Since chronic stress activates the autonomic nervous system, it is outside of our control (involuntary). This is why it is very difficult for a person to reset his or her own sympathetic nervous system dominance.

When the parasympathetic nervous system dominates, the exact opposite occurs. The immune system is activated. The pupils dilate, heart rate decreases, digestive functions increase, appetite increases, blood vessels open, blood pressure is reduced, and muscles relax.

Acupuncture balances the autonomic nervous system, gradually adjusting the condition of the body. After acupuncture, people are usually relaxed or sleepy, indicating the parasympathetic system has been stimulated. Rest and repair has begun.

The prescription for wellness is the same as the prescription for combating chronic illness: reduce the impact of stress.