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Touch One Strand And The Entire Web Wavers
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim on Apr 23, 2014
I've long felt that a fundamental flaw with conventional health care is to view and treat the body in segments. Can we really compartmentalize parts of our body and fix just one area without considering all of our other tissues?
Regardless of which sub-section of human physiology you study - neurology, endocrinology, cardiology, or nephrology to name a few - it becomes exceedingly clear that the 37 trillion cells that make up the average adult human body are intimately interconnected. You really can't affect one group of cells in your body without affecting all others. Touch one strand of a spider web and the entire web wavers.
Why are all of the tissues in your body like strands of a single web? It comes down to how all of the activities in your body are regulated. There are two systems within your body that govern everything - they're your nervous and endocrine systems. And once you understand how these two organ systems work, you may wonder out loud why many health care providers treat one part of your body without much regard for the rest of you.
So let's have a look at how your nervous and endocrine systems work. To put it simply, these two systems continuously monitor the well-being of each of the trillions of cells in your body, and they continuously take action through messenger systems to keep all of your cells as healthy as possible.
A Key Difference in How Your Nervous and Endocrine Systems Work
Though your nervous and endocrine systems share the director's seat of your body, they fulfill their roles in completely different ways.
Your nervous system senses and controls every part of your body through its many nerves. Sensory receptors located throughout your body constantly send information through nerves to your brain. Your brain digests this information, decides on appropriate action, and then executes the action through different nerves that control your muscles and other target tissues.
For example, if you touch a hot pan, sensory receptors register pain almost instantaneously, this information travels through sensory nerves to reach your brain, your brain understands that your hand is in danger of being injured in its current position, and your brain uses motor nerves to command your muscles to jerk your hand away from the pan.
As you likely know from firsthand experience, transmission of information through your nervous system can occur within milliseconds. But it can also occur at a slower pace, like when you park your car, type an e-mail, wash vegetables, take a shower, or hit a tennis ball.
Your endocrine system consists of a number of glands that produce and secrete hormones that make their way into your bloodstream. Once in your bloodstream, these hormones travel through your body and trigger specific actions whenever they encounter cells that display compatible receptors.
Because your endocrine system monitors and controls the well-being of your cells via your bloodstream, it generally works at a slower pace than your nervous system, sometimes taking hours to produce a desired effect as a secreted hormone reaches its target destination and triggers a cascade of intracellular events.
For example, if your blood volume decreases for any reason (like when you are dehydrated), your endocrine system will sense this and call your kidneys, liver, lungs, adrenal glands, and blood vessels to action, with the end result being an increase in blood volume.
So your nervous system uses sensory receptors, nerves, and your brain to monitor and control the well-being of all of your cells, while your endocrine system uses your blood circulatory system to care for your cells. Your nervous system operates at light speed, while your endocrine system generally works more slowly to create changes in your biochemistry.
Strands of One Big Web
The interdependent relationship between your nervous and endocrine systems begins in a tiny area of tissue in your brain called your hypothalamus.
Your hypothalamus is about the size of a grape, and can be viewed as the micro-processing chip that controls almost all of your body's external and internal activities. Your hypothalamus receives information from all regions of your brain, your organs, and your eyes, and it registers sensations like pain, temperature, hunger, thirst, lust, stress, fear, and anger.
Once your hypothalamus registers incoming information and decides what your body needs to best survive and be healthy, it uses your autonomic nervous system to regulate the activity of all of your major organs. Examples of such effects are increased heart and lung rates, increased blood flow to your skeletal muscles or digestive organs, changes in how much light enters your eyes and how well your eyes can focus on distant objects, production of sweat or shivers, and arousal of sexual organs.
Your hypothalamus also produces a number of different hormones that directly impact your pituitary gland, which is about the size of a green pea, and is located just below your hypothalamus.
Amazingly, your pea-size pituitary gland is the chief gland of your endocrine system; it has two distinct portions that produce and secrete hormones that govern the activities and well-being of all of your organ systems. Actually, because your hypothalamus governs the activities of your pituitary gland, it may be more accurate to call your hypothalamus the master gland of your endocrine system. But technically, your hypothalamus is considered to be specialized neuroendocrine tissue because of its unique ability to affect both your nervous and endocrine systems.
Together, your hypothalamus and pituitary gland have significant, ongoing influence over every other component of your endocrine system.
Other components include your thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, pineal gland, adrenal glands, and all organs and tissues that secrete hormones - these organs and tissues include your kidneys, liver, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, heart, skin, thymus, and fat tissue. The ovaries, testes, and placenta also secrete hormones, and are considered to be important components of the endocrine system.
The Big Picture
In order get a sense of how your nervous and endocrine systems work together to keep you well, consider the example of hiking in a national park somewhere in Alaska late at night and coming upon a hungry grizzly bear.
As soon as your eyes detect the bear and your brain understands the bear's desire to make you her next meal, your hypothalamus uses your autonomic nervous system to immediately prepare your eyes to see better, your brain to think more quickly, and your heart, lungs, and large skeletal muscles to allow you to run faster or fight with more strength.
Your autonomic nervous system accomplishes some of the above by stimulating the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine from the inner portion of your adrenal glands - this is yet another way in which your nervous and endocrine systems are intertwined in their roles as governors of all of your physiological activities.
Through your endocrine system, your hypothalamus stimulates the release of glucocorticoids (mainly cortisol) from the outer portion of your adrenal glands. Glucocorticoids increase the production of glucose, which ensures adequate availability of fuel to fight or run away from the bear.
Here's the thing...
All of your nervous and endocrine system's responses to physical danger also occur when you experience any type of emotional stress; yes, to a lesser degree than in the example of encountering a grizzly, but ultimately, all of your cells are exposed to the same stress-related neurotransmitters and hormones whenever you are emotionally stressed.
So the price of chronic emotional stress is premature aging and disease due to constantly being in fight-flight mode.
In most cases, it doesn't make sense to try to address just one particular problem within your nervous or endocrine systems with a specific remedy like medication or a nutritional supplement. For example, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's disease are all systemic neurological challenges that are affected by every food that you eat, every hour of fatigue that you experience, and every emotion that courses through and touches all of your cells.
The same goes for almost all endocrine-related health challenges. For example, it's not possible to isolate the health status of your thyroid gland, to identify one, two, or five factors that are contributing to thyroid dysfunction. Every facet of your existence affects the health of your thyroid gland, and any diligent and well-thought out attempt to address real thyroid dysfunction must bring into consideration all major causes of disease and dysfunction.
Put another way, the health of every component of your nervous and endocrine systems depends on your overall health status. The health of each of your body parts cannot be compartmentalized.
Of course, there can be focal causes of specific conditions, like poor upper body posture creating shoulder impingement syndrome, or iodine deficiency resulting in enlargement of your thyroid gland. So it's prudent to have unusual symptoms of discomfort that you can't account for evaluated by a physician. But in all circumstances, a good goal is to restore overall health through all of your daily choices.
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