Autonomic Neuropathy: What Is It?
Autonomic neuropathy can negatively affect your quality of life. It's a complicated collection of symptoms that can make it difficult for your body to perform involuntary functions. If you’re suffering from autonomic neuropathy or are concerned about developing it, it’s important to understand what causes it, its symptoms, and natural remedies that may help.
What Is Autonomic Neuropathy?
Autonomic neuropathy occurs when nerves that control your involuntary body functions are damaged. Involuntary body functions include your heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and bowel and bladder function.
Damage to these nerves disrupts signals between the brain and organs or other parts of the autonomic nervous system.
It’s important to note that autonomic neuropathy itself isn’t a disease, but rather, it’s a group of symptoms.
What Causes Autonomic Neuropathy?
Many things can cause autonomic neuropathy. Typically, an underlying condition or disease is the root cause of the symptoms. However, in some cases, side effects from certain medications can cause autonomic neuropathy.
Common causes can include:
- Substance abuse
- Disorders that cause tissue scarring around nerves
- Guillain Barré syndrome
- Diseases that cause nerve inflammation
- Spinal cord injuries
- Injury or surgery involving the nerves
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson’s disease
- Shy-Drager syndrome
- Riley-Day syndrome
- Lyme disease
- Nutritional deficiencies
Any one of these conditions can increase the risk of developing autonomic neuropathy. Other risk factors can include:
- High cholesterol
- Being overweight or obese
- High blood pressure
Autonomic Neuropathy Symptoms
Because autonomic neuropathy can affect many parts of the body, there are a variety of autonomic neuropathy symptoms, including:
- Urinary issues, such as incontinence, difficulty starting urinating, trouble sensing a full bladder, frequent urinary tract infections due to not being able to fully empty the bladder.
- Dizziness when standing due to a sudden drop in blood pressure.
- Digestive issues, such as nausea or vomiting after eating, feeling full after a few bites of food, constipation, diarrhea, appetite loss, heartburn, trouble swallowing, and abdominal bloating.
- Abnormal sweating, which can either be excessive or too little.
- Sexual difficulties, including erectile dysfunction, ejaculation problems, low libido, vaginal dryness.
- Trouble recognizing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) because you don’t experience any warning signals.
- Eye issues, such as trouble driving at night or difficulty adjusting from dark to light.
Diagnosing Autonomic Neuropathy
Diagnosis of autonomic neuropathy may depend on your symptoms. If you have a known risk factor for autonomic neuropathy, it’s much easier to make a diagnosis.
If you don’t have any risk factors, your doctor may perform one of the following tests:
- Autonomic function test, which measures your blood pressure and heart rate during exercise.
- Gastrointestinal tests, such as gastric-emptying tests. These tests help check for delayed stomach emptying and sluggish digestion.
- Sweat test to check your sweat pattern. Your body will be coated with a powder that changes color whenever you sweat. During the test, you will lay in a chamber that will gradually get hotter over time. Digital photos will help your doctor understand your sweat patterns.
- Tilt-table test, which checks your heart rate and blood pressure changes when changing positions and posture. Just as the name suggests, you will lie on a table, and the table will be tilted to raise your upper body. A slowed response to the position change may indicate autonomic neuropathy.
- Abdominal X-rays to look at your digestive tract.
- Ultrasound to look at your bladder.
- Urine test to check your bladder function.
- Quantitative sudomotor axon reflex test, which examines how the nerves that regulate your sweat glands respond when stimulated. Electrical currents are passed through capsules in your legs, arms, and feet, and a computer analyzes the results.
These tests can help diagnose the condition and create a viable treatment plan to manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Autonomic Neuropathy Natural Remedies
Although medication may be prescribed for autonomic neuropathy, treatment often involves making lifestyle changes. In addition, natural remedies can complement doctor-prescribed or recommended treatments.
Natural remedies for autonomic neuropathy symptoms include:
Regular exercise is important for everyone’s health, but for those suffering from autonomic neuropathy, it can help reduce symptoms and maintain muscle tone.
Exercise can also help reduce conditions that lead to autonomic neuropathy, such as diabetes. Physical activity can also help keep your blood pressure in check and reduce the pressure on your peripheral blood vessels.
Essential oils can have a variety of effects on the body, from pain relief to stress reduction and even sleep improvement. Some can help alleviate inflammation, improve circulation or even help with nerve pain.
Research has shown that aromatherapy can help with automatic nervous system regulation.
When autonomic neuropathy affects the digestive system, diet changes may help. Consuming small and frequent meals can help combat these issues. High-fiber, low-fat foods are easier for the body to digest. Increasing your fluid intake can also support digestion.
An ancient practice, acupuncture places thin needles along energy meridians in the body that help remove blockages and allow for the free flow of Qi, or energy.
Acupuncture can help with erectile dysfunction and slow stomach emptying, which are common symptoms of autonomic neuropathy. It may also be used to help with other symptoms of autonomic neuropathy while alleviating the stress and anxiety you may be experiencing from this condition.
If you decide to try acupuncture, make sure that you choose an experienced professional who has experience treating your condition. Their skills and knowledge can make a world of difference in the outcome of your treatment.
If you’re experiencing issues with blood pressure or heart rate, making changes to your posture can help.
When standing up from sitting or lying down, move slowly. Get up i stages. In the morning, try placing your legs over the side of the bed for a few minutes before sitting or getting up. This will give your body some time to adjust. Get your blood flowing by wiggling your hands and feet.
Sleep With Your Upper Body Elevated
If you’re suffering from low blood pressure because of autonomic neuropathy, try elevating the head of your bed by a few inches. Elevating the bed can help your body better regulate blood pressure levels.
Research has shown that the antioxidant alpha-lipoic acid can help improve cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy.
Alpha-lipoic acid can also help with diabetic neuropathy. It works by preventing cell damage in the body while restoring levels of vitamin C and E. In addition, some research suggests that this antioxidant can help improve the conduction and function of neurons.
The body uses alpha-lipoic acid to break down carbs and use those carbs for energy. Because it’s considered an antioxidant, it may also help protect the brain and fight against free radicals.
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation
With transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, low-level electrical waves are transmitted through electrodes on the skin. The electrical stimulation can help ease the pain if you’re also suffering from neuropathy or nerve pain.
If you're experiencing nerve pain, DMSO shows promise to help relieve the symptoms you experience. A study in 1993 found that DMSO blocked C-type nerve fibers, which are responsible for pain mediation. This means that DMSO was able to block pain to a certain degree when applied directly to the area where the pain exists.
Autonomic neuropathy is a complex issue that can have a variety of effects on the body. Symptoms can vary depending on the part of the body that’s affected, and treatment will also depend on your symptoms or the organ function that’s affected.
Along with conventional treatments, such as medication, the natural remedies above may also help with your symptoms.
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