When my husband and I became parents, we had a strong recognition that children were intelligent, conscious beings responsive to their surrounding experiences. The world around us was waking up with what was termed the “Human Potential Movement.” From the vitalistic premise of that movement, we deduced that life is naturally intelligent, and with intelligence comes organization, natural laws and a sense of order based on principles of function. This premise informed all aspects of our views on family wellness: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Because the vitalistic perspective recognizes that there is wisdom in how life is organized, we deduced that which is most natural and supportive of normal physiology is usually the optimal choice.
For example, a natural birth with no intervention appears to be most consistent with the vitalistic paradigm. That includes allowing labor to start on its own, supporting the mother’s innate need to move in labor, freeing her to progress at her own pace and birth in her position of choice, and allowing her to stay connected to her body without artificial induction or pain meds. These birthing practices indicate a respect for the intelligence that supports the mother’s natural, normal physiology. Delayed cord clamping after birth, immediate and continued contact between mother and baby, co-sleeping, ondemand breastfeeding, baby wearing, and caressing and nurturing our babies are all normal, vital functions that naturally support human neurology so our children can maximize their inborn potential. Avoiding alterations to our children’s neurology, their anatomy, their natural immune responses and their individual psychological expression are also choices that are naturally compatible to the unfolding of human potential.
It has been almost 40 years since obstetrician Frederick Le Boyer published Birth Without Violence, a major contribution to the growing Human Potential Movement. It was in that same decade that doctors of chiropractic began showing their patients videos of hospital births to emphasize the crude physical trauma applied to most babies’ necks and spines during routine birth procedures. Yes, the physical, chemical and emotional traumas mothers and their babies are exposed to through hospital procedures during and after birth may very well be one of the biggest contributors to the increase of discord in the western world.
Stephen Porges, Ph.D., introduced a new model of the autonomic nerve system (ANS) in 2011 called the “Polyvagal Theory.” John Chitty, founder of the Colorado School of Energy Studies, has written extensively on the subject, branching into therapy modalities for healing emotional traumas. The following is Chitty’s succinct interpretation of Porges’s theory.
The Polyvagal Theory is a new understanding of the autonomic nerve system (ANS), arising from the research and writings of Stephen Porges, Ph.D. It uses solid scientific evidence to significantly change the previous commonly accepted view of the ANS, with huge implications for trauma therapies. The ANS is the neuro-endocrine-immune structure that enables survival. Traditionally it has been described as having two branches, parasympathetic (rest/rebuild) and sympathetic (fight/flight). The parasympathetic branch takes care of essential background operations, such as the heart, lungs and digestion, while the sympathetic branch provides stress responses and procreation strategies and functions. Polyvagal Theory, named for the anatomical basis of Porges’s discoveries, changes the picture. Now the ANS has three branches, not two, and they are sequential, not reciprocal. (Actually, “polyvagal” is a misnomer, and not a fully accurate descriptor of the new concept, because the vagus nerve is only one component of the newly-defined third branch. Therefore, in this summary, the new understanding will be referred to by the phrase, “Triune Autonomic.”)
The Triune Autonomic view is based on phylogeny, the study of the evolution of living organisms. For example, all animals have some strategy for acquiring food, absorbing nutrients and expelling cell waste. Very primitive, simple animals are stationary feeders in a liquid environment. Later animals developed ways to move about to find food, and modern animals developed capabilities for using tools, social organization, and long-term planning. Throughout the evolutionary chain, survival is the supreme criteria: Characteristics that enhance survival are perpetuated in subsequent form and function.
In the ANS, the parasympathetic system is the oldest, reflecting the survival needs of a primitive passive feeder. It delivers nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood to the system, particularly the brain, and its components regulate heart, lungs and viscera. At a parasympathetic level, stress responses are primarily limited to adjusting the metabolic rate within a fairly narrow range, and “death feigning” survival tactics.
The sympathetic nerve system is a later development, adding mobility and a wider range of possible survival responses. Newer animals gained more survival options in essential procreative, feeding and protective behaviors. Limbs for movement and increased sensory awareness developed, and muscular/structural tissues became more sophisticated. The sympathetic system acts as a controller on the primitive parasympathetic system to give a wider range of metabolic responses, shifting resources to muscular, visceral or other systems as needed in response to survival challenges.
Porges has shown clear evidence of a third, more modern branch of the ANS, with a survival value specific to more sophisticated animals, especially primates. The “social nervous system” is Porges’s proposed term for this third branch of the ANS. As brain complexity increases, it takes much longer for newborns to become self-sufficient. In humans, many years are necessary before their enhanced survival capabilities are fully operational. Therefore, structures evolved to secure dependent care for this extended time. Certain emotional affects, specifically the love feelings between a mother and baby, are evidence of this survival mechanism. The social nervous system exists as a controller over the sympathetic system to moderate the more crude “fight/flight” responses to accommodate this dependency.
The anatomy of the social nervous system consists of tools that bond a newborn to the mother. These include voice, hearing, visual contact and facial expression, which are each capable of triggering neurotransmitters inducing pleasurable sensations in the caregiver. These are “hardwired,” precognitive functions that exist in newborns and have a compelling power to engender emotional bonding and biochemical events that we interpret as love, thereby securing protective care during the vulnerable period. Healthy babies exhibit these instantly upon delivery. They experience unsuccessful deployment of these strategies (i.e., betrayal by or alienation from the caregiver) as immediately life-threatening, and justifiably so.
Drawing on the “Theory of Dissolution” (J.H. Jackson, ca. 1910), Porges also shows that under stress, the human system tries its newest, most sophisticated and efficient equipment first. If that doesn’t work, older strategies are attempted, and if they don’t work, the oldest resources are employed. Therefore, under stress, the human first uses its social/relational tactics, then fight/flight, then immobility, as survival strategies. Each of these stages has characteristic indicators. Also it is clear that with trauma, capacity for using the newer strategies can be eroded, with the older strategies becoming the habitual basis for response.
The New ANS Anatomy
“Three neural circuits form a phylogenically ordered response hierarchy that regulates behavioral and physiological adaptation to safe, dangerous and life threatening environments.”—Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory
Parasympathetic “A primitive passive feeding and reproduction system creating a metabolic baseline of operation to manage oxygen and nourishment via the blood.”
Sympathetic “A more sophisticated set of responses enabling mobility for feeding, defense and reproduction via limbs & muscles.”
Social Engagement “A sophisticated set of responses supporting massive cortical development, enabling maternal bonding (extended protection of vulnerable immature cortex processors) and social cooperation (language and social structures) via facial functions.”
“The whole sequence is played out in a sub-optimum hospital birth. Newborn babies come out pre-programmed for maternal bonding, including skin-to-skin contact and nursing. Instead they are separated from their mothers (“infant quarantine”) and subjected to painful unnatural procedures, facilitated by mainstream medicine’s old belief that babies are insentient. Since the social engagement system impulses are thwarted, babies then try the older strategy, the sympathetic ANS in the form of angry-sounding crying. When that doesn’t work, and it cannot work unless the adults are sensitive and discerning about such sounds, all they have left is the parasympathetic freeze/immobilization response. The misunderstanding caregivers may interpret this seemingly quiet state as being “good babies,” when actually they are seriously compromised, with potential long-term implications such as reduced immune system, heart rate variability and other ANS functions. Many research studies have repeatedly confirmed the reality and value of a functional social engagement system: Patients with strong and active social connections recover faster and live longer.”
—Excerpted from: Dancing with Yin and Yang by John Chitty, Chapter 6: The Autonomic Nervous System.
Understanding Porges’s Polyvagal Theory may be the key to health, particularly when looking at birth. The physical and emotional traumas to both the mother and baby in modern birthing practices have a direct effect on the healthy development of the infant’s social vagal branch. By depriving children of the proper development of this nerve function from birth, we are directly affecting the social well-being of generations to come.
Technology vs. Intuition
For centuries, women’s intuition was respected as a vital contribution to the health and well-being of their families. Personal experience through pregnancy and birth led us to trust the body’s natural processes. Our ability to bond with our children gave us great insight into the physical and emotional needs of our families. Women’s ability to seek guidance from that quiet place within was honored.
In recent years, technology has seemingly replaced women’s wisdom in making family health decisions. It is not so much that the voice of intuition has stopped speaking to us; it is more accurate to say that its validity is being disregarded by our high-tech society. We have been led from trusting the natural process and hearing its internal messages to looking outside ourselves for support and guidance.
Birth can be one of a woman’s most gratifying experiences, physically, emotionally and spiritually. The very wisdom of creation comes into fruition. Birth is our gift, our privilege, our very potential for growth in motherhood. When we are allowed to follow the internal rhythms of birthing with confidence and trust, we experience the passionate expression of the life force.
Today, however, the birth process has turned into a technological maneuver. Women are forced to comply with someone else’s procedure and schedule. Women are put into positions which defy normal physiological function, impairing the natural momentum. These unnecessary restrictions in birth make women feel afraid and powerless. Fear shuts down the process both psychologically and physically. It actually constricts blood vessels and contracts muscles. This leads to greater pain and longer, less productive labors. The origin of these procedures had nothing to do with being better for the mom or baby, and yet their practice is largely unquestioned.
More often than not, drugs are used to ease pain, further impairing the mother’s physical strength and uterine function. She’s not told that the drugs can harm her child’s developing organs, nerve system and even intelligence. Women tell me they were never informed that the use of anesthesia is the third leading cause of maternal fatality. Nor are they told that the drugs will actually disconnect her from the natural process and her ability to intuitively participate in it.
When there is disconnect between mother and baby, delivery becomes more laborious and the use of force is instituted to extract the baby. Then, adding insult to injury, the baby is whisked away, separated from the comfort of its mother to be probed and poked at instead of nurtured and gently welcomed.
Because of drugs, maternal positions, and lack of respect for a normal body process, women experience undue pain and complications. Undue force and stress has become routine in our modern birthing techniques. Obstetric text books and teaching videos show that most current, normal birthing procedures use excessive amounts of force. Frequently, doctors will grasp the baby’s head and use unnecessary force in delivery. Any force applied to the baby’s fragile neck may cause nerve system stress to his spinal cord and nerves. This injury has lifelong consequences.
Systems in Harmony
For years I collected videos of our patients’ births. I was often appalled by the undue force and twisting applied to the infant’s fragile spine. A significant study done by German researcher G. Gutmann showed that more than 80 percent of the 1,000 infants he examined shortly after birth suffered various health problems because of injury to the nerves in their necks. I now can recognize that in addition to spinal nerve impairment, the social vagus (as described by Porges) is probably undergoing significant injury as well. What I have observed in practice since 1981 is that specific, gentle adjustments to these areas restore health in these children.
Clinically, what chiropractors find is significant tension in the infant’s spine and cranium; when applying a very gentle, light touch adjustment to the upper neck, we witness the baby’s normal function restored. Reducing interference to the nerve system has an effect on all systems and functions. My more than 30 years in practice have shown me the amazing healing power that is unleashed when the nerve system is freed to function as it was designed to.
The nerve system is the key to health! It coordinates all of the body’s systems. Every function depends upon the nerve system to send vital messages from the brain throughout the body. The heart beats because nerve impulses tell it to. The lungs breathe because the nerves are communicating. Digestion works more efficiently with a good nerve supply. And yes, our immune systems function better when our nerves are free of interference. New studies are recognizing that the nerve system and immune system are so directly connected that each is inherently dependent upon the other for proper function.
All systems, all functions, and all coordination in the body depend on a healthy, functional nerve system. A person’s overall well-being is dependent upon its performance. When our nerve system is impaired, our health is directly affected. Our bodies then manifest a state of dis-ease—a lack of wellness. These areas of spinal nerve stress interfere with the nerve system’s ability to transmit vital impulses to all body systems. It’s kind of like being hooked up to the Internet with a broken modem. We have all the latest information we could want, but no way to access it!
Dorland’s medical dictionary defines health as a state of physical, emotional and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity. Blocking this vital information affects all those aspects of wellness.
Doctors of chiropractic get to the cause of dis-ease. Using specific and gentle techniques, they restore nerve system function by repairing those “electrical shorts” in the spinal and cranial nerves. This results in a greater state of health and well-being.
Additionally, doctors of chiropractic offer supportive, holistic care, respecting and honoring the body’s natural ability to heal and function. The philosophy of care is based on normalizing the person’s inherent ability to function as it is designed to. Supportive care providers, renewed trust in the body, and the whole-health benefits of chiropractic are being recognized as vital ingredients to a healthier pregnancy, easier birth and a forthcoming lifestyle of family well-being.
Spend a moment reflecting on the evolution of life itself. The magnificence of creation is beyond our ability to comprehend. Then take a moment to think about the amazing functions of your body which are happening every second of your existence. Try to fathom their magnificent orchestration. Old cells are dying and are being replaced with vibrant new cells. Circulation, respiration, digestion and elimination are all working together in harmony for the good of the whole organism. Every part of your body is performing a function so intricate and imperative in its relationship to the whole. Think about what you ate for lunch yesterday. Today, the inner intelligence of your body is taking those various ingredients and turning them into living, loving, thinking cells. The expression of life and the harmonious way it works in our bodies is truly amazing.
An Enlightened Outlook
Brilliant works in science come from those who have respect for the wisdom in natural law. For example, Einstein offered modern science a profound outlook. He said, “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that wisdom is present in the laws of the universe.” He combined the search for truth with this enlightened belief. David Bohm termed this intelligence “implicit order.” In chiropractic we refer to the existence of a universal intelligence. Science from this premise expands our perspective for greater appreciation, respect and trust in this wisdom.
Mothers, in particular, have experienced the miracle of this inner wisdom—it grew our children from two small cells into the wonderful beings they are today. Think about it: One small sperm cell and one small egg cell united. Together they grew, and in about 265 days, they formed the amazing totality of it all— the human being! There was no outside help, advice or direction—only the intelligence within orchestrated this miraculous process.
Moms, I invite you to continue to strengthen your trust in the body’s innate intelligence. As guardians of our children’s future, it behooves us to seek ways to enhance our families’ natural health potential by improving the body’s normal function right from the start. Your choices in pregnancy, birth and throughout your children’s lives will be expressed for generations to come.
Most children born in the western world today have experienced unnecessary trauma to their tiny spines and delicate nerve systems. This insidious damage, if left uncorrected, will lead to continued malfunction in our children’s nerve systems and impair their overall health. It makes practical sense to undergo chiropractic care to ensure our bodies are working optimally throughout pregnancy in preparation for a safer, easier birth. Then, right after birth, it is logical to have our baby’s spine checked by a doctor of chiropractic who sees children.
Mothers, you are the ones who make a difference in your family’s health and well-being. You alone know the stresses your family has gone through, and now you know the lifelong damage these stresses cause. It is no coincidence that the first, and often greatest, cause of nerve system stress in our society—the birth process— is also where women’s intuitive powers have been squelched the most.
As mothers, it is up to us to lead our families to health. Inherently, we have a great respect for the wisdom within, because we are most familiar with its inner promptings and guidance. What is so special about chiropractic is that its basic premise includes regaining trust and assurance in the body’s inner wisdom. Doctors of chiropractic guide their practice members to depend on and trust this inner wisdom. They encourage people to trust and respect the body’s innate healing capacity once the nerve system stress has been addressed. Not only do they reconnect their patients with this inner intelligence through the physical adjustment, they also support parents’ need to follow their own gut instincts when making health choices for their families. In chiropractic there is a deep respect of an innate intelligence and the possibility of true health and well-being.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #44.
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