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Decoding the Sympathetic Nervous System with Michael Solano

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Decoding the Sympathetic Nervous System with Michael Solano

Trauma has so many guises, be they physical, emotional, or chemical. Trauma can be old and subtle, disguised and forgotten. But trauma always leaves a footprint and understanding what made that footprint is the goal of a good osteopath.

Ahead of his appearance for ATMS at their AGM and Gut-Brain Connection Seminar, we are joined by Michael Solano, who shares with us his clinical experiences and how finding a balance between the  sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems can be a crucial element in the pathways to healing.

Tune in the learn how manual therapies directed to the vagus nerve can impact both physical and emotional wellbeing. 

Covered in this episode:

[00:31] Introducing Michael Solano
[02:00] The autonomic nervous system
[07:55] The Vagus Nerve
[11:28] Defining stress or stressors
[14:53] Measuring nervous system trauma
[22:00] The work of Kevin Tracey
[24:23] Osteopathic 'sympathetic inhibition'
[33:41] Uncovering the layers of nervous system trauma
[38:21] How is memory defined anyway?
[43:00] Red flags, caveats, cautions
[45:10] The ATMS Gut-Brain Connection Seminar & AGM
[46:43] Final thanks to Michael

Andrew: This is FX Medicine. I'm Andrew Whitfield-Cook. 

Joining me on the line today is Michael Solano. Trauma has so many guises, be they physical, emotional, or chemical. Trauma can be old and subtle, disguised and forgotten. But trauma always leaves a footprint and understanding what made that footprint is the goal of a good osteopath. 

Michael Solano finished a degree in Human Movement and Psychology at Melbourne University, and then taught secondary school for four years. At 27, he went back to RMIT for five years to complete a Bachelor of Applied Science in Osteopathy, and he's been in practice for the last 25 years.

He's a member of the Sutherland Cranial Teaching Foundation of Australia and New Zealand, and has been postgraduate teaching since 2006. He has also been involved in teaching the Rule of the Artery program in England, Germany, Finland, Poland, America, Australia, and New Zealand. He's fascinated by embryology and how the principles of osteopathy explore how the laws of nature express themselves in human health, and I warmly welcome you to FX Medicine. 

Michael, how are you?

Michael: I'm very well, thank you. I'm so impressed with that introduction. It was wonderful.

Andrew: Well, this is your career, mate. This is your life.

Michael: I sounded impressive to myself then.

Andrew: Now, Michael, this is a huge topic that we're going to be talking about today, and that's the vulnerable vagus nerve and the sympathetic nervous system. Where do we start? Take us through a broad explanation of what we'll be covering today.

Michael: The first thing that I think is really important is to understand that it falls under the umbrella of what's called the autonomic nervous system. And to understand that these are the most primitive functions that develop in the central nervous system in order to help us survive stress and rest and digest. And I think that's the simplest way to understand it.

Andrew: So we're talking about a very primitive nervous system here. What's its function?

Michael: Yeah, great question. So the first part of it is, and I think the most important part of it, as a survival, we have to be able to get nourishment and we have to be able to survive danger. And these are two extremes of what the autonomics do. So the vagus nerve represents the parasympathetic functions, rest and digest. And the sympathetic functions are the ones that are mediated by adrenaline. It's how we escape danger. And a lot of people have understood it as, you know, the fight, flight, fright response. 

And the way I would love everyone to understand is that there is a reciprocal tension between these two nervous systems, like they're sitting on a see-saw. And when one of those nervous systems is a little bit more influential, the other part of the nervous system is less influential. And thinking about it in terms of that reciprocal tension is very, very important. And I think the best example of that is, if you're gonna run away from danger, or if you're gonna get out of the way of a car that's about to run you over, what your sympathetic nervous system does is it generates this blast of energy for you to cope with that stress. And that means there's increased blood flow to your legs and your arms and to your brain so that you can either fight or run.

And the first question everyone should ask is, "Where does that extra blood flow come from?" And basically, the first thing that the sympathetic nervous system does as part of this adrenaline emergency response, is it cuts off the blood supply to the digestive system in preference for getting away from the danger and surviving this immediate stress. That should make a lot of sense because first thing you think of then is, if you're going through a stress response you can't be digesting, can you?

Andrew: So there's no way in which both can be activated at the same time? There's no pathology which both are innervated?

Michael: Look, they are always innervated at the same time. It's just that when one is dominant, the other one has to be shut up. So if you're trying to escape danger, you don't want your body wasting energy trying to digest food.

Andrew: No, no.

Michael: You know, you want every bit of energy to get away from that danger. And then the implication of that is, people who are under chronic stress conditions and their bodies are constantly sensing that they're trying to survive danger, they're constantly cutting off the blood supply to their gut. And so the gut functions and things like irritable bowel syndrome become a consequence of a chronic stress condition. And that makes sense I think, doesn't it?

Andrew: Yeah, look, it does. Can I ask you a question though, one which I've never, ever had answered?

Michael: Yes.

Andrew: Okay. So I remember back when we were learning Anatomy and Physiology, and we were talking about the innervation of let's say something as simple as urination and defecation. And that the sympathetic nervous system would shut off those impulses, and yet you'll get people who go on a ride and they have an accident, or people who are held up and they urinate themselves. What's happening there?

Michael: Yeah, look. Yeah, yeah, look, that's a very common thing that a lot of people understand and there are some things that you read, and they talk about how in a moment of danger, there is such an overwhelming barrage of stress information coming into your body that one of the things that you do is you just lose bowel and bladder control. And it's considered to be a survival mechanism because it has the ability to disguise your smell to a predator. So there's a potential in that that's part of our survival mechanism, but it really is this overwhelming stress response creates that loss of control.

Andrew: Yeah. There was...

Michael: Does that help a little bit?

Andrew: Well, it does, but then there's this other one and that is there's the flight, fright, or fight response. But there's also freeze. And I'm wondering where that fits in. Is that the sort of de-innervation or sort of a lack of compensatory mechanisms happening with the sympathetic nervous system, so it just gives up?

Michael: No. No, no, no. I think that that's where I'd like you to understand it more. That instead of it giving up, after a while, its response attenuates, so it becomes less of a loud, significant response. You start to back off and you see the adrenaline levels in your body start to drop a little bit. Your receptors become a little bit fatigued. And that's when you realise you're tired and you're hungry, and you can go into this nourishing response which is where the parasympathetics and the vagus functions become more dominant.

Andrew: Yup. So when we're talking about this parasympathetic innervation, which nerves have the major impact?

Michael: It is the biggest, the cranial nerve 10, it's the vagus nerve. It's called the wanderer. It goes from the cranial base in the jugular foramen and it goes all the way through to all the viscera, every organ practically up into the pelvic floor. And then there are some parasympathetic nerves which also come from the sacrum which supply the pelvic floor organs and the reproductive organs. 

But basically, it's two nerves that exit the skull, they travel in the neck with the jugular vein and the carotid artery, and from there, they go like a mesh to every single organ of the body. And their function is nourishment and rest.

Andrew: Ah, right. Okay. Because I was always wondered why is it so enmeshed in all, like, intertwining with so many other nerves? So that's it, again, a survival thing.

Michael: Yes, yes, that's right. Because you've got this nourishment function that's happening in every cell, in every cellular ensemble, and that nourishing function, those nerves grew with those organs and those nerves flourished with those organs. And this is the part where you start to get some really important intellect into the vagus nerve.

Andrew: Yeah

Michael: If you consider, not 80% to 90% of all the fibres in the parasympathetic system are afferent fibres. That means that they're sending information from the organs back into the primitive parts of the brain, and then saying to the brain, "These are the conditions in the lungs, or in the stomach, or in the digestive system. How are you going to respond?" And 10% of the vagus function is an effector response. Create an effect. Create a stimulus of a secretion of a gland, or contract the muscle so that the food can be passed along the gut. So you see that the vagus is really a sensory nerve constantly listening to our state, and then responding to it when we need to.

Andrew: I've spoken with Emrys Goldsworthy before about vagal nerve stimulation. And I think I've just had a penny drop. It's more like a sledgehammer to the head because I just had this weird notion that we needed to almost like reset the vagus nerve, but it might be innervation of the vagus nerve that's inhibited by sympathetic impulses. Stress, as you call it.

Michael: You know, if that's what you learned from me today, then you've learned something really important. Because the sympathetic state or a hyper-aroused state is constantly inhibiting the parasympathetics. If you've cut off the blood supply to your gut because you're afraid you're going to get physically abused when you get home, and that's a chronic state, how can the brain respond to information that it's not receiving?

Andrew: You're right.

Michael: Again, what you just said then is very, very insightful about what happens with a lot of people. And, yeah, that's the right conclusion to draw from what you just said then that there is this inhibition of the vagus from the functions of the sympathetics.

Andrew: So stress, that word and, you know, a scientist would say, "Stressor," gets used a lot. What does that actually mean? Is it real or imagined?

Michael: Yeah, thank you. So I have to talk about this and break it down because there's no doubt in your mind that you experience physical stress, you know? You do it when you lift something heavy. You do it when you do some really heavy gardening. So the idea of understanding that there's physical stress on your joints and your muscles, that's a really obvious one. 

Then we get these physiological stressors on us so that are things like overloaded with sugar. That's a really obvious different type of stress, isn't it?

Andrew: Yeah.

Michael: And then when you start to confront levels of stress that comes from psycho-emotional factors, then you're starting to see how all of those things, whether they're physical stressors, mechanical stressors, biochemical or biophysical stressors, they all start to overlap. And what you're doing is you're creating an overload of how the body can cope and, you know, then it does a couple more things to cope. And then it runs out of ways of compensating for what's going on. And there's a condition that you would talk a lot about with these interviews and that's homeostasis.

Andrew: Yep.

Michael: When the body is in harmony with the balance between the sympathetics and the parasympathetic nervous system, there's homeostasis. There's damage and repair which is in balance. That's a really simple concept to understand, isn't it?

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. It's just so hard to achieve.

Michael: That's right. And you know what? The Western world has become a situation where the levels of different stressors that accumulate on us are really difficult for us to contemplate. Especially things like chemical stressors, the pollutants in our environment, the mercury in our teeth, all of those things are really recent things that have insulted the human nervous system and our immunity and so on. 

But there is a really important word that I think very few people understand, and that's allostasis, A-L-L-O-S-T-A-S-I-S. And what that refers to is that in conditions where people are just chronically stressed and, you know, take the example of a woman who's experiencing physical abuse at home. Her body becomes so used to being chronically stressed that her whole balance shifts into a mechanism where she is hypersympathetic dominant and parasympathetic inhibited, and she has adapted to that condition. She has chronically poor absorption from her gut, chronically poor blood flow to her organs, and this adaptation which is the best that her body can do, in the conditions that she lives in. And that allostasis is a really common thing that becomes, you know, something you have to conclude that people are doing their best to cope, but it's not… it's definitely not homeostatic.

Andrew: No, well, okay, so that ties into the next question I'm going to ask you. And that is; in your biography, we spoke about the footprint of trauma. So what does this mean and how do you measure it? How do you tease it apart? Indeed, what happens when you've got layer, upon layer, upon layer of different types of stressors?

Michael: Yeah, yeah. Look, you know, if you're asking about how do you measure it, how do you quantify it? That's a really, really good question, Andrew, and I appreciate it. And one of the things is heart rate variability. 

That people's heart rate variability is this measure of a homeostatic mechanism which is healthy. We have a slight variation in the patterns of our heartbeat when you see it on an ECG that is an indicative that our body is constantly adapting to little different things that we do, and that variability is healthy. And things like high intensity training actually improve our heart rate variability.

Another really obvious one is resting heart rate. If you're in an allostatic compensatory mechanism, you have a much, much higher resting heart rate and you tend to have higher blood pressure as well. So there are ways of quantifying it, and in terms of being an osteopath, I put my hands on people and I can just feel this tension in people that feels like they're tissues are, you know, perfused by concrete instead of being perfused by oxygen. So it's a palpatory thing as much as it is a...Sorry, a qualitative thing as much as it is a quantitative thing.

Andrew: Measuring heart rate variability, I've gotta say this is something I'm not up with because as far as I'm aware, normal heart rate variability is enough to maintain homeostasis. And it's a normal diurnal and situational variation like for instance, you know, postural exercise, pre versus post-prandial, so before and after a meal. All of that, sort of variation is a normal thing. But you can get too much of a good thing, right? Too much heart rate variability is pathological, is that right?

Michael: Do you know what? I don't know enough about it to answer that competently. And I think you're correct with what you're saying. But the opposite which is a heart rate which is too stable and too low has been linked to...Do you remember James Fixx, the runner who wrote some books on long distance

Anyway, people who are extremely fit and do too much long distance running or too much of consistent low intensity aerobic exercise they tend to have a heart rate...they tend to have a heart condition which can suddenly...their heart suddenly stops. So I don't think I've answered your question very well...

Andrew: It's given food for thought, that's for sure.

Michael: There's certainly a lot of stuff being written at the moment that the very, very minute variations in our heart rate that can be detected on ECG are a very good indicator of health or disease.

Andrew: Right. So you need an ECG to do that. Do you measure that...

Michael: That's right.

Andrew: ...or do you send the patients away to a GP office?

Michael: I definitely send people away for it. Yeah. 

Andrew: Gotcha. Resting heart rate, of course, is quite easy to measure as long as they are truly at rest and haven't got white coat syndrome.

Michael: That's right. And it's something that people do in the mornings before they get out of bed. There are so many wonderful heart rate monitors around at the moment that are pretty accurate that then you can get feedback from your own computer to say, "Listen, your resting heart rate was quite high today and, you know, what happened yesterday? What’s affected you that...you know, you're not coping?" And you can track it back to a lot of things.

Andrew: When you're talking about resting heart rate, we're talking about pre-prandial, first thing in the morning is obviously the best one because it's the lowest basal metabolic rate that you're going to get throughout the day. So you want that sort of lack of the daily stressors even that being food, so before food, before any stimulants, before any stress, preferably in bed. 

Then, though, you're talking about that heart rate may be significant for, or indicative of what happened the day or the evening before-hand. So there's a lag time?

Michael: Yeah! Well, look. What I think I've seen, I've seen some really good research done on athletes who are chronically… they're so over-trained that they've got to the point where their bodies are not recovering from the stressors that they put their body through. And their resting heart rate will be quite consistent for a while. Let's say, you know, 60, first thing in the morning before they get out of bed. And then all of a sudden, it jumps up to 85, 90. And what you're seeing there is a mechanism that's not recovering from...And they're over training and their bodies have gone beyond what they're capable of.

You get the point that I'm making that you've seen a pattern of change in someone which has been quite consistently normal before, then that's a good indicator that you've got, you know, a problem.

Andrew: You know what? I'm actually just thinking here about...Do you remember, I don't know about your age, but Vitas Gerulaitis, tennis star.

Michael: Oh, vividly. Great tennis player, yep.

Andrew: Okay. So I remember learning about him and everybody was lauding how fit he was because he had this incredibly low resting heart rate. And I wonder what did he die from?

Michael: Well, what a fascinating question. And you know what? I've just been through this with one of my patients. His resting heart rate got so low, he lost consciousness on his bicycle, and he was taken to emergency and they couldn't work out what was going on. And then they kept an eye on his resting heart rate which was below 40. They kept a heart rate monitor during the night and there were periods of time where his heart rate got below 26 or something like that. And then all of a sudden it would spontaneously stop and they had to put a pace maker on him.

Andrew: Wow.

Michael: Isn't that fascinating? And look, I don't know enough about cardiology, but it's not uncommon.

Andrew: Wowee. You know what? I'm gonna take that up with Dr. Ross Walker, you know, pick his brain.

Michael: Yeah, I think he's great. I've been listening to his stuff for 25 years. I think he's wonderful. He's had a wonderful influence.

Andrew: Mate, he has taught so many people including me, but wow. 

You're really conjuring up so many questions in my mind, though, that I have never taken the time, I've never bothered to figure more out about it, even giving that I've heard about it and that's this heart rate variability thing. So I'm gonna really look into this. Thank you.

Michael: Yes. But one thing I wanted to really emphasise because the most important thing that we've learned about the vagus nerves, because of a guy called Kevin Tracey, T-R-A-C-E-Y...

Andrew: Mate! Dr. Kevin Tracey?

Michael: Oh, his work since 2002 showing the connection between the immune system and the nervous system is just groundbreaking stuff. So you know about his work, don't you?

Andrew: I know. A man very dear to my heart who gave all to his patients and kept none for himself, and rest in peace, Kevin.

Michael: Oh, totally! Well said! Thank you. 

I teach a lot about his articles. I get so many of my patients to read them. And one of the things that you've gotta take away from what he teaches is that when you stimulate the efferent function of the vagus nerve, one of the effects is you get a contraction of the spleen, a release of immune cells, which have a significant influence on shutting down an autoimmune dysfunction.

Andrew: On shutting down an autoimmune dysfunction?

Michael: It stops an autoimmune dysfunction. This is one of the most important things that we've learned from his research. That when you stimulate the efferent functions of the vagus nerve, and the vagus...

Andrew: Yeah. That's the parasympathetic response.

Michael: The parasympathetic response, using cholinergic...so releases acetylcholine, stimulates a cholinergic receptors on different cells, it mediates, it modulates, it decreases, it influences, autoimmune disease. And it's a huge, huge thing to understand.

Andrew: So the converse of which would be if you don't have that, you don't get contraction of the spleen, you don't get release of the modifying immune cells, and therefore stress leads to worse autoimmune response.

Michael: That's right. So an autoimmune response, you know, the body's immune system attacking its own cells, is an overreaction of our immune system that has been shown by Kevin Tracey's work that it can be modified by balancing the sympathetics and the parasympathetics.

Andrew: Wow.

Michael: And, yeah, it's a really important one. 

I wanted to give you a really simple example of what happens when I'm working on someone. Because in an osteopathic session where I've got this hypersympathetic tone, one of the things that we got taught in 2nd year to do was called ‘sympathetic inhibition’.

So the sympathetic nerves run as two trains of nerves along the inside of the rib cage. They start from the base of the neck and they run on the inside of the body and they stop around the diaphragm. And if you apply pressure to those rib areas, you start to create an inhibition effect on the sympathetics. And there are different number of researchers who looked at ways of measuring this. 

Anyway, the effect on my patients is as soon as I start start doing a little bit of sympathetic inhibition, their stomach starts rumbling. And they get a little bit embarrassed. They go, "Oh, I haven't had my lunch." And I go, "No, no, no."

Andrew: That's good.

Michael: This is what always happens. As soon as I start to get a little bit less noise from the sympathetics, the parasympathetic nerves can start to express their function. And this is my big insight. This is what I've learned from my patients. This is what I've learned from my colleagues. 

What are the different things that you can do as a person and as just an individual at home that stimulates the functions of the vagus?

And the first thing I ask my patients are, "What is one of the foods that you love? It has to be unique to you." For my nervous system, if I smell my mom's roast chicken with rosemary, I instantly salivate. Now salivate's a vagus function. My stomach gurgles and, you know, grumbles and I start to anticipate food. 

Those secretions of the gut, they're all vagal functions. And do you see what stimulated them? The smell of something that you love. Is there a more primitive part of our nervous system than smell? 

Andrew: That's really interesting.

Michael: I don't think there is.

Andrew: No.

Michael: Now we're getting back to the stuff that I talked about at the start. We've got things that are in our environment. We need it as part of our primitive evolution to get away from danger. We need our sympathetics to get out of the way of a car. But when we smell meat cooking and when we smell the things that we love, we stimulate that other part of our nervous system that starts to balance the sympathetics and the parasympathetics, and we start to establish some homeostasis again. It really makes sense, doesn't it?

Andrew: Oh absolutely. I'm actually...Like there's questions going around in my mind because I'm a bit of a nut with trilobites, I know. These animals that had the first sort of compound eyes rather than pits. And I'm wondering now about the evolution of sense organs. So I'm gonna have to go back and revise that one. That's really interesting. 

How does that relate embryologically? Are these sense organ tissues related in embryological...sorry embryologically?

Michael: Of course they are. Embryologically, the sense organs of smell and taste, again, they're primitive things that evolve very, very early in the embryo. But I wanted to just take you a step back and just finish the point that I was making before. 

When I start talking to people about how things like smell can help to change the balance between the parasympathetics and the sympathetics, because of that see-saw effect that I want you to picture, you start to just get a little bit of food in your environment, or, you know, the smell of basil or the smell of pesto, you know, these are the sort of things that really push my button.

When I bring this up with people who are chronically stressed, people with eating disorders… the first thing they say is, "I never smell my food, no. I have no interest in the smell or the taste of food." They've learned to ignore the senses that are stimulating the vagus functions. They've learned to ignore the afferent functions of the vagus, and the 90% of those nerves in the vagus that are waiting for that information, they're not getting it because of psycho-emotional factors, other factors as well.

And one of the things, especially a mum with a couple of young kids and, you know, a baby and you ask her to smell her child's hair or her child's skin, and you immediately feel their bodies relax. Even just remembering what their baby's hair and skin smells like. It's this surge of love in their bodies or what that smell represents, that instantly starts to win on that see-saw of that trying to get that balance between the stress and the nourishment.

And, you know, the smell of someone you love as much as the smell of the food that you love, that's nourishing to you in a really, really healthy way.

Andrew: Yeah, yeah. And indeed, is this one of the tricks that you use to try and dampen, to tampen down somebody's sympathetic response now in the clinic?

Michael: Absolutely, every day, 10 times a day.

Andrew: Wow. Wow.

Michael: And it really works. It really works. 

You know, you go to your favourite grocery store, and you take a few minutes to really choose something that you crave. And if you trust your healthy cravings, what you're going to be doing is you're not only going to be meeting some of the needs your body has, but you're also going to be starting to say to your body, "What does my gut really want? What does my smell really want? What do these primitive parts of my body desire that are good for them?" And you start to win in this fight in the Western world that, you know, the stress responses seem to be winning all the time with.

Andrew: Okay. But you said something very interesting then. You said the healthy cravings. Now, what about somebody who's having unhealthy cravings? They're already in a sympathetic dominant state. They're heightened for that sugar hit there. You know, they're glycemic control is out of whack and they're heightened for that next sugar hit, and they've just smelt a Boston bun, or a donut. 
Now, I've gotta say, I'm remembering times in my life where something like that would go, "Ooh, yeah," but right now where I am, right in my life now, nothing would make me go, "Eek," more.

And I'm not the healthiest specimen on earth. I'm not claiming that at all. I just think it's very interesting that right now, that is a total turn off for me. You give me a roast chicken from the local store though, oh my God. What they do with paprika and a chook? Oh, man!

Michael: Oh, look. You know, when you can express passion for food they way you do, it shows that you've got a tendency for health. You talk to someone with no passion for food and there's someone that's got a long way to go before they get some homeostatic balance back in their life.

Andrew: I think mine's an allostatic appreciation for food, Michael.

Michael: I get what you're saying and I really like it. You know, one of the things we've got a real shift now perception of what's healthy for us now, you know. Ten years ago, I remember it was healthy to see a kid drinking an apple juice and now it's not.

Andrew: Yeah, that's right. That's right.

Michael: And I think we've all started to understand now that if your cravings are sugar based and sweet based, then you've got a real...you gotta get over that.

Andrew: It's an allostatic thing, yeah.

Michael: Yeah, it's an allostatic thing. And, you know, it's a dopamine-releasing. It's an addiction as bad as any another form of addiction. And that really is the way to treat it. It's a disease of addiction that, you know, it's comforting for a short amount of time, but then after that, you know, creates all these other problems. And it has a terrible...I read an article just recently about how it has a terrible effect on the parasympathetics and the vagus and the digestive system and so on. So, you know, I'm talking about stuff. I'm not an expert on now, but it's very important.

Andrew: But can I interject here, though. Could I implore all listeners of FX Medicine to watch a movie called "That Sugar Film?" And if you're not willing to watch the whole movie, I get it. Just watch the making of "That Sugar Film," including the experiences of such famous people like Stephen Fry, and their responses to sugar. It’s very, very interesting. You talk about addiction. Oh man, are we talking about a drug.

Michael: Yeah, that's such wonderful advice. Good on you for doing that.

Andrew: In your osteopathic clinic, you said 10 times a day you'll be doing these certain things, asking people to remember this beautiful, healthy smell. To start uncovering the layers or the footprints upon the footprints. How do you get down to the initial trauma? How do you get down to that initial thing? When do you know you're at the bottom?

Michael: Yes, gee, that’s a good question. It's a really tough question and it's unique to every person. And the thing that I'm trying to do...There's a word that I love in the literature. It's trophic, T-R-O-P-H-I-C. Trophic is the way of describing how we have to nourish our tissues, how we have to nourish our hearts, and our psyche and, you know. I'll give you one example, okay? And it's about layers of trauma. And I really love this story because this is a great example of how much my patients teach me about what's going on in their bodies. 

So I was referred a lady and when she was 12 years old she was burnt in a fire. And she protected herself from the fire by holding her left arm to shield her face, and she got burnt underneath her arm. Her left breast was mutilated. And as she got into her teens, the trauma of these burns meant that she descended into drug addiction, prostitution. And I met this lady when she was in her 20s.

And her therapist had sent her to me knowing that her body was holding on to some of these physical traumas and the scars from this fire and the rest of the things she'd gone through. And the first thing that I was doing with this lady was that she had had no feeling in her left arm since she was in this fire. So she was now, say 26. So 14 years later, she'd had no sense in her own arm.

And this beautiful technique that's taught by the old osteopaths in the 1950s called balanced ligamentous tension. I used balanced ligamentous tension to get this sense of balance in her left arm. I felt this almost like electric shock go through her arm, and she started crying and crying. And I thought I'd caused her some pain and once she settled down, all she said was that, you know, she was crying because she had this wonderful sense that she could feel her arms for the first time in, you know 14 years. And that was lovely, right?

Andrew: What sort of feeling though did she get? You're talking about the shock, an electric shock?

Michael: Look, I don't know how to describe it. It's a sense that the tissues between her hand, her shoulder, her neck, and her whole body all of a sudden just became integrated.

Andrew: Wow.

Michael: She just felt, you know...What's the right word? We use the word called homogenous. All of the tissues felt unified on one type of quality. 

But what happened the week after when she came back was I was working in the area underneath her chest where she'd had some skin grafts, where she had tattoos to cover some of the burns, and I started working on this area for the same reason, just to take this tension out of the scars. And you could feel her body starting to let go of some of these old patterns. And again, there was that sense of this electric shock and the tissue sort of reconnecting, and again, she started crying.

And after she settled down a little bit, I said, "Look, you know, was it because you could feel your arm again?" And she goes, "Michael, what I could feel then was not...My arm felt good. I could smell the hospital."

Andrew: Oh, wow.

Michael: So there was an amazing example of a trauma in her tissue that was linked up to all of these other things that she'd experienced at the time, and her body letting go of this pattern where parts of the elements of this pattern were also, there was a smell associated with the pain and the trauma that she'd gone through. And she was experiencing that and she was processing that. And it's an example of the imprint of trauma that's left on...and how do you describe that imprint of trauma? Part of it's surgical, part of it's emotional, part of it's the burn itself. It's very complex, isn't it?

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I'm really wondering about, and I really do not know, but I'm wondering about this paper that I glanced at, have not studied it. But what they seem to have discovered is these peripheral mini brains. Now that's normally to do with pain sensation, but I just wonder if we're going to be discovering more and more parts to our nervous system which we thought were centrally orchestrated, and we're going to find that there's actually outlying sentry boxes that we had just have passed over. And I wonder what's...if this sort of treatment is innervating that and awakening it up.

Michael: It is. And, you know, what patients like these is that they provide me with a source of evidence which I think is just so valid in terms of its statistical relevance and its reliability, that when we finally understand what memory means, it will be part of the memories held in some of the nerves in a burn, and part of the memories held in what happened in your ovary, and what happened in your kidneys, you know? The body's got these patterns of memory that it holds onto that can be as peripheral as much as they are central.

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. What's a memory? And why is it only central? Who said that?

Michael: Great question. That's right. And, you know, I've got many other examples with patients where something in their peripheral tissues reminded them of an old trauma, and by triggering the scar tissue associated with the termination, they could process these other things that were going on in their lower back and in their sympathetics and so on, you know. These patterns are in people's bodies and they're unique to each person, and that makes them impossible to research.

Andrew: You know what? I don't know whether I'm getting a little bit esoteric here. But so I spoke to two wonderful practitioners this morning, Linda Fennelle Milner [SP] and Elvira Iliacus [SP]. What they were talking about was epigenetics, and what we were discussing was the long-term generational effects of genomic influences, epigenomic influences, like for instance, with nutrition turning on and off genes. And, you know, I gave this thing, this example that I, you know, vomit up every now and again, and it's an old thing about horses fed a deficient diet in Zinc, their offspring had cloven hooves and it took two or three generations to grow out.

They were speaking about more and more. I'm wondering if what we're talking about here today, talking about a physical manipulation might be affecting, in some way, are we affecting genes, memories, nutrition, access to nourishment? Hold me back here if I'm gone?

Michael: I don't think you're being too esoteric. On the basis of the evidence that I get from, you know, treating patient after patient and seeing them shift some of these old patterns. That maybe when you shift some of these patterns so deeply, what you're also doing is you're changing that epigenetic tag and stopping it from becoming a part of your future.

Andrew: Sorry, but whoa! That is amazing...

Michael: I think that's plausible though.

Andrew: Yeah, yeah, plausible.

Michael: Yeah, I think it's plausible.

Andrew: That's pretty deep.

Michael: Thank you.

Andrew: That's pretty deep. 

So can I ask then, this lady, now, what's her story?

Michael: Oh, she's fantastic. She's, you know, running her own businesses.

Andrew: Fantastic.

Michael: Yeah, look, you know, she's gone on to have successful relationships. The counsellor who sent her to me, the...What do you call it? Anyway, the lady who sent her...

Andrew: Psychologist.

Michael: Her psychologist was wonderful in the way she helped this lady process some of these old things, understand where she was coming from, and, you know, combining what I was doing with her, the physicality of her memories and she's processing it through her heart and through these interactions. I mean, that's where you get the changes most deeply. And maybe we affect the genetic field when we get to the bottom of things as deep as we possibly can?

Andrew: Jeepers.

Michael: Or, you know, I've heard other people talk about this and I think it's plausible.

Andrew: What about red flags? Is there anywhere that you think, "Oh, listen. I'm affecting, for instance, somebody's heart rate variability too much." Or, you know, you're uncovering what some other practitioners might call the miasm, and you're actually causing a hurt. That may be some trauma somebody has to go through to uncover a deeper layer, but at the moment, it's just too much. When do you pull back? When do you go, "Whoa there, pull back?"

Michael: Well, first what I've gotta do there is one really important red flag that in the path of the vagus nerves in the carotid sheath, if anyone tries to massage the vagus nerve aggressively in the neck, what you're doing is you're affecting the baroreceptors that are part of our blood pressure. And so trying to influence the vagus there, you can make someone faint or be...

Andrew: Worse.

Michael: Yes, it can be worse.

Andrew: If they've got an underlying pathology.

Michael: That's right. And the one thing I'd say is that to use a lot of force to try and make these changes is really inappropriate, primitive, and ineffective and that includes, you know, aggressive manipulation of tissues. I just don't think there's any way that that's going to help tissues which have already been traumatised. I was describing the technique that the American osteopaths developed in the 1950s called balanced ligamentous tension.

There's a simple principle of instead of going against the barrier, you follow the pattern of that trauma and allow it to express itself. So basically, if you've got something that's knotted up, go into the knot instead of going against the knot and allow it to unravel itself. There's a great example of how the pattern unwinds its own memories and its own scar tissue and so on. And it works on a day-to-day basis, you know. These are techniques that have been used now, for what? 70 years. And they're effective in the way they reverse physical traumas, and the way they elicit these psycho-emotional memories as well.

Andrew: Michael, you'll be speaking at the ATMS annual general meeting later on this year. It's November, right?

Michael: That's right.

Andrew: In Sydney?

Michael: Yes.

Andrew: Where can people find out more about this? You're going to be discussing this topic plus more.

Michael: That's right. I'm going to...I've got some amazing pictures of anatomy that shows how intimate the tissues that are involved with something as a simple as a car whiplash accident and how that's got the ability to create some fibrosis in the pathway of the vagus nerve that affects its function. Things as simple as that is what we're gonna talk about in this ATMS presentation in November. I don't have the details in front of me. Do you?

Andrew: Not in front of me, but it's...If you go to atms.com.au, you have to scroll...you go to Events, and then you scroll down the page to November, and you'll find it, forgive me, I think it might be the 19th, is that right?

Michael: That's right, yep.

Andrew: The 19th of November. So all Australian practitioners, Australian and New Zealand practitioners should try and attend at least this magnificent ATMS event to hear what you've got to offer them because, my goodness, you're opening up my eyes. I'll be there.

Michael: Andrew, thank you so much. I really appreciate how insightful your questions were and, you know, you've been really, really interesting to talk to.

Andrew: Mate, thank you so much for giving us, not just sharing your expertise, but really giving us an insight into how powerful the actions of innervating the vagus nerve and inhibiting the sympathetic nervous system can be. And not just in, you know, some remedial type issues like stress, but somebody that can have deep trauma.

Michael: Yeah, that's right.

Andrew: So, you know, returning that footprint to homeostasis. Thank you very much.

Michael: Thank you so much, Andrew. That was wonderful.

Andrew: This is FX Medicine. I'm Andrew Whitfield-Cook.

Additional Resources

Michael Solano | Easterns Suburbs Osteopathy
ATMS Events
James Fixx | The Complete Book of Running 
Dr Kevin J Tracey


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