Maintaining Healthy Nerves
The Nervous System
The nervous system is made up of three main types of nerves, based on their function: (1) motor nerves, (2) sensory nerves, and (3) autonomic nerves. Motor nerves control the body's voluntary movements. Sensory nerves control the feeling of sensations such as pain, heat, cold, and pressure. Autonomic nerves affect those parts of the body not voluntarily and consciously controlled – such as blood pressure and the activity of the gastrointestinal tract and heart.
What Are the Symptoms of Nerve Damage?
The symptoms of nerve damage vary greatly, depending on the type and location of the nerve that is damaged. For instance, when the autonomic nerves that serve the digestive tract are damaged, such as can happen in diabetes, symptoms might include constipation alternating with diarrhea, because the nerves that control the normal movement (peristalsis) of the gastrointestinal tract are damaged. When sensory nerves are damaged, pain may occur in the area of the nerve damage or at a site away from the damaged nerve that is served by that nerve (called referred pain). Damage to motor nerves that serve specific muscles, in the leg for example, can result in decreased mobility of the affected limb. Typically, symptoms of nerve damage include numbness, tingling, pain, weakness, or even paralysis. When nerve damage is in the brain or spinal cord, adverse effects may be more widespread.
What Are Some Causes of Nerve Damage?
Damage to nerves can have numerous causes:
Trauma – to the brain, spinal cord, or directly to the affected nerve – such as from a blunt-force head injury or a motor vehicle accident
Drug Side Effects – including cancer chemotherapy drugs and anti-retroviral drugs for HIV
Chronic Disease – including diabetes and autoimmune conditions (such as multiple sclerosis or myasthenia gravis)
Chronic Neurological Disease – Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease; diseases in which the nerves or specific areas of the brain begin to degenerate
Acute Neurological Disease – trigeminal neuralgia, Bell's palsy, and herpes zoster; diseases in which the nerves become inflamed
Nutrient Deficiencies – the most common deficiencies that have neurological deficits are associated with vitamin B6 and vitamin B12
Environmental Toxicity – from exposures to pesticides or toxic metals (mercury or lead, for example)
Conventional Treatment for Nerve Disorders
Some neurological conditions result in nerve pain, others result in loss of muscle function. Conditions resulting in nerve pain are typically treated with pain-killing medications, which are usually over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatory drugs, but which could also include prescription narcotics. Neuropathy associated with such conditions as diabetes can be treated with an anti-seizure medication called gabapentin. Sometimes anti-depressant medications can be used for individuals who have chronic nerve pain. Nerve dysfunction that results in loss of motor function is often chronic and progressive. Attempts can be made to forestall the progression with various medications, depending on the condition. For example, in the case of diabetes, it has been shown that the better blood sugar is controlled, the less likely an individual will be to have neuropathy.
Damage to the sensory nerves in the arms and legs (especially the legs) is referred to as peripheral neuropathy (PN). PN usually manifests as numbness and tingling, extreme sensitivity to touch, and burning and shooting pains. The pains can be very debilitating during the day and interrupt sleep at night. It is estimated that 20 million Americans suffer from PN, about one-third of them as a complication of chronic diabetes. Anyone who has numbness and/or tingling in the hands and feet should have their blood sugar tested. Other causes of PN include side effects from medications (especially certain cancer chemotherapy and HIV medications) and vitamin deficiencies (especially of vitamin B6 or vitamin B12). The cause of one-third of PN cases is never determined.
One of the best ways to prevent further progression of neuropathy associated with diabetes is to keep blood sugar under control, although that is often easier said than done. Checking blood sugar frequently is the first step toward controlling it.
One of the causes of peripheral nerve damage in diabetes is that high blood sugar can lead to excessive production of free radicals [see Antioxidant article in Antioxidant Section]. Free radicals occur naturally in the body every day, but when the free-radical burden (or oxidative stress) exceeds the body's ability to deal with that burden via its own built-in system of antioxidants, damage can occur. Supplementing with antioxidants and other nutrients, such as alpha-lipoic acid or acetyl-L-carnitine, can help supplement the antioxidants that are naturally produced in the body and help maintain healthy nerves.* Circumstances that can increase the body's free-radical burden include exposure to environmental toxins, acute illnesses, and poor diet. A diet that decreases the body's free-radical burden should include lots of colorful fruits and vegetables (the greater the variety the better) and exclude trans fats, fried foods, and sugary desserts.
Maintaining Healthy Nerves Naturally
Some individuals have found that non-drug methods can be helpful in maintaining healthy nerves. Such methods include acupuncture, hypnosis, biofeedback, and various physiotherapy methods, such as a TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) unit. A TENS unit is a small, pocket-sized device that sends electrical impulses to various parts of the body to stop pain impulses. Various dietary supplements and homeopathic remedies can help maintain healthy nerve function.* Check with a health-care practitioner who can guide you in formulating a program that will best suit your particular needs.