Stress and Back Pain

Can mental or emotional stress cause physical aches and pains? In a word :YES. Any stress causes muscle tension. Stress is any stimulus which is more than we can cope with. There are four sources:

  • Physical such as awkward hard working conditions and traumas
  • Chemical such as abuse of drugs, pollution from cars and industry, poor diet, particularly with lots of refined foods, sugar, artificial colours and flavours, artificial sweetener, lack of oxygen at high altitudes, bowel toxicity (candida, parasites) the list goes on
  • Temperature such as becoming too hot or cold but also relates to the seasons : in the autumn our whole metabolic rate has to be raised to cope with cold weather, this relies largely on an increase in adrenal output; when this is sluggish we ‘catch colds’; the same cold viruses are around all the year, they are able to take advantage in the autumn if our adrenals are sluggish due to other stresses.
  • Emotional such as love and money. Happiness and job satisfaction are key to feeling good!
All stress affects us primarily by its effects upon the adrenal glands. These small glands sit on top of our kidneys, one each side. It is important to know that the adrenals do not differentiate between sources of stress, they all cause the same physiological changes – see below. More importantly all stresses add up: you can be subject to slightly too much hard physical work, somewhat poor diet and some financial problems, and a broken air conditioning system at work in the summer; while you would cope with any one of these stresses individually, when they all come together something sooner or later has to snap.
Diagram 1
What happens in our bodies when we are stressed? To illustrate the mechanisms involved in reacting to stress let us take the classic stone age example of being faced by a hungry sabre tooth tiger: There are three stages, Alarm, resistance and exhaustion:
A. The Alarm reaction

  1. As the eyes see the tiger so the frontal lobes of the brain send an emergency signal to another part of the brain the hypothalamus.
  2. The hypothalamus stimulates the anterior portion of the pituitary gland to make the hormone ACTH which it releases into the bloodstream.
  3. When ACTH reaches the adrenal glands it causes them to release cortisone. This has the following effects · Causes salt retention at the kidneys · The breakdown of proteins to release sugar for immediate energy requirements; in this case to fight or run away from the tiger. Importantly the protein is taken initially from the thymus and lymphatic tissue which are key parts of the immune system. Sugar is also released from stores in the liver.
  4. Simultaneously the hypothalamus sends messages to another part of the brain, the medulla oblongata which in turn initiates nerve impulses to the medulla of the adrenal glands which now produce adrenalin. Sympathetic nerves from the medulla also act directly on the heart increasing output and rate raising blood pressure
  5. The adrenals release adrenalin and nor-adrenalin into the bloodstream which · Maintain increased heart rate and output · Relax the lung wall thereby stimulating respiration · Dilate the pupils of the eye to see the tiger better · Make the hair stand on end by constricting the muscles of the skin · Inhibits movements in the gut halting digestion · Constricts the blood supply to the digestion and to the skin while improving it to the skeletal muscle (under life threatening circumstances digestion is less important than the ability to run away or fight) · Makes muscles less easily fatigued · Inhibits the bladder wall causing it to contract (pass water) · Makes blood clot more easily when injured

These conditions will remain until the tiger leaves or the person gets away; the above actions will then reverse and a resting state will begin again.

B. Resistance If one meets the tiger regularly then the adrenals enlarge, possibly quadrupling in size, and build up a reserve to meet the stress when it occurs. As long as resistance goes on we can cope with stress.

C. Exhaustion In the modern world stress comes in different forms to sabre toothed tigers. Today stress looks like overwork, lack of sleep, pollution and emotional stresses. These modern stressors are more likely to cause prolonged stress which leads to adrenal exhaustion. Once exhausted the adrenals fail to produce adequate adrenal hormones so our adaptability decreases. The three stages above were first described by Hans Selye in 1925; they are known as the general adaptation syndrome. Selye was the first to note the effects of stress particularly that whatever the disease or illness certain symptoms were common to virtually all. These include

  • Rashes
  • Fever
  • Enlarged spleen or liver
  • Inflamed tonsils

On dissection of stressed rats he found:

  • The adrenal glands were enlarged
  • The thymus, spleen, lymph nodes and all lymphatic structures were atrophied/ broken down
  • Stomach or duodenal ulcers

Adrenal Exhaustion causes a variety of health problems which are predictable from the effects of stress described above:

  • Headaches, jaw clenching, grinding
  • Neck and back pain, tremors
  • Sluggish digestion, heartburn, nausea, costipation, diarrhoea, ulcers
  • Susceptibility to infections : the thymus plays a role in cancer prevention, cancer is the ultimate immune system breakdown when T cells which identify and destroy cancer cells are no longer activated by the thymus. (see ‘Your Body Doesn’t lie’ by J Diamond MD)
  • Weight gain, excess or absent appetite
  • Fatigue or no energy
  • Depression, possibly suicidal
  • Rashes
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety, nervousness, obsessive compulsive disorders.
  • Allergic symptoms including hay fever, asthma
  • Coughs and colds
  • Fainting on getting up quickly and first thing in the morning
  • Post natal depression and infant allergies in the neonate
  • Learning difficulties
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Heart palpitations
  • Swollen hands and feet
  • Increased addictions and drug use.

Adrenal exhaustion accompanies most other health problems but may be the overlooked cause of them. These is no simple standard medical test for slight or moderate adrenal exhaustion, (see below) so it is often missed. Symptomatic treatment of the above symptoms may put more stress on the system.

Addictions explained During the exhaustion phase we seek artificial stimulants to pick us up. Remember one adrenal function is to raise blood sugar levels – so we start eating high sugar snacks, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes, use caffeine and other stimulants. Thus we get addicted to those foods and habits that do us the most harm. Sometimes foods we are sensitive (mildly allergic) to act as adrenal stimulants so we crave those as well.
The Role of the Pancreas While the adrenals cause sugar levels to rise in the blood, the pancreas, by releasing insulin lowers it. A vicious cycle ensues under stress as the adrenals cannot raise the sugar levels naturally, so we eat excess sugar which the pancreas has to react to. Constant overwork for the pancreas causes initially an overproduction of insulin lowering sugar levels still more and causing hypoglycaemia – chronic low sugar levels; the symptoms of this are basically the same as those of adrenal exhaustion. Hypoglycaemics also crave sugar making matters even worse. Ultimately the pancreas becomes exhausted itself and blood sugar levels rise becoming unregulated – this is type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes effects most people over the age of 40 according to the American Diabetic Association, the good news is diet can correct the cycle outlined above. For most of us this means we have high sugar and low sugar days or hours causing related fluctuations in mood and energy levels.
Menopause At menopause correctly functioning adrenals increase oestrogen production as the ovaries decrease. When they are exhausted they cannot do this and ‘menopausal symptoms’ arise. These symptoms often thought of as normal in the West are uncommon in Eastern women eating their traditional diets notably high in soya products that help to balance hormones.
So what should we do about the effects of stress on our bodies? The adrenals can be visualised as rechargeable batteries. We all know what happens to our mobile phones when we forget to re-charge them –they don’t work! Moreover regular recharging is needed or they fail again and again. There is no way around this.
So what charges your batteries? Good nutritious food, clean air and water, stress free muscles and joints (see a chiropractor!), positive emotional experiences, theatre trips, holidays, sunlight and so on, basically anything that you enjoy. What depletes your batteries? Anything you find stressful, be it physical biochemical or emotional. Bear in mind we don’t all find the same things stressful, to one a roller-coaster ride is a treat, to the other a life threatening experience. Balance is key, for example taking enough exercise to keep your muscles toned up but not so much as to wear you out.
Why don’t we work better? The human body (including the adrenal system) is, according to anthropologists, virtually unchanged in the last 100,000 years. In other words cavemen and women were just like us but their stress took a different form, more extreme, such as the threat of being eaten, but more infrequent. In the modern world stress is more ongoing if less threatening. Our bodies can experience stress from even imagined scenes for example watching real and fictional horrors on TV, let alone the real thing. Life today bears little resemblance to that of a hunter-gatherer which our ancestors were for many hundreds of thousands if not millions of years.

Testing the Adrenals

  1. Urine test: Salt in the urine reflects adrenal function, this is called the Koenisburg Urine Test. This test may be performed by a naturopath or certified Applied Kinesiologist.
  2. Hormone Test –DHEA-S (healthy) and Cortisol (unhealthy due to stress) levels can be monitored over a 24 hour cycle.
  3. Medical blood tests of hormones in the blood in suspected disease states –where the adrenals are not working at all.

Treating the adrenals

  1. Lifestyle: make some time for yourself, do something you enjoy doing daily to charge your batteries!
  2. Eat well; generally organic wholefoods with 2-3 litres of water daily.
  3. Have a physical check up with a chiropractor to minimise physical stress
  4. Take an adrenal supplement, glandular, herbal or vitamin and mineral formula, these can all be prescribed by a naturopath or chiropractor.
  5. Vegetable soup: to replenish salts lost under adrenal stimulation. Recipe to include courgettes celery and green beans as these are high in natural salts. Keep this up on a daily basis until feeling better (may be months in some cases), and for at least a month drink 500mls of soup a day or more. MISO as a stock additive, available in Health food stores also useful in the soup, comes in various savoury flavours.
  6. Ginseng: Korean for men and post-menopausal ladies; Siberian for pre menopausal ladies & men too; best taken for 3 to 6 weeks each autumn and during times of heavy stress. Ashwaganda also very effective. Professional advice is required to be sure which is the correct herb for you.
  7. Thermal/ temperature stress: remember I said that in the autumn the adrenals have the added stress of colder weather. This means early autumn is a critical time of year to take extra vitamins and minerals or herbal tonics to help the adrenals. Taking measures to stay warm in colder weather will really help those with weaker adrenal systems.
  8. Use a daily relaxation technique: Relaxing reverses the physiological changes of stress and makes us much less likely to react stressfully to life. Classes are available in relaxation and meditation; as are relaxation CDs and books; these help you physically and mentally relax. In my clinic we make personal tapes or CDs to address your particular problems such as chronic pain.
  9. Recreational exercise: 30 minutes walk or swim can help remove stress hormones and make you feel better and be healthier. 60 minutes might be even better!

Other key organs involved in the stress reaction

Thymus In many people the thymus is destroyed through stress, by the time they reach adulthood. It is supported and drained in the same ways as the adrenals. Specific nutritional formulas for the thymus include Echinacea, thymus extract and general multivitamin and mineral formulas; professional advice is required.

Liver The liver is a part of the immune, digestive and glandular systems. It has hundreds of functions including detoxification, but also plays a role in blood sugar regulation, temperature regulation. The liver has to work harder when we eat or are exposed to toxins. Keeping your liver healthy helps with routine stress. It is boosted by eating garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and any green foods; so salad with a salad dressing will help keep this organ happy when eaten daily; another good tip for the liver is to drink the juice of one lemon in water (cold or warm) first thing in the morning. A key herb for liver problems is milk thistle. The adrenals use up all the vitamin C when you are stressed. The Liver may then be short of vitamin C which it usually uses to convert cholesterol into its excretory form 7 alpha hydroxy cholesterol, so stress will probably raise your cholesterol levels too!
Thyroid The thyroid can assist the adrenals in producing certain hormones; this may be called upon when the adrenals are stressed. However then the thyroid itself will not be able to perform its function of maintaining metabolic rate leading to weight gain, sluggishness and slow digestion and slow thought processes. There are good blood tests for thyroid function but many doctors, in recognition of the above scenario we recommend treating the adrenal glands before starting other treatments for the thyroid.
Parathyroids Parathyroids control the blood calcium levels. Under stress calcium is pulled out of the bones into the blood stream; with prolonged stress this may lead to osteoporosis and arthritis as the excess calcium is deposited in the joints and around old injury sites.
Identify all your sources of stress and what you are currently doing to stay fit.
1. Have a physical check-up: Do you exercise daily?
2. Have a biochemical check-up: Do you eat well?
3. Have a mental check up: Do you relax daily?
4. Take supplements: Especially in the autumn and winter
I wrote a cartoon book “Great ways to de-stress’ with my kids – copies are £7.50 including UK postage, available from the clinic on 01444-416911. See our on-line shop.
Disclaimer: Please discuss any supplements or other advice with your doctor or health care advisor prior to implementation. We cannot be held responsible for effects on persons we have not personally seen.