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!
- 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.
- The hypothalamus stimulates the anterior portion of the pituitary gland to make the hormone ACTH which it releases into the bloodstream.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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.
Testing the Adrenals
- Medical blood tests of hormones in the blood in suspected disease states –where the adrenals are not working at all.
- Hormone saliva test –DHEA-S (healthy) and Cortisol (unhealthy due to stress) levels can be monitored over a 24 hour cycle. There is also a urine test that may be correlated with the above tests.
Treating the adrenals
- Lifestyle: make some time for yourself, do something you enjoy doing daily to charge your batteries!
- Eat well; generally organic wholefoods with 2 litres of water daily.
- Have a physical check up with a chiropractor to minimise physical stress
- Take an adrenal supplement, glandular, herbal or vitamin and mineral formula these can be prescribed by a naturopath. Run all supplements past your GP or health advisor before you take them especially if you are taking medication in case of possible interactions.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. There are specific nutritional formulas for the thymus professional advice is required.