Mary was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She’s been battling these conditions for more than 20 years now. When she came into my clinic, she was sobbing. Tired from dealing with the same pain, fatigue, and hopelessness for so long.
She says that everyday she is at least a “six out of ten” on the pain scale, but there are some days where she says “I’M A TWELVE!” She didn’t understand why she had these flare ups. She says they are totally random and even her doctor couldn’t figure them out. What gives?
In so many chronic diseases, our patients describe these “flare ups” and they always wonder why they happen. So far, In Stage 1 and Stage 2 we have discussed the role of immunity and gut dysbiosis and how these can contribute to flare ups of chronic diseases. Now let’s look at how stress plays into this equation.
How Does Stress Cause A Flare Up…
It always amazes me what we can do with Chinese herbal medicine. I have seen people start to walk properly again even though they have been given a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. I have seen MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus), a sometimes fatal infection, get completely cured with Chinese herbs. Even in the present day, we are seeing people infected with COVID-19 (corona virus) rapidly getting better with the appropriate use of herbal medicine. But there is one factor that can sneak into ANY condition and wreak havoc, regardless of the disease: stress.
Stress is a very interesting thing to study. On the one hand, we all have and experience stress. There is plenty of data available that indicates that we require a certain amount of stress in order to grow and be healthy. However, unregulated stress, or when someone is unaware of how to properly deal with the physiological effects of stress, it can lead to just about any problem you can imagine. In fact, in even some of the older medical texts, it discusses affect damage (stress) as being a potential player in almost any disease you can think of.
What Happens When We Are Stressed…
When we get stressed, a number of things happen. Most people are familiar with the stress-related hormone cortisol. When we become stressed, cortisol rises and this can cause a variety of issues including: elevated blood pressure, increased blood sugar, depression, anxiety, headaches and migraines, insomnia, memory and concentration issues, diabetes, etc. As you can see, elevated cortisol is linked to a variety of inflammatory disorders.
Now consider what this might mean in someone suffering from a chronic disease like Fibromyalgia or Rheumatoid arthritis. The body is already encumbered with inflammation and damage from the condition. Now a stressful event happens and basically magnifies the inflammation already occurring in the body. It is this response that caused Mary to be at her characteristic “TWELVE!”
Further, we can look at a gaseous molecule called nitric oxide and how it pertains to stress. Nitric oxide is a gasotransmitter that is involved in nearly all body processes. Research has found that nitric oxide must be tightly regulated otherwise it can lead to increases in inflammation. During stressful events or chronic stress, nitric oxide stagnates into pockets and can become highly inflammatory. Have you ever heard the term “blind with rage?” In this condition, elevation in stress leads to increased nitric oxide which can collect in the retina of the eye leading to eventual retinal detachment. Literally, going blind due to rage! This is also part of why people start to sigh and raise their voices when they are stressed. Their bodies are literally trying to expel this excessive buildup of gas (nitric oxide) because it is starting to cause inflammation which is damaging the body.
Wait, It Gets Worse…
What makes this situation worse is that elevated stress over a prolonged periods of time starts to cause damage to the liver and kidneys. We can often see this occurring in the early stage as people who tend to wake up in the middle of the night. This occurs because the cortisol dump, which naturally wakes us up in the mornings, begins happening too early because the liver cannot properly catabolize cortisol anymore. What we often hear in our clinic is that our patients report waking up around 2-3 AM and cannot fall back to sleep.
The major issue with stress is that is becomes a vicious repeating cycle of stress leading to inflammation. Then inflammation leads to pain and poor sleep. Poor sleep leads to fatigue and more stress. Then more stress leads to worsening sleep, more inflammation, more pain, more fatigue, and so on. This is the awful trap that many people find themselves in when dealing with such conditions as Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Autoimmune disease, and even Lyme disease.
What makes it even worse, is that the continuation of this process eventually leads to neural inflammation which persists and damages the brain. The ability to calm the fight or flight response becomes more difficult. Minor stresses become major traumas. The person then becomes easily overwhelmed and may be told that they have a “short fuse.” This stage of chronic fight or flight then leads to chronic muscle tension and stiffness. The more stiff our muscles get, the harder time we have absorbing the impact of normal movements such as walking. This eventually leads to such issues as arthritis of the hips or knees and maybe even the back and neck. But the issue really started with a body that couldn’t move and absorb impact properly.
The common symptoms that come with this stage include:
Poor sleep (problems falling and/or staying asleep)
Pain which is worse with sleep deprivation
Pain which may feel slightly better with movement
Burning pain or pain that’s worse with stress
Stress or tension headaches
Headaches or migraines behind the eyes or in the temples
Feeling of “stress in my shoulders”
Chronic neck and upper back stiffness
Jaw tension and clenching; maybe grinding of teeth
Irritable bowel syndrome
Violent, weird, or restless dreams
Dreams of fighting
In stage 3, our primary goal is to regulate the stress response (cortisol regulation) and proper distribution of nitric oxide. Our goals include removing inflammation from stressors, improving sleep, and getting the body properly back into a state where it can rest and heal.
In this stage, plant-based medicines are used to scavenge excessive pockets of nitric oxide, calm the stress response, and have protective effects on the liver. They aid in addressing inflammation of the digestive tract and begin calming the irascibility found in those suffering from a chronic fight or flight response. It is no wonder that herbs such as these are used as some of the most common remedies worldwide.
Grandmas Style Approach:
In modern society, one of the biggest issues we have with stress is that we don’t have many outlets for stress. A great first step is to simple take the time to increase movement. This can be as simple as walking a little bit everyday. I would suggest doing this more than once. Practices such as Tai Chi can be hugely beneficial here not only for stress reduction but also as a gentle form of exercise. Actually, it can be a very effective form of exercise too. I’ve personally never taken a Tai Chi class where I wasn’t sweating and dealing with some muscle fatigue by the end of the class.
Another great trick for addressing chronic stress is to simply practice gratitude. There has been a great deal of research on the positive effects of gratitude and some researchers have even suggested that the effects of regular gratitude practice may be comparable to some antidepressant drugs (and no side effects). Here is a great gratitude practice to make part of your daily routine:
Sit in a quiet space
Place your hand on your heart or stomach (or somewhere else that you commonly feel stress)
Take three slow, deep breaths
Now, say out loud three things you are grateful for
Again, take three slow, deep breaths
When deciding what you want to be grateful for, I would recommend having a combination of simple things and maybe some that are more profound. It is good to be grateful for your spouse or children, but also learn to be grateful for smaller things such as having a good breakfast or having had a nice walk earlier that morning. I recommend doing this practice at least once per day.
If you or someone you love and care about suffers from a chronic, debilitating medical condition, please contact us by calling 720-541-8458 or reach out via our Contact page.