In many cases, we have the capacity to control what we perceive as stressful and how we respond to it. However, individuals with chronic pain have other obstacles to overcome. It is estimated 20-30% of our population have some form of chronic pain, including, but not limited to:
- back pain
- metabolic conditions that create pain, like sickle cell disease and diabetes
There is a large area of research dedicated to determining the relationship between pain and stress. Numerous prospective studies have reported cortisol levels to be significant predictors of pain, depression, and a reduced quality of life.
Chronic stress-induced hypercortisolism (excess cortisol) has been directly linked to many chronic pain disorders. Long-term stress has been shown to amplify the body’s cortisol response and contribute to morning fatigue, pain and inflammation
Prolonged or excessive cortisol secretion may result in a compensatory down-regulation or resistance of the hormonal sites that block cortisol binding. Chronic systemic inflammation can be caused by a number of factors, including:
- depletion of cortisol
- insufficient free (unbound) cortisol
- impaired cortisol secretion resistance
- hypersensitivity of the negative feedback system
This inflammation effects muscles, connective tissue, brain matter, and neural activity. Cortisol dysfunction puts more strain on the adrenal glands. This then hinders their ability to produce healthy levels of cortisol.
Signs and symptoms of stress-induced cortisol dysfunction include:
- bone and muscle breakdown (generalized weakness)
- memory impairment
- sodium-potassium dysregulation (difficulty regulating blood pressure)
- orthostatic hypotension (feeling lightheaded when going from sitting or lying to a standing position)
- idiopathic inflammatory autoimmune diseases
The effects of inflammation may be compounded by the continuous reactivation of the stress response combined with free flowing inflammatory mediators created by unchecked amounts of cortisol, as well as emotional hyper-responsiveness. This process reinforces a conditioned stress response and amplifies the cycle of stress, inflammation, and pain.
Chronic inflammation creates free radical byproducts and oxidative stress that damage healthy tissue. Accumulation of these free radicals contributes to the aging process, and oxidative stress may be responsible for widespread tissue degeneration producing:
- idiopathic neuropathy
Secondary effects of widespread inflammation may include autoimmune hypersensitivity, inflammation-induced oxidative or free radical damage and idiopathic inflammatory tissue degeneration. Inflammation can also contribute to pain and depression due to serotonin depletion and hippocampal degeneration.
Natural Treatments and Solutions:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which treats stress and chronic pain conditions.
- Relaxation techniques help people develop the ability to cope more effectively with stressors that contribute to anxiety and pain. Common techniques include breathing retraining, progressive muscle relaxation and exercise.
- Complementary and alternative techniques can treat stress and pain. Yoga, acupuncture and massage are among some techniques that can relieve the symptoms of anxiety disorders as well as chronic pain.
- Essential oils can also help. I like to call lavender the “Swiss Army knife” of essential oils because it does so many things. Its relaxing properties are legendary and it is now known to reduce cortisol. Interestingly, inhaling any scent — good or bad — affects cortisol levels.
- Regular exercise strengthens muscles, reduces stiffness, improves flexibility and boosts mood and self-esteem. Always check with your doctor before beginning an exercise regimen.
- A good night’s sleep is key for anxiety disorders and chronic pain conditions. Symptoms of anxiety and chronic pain often become worse without enough sleep. Consistent sleep and wake times, a good sleep environment (comfortable room temperature, no TV or other distractions), and avoiding caffeine late in the day and at night promote restful sleep.
- Diet changes can help reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety. Limit or avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can trigger panic attacks and worsen anxiety symptoms. Some types of food may aggravate certain musculoskeletal conditions, like:
- dairy products
- gluten, found in wheat, oats, barley, and rye
- nightshade family vegetables, like potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and tobacco
Adaptogens can help with stress and chronic pain, since they neither stimulate nor sedate. Instead, they act like a thermostat, bringing your body into a balanced state known as homeostasis. Not all supplements for stress reduction are adaptogenic herbs though.
Adaptogenic Herbs Known to Effectively Reduce Cortisol:
arctic root (Rhodiola rosea)
- ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
- ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
- ginseng (Panax ginseng)
- holy basil (Ocimum sanctum)
- schisandra(Schisandra chinensis)
Foods and Beverages Help Reduce Cortisol Levels:
- black tea
- chamomile tea
- dark chocolate
- green tea
- olive oil
- wild-caught salmon
Do you get adequate vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids in your diet? Adding these vitamins and trace minerals to your diet could help control oxidative stress, lower cortisol, increase serotonin, and promote a healthy gut.
Other Supplements with Cortisol-lowering Effects:
- fish oil
- lemon balm, which can be used in a diffuser as an essential oil
Chronic stress leads to the continual release of the stress hormone cortisol. Chronically elevated cortisol levels are very harmful to both your physical and mental health.
Fortunately, you can moderate cortisol production with healthy lifestyle adjustments. Eating the right foods, taking the appropriate supplements, getting a moderate amount of exercise, learning to breathe properly, and employing stress-reduction techniques like meditation and tapping can offset the damaging effects of cortisol and decrease its production.