Stress is a part of everyday life. We all experience it from time to time. Whether it’s being stuck in traffic, feeling like you’re buried in household chores, having conflict with your partner, a looming deadline at work or any number of things, stress is something we all have in common.
Our bodies are built to be able to handle these relatively small and contained moments of stress. We’re pretty tough like that! It’s when stress becomes chronic, persistent and over a long period of time, that it can have serious consequences for our health. Chronic stress can cause chronic pain.
Chronic stress can be exhausting on the hypothalamus, the pituitary glands and the adrenal glands, resulting in what is commonly known as burnout. But researchers have found that chronic pain can also be a result. Beta-endorphins are usually released with stress as pain suppression, allowing us to face adverse situations, but if the body is exhausted, this morphine-like hormone no longer gets released and we can become very sensitive to pain.
According to scientific research, here are some explanations of what happens in your body and its relationship with pain when you are experiencing chronic stress:
1. Chronic stress alters the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) which is known as the body’s ‘stress system’. The HPA controls the body’s cortisol and stress hormone levels. Among the various functions of the HPA, is the release of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), which causes the adrenal cortex to release cortisol, as well as beta-endorphin, a morphine-like hormone. Both ACTH and beta-endorphin are released together in response to stress. Endorphins are thought to be important in reducing pain during times of stress. However, long-term stress can lead to the suppression of the HPA axis in the brain, which not only leads to burnout or exhaustion, but also less pain-killing beta-endorphins being released. Basically, this leads to an increase in both perceived and actual pain.
2. A study on the epigenetic impact of chronic stress revealed that it can increase the DNA methylation of the NR3C1 gene which causes issues with neurons in the L6-S2 spinal vertebra. This affects organs in the pelvic area, which include the large intestine, colon, bladder and genitals. It also affects CNR1 transcription, which is related to peripheral pain pathways and results in chronic neuropathic and inflammatory pain where variance in the GAD65 gene may also play a role. Increased DNA methylation in the NR3C1 promoter is tightly linked to the down-regulation of NR3C1 expression in the brain, the glucocorticoid receptor gene that influences behavior, mood, learning and memory, which can also be hindered in chronic pain conditions. So in a nutshell, chronic pain can change the expression of the genes related to pain.
3. Studies on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) showed changes in specific noncoding microRNAs in intestinal mucosa which can also lead to a whole gamut of painful conditions. Once again, chronic stress caused adverse changes on a molecular level leading to pain.
Understanding the effects chronic stress can have on the body provides clues as to how to mediate or prevent challenging conditions like IBS, fibromyalgia, chronic migraines and many other conditions. Once we understand the importance of managing stress we can do something about it. Practicing mindfulness is a good place to start and this article could help with some pointers. Ensuring you are the healthiest you can possibly be also goes a long way and ph360 can help with that.
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