The body is a regulated and controlled via chemical messages from the Nervous System. Each message sent - within the brain, brain to organ or organ to brain; from one nerve to another - is composed of very specific chemical sequences. Every chemical arrangement is specific to a task for the body. There are vast numbers of chemical signals in our body that are constantly being produced to start and stop intricate functions. Some examples of these are hydrochloric acid (HCL) and cortisol (hormone). HCl is made and used by the stomach for digestion and cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands, controlled by the pituitary and hypothalamus in the brain. Chemical balance in our body is maintained innately and can be altered via environmental experiences. For example, when we eat lunch at 11:30am every day, our body learns that it needs to start prepping for digestion at 11:30am via our biological clocks. If we skipped our lunch and ate at 3:30pm instead, our body will produce all the chemicals for digestion at both times. The body adapts to the environment, so it meets our needs in different situations. The environment and genetic make-up play a crucial role in the production and utilization of chemicals to carry out prominent bodily functions.
Stress is an excellent example of the environment influencing the production of chemicals. Cortisol is the primary hormone released in response to a fight and flight (stressful) situation, hence the word “stress hormone”. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that controls blood sugar levels, metabolism, anti-inflammatory processes, memory formation, salt-water balance, blood pressure and fetal development. It effectively changes our physiology in the event of stress, so the body can respond adequately without failing at the time of danger. One can experience prolonged (threatening or non-threatening) stress which, increases the amount of cortisol released over time. However, when the body is under large-amounts of stress it puts all bodily functions in over-drive, which drastically reduces the production of cortisol. In this case, the body fails to meet the expectations of the environment and one experiences a mental and physical crash. The diagram below depicts the relationship between increased stress and performance. As seen, optimal stress is productive, where as too much stress induces exhaustion, anxiety and breakdown.
In the US, a large population experiences prolonged stress also known as chronic stress. As mentioned above, chronic stress leads to reduced cortisol levels; which consequently causes bodily dysfunction and dis-ease such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, low back pain and lumbar disc herniations. Research has recently correlated lumbar disc herniations to long-term stress and established a predictive relationship between reduced cortisol (pro-longed stress) and new-onset of musculoskeletal pain. Moreover, the decrease or absence of cortisol levels will increase inflammation contributing to pain in the joints. It is clear that prolonged-stress compromises the musculoskeletal structure, especially the spine.
True story of patient with prolonged stress
A mother named Mary, has been a care-taker of her husband battling with cancer for 8 years. Over the years I noticed her energy declining, she looks more worn out each time and is shrinking vertically. A few months back she began experiencing sharp neck and low-back pain. After thorough testing and MRI’s, she was diagnosed with multiple disc herniations in the lumbar spine. As mentioned above, it is scientifically proven that when a person is under high stress, they can experience degeneration of the spine. With pain in her spine and the lack of energy; she spends less time gardening and doing what she loves. Now she spends more time laying in bed and resting on the couch. She once mentioned to me, with tears in her eyes, that she is not enjoying gardening and it has become a chore. Even though she is mentally and physically exhausted with pain and stress, she attempts to push through the pain. It is sad to see she is not able to do what she is passionate about. Gardening was her way to get away from her real-life problems, but now she is in prolonged stress and pain with inflamed extremities and spinal joints.
When Mary came to the Alpha Spine Center, she had lost all hope in getting her life back. After a few treatments Mary’s pain level has decreased in half and she is gardening once again. For this reason, I am so thankful Mary found her way to our practice. It brings her immense joy when she picks fresh cut flowers and puts them in a vase at her husband’s bedside.
The story above paints a picture of how a stressful situation can quickly take a toll on a perfectly healthy individual. Increased stress with decreased cortisol levels can have a negative effect on the body and reduce its ability to perform optimally. Chronic stress is a key contributor to disease and degenerative changes in spinal health despite exercise and healthy eating. If you know anyone like Mary in your life, please share this story with them so they can find hope and restoration as well.