Connecting stress to illness and what does this have to do with Fibromyalgia?

There is quite a lot of evidence to show that fibromyalgia may represent a primary disorder of the autonomic nervous system, making it stress related.  Many FM sufferers have a history of chronic overdoing which may manifest itself in fatigue and muscle pain.  This may reflect emotional and physical stress which often cause anxiety and stress, which in turn increase the pain and fatigue, thus creating more stress.

Stress affects your body as much as food and exercise.  In fact, many people have undetected food allergies which may start the ball rolling for putting undue stress on the entire body.  Any prolonged stress weakens a person over time leaving them wide open and susceptible to even more stress both physically and emotionally.  This in turn can have a series of downward spiraling health effects just like the straw that broke the camels back until finally, the person buckles under all the pressure and becomes ill.  The term “stress” refers to any response or alteration to the way we think, perform, or feel as a reaction to a physical, mental, social, or emotional stimulus. 

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “stress” as “a state of affair involving demand on physical or mental energy”.  This demand on the mind-body occurs when it tries to cope with continual changes in life.  In moderation, stress is a normal part of life and in many cases, proves useful, but extreme stress is detrimental to human health and creates an excellent breeding ground for illness.  Researchers estimate that stress is a predisposing factor or trigger of FM and, in fact, in most other diseases, in 80 percent of cases.  This is including cardiovascular disease, cancer, endocrine and metabolic disease, skin disorders, and infectious ailments  of all kinds.   Stress is also a common precursor of psychological difficulties such as anxiety and depression.

Too much stress for too long becomes distress and this is where the problems lie.  Distress results when our bodies overreact to events.  Each person has their own degree of tolerance in how they react or handle stress or stressful events.  Some people handle stress well, and it has little impact on their physical or emotional health while others are very negatively influenced by it.  Lifestyle factors very much influence our ability to cope or deal with stress.  Lack of sleep, inadequate or improper nutrition and diet, and excessive alcohol consumption and smoking can all put more stress on the body while at the same time they lower our tolerance or ability to handle stress.

Other sources of stress include relationship demands, traffic, workplace pressure, noise, meeting deadlines, extremes in temperature, pain, or accidents.  Even changing jobs, the birth of a new baby, and moving house are all forms of stress.  Some people create their own stress even when there isn’t any, by finding things to worry about.  Stress can cause the following symptoms and health problems:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia or other changes in sleep patterns
  • Memory loss
  • Nightmares
  • Mood changes or swings
  • Accident prone
  • Loss of enthusiasm or no motivation to do anything
  • Crying spells
  • Lack of focus, can’t concentrate
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Allergies
  • Skin rashes, or irritations
  • Asthma
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Changes in appetite
  • Teeth-grinding
  • Cold hands
  • Sweaty palms
  • Shallow breathing
  • Nervous twitches
  • High blood pressure
  • Lowered sexual drive
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression

Stress has some very definite physical effects.  Almost all body organs and functions react to stress.  When challenged or in a stressful situation, the brain prepares the body for defensive action—the fight or flight response—by releasing stress hormones, namely, cortisone and adrenaline.  These hormones raise the blood pressure and accelerate the heart beat, and the body prepares to react to the situation (called the stressor).  Digestion slows or stops, fats and sugars are released from stores in the body, cholesterol levels rise, and there is greater tension in the muscles.  Too much stress over time will eventually inhibit the functioning of disease-fighting white blood cells and suppress the immune response leaving us susceptible to infection and other disease causing pathogens.

As early as 1936 Dr. Hans Selye proposed something called the General Adaptation Syndrome as a theory for understanding the three basic stages of the human body’s reaction to any event or stressor.  A stressor would include any food or substance which has a deleterious effect on the body.  Dr. Selye concluded that your body, in order to survive, adapts to the repeated stress it is exposed to, be it physical activity, a perceived threat or trauma, prolonged food deprivation, or a cigarette.  By “stress”, he did not mean only “nervous stress”, but the “nonspecific response of the body to any demand”.    First there is an “alarm reaction”, in which the body prepares itself for fight or flight.  For example, remember your first alcoholic drink, your first cup of coffee, or your first cigarette?  You are unlikely to remember your first taste of sugar or meat or other foods when you were very young.  Provided that the first stage is survived, there is a second stage of adaptation.  In this stage a resistance to the stress is built and your body very quickly learns to adapt.  Gone is the pounding heart after a cup of coffee, or coughing after a cigarette.  Behind the scenes, however, the body is trying to protect itself and in so doing is in an unseen state of stress.  Finally, if the duration of the stress is sufficiently long, or you continue the insult for long enough the body eventually enters a stage of exhaustion, a sort of aging “due to wear and tear”.  The body cannot cope or adapt anymore.  It is at this stage that most people seek help from a health practitioner.

A period of recovery must follow if a person is to bring the body back into balance and build strength back up.  This means staying clear of the foods or substances that make you react or which are intolerable to you.  Some of the substances that most commonly cause reactions are:

  • Wheat and gluten products
  • Milk and dairy products
  • Chocolate
  • Sugar
  • Alcohol
  • Tea and coffee
  • Smoking
  • Grass pollens
  • Fumes

While most substances that react adversely with you usually show an initial reaction within twenty-four hours, others have a long-term delayed effect which shows up two or three days later.  This can also mean that the liver has exceeded its ability to detoxify itself due to toxins.  We will discuss ways in which you can rejuvenate your liver and experience less fatigue and more energy in a subsequent article.  First, let’s look at some of the ways for you to manage stress.

Ways to Manage Stress

Which effect stress has on you depends on how YOU handle it. How you handle stress depends on being able to recognize it, knowing where it’s coming from, and understanding your stress-management options so you can choose the best one for your situation. Sure, I make this sound easy, it’s not and it takes years to ‘master’, but it’s to never to late to start.

  • Get regular exercise.  Frequent exercise is probably one of the best physical stress-reduction techniques available.  Exercise not only improves your overall health, it also helps you to sleep.  Another benefit of exercise is that it can cause the release of chemicals called endorphins.  These give you a feeling of well-being and happiness.
  • Practice deep breathing.  It is a key element for calming yourself or someone else down.  Take a few deep breaths and hold for a few seconds before letting them out slowly and gently.  Do these four or five times and you will be calmer.
  • Try meditation.  Many people find that regular meditation helps them to relax and handle stress.  Meditation does not have to have spiritual or religious connotations.  The idea of meditation is to focus your thoughts on one relaxing thing for a sustained period of time.  For example, you can meditate on a word such as “peace” or “relax”.  Or perhaps you may prefer to meditate on a pleasant scene, or event.  Meditation helps to clear away toxins that may have built up through stress or mental or physical activity.  Try practicing it every day and you will soon find that your approach to everything in your life is one which is calming and relaxed and therefore brings more peace to you.
  • Eat a diet generous in whole foods making at least 50 percent of them raw foods.  Fresh fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamins and minerals plus phytonutrients to help fight free radicals.  Try eating a minimum of 5-7 servings per day of vegetables and notice how much calmer you will feel.
  • Stay away from all processed and artificial foods which only put more stress on the body.  Avoid alcohol, sugar, caffeine, tobacco, and mood-altering drugs.  These substances may offer some temporary relief from stress, but they do nothing to handle the problem and are harmful in the long run.
  • Get plenty of rest and sleep each night.  Nothing compares to feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep.  Eating in a balanced way, exercising, and getting sufficient rest is the best antidote to stress.  The less sleep you get, the more stress will affect you, which only weakens your immune system increasing the likelihood of becoming ill.  Try to be in bed early and make sure you do not go to bed with a full stomach.  Overnight is when your system does most of its repair and regenerative work.  We do not want it having to put all the energy into doing lots of digesting of food but instead to focus on restoring health and wellbeing in all the other important areas.

There are many other ways you can deal with stress.  This list provides you with some of the main ways you can achieve some quick and positive results.  A few other suggestions include avoiding drama and hassles; taking time off; pursuing a hobby; creating a stress-free home or work environment; investigating aromatherapy; and learning to laugh more.

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