Chronic Pain Patients Typically Have High Cortisol Levels
New Canadian research has found that not all people have the same ability to deal with physical stress and that there is a strong correlation between the size of the hippocampus, high cortisol levels, and vulnerability to chronic pain.
The new study was conducted at the University of Montreal and included 16 patients with chronic back pain and a control group of 18 healthy subjects. The researchers found links between high cortisol levels, size of the hippocampus and pain and in particular, the study found that patients with higher cortisol levels were more likely to report chronic pain and that patients with a smaller hippocampus have higher cortisol levels and stronger responses to acute pain.
The hippocampus is that part of the brain that is involved in memory forming, organizing, and storing. It also deals with the formation of long-term memories and spatial navigation and in diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, the hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brian to become damaged, leading to memory loss and disorientation associated with the condition.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands in response to stress and it is our primary stress hormone and is responsible for activating the body’s “fight or flight” response in stressful situation. Cortisol is believed by some heath experts to be public health enemy number one because scientists have known for years that high cortisol levels can interfere with learning and memory, increase weight gain, heart disease, blood pressure, and cholesterol, increase the risk for mental illness and depression, lower immune function and bone density, and lower life expectancy.
The release of cortisol is controlled by the hypothalamus, a part of the brain and long-term exposure to cortisol damages cells in the hippocampus this damage results in impaired learning. Furthermore, cortisol has been shown to inhibit memory retrieval information already stored.
For Chronic Pain Sufferers with High Cortisol Levels
According to Dr. Pierre Rainville, PhD in Neuropsychology, Researcher at the Research Centre of the Institut Universitaire de Gériatrie de Montréal (IUGM) and one of the authors of the new study, stress management is a top priority for individuals with a smaller-than-average hippocampus and pain sufferers are encouraged to seek the help from a psychologist and can try relaxation or meditation techniques.
Stress Response and Coffee
When an individual experiences stress, there is a regulatory system that controls how the body reacts. This system is referred to as the NeuroEndoMetabolic Stress ResponseSM. After the brain alerts the body to stress, one of the main reactions that occurs is the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands.
Cortisol, though always produced during the body’s fight and flight response, is also released when certain chemicals are introduced to the body. Coffee is one of the main contributors to having an increased cortisol release from the adrenal glands.
When the adrenal glands are exposed to caffeine and are required to produce more cortisol, there is an imbalance created. This can result in what’s known as Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). What the body wants to do during a cortisol spike is engage in intense physical activity. The purpose of the fight and flight response is to ready the body for life saving action. Many times in modern society, the factors which trigger fight and flight are not necessarily life threatening and do not require such a pronounced physical response. This is problematic because when cortisol spikes are not coupled with physical activity, they take longer to dissipate and caused drastic degeneration of the body.
Someone who is experiencing AFS should, at all costs, stay away from caffeine. Whether it’s from soft drinks, coffee, or energy drinks, it is always damaging. Since so many people consume these products, it’s a good place to start when attempting to reverse the burden of Adrenal Fatigue on our bodies.
Meditation and Adrenal Fatigue
Meditation is sometimes looked upon as a good alternative medicine that one can use to holistically repair a dysregulated stress response. When you practice relaxation techniques to calm yourself and center your mind during periods of crisis, you can actually lower your cortisol levels. In a society where everyone is looking for a new drug or quick fix to remedy their issues, meditation can be a healthy, natural option.
There is a large range of individuals who suffer from AFS and different solutions will be required because the sufferers are so diverse. Maybe meditation isn’t among your interests but don’t worry because there are other options. Even listening to some music that you enjoy or getting extra sleep can help to reduce your cortisol output.
Conclusion of High Cortisol Levels and Pain
Cortisol spikes and stress are both things that we all encounter. Being aware that there are options to help decrease your vulnerabilities is a wonderful step in the right direction when attempting to ensure that your responses are healthy. You don’t have to make dramatic changes when you implement any of these techniques into your routines. What’s most important is that you recognize that there are ways to help yourself improve your stress response and move towards AFS recovery.
Source: first published in March 2013 in the journal Brain.
Dr. Lam’s Key Questions
Do those with low Cortisol levels do better with drinking salt in the glass, as the result of having low blood pressure?
It is not a direct correlation that low cortisol levels would result in low blood pressure, therefore benefits from drinking salt water. If the adrenal functions are very low, some paradoxical reaction may occur, and salt tolerance may be an issue. Different people react differently.
If a person has a high level of stress and their cortisol production is low, could a rise in nor-epinephrine result in a wired tired symptom?
In general, yes, but there are many exceptions so that thesis is not universal.
Why is it that client with low cortisol levels tend to have nightmares? What is the correlation between dreams and cortisol?
Low cortisol may not be associated with the nightmare. More often it is associated with insomnia.
My new chiropractor recommended your website. He focuses on adrenal and thyroid impact on structural maladies. In my case, I’ve had chronic neck & shoulder pain for four years - the timeframe coincides to my diagnosis of being ANA positive (autoimmune). After he reviewed my medical history and performed a couple of simple trigger point tests, he showed that not only my spine but the multiple, ongoing autoimmune symptoms may be related to adrenal and thyroid dysfunction. Besides specific adjustments, he started me on a thyroid supplement and will be tackling the adrenal issues in a few weeks. Dr. Lam's website and free brochures are very informative and are helping me connect the dots to my health issues. I'm optimistic that I can feel better.