How is the immune system and chronic pain connected, and what to do about it?
According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of The National Academies, chronic pain is the most common disability in the United States, affecting about 50 million American adults.
This is a terrifying number, considering the devastating physical, psychological, and economic impact that chronic pain has on the sufferers’ lives: living with never-ending aches and the subsequent stress can negatively affect the patient’s mental health, social environment, employment status, as well as their personal relationships.
And, of course, when you’re stressed, your immune system simply won’t work at full capacity; its ability to fight off pathogens is reduced. This breakdown can further interfere with your long-term healing and overall quality of life.
How Stress Affects the Immune System
Stress-induced immunosuppression has been documented for several decades, and we now know that ongoing stress can impact immune function.
This is how it works: When stressed, the human body produces more of its stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol plays an important role in a wide range of processes throughout the body (including metabolism).
While the right cortisol balance is essential for controlling the blood pressure and helping the body respond to stress or danger, too much or too little of it can have adverse effects. Research shows that if stress persists, high cortisol levels are connected with a decline in immune system function.
Chronic pain and chronic stress may even be the signs of the same coin; the more you’re in pain the higher your stress levels get, which in turn may cause even more pain, in the form of e.g. anxiety headaches. And as if chronic pain itself wasn’t enough, the current health emergency adds more stress to the mix.
To manage your stress levels, try to change your mentality about stressful people and situations (unless you have the rare option to avoid them completely); meditation will help a lot with this. Also, explore simple relaxation techniques like breathing exercises, unplug from your devices, get some fresh air, and seriously consider getting professional help such as talking to a therapist. Finally, don’t forget the simplest way to lower stress: Laugh.
How Chronic Pain Affects the Immune System
It goes without saying that the immune system plays a critical role in the development of many chronic conditions, as well as it is deeply involved in pain related to chronic illnesses such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia. But is this relationship more complex than we think?
Apart from the relationship between acute stressors and natural immunity, we now know that chronic pain itself, and not only the stress it goes with, impacts mechanisms in the immune system.
Back in 2016, researchers at McGill University (QC, Canada) published a study in Scientific Reports to answer a critical question: Does chronic pain have a systemic manifestation in the peripheral immune system?
Or, more simply, can pain suppress the immune system?
The team tested the hypothesis that the immune system’s epigenetic mechanisms are associated with chronic pain, and indeed found that chronic pain alters the way DNA is marked not only in the brain, but also in the essential for immunity T cells (i.e. the lymphocyte immune cells that protect the body from pathogens).
This makes evaluating conventional pain management techniques even more important, because painkillers are either targeting the neurons or they’re just anti-inflammatories, plus they almost always have side effects.
Optimum pain management approaches include taking advantage of the growing scientific knowledge and looking for natural solutions that manage chronic pain outside of pain medications.
Other Associated Chronic Diseases and Conditions
Another aspect of the love affair between chronic pain and the immune system is the other chronic diseases that may be developed due to chronic pain and further impact the immune function.
Apart from stress and anxiety, the effect of which was discussed above, prolonged inactivity due to chronic fatigue (chronic pain’s partner in crime) can elevate blood pressure and increase body weight, which in turn can create heart disease, strokes, and diabetes, to name a few.
Finally, age-related problems like poor sleep and cognitive decline have a further negative effect on the already weakening function of an older immune system, as T cell function decreases.
7 Ways to Boost Your Immune System
Good news is, simple healthy-living strategies can have an enormous effect on the immune system’s performance. Besides lowering your stress levels, try to:
1. Eat better
That means more foods rich in fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole-wheat pasta and bread), more healthy fats (extra virgin oil, oily sea fish), more fermented foods (yogurt, kefir), and less saturated fat, sugar, and salt.
2. Get enough sleep
The importance of good quality sleep cannot be understated, as adequate rest will strengthen your natural immunity.
3. Explore natural treatment options for cell regeneration
Look into the power of Vital Fields, developed in top clinics in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, to repair and re-energize your cells with therapeutic frequencies that support the body’s natural healing process.
4. Take steps to avoid infection
Maintaining a good personal hygiene will help keep infections and illnesses at bay.
5. Drink lots of water
Even if you don’t feel thirsty, drink clean water regularly; dehydration can increase susceptibility to illness.
6. Maintain a healthy weight
Excess fat can turn your body’s defense system against you.
7. Exercise regularly
In the short term, exercise can help your immune system deal with pathogens; in the long term, it benefits immunity by slowing down changes that happen to the system due to e.g. ageing.