Minimizing stress is important to our health, but is the stress response haywire in those of us living with fibromyalgia? Is there something we can do to help our body deal with stress, cortisol and the biological effects?
The Stress Hormone
Cortisol, the stress hormone, got its moniker for good reason. When we perceive a threat, our sympathetic nervous system goes to work. Our adrenal glands secrete cortisol (along with adrenaline) in preparation for fight or flight. This amazing reaction allows our body to make circulatory and metabolic shifts to meet the demands on our body. The negative feedback loop is responsible for allowing fight or flight hormones to return to normal when danger has passed, thereby restoring balance. However, when the flight or fight response is excessive or inadequate to meet demands, it triggers a physiological response. The result of soaring cortisol levels can over time cause stomach and digestive problems, cardiovascular problems, headache, rashes, or a host of other immune, autonomic, or inflammatory reactions. When cortisol levels remain abnormally high, it affects our immune system and our ability to heal.
Cortisol and Fibromyalgia
Some researchers believe that fibromyalgia is associated with heart rate variability, HRV (1), which is an autonomic nervous system (ANS) problem. Loss of normal HRV indicates sympathetic nervous system involvement.
Dr. Roland Staud suggests that “ANS dysfunction as assessed by HRV analysis may serve as a useful biomarker.”(2) Other researchers believe evaluation of HRV during sleep could be a biomarker for fibromyalgia (3). And yet, other researchers theorize that since the sympathetic nervous system is stuck in overdrive (affecting pain and other symptoms of fibromyalgia), drugs that suppress adrenal hormone secretion would decrease pain. (4)
Taking Control with Meditation
These studies are promising and shed light on the windup phenomenon of fibromyalgia, but it could take years before we have the answers we need. In the meantime, there are things we can do to help ourselves, like meditation. Meditation is free, and minimal effort can yield great rewards.
What Meditation Does
For those of us with fibromyalgia, meditation is a power tool. It gives us a sense of control, which is also important for our mental and emotional well-being. Regardless of the type of meditation, the goal is always the same – to relax our mind and body so healing can take place. Think of it as fuel for the negative feedback loop that allows our body to return to balance.
My co-author, Jeff Miller, PhD, says meditation should be simple and something we enjoy doing every day. It should not be limited by thinking inside the box; rather, quite the contrary. What one-person feels is right for them may not be the same for someone else.
Dr. Deepak Chopra, teacher and world-renowned expert in the field of mind-body healing, decodes five different types of meditation. They are:
Primordial Sound Meditation – Vibrational chants of Om or Aum.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – A form of meditation that allows us to acknowledge our pain, without judging it.
Zen – A state of focus that the body and mind are connected.
Transcendental Meditation – A silent technique for instilling inner peace and tranquility without effort or manipulation, allowing our surface thoughts to settle into a deeper sense of rest.
Kundalini Yoga – A wide range and variety of meditation practices that “guides the body through the use of breath, mantra, mudra (hand position), and focus.”
There is significant evidence that meditation reduces cortisol levels and has many other health benefits, and it can be practiced in a variety of ways. But it doesn’t work if we don’t use it. I hope you will take a few minutes to look into the many different types of meditation. A few minutes each day is well worth it.
Meeus M, et al. Heart rate variability in patients with fibromyalgia and patients with chronic fatigue syndrome: a systematic review. Semin Arthritis Rheum. 2013 Oct;43(2):279-87. doi: 10.1016/j.semarthrit.2013.03.004. Epub 2013 Jul 6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23838093
Staud R1.Heart rate variability as a biomarker of fibromyalgia syndrome. Fut Rheumatol. 2008 Oct 1;3(5):475-483. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19890437
Claudia L, et al. Nocturnal heart rate variability parameters as potential fibromyalgia biomarker: correlation with symptoms severity. Arthritis Res Ther. 2011; 13(6): R185. Published online 2011 Nov 16. doi: 10.1186/ar3513 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3334634/
Dipaola F., et al. Relationship between sympathetic activity and pain intensity in fibromyalgia. Clin Exp Rheumatol. 2015 Mar-Apr;33(1 Suppl 88):53-7. Epub 2015 Mar 18. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25786044
Dr. Deepak Chopra. The Chopra Center, 5 Types of Meditation Decoded. (accessed March 16, 2016) http://www.chopra.com/ccl/5-types-of-meditation-decoded?
Celeste Cooper, RN, is a frequent contributor to ProHealth. She is an advocate, writer and published author, and a person living with chronic pain. Celeste is lead author of Integrative Therapies for Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Myofascial Pain and Broken Body, Wounded Spirit, and Balancing the See Saw of Chronic Pain (a four book series). She spends her time enjoying her family and the rewards she receives from interacting with nature through her writing and photography. You can learn more about Celeste’s writing, advocacy work, helpful tips, and social network connections at CelesteCooper.com.