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Finn's Q&A - Why Do We Get Sick When We're Stressed Out

Finn Health
  • Finn's Q&A - Why Do We Get Sick When We're Stressed Out

We all know it.  Deeply in our bones.  No matter how much doctors dismiss us.  When we feel pain, we are IN pain. When disorders are classed as psychosomatic in that familiar, dismissive way all it does is display the ignorance of a system poorly placed under resourced to hold space for healing at a deep level.  Psychological trauma has deep roots.  When it erupts in complex pathologies, the medical profession is at sea.


And I’m not claiming access to some deeper wisdom here.  Just joining some dots for myself and you guys to allow us all to better understand and display compassion for the damage that transmits through lifetimes and generations, and brings suffering to bear on innocent parties, connected only by lineage and long genetic strands to past trauma.  Studies have shown that epigenetic influences (the expression of a gene based on lifestyle/environmental conditions) can carry through about 13 generations in rats and it is believed to track through at least 7 generations in humans, if not many, many more.




What I want to do for myself in this lifetime is to develop an understanding of where my ailments have come from, and I hope to learn enough to help to give others insight to do this too, to see the connections, breaking down the pathways that we’ve inherited that don’t serve us and build new routes.  Routes inwards to help us connect better with who we are, to help us stop reliving trauma, and to support our psychology and physiology as we push past these states and adopt new healthy states.  Because as we’ll see, so much of what we feel physically (tension, pain, joy, openness, strength, softness) is drawing DIRECTLY from the font of what we feel in our hearts and how we think in our minds and how we behave within our bodies.


When we see kids with hyper immune responses, we also nine times out of ten, see a personality that reflects this.  In one word. Hyper. Their nervous system appears to reflect their immune system’s behaviour and the truth is that there’s plenty of evidence to support this thought process, that the cell signalling processes, hormones etc that drive our bodies’ immune responses also have a deep base in our nervous systems’ response to their environment.  And amazingly when you start to encourage a sense of safety instead of threat on a routine basis, calming the nervous system, the disorders that emerge from an overly reactive immune system (asthma, allergies, etc) can start to fade away too.  


So thinking of a kid with a tendency towards allergic reactions perhaps, a sign of an immune system on high alert, introducing a routine that allows for some focused down time, be it kids’ yoga, time reading during the day either with or without a parent, or some other mindful activity, can help to reduce that allergic potential.  There’s some strong research behind this too, as the cells that sample our environment located all along our gut and in our airways, in our bone marrow, our skin, our heart and our spleen - dendritic cells - are up and down-regulated by the sensations of stress.  So - give a human with gluten-tolerating issues a piece of baguette when they’re on holidays, super relaxed and devoid of a to-do list, and the chances of reaction are greatly reduced than if you do so under the strain of a regular high-paced office environment, with all of the daily nervous system triggers present and in full effect.


Stories such as this are ten-a-penny in our store from customers over the years.  And not just for mild gluten intolerance either.  About 3 weeks ago a customer came in to ask for support for her own immune system and, on hearing of her role as a full time carer for her husband who suffers with MS, I started recommending supplements to cater for her overloaded nervous system.  She understandably queried my approach, and so I asked her about her husband’s symptoms and did she notice a deterioration in him when he was under stress, she of course responded to the affirmative.  So it was that she went away with nervous system calming herbs and nutrients for the whole household (tulsi, reishi, magnesium etc.) and a new perspective on how best to manage their immune system, including the auto-immune disorder that her poor husband lives with.


“Conventional” medical wisdom leaves little space for nervous system disorders manifesting elsewhere other than in the brain, and in ways other than what appear like conventional psychiatric disorders, but a disturbed emotional equilibrium can poke its head up in all sorts of places and in myriad ways.  Conditions such as “IBS” - a hopelessly inadequate description of a constellation of symptoms that originate in a disruption to the regular wavy motion our gut uses to produce “motions” as my grandmother would call them - are all but dismissed, or treated with antibiotics, laxatives, antidiarrheals and occasionally even anti-depressants.  That last one.  Interesting eh. And sometimes it even works.  But these tools are like using a hammer to crack a nut - the nervous system of an IBS sufferer, already disordered is usually in need of gentle coaxing.  Herbs like melissa, slippery elm, chamomile, aloe vera, along with nutrients such as glutamine, MSM, essential fats and probiotics (but not always) can help to restore homeostasis for a lifetime if introduced sensibly and tailored to suit the individual.


One rather genius mind who’s applied his creative and analytical attentions to this topic is Robert M. Sapolsky.  I recommend reading his stuff and letting it sit with you for a while.  He asks smart questions and is at the forefront of research into the origin of this link between the nervous and immune response.  Like this nugget:


“It turns out that during the first few minutes you enhance many aspects of [immunity]...with the onset of all sorts of stressors, your immune defenses are enhanced. And now we are ready for our usual other side of the two-edged sword, when the stress goes on longer.  By the one-hour mark, more sustained glucocorticoid (stress hormone) and sympathetic activation begins to have the opposite effect, namely suppressing immunity.  If the stressor ends around then, what have you accomplished with that immunosuppression?”


See?  I like this guy.  And unlike underqualified little old me, Mr Sapolsky, nay Professor Sapolsky to you, is professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, and research associate with the Institute of Primate Research.  So a rather serious brain then.  Comforting to realise that folks with bright minds like his are VERY convinced that our immune systems and nervous systems are playing an intricate dance - one that we don’t understand the half of at this stage.


Another fascinating example of this tie up between the nervous and immune system comes courtesy of Professor Charles Raison, professor at the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Founding Director of the Center for Compassion Studies in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.  Wow.  There’s another mouthful, but I want to be sure I’m backing this stuff up, because it’s defiantly progressive as a research direction, and it flies in the face of many current treatment modalities.  So it’s nice not to be edgy all on our lonesome.


Professor Raison has been investigating the treatment of depression using whole body hyperthermia.  Hyperthermia?  Basically intense sauna, but like the level of intensity that induces a fever.  They built a special little hot box for this rather unpleasant, but mercifully short lived treatment approach, and had AMAZING results.  They discovered that when the body responds to the intense heat, it acutely elevates one of our inflammatory pathways (well many of them but one became of particular interest in relation to depression), a pro inflammatory cytokine known as Interleukin-6, and this phasic (short-lived) stimulation of an this pathway led to it dropping below the original baseline in many patients post-treatment.  The result?  Many reported reduction in symptoms.  STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT reduction.  Music to the ears of any researcher.


So we see our nervous system, when out of order, can actually benefit  from some immune system stimulation.  Inflammation can be a good thing. But this is the tricky thing and where science departs us and we’re left with scrabbling for answers. How do we get to the point of understanding how much inflammation is good and when it goes bad.  I think the answer here, for now at least, is to just tune in - listen to what your body is telling you.  Ask it for guidance, and the more you ask the more you’ll learn.  It’s like if President Trump suddenly turned around and started inviting people of colour to have a think-in on how to solve their current situation.  The first time he asked, I think, well I think there’d be a combination of responses mostly landing somewhere around derision.  But if over time he keeps asking for the insight, and genuinely sits and takes the learnings when they’re offered.  I think that is a bit like a dislocated brain starting to tune into its body.  The lucky part is that you only have yourself to ask in this case.  If your body is showing you signs of dis-ease, it’s talking to you.  Your nervous system is talking to you, through the language of your immune system.


I’ll leave you with this, off the deep end moment.  So the bats that (supposedly) started this whole Covid nightmare.  Well those little guys have been living with said virus in one form or another for many many moons.  And it seems their little immune systems have developed a rather tasty way to handle infection.  When the COV-SARS-2 (?) virus enters, they don’t even attempt to kick it out.  Instead they develop a little space for it. Welcome it in. Their immune system, specifically in this case their NLRP-3 Inflamazome, actually throttles back, downregulates the response and allows the virus to live inside their cells without taking over.  I guess so much about our problem with this viral thing, is its newness, to us as a species.  But the idea of welcoming an infection like this, not to consider it an invader, or an ‘other’, but more as part of us to be tolerated, given a home, allowed to take over a bit of ‘us’.  That’s something to get your head around. Humans are a super organism - we’re only 10% ‘us’ anyway, and 90% bugs, viruses, bacteria, fungi….we’re not even half human ourselves.


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