Could the secret to chronic pain relief lie in the memories stored in your body and mind?

A woman undergoes EMDR therapy by a licensed practitioner.

It is clear that stress can have a direct impact on autoimmune, chronic pain and other health conditions. Autoimmune Warrior shares research on the role of chronic stress in autoimmune disorders in this blog post. However, the nuances regarding the types of stress and how to deal with them are not often something we talk about with a medical physician, or to anyone in general.

The body and mind are inherently connected and emotional stressors can and do impact our physical functioning. Beyond everyday stressors, traumatic events, whether they occurred long, long ago in your early childhood, or something you experienced this year can get stored in your body and can manifest in the form of stomachaches, back and joint pain, or chronic migraines, to name a few. Everyday stressors may refer to issues with setting boundaries with a family member, difficulty speaking up for your needs, or putting your needs last ahead of everyone else.

The effects of emotional stress and trauma on the body’s hormonal functioning and immune system are well researched. Dr. Gabor Mate, a Hungarian physician who has investigated for many years the potential psychological attributes to his patients’ physical illnesses, including breast cancer, ALS and intestinal issues, has found commonalities in his patients dealing with similar health issues. He found links between those who experienced childhood abuse, neglect and/or maintaining unhelpful relational roles and those who had chronic health issues. These connections are described in his book, When the Body Says No.

Stress and trauma impact hormone functioning. Specifically, research has found that cortisol, a critical hormone implicated in managing stress responses, is impacted by traumatic experiences. For example, decreased cortisol levels have been found in women who have a history of childhood sexual abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This change in cortisol level functioning can impact the immune system (Kloet et al., 2006), as healthy levels of cortisol help to regulate inflammatory response and glucose levels. When too much cortisol is released from the body, it constantly feels as if it is in fight or flight mode (whether it’s a real or perceived threat), which can inhibit the regulation of glucose levels and responses to attacks on the immune system. Click here for more information.

Furthermore, the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study conducted by Kaiser, found that the more adverse childhood events you have had, the higher at risk you may be for certain health conditions such as heart disease, breast cancer and diabetes. For more information on ACEs, read Autoimmune Warrior’s blog post. Additionally, click here to find out what your ACE score is.

So what does this all mean? It means that help in the form of psychological healing may positively impact your physical health and decrease the chronic pain. Addressing long-avoided emotional pain from past trauma can (and does!) help. If you are thinking to yourself “I didn’t experience trauma!” but you wonder why those boundaries are so hard to set, you feel guilty if you don’t take care of your parents’ emotional or physical needs, or you’re avoiding social situations (just a few examples), chances are there’s something from your past that may be keeping you from living an emotionally and physically healthier life today. There are many options for helping you in this area, particularly forms of body-based psychotherapy models that can be effective with chronic pain, including EMDR therapy.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) therapy uses bilateral stimulation in the form of eye movements or alternative tapping to activate memory networks which are linked to maladaptive functioning; in other words, it activates the traumatic memories that are linked to negative feelings and beliefs that we have about ourselves now (for example, having low self-esteem, triggers to not feeling safe when you know logically that you are). During a REM sleep cycle your eyes move back and forth as you process the day’s events. In the same way, bringing up those past memories with eye movements in a safe, controlled environment with a skilled EMDR therapist helps the brain process through the memory and come to a more adaptive resolution. It allows the brain the space and time to do what it couldn’t do at the time that event occurred—process. And that can help remove self-blame or other negative beliefs, and in turn, relieves symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD, to name a few. With the relief of mental health symptoms, there is less stress on your immune system and this can improve overall pain symptoms and your energy level. To learn more about EMDR therapy, visit www.EMDRIA.org.

As Bessel van der Kolk suggests, The Body Keeps the Score, so let’s not forget to consider what has happened (or is happening!) in your life which may be contributing to your autoimmune symptoms.

Brooke Bender is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Board Certified Art Therapist, as well as an EMDR certified therapist practicing near Los Angeles, California. For more about Brooke, please visit: www.brookebender.com

Top Autoimmune Disease Books to Read in 2020

Have you read any good books lately about autoimmune disease? I am continuously consuming autoimmune-related content, whether it’s blogs, YouTube videos or full-fledged novels. Read on to learn about my favorite autoimmune disease books that you should poke your nose into in 2020!

1. The Autoimmune Epidemic

The Autoimmune Epidemic by journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa is a thought-provoking read about the potential causes behind many autoimmune conditions. In her book, Jackson Nakazawa theorizes that environmental factors such as pollution, pesticides and other toxins are responsible for the alarming rise in autoimmune diseases over the course of the last few decades. Although not a medical professional or scientist herself, Jackson Nakazawa provides compelling evidence that had me wondering what really triggered my own autoimmune conditions. The author herself has an autoimmune disease called myasthenia gravis that severely affected her mobility. Her book has received praise from numerous acclaimed individuals, including U.S. Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry.

2. An Epidemic of Absence

An Epidemic of Absence by Moises Velasquez-Manoff is another exploratory book about the causes behind autoimmune disease. His main theory is that autoimmune conditions, as well as allergies, are caused by a lack of actual communicable diseases in modern society. In ancient times, our ancestors had to contend with parasites and infectious diseases, like hepatitis A, measles, mumps and tuberculosis, from which they could easily die. However, our modern ‘too-clean’ environment has lead to our immune system attacking a new target – our own bodies – instead. I found that Velasquez-Manoff’s book was a direct contrast to The Autoimmune Epidemic (referenced above), since it posits that autoimmune diseases are caused by an absence of environmental triggers, rather than their presence. The author himself has alopecia universalis, an autoimmune disease that results in total body hair loss.

3. The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principals

The Wahls Protocol by Dr. Terry Wahls is an excellent read. I first heard about Dr. Wahls when I watched her viral TedTalk video, Minding Your Mitochondria, in which she describes the relationship between the body’s gut microbiome and the development of autoimmune disease. In her book, Dr. Wahls, who has multiple sclerosis (MS), details how she went from being wheelchair-bound to competing in a marathon after adopting the principals of her dietary protocol. Before implementing the protocol, her MS continued to worsen, despite receiving excellent treatment from some of the top neurologists in the country. Dr. Wahls also stresses the importance of vitamin D naturally derived from the sun in order to maintain a healthy immune system. Although Dr. Wahls’ advice isn’t 100% proven, her medical background and own track record of success healing herself and others is certainly persuasive.

4. The Autoimmune Wellness Handbook

The Autoimmune Wellness Handbook is the first of several novels penned by Mickey Trescott and co-author Angie Alt. The focus of the book is about the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP), a dietary regimen that involves eating paleo, avoiding gluten and dairy, as well as numerous other foods that could ‘trigger’ an autoimmune reaction. I first read the book when I borrowed it from my local library; I had to wait to read the book though, since it was immensely popular, and I was number 25 on the waiting list! Since then, a family member gifted me with a follow-up book by Trescott, called The Nutrient-Dense Kitchen. The book is chock-full of great recipes that are AIP-friendly. Something I like about Trescott’s books is that they not only provide easy to follow recipes, but actually explain why it is that eating this way can help alleviate autoimmune symptoms for some people, including a deep dive into the science behind leaky gut. Trescott herself has both Celiac disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.

5. The New Sjogren’s Syndrome Handbook

The New Sjogren’s Syndrome Handbook was written by the Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation (SSF) and edited by a physician familiar with the disease. What I like about this book is that it’s specific to Sjogren’s Syndrome (SJS), which is an autoimmune condition that I have. The book goes into the fundamentals about SJS, including what the disease is, how it is diagnosed, the main symptoms, complications, and treatment options. The one critique I would have for the book is that although it’s called the ‘New’ Sjogren’s Syndrome Handbook, the book was originally written in the 1990’s, so it’s not really new (though the foundation has come out with revised editions since). Overall, I think it’s a great read for a newly-diagnosed patient with Sjogren’s, or a family member/friend of someone with Sjogren’s, so that they can understand more about the disease.

Those are my top 5 autoimmune disease related books! Do you have any favorite novels related to chronic illness, autoimmune disease, or other health-related topics? If so, please share in the comments below!

Toddler’s Strep Throat Triggers Neurological Autoimmune Disease

Nate Kenoe, pictured above, developed a frightening autoimmune disease after strep throat

Nate Kenoe was a vibrant, energetic 4-year-old boy. Unfortunately, he had had a string of illnesses, testing positive for strep throat five times over the course of eight months. Each time, it wasn’t immediately clear that Nate had strep throat- oftentimes, he didn’t even have a sore throat! Instead, he presented with less common symptoms, such as bad breath or a sore on his butt. When he would finally get diagnosed with strep throat, he had to take a less effective antibiotic treatment, due to his allergy to penicillin.

Eventually, Nate developed even more disturbing symptoms that weren’t in line with strep throat. He began to have sensory issues, feeling pains in his feet as if he were walking on rocks, experiencing coldness in his shoulders, and other tics. He also had dramatically changed behavior, including vomiting at the sight of food, urinating multiple times an hour and banging his head.

Thankfully, an attentive pediatrician recognized Nate’s symptoms as pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcal infection, known as PANDAS for short. PANDAS is a little-known autoimmune disease primarily occurring in children between the ages of 3 and 12. With this disease, strep throat opens the blood-brain barrier, allowing abnormal immune cells to enter the brain and cause neuro inflammation. It has been compared to autoimmune encephalitis (AE), another autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder.

The PANDAS network estimates that 1 in 200 children could have PANDAS; however, this autoimmune condition is often under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed due to its similarity with other conditions such as Tourette’s syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Nate’s own mother, a pediatric nurse, hadn’t even heard of the condition before.

Nate received antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications and had a surgery to remove his tonsils as a treatment for his PANDAS. As her son received treatment, his mother learned that PANDAS is in fact a controversial disease. Many physicians are skeptical that this autoimmune disease even exists, while others believe that there needs to be a standardized method for diagnosis and treatment.

One year later, Nate is faring much better than last year. However, if he gets sick, such as with a cold or virus, it will trigger another autoimmune ‘flare’ resulting in more sensory issues. Ultimately, Nate’s family hopes that by sharing his story, they can raise awareness about PANDAS, and in turn, help the disease get more research funding.

To learn more about PANDAS and Nate’s story, click here.