February in the medical world and media is denoted as “heart month” (probably because we get bombarded by hearts due to Valentine’s day so it’s at the fore front of our prefrontal cortex). I could happily go into the physical necessities for harmonious heart health like proper diet, full fiber, fish oils and coQ10 (the heart basics), but I’d rather discuss the mind-body connection between emotional heart break and physical body aches (ie. the mind body medicine behind how stress and emotional pain triggers inflammation pathways resulting in physical pain).
Previously thought to be an “old wife’s tale”, research studies are coming out confirming heart break syndrome where bereaved after losing a significant other could suffer heart issues, such as heart attacks, shortly after their loss. This is an example of the mind-body connection – grief and sadness presenting as physical pain and chronic issues. The exact mechanism behind this is unknown, however the link been uncovered. The heart does have the ability to survey it’s environment with receptors (such as osmoreceptors, stretch receptors and chemoreceptors to aid blood pressure changes), perhaps it also detects the emotional environment? Or it’s the link between loneliness and health? To feel connected and part of a community is an important determinant of health. If we feel isolated, disconnected, alone or unheard it actually increases inflammatory cytokines leading to chronic pain and depressed mood. The same link occurs with physical and emotional pain. With the way the body and brain was created it cannot distinguish the difference between physical and emotional pain – it’s processed by the same cortical areas (as shown via fMRI studies). This is why you see chronic conditions (such as fibromyalgia, lupus, hypothyroidism, diabetes, etc.) that have linking physical and emotional symptoms (which may be due to a combination of inflammation, low serotonin, previous trauma, nutritional deficiency, toxic accumulation, etc.).
Pain is also isolating, which further affects health in a negative way via a feed-forward mechanism (pain creates isolation because you can’t participated in daily activities, which causes sadness and loss of purpose, which intensifies feelings of pain). I had an acute experience of this last month. I was sick, bed bound for the week, not wanting to do anything or talk to anyone. Then I started to feel sad and isolated, disconnected from the world. It made me empathize with those that suffer from chronic pain. If I had those feelings of isolation and sadness from just being sick for a week I couldn’t imagine how it must feel emotionally for someone suffering from constant pain and how debilitating that would be. It must be a constant struggle for those living with chronic pain, wanting to do things but being limited by pain and that inability to act further affecting their mood. To help improve their physical pain they need to boost their emotional health, whether it be socializing or hobbies that they enjoy, but that feat is easier said then done.
In summation, the main point of this blog post is to outline the all important link between mental-emotional health and physical health (the basis of mind-body medicine). Like us, they do not exist in isolation. As a society we’ve advanced in talking about the importance of mental health which is a great first step in addressing it. Next is accepting that mental health may present as different symptoms than just mood (like headaches, fatigue, joint pain, digestive issues, etc), and in order to truly heal ourselves we need to address both our physical and emotional being. Heart break can lead to physical ache so we need to listen to our heart and heads. For this heart month let’s focus on our heart by treating it right and listening to want it needs. And right now it’s needs to be listen to, as do you.