Fibromyalgia is a pain driven disorder effecting several systems in the body and requires a multi-faceted treatment approach. It effects each sufferer in its own unique way making it a difficult illness to treat and what works for one person may not for another. Some sufferers do well on various prescriptive and over-the-counter medications whilst others can’t tolerate any medication at all. Whilst pain levels and other symptoms can fluctuate on a daily basis, some days are better than others and the bad days can leave you feeling pretty desperate and miserable. Despite all the differences that fibromyalgia brings, two things that most sufferers have in common is the need to feel understood and validated. When these are missing it can leave you feeling at odds with others and feeling totally isolated. I totally get this, having experienced this for myself and particularly once I’d realized there was very little help or support for me, so I had to find my own way, like most of us do.
As we approach a year of lock-down, many people are feeling the effects of isolation and the toll it can take on your mental health. Bearing this in mind you would think that fibromyalgia sufferers would be quite familiar with isolation, especially if you’ve experienced first hand, but this might not be the case for everyone. Some people are not comfortable with “aloneness” and here we all are, having to contend with a different type of isolation, plus the addition of social distancing, to keep ourselves safe during a pandemic.
As people, we are very much social beings who instinctively need contact with one another. Thankfully, we begin to thrive when we feel we belong in like minded communities and this is an urge driven by our brain’s primal role for our survival and to keep us safe. Just like other animals we find safety in numbers and this is what drives our deeply rooted subconscious thoughts and behaviour patterns to find this idealistic sense of belonging.
Once this is achieved, the rest is down to the chemicals in the brain and getting our hormones such as oxytocin flowing and is necessary to support the production of neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, the happy chemicals associated to emotional stability and feeling good. Research has indicated that fibromyalgia sufferers tested, shown to have significantly low levels of serotonin which may account for many of the symptoms.
When we miss out on human contact and the interaction with our chosen communities, we suffer both physically, mentally and emotionally from the loss, signalling that not all is well and happy and creating internal discord. Some people might feel this as a physical emptiness, whilst others may feel it as a heavy burden, either way it makes you feel out of sync and the outcome is a compromise to your mental health and a major trigger for anxiety or depression.
When you experience continuous isolation and loneliness your brain may begin to perceive this as a threat and trigger the stress response, fight-or-flight. When your body is busy with having to produce too much stress hormone, it produces way too little of the happy chemical – serotonin. Warning signs of low serotonin include:
Craving sweet and starchy food: when you feed your body with carbohydrates, more tryptophan becomes available, also known as 5HTP and is a pre-curser of serotonin, hence this causes the urge to crave more.
Fatigue or exhaustion: serotonin levels have a marked effect on energy levels.
Cognitive impairment: serotonin is an important chemical for normal cognitive function. Low levels of serotonin are more likely to cause problems with memory consolidation, or “brain fog” as it is more commonly referred to.
Insomnia: the levels of serotonin available have a direct affect on the production of melatonin which are both required for a healthy circadian rhythm, a vital element of the sleep wake cycle. Disrupted and un-refreshed sleep is typically experienced with fibromyalgia sufferers and is linked to many other health concerns.
Digestive problems: Serotonin plays an important role in relaying signals between the brain and the digestive system. Studies reveal a link between low serotonin and IBS, a common symptom for fibromyalgia sufferers.
Anxiety and low mood: serotonin, GABA and dopamine play a role in the part of the brain responsible for the regulation of impulse and emotional control. Anxiety, stress and low mood go hand in hand with fibromyalgia and trigger the symptoms, only to perpetuate the loop.
Other than prescriptive medication, the good news is that there are other ways you can increase and stabilize serotonin levels.
Research and studies provide the evidence that getting plenty of sunlight, exercise such as a daily walk, swimming, or stretching, practice qigong etc., and a balanced diet, can increase serotonin naturally. We all know how better we feel when we walk in nature or after a session of gentle movement or exercise.
Too much sugar aggravates fibromyalgia, increasing the pain and symptoms, avoiding foods and drinks high in sugar but eating complex carbohydrates with protein rich foods helps to produce serotonin. Some people benefit from taking a good quality supplement which includes a Vitamin B complex and a supplement called 5-HTP, also beneficial for fibromyalgia, anxiety and insomnia, but check with your doctor first.
There is so much evidence from studies to show, (I can vouch for this), that a regular meditation practice such as mindfulness and breathing exercise, also known as mind-body awareness techniques, helps to relax the body and positively alter your brain chemistry whilst improving the immune system, mood, cognitive function and reduces fibromyalgia pain and symptoms.
Whilst isolating and keeping social distance it helps to have a routine of some sort and important to keep occupied, do the things you can do, or learn a new skill making most of this free time. Above all, get support or call a friend when you need to. There’s so many apps out there that help and online communities to offer support, you’ll be sure to find the one right for you. In the meantime, keep safe, keep well.
Author Jok Saunders, founder of the Fibro Clinic South West. Please note that it is always advised that you check with your doctor before starting any supplementation to safeguard any contra-indications to medications. Feel free to leave a comment in the box below.