This post is inspired by a link shared by a FB friend on my home page today. I studied epigenetics for several years while attending university to obtain my MSW degree. What caught my attention about this article is the relationship epigenetics have to the heated debate among, my Peers with invisible illnesses, about whether long-term stress or genetics are the cause of Fibromyalgia. No matter what forum or blog I log on to, my Peers will likely admit to having lived through medium to intense stress in their lives. Yet, when the topic is introduced that our stress response, or our HPA (hypothamulas pituatrary axis), has burned out it’s ability to stop releasing the HPA stress hormones, leaving our bodies in a state chronic tension, there is a onslaught of denial that stress plays any real role in the syndrome. The forum or blog comments quickly shift to a focus on the cause as unknown, toxins, or perhaps being related to a virus. Today, I want to ponder why we shy away from the concept that stress can cause or play a part in aqcuirring our syndrome.
I am a Peer who freely admits to a lifetime of great stressors. I have always felt that my HPA response got stuck on stress mode by the time I became a young adult. Stress creates shallow breathing, heightened fight or flight, tensing of muscles, inability to rest, and a flooding of hormones and endorphins that ready our body to flee or fight. A working HPA cycle begins to counteract this release within 30 minutes, allowing our bodies to return to a state without heightened stress levels. When you follow this complicated bouncing system, it appears likely that our bodies are stuck in a heightened stress state, perhaps causing at some of the deficiencies outlined in current research of the chronic pain syndrome,(http://www.hindawi.com/journals/prt/2012/741746/).
This stuck-on-stress, or over-reactive axis could perhaps be the result of either nature or nuture, combined with genetics or, the underlying epigenetics. Epigenetics are a newer science used in neurobiology research that are able to that track correlations of inherited genetics that allow researchers to track genetic behaviors beyond just our mother or father, all the way back to our grandmothers and grandfathers. In this particular article the grandmother is discussed. Nature is generally considered by science to be genetics. In this example it may not be that it was only your mother who carried altered stress genes before your conception, but that she inherited them from her mother. This then creates an ongoing cycle of altered and malfunctioning genes that continue being passed on to their infants. There is a saving grace in this topic. Many people inherit genes that can cause varying physical or mental health issues, but if their environment is highly nurturing the inherited genes may not manifest.
This makes the environment in which we are raised and, later the social interactions we have as adults, another very important player in the odds game. This is a topic that is taken into account during mental illness, so why not with syndromes like Fibromyalgia? I know young adults whose parents have Fibromyalgia but they are living without it; and living well. I also know firsthand that I have this chronic pain and so does my young adult daughter. If I bring epigenetics into my story, I know my mother experienced a poor and stressful childhood from parents who were emotionally absent, but she does not have chronic pain. My mother inherited a higher stress level that showed for most of her adult life, including during the time I was being raised. I already discussed that I had a high stress life, yet during the time I raised my infant to adulthood I was much calmer, still this idea of epigenetics makes sense to me (I will add here, just to confuse the issue further, that I later began experiencing higher stress loads again and then lower stress).
In discussing the genetic arena, the first place to begin is with neurotransmitters. We are lacking in normal levels of serotonin, which are responsible for both psychological and physical needs in our body (please see this link in WebMD for more; http://www.webmd.com/depression/features/serotonin). These links that are not functioning correctly, while relating to depression, also overlap with our chronic pain symptoms (see older posts using “Search” for more on this relationship). While there are more areas involved than what follows later, perhaps this has caused the other issues our bodies experience at biological level? Despite this empirical evidence that we may carry these epi’s, Peers are quick to attack the theory that stress caused our Fibromyalgia.
My own thought process about why Peers are quick to refute stress as the reason we develop chronic pain goes back to the old, and still prevalent idea is many doctors belief that we are simply depressed. That “it is all in our heads” because it is invisible. We have fought very hard to become recognized as having a real medical condition. Science has finally done enough research to find the areas in our bodies that aren’t working correctly, including the HPA (see research link at bottom of paragraph discussing this system). So, while we will discuss our stress, we will discuss our triggers that often have to do with stress loads, we do not want to give the scientific community any ammunition to go backwards. I know I don’t want that.
So, how can we talk about inheriting epigenetics or having them activated in adulthood due to experiencing the opposite of nuture without fear? I will leave you with this question as I do not claim to have the answer. We already live with the fear of stigma, misunderstanding and constant pain, making this discussion another topic that is one we would, understandably, rather leave on alone. But, should we?