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Mental Stress and your Bone Health

The choices we make every day have a huge impact on our bone health. Our diet, sleeping patterns, and exercise are huge components to our overall health, including our bone health. For over 5,000 years ancient Eastern medicine has said that bone health, as well as all health, flows from a state of internal mind-body-spirit balance. They believe that strong emotions can affect specific organs and internal energy systems. It is believed that fear, anxiety and worry can drain and dry the bones. The western medical community is slowly realizing the importance of finding balance with the mind, body, and emotion systems for improved health.

Let’s talk about stress for a moment. When it comes to osteoporosis, stress can be a very good thing. While physical stress through exercise can build strong bones, mental stress can quickly wear away at your bone density. Stress is used to describe everything between being stuck in traffic or the loss of a loved one. Can we completely avoid all stressors? The answer is NO, and we would not want too. Some stress is good for us. Let’s first break down the autonomic nervous system and talk about how our body reacts to stress. The autonomic nervous system includes the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic system. This system works as an ebb and flow to keep our body in a place of homeostasis (balance).

Let’s start with the parasympathetic nervous system. Imagine if our body had a brake system. This would be the Parasympathetic nervous system. This system is our "rest and digest" system. It is controlled almost exclusively through our Vagus nerve. Most of the nerve fibers, at least 85%, are afferent fibers. This means the messages go from the body to the brain, instead of the brain to the body. The nerve innervates the larynx (voice Box), diaphragm, stomach, and heart and controls the sensory functions of the ears, tongue, and organs, including the liver. Because the nerve fibers are mostly afferent fibers you can initiate this “brake system” just by dropping in to deep breathing techniques. This can lower your blood pressure and reduce your heart rate. But just as easy as stepping on the break, you can step on the gas pedal and inhibit vagal activity. This would induce a stress response, or sympathetic response.

The sympathetic response is a necessary part of life. We need it to get out of bed, accomplish deadlines, and exercise. In today's society we are constantly in the sympathetic nervous phase. The news, violent tv/movies, stress at work, keeping up with the Jones, and our perception of our current relationships are all triggers for the "fight or flight" response. Our body's response to the sympathetic nervous system are:

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Increased breath rate

  • Gastrointestinal distress

  • Bronchial dilation

These situations elicit feelings of frustration, anxiety, despair or hopelessness and leads to the release of the hormone cortisol and adrenaline. Acute stress can lead to chronic stress; which leads to chronic cortisol release. Cortisol can get a bad rap, but it is needed in life. The appropriate amount of cortisol raises our blood sugar, suppress our immune system, acts as an anti-inflammatory to acute situations, and aids in protein, carbohydrate and fat metabolism. We just need the right amount at the right time. With chronic cortisol release you can end up with:

  • Elevated sugar levels leading to diabetes

  • Excessive belly fat and increased blood pressure leading to heart disease

  • Increased intestinal impermeability leading to inflammatory conditions, leaky gut, and autoimmune conditions

  • Long term damage to the brain causing memory loss

  • Increased size of amygdala increasing your fear center

  • Decreased thyroid function

  • Decreased testosterone levels

  • Decrease sleep quality

Lack of sleep can create an excessive amount of stress on your body. Can it affect your bones? The answer is yes, sleep apnea can deprive oxygen in the body leading to weakened bones. Multiple studies have showen a strong correlation between lack of sleep and weakened bones. Deprived sleep is shown to result in cessation of bone formation and damaged bone marrow. Caffeine can contribute to insomnia and sleep issues. Caffeine has shown to cause calcium to be excreted through urine. It is also known to interfere with vitamin D absorption. So bottom line, get your sleep. Make a bed time routine, go to sleep and wake up at the same time, and decrease your overall caffeine intake to improve your bone health.

Chronic stress can also cause hormonal imbalances by reducing your progesterone production. Progesterone binds to the osteoblast (bone builder cells) to stimulate bone formation. This protects the osteoblast from the damaging effects of long-term cortisol release. Chronic cortisol release has been shown to increase bone absorption while blocking osteoblast from building bone. Chronic cortisol blocks calcium from entering your bones. Your bones need calcium (and many more vitamins and minerals) to maintain healthy bones and bone density.

Here are some tips on how to decrease your chronic stress while improving your bone health.

  1. Prioritize your health

Take time for yourself! Your health is an important part of your life. Pushing through life and not taking time for relaxation can be detrimental to your health. Diaphragmatic breathing is a simple and free way to bring your body into the parasympathetic nervous phase.

2. Diaphragmatic breathing is a great way to stimulate the Vagus nerve. Because 80% of the Vagus nerve fibers are afferent (going from the body to the brain) you can quickly calm your whole body with just a few minutes of deep breathing techniques. Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to

  • Reduce cortisol level

  • Promote relaxation

  • Lower your heart rate, blood pressure

Step by step diaphragmatic breathing. How to do it the right way.

1. Sit or lie in a comfortable position. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your lower belly so you can feel what you are doing.

2. Take a slow deep breath in through your nose

Concentrate on filling the belly area with air. The stomach will fill up moving outwards- like a balloon filling up. Keep your chest as still as possible. Complete the inhale.

3. Now slowly exhale, letting the air out of your belly.

This should feel like the balloon is deflating. Go slow, slow, slow. Tighten and contract your stomach muscles to force as much air out as possible.

3. Meditation

Meditation is bringing your mind to the present moment on purpose. You can do this just by checking in with yourself. Notice how you are feeling in the moment and throughout the day. Try not to put a judgement or label on how you are feeling, just be aware. You do not need to sit for long durations of time to get the great benefits of meditation. You can sit for just a few minutes a day to meditate. You can also practice meditation by taking a few moments a day to "tune in " to your body…notice that you are breathing shallow or feeling stressed. You can then take a few deep diaphragmic breaths to calm you mind and body. The science-based benefits of meditation:

  • Reduces anxiety and depression

  • Enhances self-awareness

  • Reduces age related memory loss

  • Builds grey matter in your brain

  • Improves sleep

  • Controls chronic pain

  • Decreases blood pressure

Stress can wreak havoc on your whole body, including your bones. Take care of your body by taking care of your mind. Your bones will thank you!


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