There is no silver bullet
When I was diagnosed with moderate to severe Crohn’s disease 7 years ago, I wanted a simple and straightforward “cure all” treatment. To my dismay, I learned that relying on one silver bullet drug, would not suffice. Controlling this disease was like trying to tame a wild animal and would require balancing many factors. I became attuned to how psychological stress and poor diet negatively affected my symptoms. With a careful combination of transient targeted steroids, immunomodulatory drugs, vigorous exercise, and lifestyle changes, I regained my ability to thrive. I returned to my former state of athleticism, regularly tackling the intense and unforgiving northern California waves with my surfboard.
The connection between the brain and body
I soon entered the University of California, Santa Cruz’s neuroscience and psychology programs. While I was intensely focused on my academics and extracurriculars, the foundational nature of the human brain became seemingly more important. Comprised of approximately eighty billion neurons or brain cells, the vast intricacy of this three pound organ is extraordinary: The relationships or “connections” between these neurons –– called synapses –– outnumber the stars in our home galaxy. These small spaces are in actuality busy microcosms of information transfer between neurons. Minute chemical messengers called neurotransmitters serve as the communicational media. It is widely believed that the way in which brain cells are connected and their chemistry determines our psychological state.
I took note: under times of intense pressure or stress my physical symptoms manifested. Was this just a mere coincidence? Or was there really something going on? With a neuroscientific lens, I investigated.
I found that the connection between the brain and body and its interactions in disease are well-recognized by the scientific community.(1) Modern day stress is seemingly connected to our most primal of reactions – activating a “fight or flight” response – that would be more useful to us in prehistoric times in our interactions with predation. A stress hormone called Cortisol serves to direct our body’s resources (in the form of glucose) away from non-vital functions like digestion and immune activity. For this reason, scientists believe that prolonged stress plays a pivotal part in a myriad of autoimmune conditions.
The extent to which psychological states influence the disease progression of IBD is still somewhat unclear. Numerous studies and review articles, however, suggest that these psychological states play a role in both direct disease progression and how patients deal and cope with their disease. (2, 3, 4, 5)
Reducing stress is just one of many changes that help me live with Crohn’s Disease. Further, just as important is staying informed and imaginative.
(1) Sternberg E, Gold P. The Mind-Body Interaction in Disease. Scientific American Special Edition. 2002:82-9.
(2) Mawdsley JE, Rampton DS. Psychological stress in IBD: new insights into pathogenic and therapeutic implications. Gut. 2005;54(10):1481-91.
(3) Mikocka-Walus AA, Gordon AL, Stewart BJ, Andrews JM. A magic pill? A qualitative analysis of patients’ views on the role of antidepressant therapy in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). BMC Gastroenterol. 2012;12:93.
(4) Peters S, Grunwald N, Remmele P, et al. Chronic psychosocial stress increases the risk for inflammation-related colon carcinogenesis in male mice. Stress. 2012;15(4):403-15.
(5) Sajadinejad MS, Asgari K, Molavi H, et al. Psychological issues in inflammatory bowel disease: an overview. Gastroenterol Res Pract. 2012;2012:106502.