Got Pain? What’s Sleep Got to Do with It?

Got Pain? What’s Sleep Got to Do with It?

Posted by T2 Public Affairs on March 29, 2017

Researchers notice that when people are prevented from getting enough sleep, they experience increased pain. You might even notice that when you have pain from something like a headache, if you can get a good night’s sleep, the pain is gone when you wake up.

As it turns out, there’s a very important relationship between chronic pain and sleep, and it has to do with a chemical in the body called serotonin. Serotonin acts on nerve cells that play an important role in controlling mood, appetite and digestion, social behavior, memory — and yes, sleep too! New research now shows that serotonin also helps reduce the transmission of nerve signals in the spinal cord that lead to the experience of pain.

Serotonin gets used up during the day and replenished during normal sleep. But if your sleep is not normal, the serotonin you need to keep functioning during the day isn’t there. The result is more pain and reduced mood control, among other things. Then, in an endless loop, because serotonin also plays a role in sleep, the quality of your sleep suffers too.

If you’re having trouble getting restful sleep, have persistent pain, or both, chances are good that your serotonin levels are depleted. How can you tell? You may find that you:

  • Get angry easily
  • Are more sensitive to pain
  • Have food cravings (and binge eat)
  • Experience constipation or other problems with digestion
  • Feel low and unable to find the good in things
  • Are especially dependent on others, or seek to be alone
  • Get overwhelmed by life’s ups and downs
  • Are hypervigilant and always on guard
  • Experience difficulty getting to sleep (and staying asleep)
  • Have feelings of low self-esteem
  • Get frequent headaches
  • Find it difficult to concentrate and remember things
  • Have ringing in the ears (tinnitus)

That’s quite a list, and of course, concerns other than serotonin can be responsible for these conditions. But if low serotonin is a concern, the good news is there are effective ways to increase serotonin levels. Medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are one way, but new research is showing there are effective ways to increase serotonin without or in addition to drugs.

One way is getting more sunlight (not so simple if you live in northern latitudes). Another way is massage — it’s not only an effective way to relax and ease stress, but it also can reduce pain-causing tissue inflammation and increase your serotonin levels. Activities that encourage movement like aerobics, walking and yoga have also been shown to increase serotonin levels, reduce pain and improve sleep patterns.

How well do these activities work? It depends on the kind of massage, how hard you exercise, the type of yoga and how frequently these methods are practiced. Other methods shown to have a beneficial effect on serotonin levels include meditation and practicing mindfulness (including thinking happy thoughts).

T2 has mobile apps and websites with information to help you improve your sleep and reduce pain, including:

  • CBT-i Coach app for insomnia
  • Breathe2Relax app for learning how to use deep breathing to relax and reduce stress
  • Mindfulness Coach app for learning mindfulness meditation techniques
  • Virtual Hope Box app for guided meditations to relax, instruction in progressive muscle relaxation, and other tools for stress reduction.
  • AfterDeployment website for information on self-help approaches for improving sleep, managing mood, and reducing stress and anxiety.

The connection between pain, disturbed sleep, and reduced serotonin is clear. Understanding those connections and learning how to use methods that can disrupt that cycle might be the key that can bring you relief and a healthier life!
 

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