Interstitial Cystitis and the Nervous System 101
Updated: Dec 7, 2022
When you live with chronic pain you may often feel like you have a very short fuse. Your nerves are sensitive causing even the smallest stress to send you into a flare. Small stressors, like losing your car keys, an irritating coworker or a misbehaving child can quickly become triggers that are perceived by your brain as overwhelming. This is when you know your nerves are on overdrive.
What is this, why is this and how can we stop it? These are questions that many people with interstitial cystitis (IC) ask on their journey to relief.
Your Body's Alarm System
Our brains have remarkable alarm systems and they store information in incredible ways. Ways that are designed to protect us, but also in ways that can harm us. Sometimes what is meant to protect us, like pain, can go into overdrive, consequently causing chronic pain, inflammation and stress.
Have you ever just smelled something bad and felt nauseated? Maybe you’ve seen a photo of an orange while scrolling on social media and your bladder started to act up? Perhaps you cut your foot but never noticed it until later in the day? Why does pain hurt sometimes and not other times? These are important questions that researchers are working hard to find answers.
Does pain = danger?
What we do know is that pain doesn’t always equate to danger or harm. But our bodies are conditioned to react in ways that equate danger - run! Our blood pressure rises, our heart pounds, our endocrine system dumps cortisol and adrenaline causing this cascade of fight or flight symptoms. It seems beyond our control and happens at the drop of a hat.
Our senses, like sight and smell, can trigger powerful responses from our brains. Our brains are unique and create pathways to pleasure or pain based on how we have chosen to hardwire them. This can be the reason why you are stuck in a vicious cycle of stressing about a flare, causing a flare and then stressing even more that you are in a flare. This can leave people with IC in a chronic, continuous loop of pain.
Think of the nervous system like a stereo that plays music. How can we turn down the volume on the musical noise? What tools or resources do we have to calm and reduce chronic pain, especially in our sensitive pelvic area?
Ways to 'turn down' the volume on your nervous system...
Reduce the sensory overload - Smell, sight, taste, touch and hearing. Think of your environment and how you can make it more soothing to your nervous system.
Scent - Can you bring in an air purifier into your work space? Can you remove scented candles or remove scents from your clothing? Try removing perfumes and scents from your body. Clean your house with natural products like baking soda or scent-free products.
Sight - What is soothing to you? Do you have clutter stressing you out everyday? Maybe it is time to incorporate some feng shui into your life. Introduce some soothing pictures, plants, a mini-zen garden or a desk fountain to your work space. Paint your space with soothing colors and decorate with natural materials, like baskets or plants. What is the lighting like in your space? Remove or dim harsh lighting or replace it with desk lamps or warm hued light bulbs.
Taste - What is your meal environment like? Do you slow down to eat and savor your food? Or are you always eating on the run? Do you eat in your car? Does your food invoke pleasure or are you afraid to eat? Are you eating soothing and comforting foods? Try to make your meals as pleasurable as possible. Use fancy garnishes and nice dinnerware. Relish in the pleasure of eating wholesome, natural foods. Give thanks and gratitude for your food and its nourishment of your body.
Touch - We all know that uncomfortable pair of underwear that sits in our drawer until it's laundry day. Or those cute shoes that cause blisters everytime we wear them. Why do we endure wearing uncomfortable stuff? If your body is already on fire from chronic pain, the last thing you need is uncomfortable clothes. Be sure your clothing fits properly and is comfortable. Natural fabrics like silk, bamboo and cotton feel cool and soft to the touch. This means jeans may need to exit your wardrobe for a while, replace with wide elastic waist bands that stretch to fit comfortably. Avoid belts and buttons at the waist. And of course you want to wear things that are easy to get on and off in the bathroom, especially if you are suffering from frequency. Check out some of Callie’s recommend clothing here.
Sound - We all have that one song that is an instant mood changer. Music is powerful and can evoke so many different moods or emotions. Try listening to soothing music throughout your day. Use meditation apps with soothing sounds (we like Curable and Better Sleep). Get out in nature and listen to the crickets at night or the chirping birds in the morning. Sometimes the lack of sound can be soothing - try noise canceling earbuds or headphones - especially if you work in a noisy environment.
Use Mindfulness Techniques - Yoga, diaphragmatic breathing, mindful eating and meditation are just a few of the recommended techniques in the Road to Remission program. These techniques are exercises for the brain and relaxation.
Just as we would not expect overnight results in the gym, we cannot rewire our brains overnight. We must get in the daily habit of exercising our brain for mindfulness using the following techniques on a regular basis.
Yoga - This is a time-tested practice of breathing and stretching in ways designed to unite the mind and body. Science has proven yoga to be beneficial in releasing tension and increasing blood flow to areas of the body. There are many different types of yoga from Yin (Restful) Yoga to Bikram (Hot) Yoga. Be advised that there is not a one size fits all yoga program for everyone. It is best to check with your practitioner before starting any exercise program.
Diaphragmatic Breathing - Breath is vital to life. Belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing is a term for slowing down and using your entire lung capacity. Did you know that you can change the pH of your body, your blood pressure and your heartbeat through your breath? By adjusting the speed and depth of breathing, the brain and lungs are able to regulate the blood pH minute by minute. Deep, rhythmic breathing not only relaxes the mind but alkalizes your body and reduces sensory overload.
Mindful Eating - Are you eating with pleasure and not judgment? Mindful eating is the practiced act of savoring food in the moment without judgment or fear.The placebo effect is not just for medicine and sugar pills. How our minds perceive food can be powerful. Subsequently, food fear can have an altering effect on how our bodies react to the foods we eat. Through thoughtful practices of education, mindfulness and gratitude we can learn to love and nourish our bodies with food. Food can work for us and not against us.
Meditation - Does your brain spin thoughts constantly throughout the day? Do you let worries control your life? Mediation could be a strong solution for an overactive brain. Many people think they can’t meditate because they just can’t stop thinking. However, meditation is much more than turning off the brain. It is a practice of paying attention to your thoughts and letting them go.
As you can see, there are so many strategies besides medication and surgery to deal with chronic pain. The harsh reality is that nothing works overnight. Changing your mind-body connectors takes new habits, new attitudes, education and work…yes lots of work. But remember, only you are in charge of your health and only YOU can take the necessary steps to empower and improve your lifestyle.
If you are ready to take charge of your health and significantly reduce your IC symptoms in 3 months, check out the Road to Remission program here.
Written by Beverly Leveque, RD and edited by. Callie Krajcir, RD