When someone breaks your heart, a loved one dies, or tragedy of another nature hits you, people often report the grief feels like a physical pain. That's because your brain reacts to heartbreak or grief the way it would to an injury. Knowing this can help us put some natural pain-relieving strategies to work when grief is threatening to pull us under. I can't promise a way out — it seems the most enduring medicine for emotional pain is still the passage of time and the support of others, but some functional medicine approaches might make each day a smidgeon more bearable.
Broken heart syndrome can damage the heart
Some cases of heartbreak and grief are so extreme they actually damage the heart. This is called broken heart syndrome (the more technical term is stress cardiomyopathy) and can also be caused by extreme fear, anxiety, or surprise.
Broken heart syndrome causes the adrenal glands to send a surge of stress hormones to the heart, which essentially paralyzes it and shuts it down. This is different than a heart attack, which is caused by a blockage. Most people recover with no damage, however, in severe cases it can cause heart failure. (Broken heart syndrome most often occurs in women over 55 and researchers suspect low estrogen, on which the heart is dependent for good function, is a factor.)
Natural pain relief strategies for emotional pain and heartbreak
Because physical and emotional pain are processed by the same area of the brain, pain relief remedies might offer relief. In one study, subjects who experienced social rejection and who received acetaminophen every day for three weeks reported fewer hurt feelings than the group who received the placebo. Brain scans also showed less activation in the parts of the brain that processed pain. Of course, taking pain relievers long term, whether over-the-counter or pharmaceutical, is not a safe or healthy option. It also won't address important emotional issues that need to be acknowledged and expressed.
However, there are a few natural options you can explore to soften the blow of emotional pain on the physical body:
Reduce inflammation: Grief, heartbreak, loss, etc. all raise stress hormones and can trigger inflammation. Try and avoid the tendency to fall back on comfort foods that are also inflammatory — sugars, processed foods, sodas, desserts, and junk food. Not only are they inflammatory but they also will cause your blood sugar to plummet, which will only intensify your grief or heartache. Even if you don't feel like eating, keep blood sugar stable and inflammation low with plenty of vegetables and enough high quality protein and fat to prevent those plunges into despair.
Natural pain and stress relief: Natural compounds that can act on pain and inflammation are therapeutic doses of emulsified resveratrol and curcumin, plenty of vitamin D, and a good quality fish oil and other essential fatty acids. White willow bark is an herb that has long been used for pain relief. Herbal adrenal adaptogens can also help buffer your body from the effects of stress.
Be extra gentle on your body: Remember, as far as your body is concerned, you are wounded. This means you need to heal and recover. Now is not a good time to work extra hours, drink too much, over exercise, or engage in other forms of avoidance activities that will only prolong your suffering while abusing your body. As the ancient poet Rumi said, "The only cure for pain is the pain." In other words, you must work your way through your grief while taking care of yourself in order to emerge intact.
In functional medicine we don't just work with physical problems. If grief or heartache has you suffering, contact my office for guidance on how we can support your body and mind through your grieving process.