Unexpected physical symptoms of PTSD
Cortisol is a vital element in our bodies as it converts proteins into usable energy – it’s what gets us out of bed in the morning, and it’s also used by our bodies for balancing insulin effects to maintain normal sugar levels, regulating the bodies immune system, and regulating blood pressure.
Produced in the adrenal cortex, cortisol plays a big role is the body’s stress response by shutting down unnecessary functions like reproduction and the immune system, in order to allow the body to direct all energies toward dealing with the stress at hand.
These functions of cortisol are supposed to be short-lived, just long enough to deal with the offending stressor.Unfortunately, with PTSD, the system remains in a stressed state, and so do the deranged levels of cortisol. People with PTSD and C-PTSD almost always have altered cortisol levels: too high in some people, and too low in others.
The mind and body connection is very much real, and when you start to suffer mentally, your physical wiring also starts to ‘short-circuit’.The prolonged exposure to these unbalanced levels hormones can cause some unexpected, and very inconvenient physical problems.
Your skin may scar more easily
Your body’s stress response draws water away from your outer layers of skin – this is thought to be a way to keep hydrated in an emergency situation. This results in a reduced ability for your skin to repair and regenerate itself, and as such, even the smallest of cuts or grazes may cause a scar on your skin. This is also a reason why you may find you have very dry skin, or even develop acne, rosacea, eczema or psoriasis. Find out more about the link between skin and PTSD here.
Your ears may ring
Research scans have shown that the limbic part of your brain moves into overdrive when you experience ringing in your ears – this is the same element of your brain that handles stress regulation and has shown to be affected in PTSD sufferers.
Ordinarily, the ear sends a stream of nerve impulses to the brain which are interpreted as sound. The stressors from PTSD can trigger the ear to send an abnormal stream of impulses which the brain interprets as a ringing in the ears. For many people, PTSD causes other changes to ‘auditory processing’ (the mechanisms used to collect and analyse sound) which can manifest in several conditions and symptoms – find out more about hearing/sound difficulties and PTSD here.
You might gain weight – particularly around your stomach
Cortisol has a direct influence of the storage of fats and weight gain in individuals who are going through stress. High cortisol levels are closely linked to relocation of fat to the stomach area (visceral fat): fat cells in the stomach have four times more cortisol receptors compared to fat cells elsewhere. Additionally, excess cortisol can cause excessive eating, and high cravings for sugary and fatty foods, further increasing the likelihood of weight gain.
Furthermore, ‘PTSD may lead to disturbances in functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system, each of which is involved in regulating a broad range of body processes, including metabolism.’
One PTSD sufferer who began going to the gym commented, ‘When I had PTSD, loosing weight was almost impossible. I was signed off work with PTSD, and I’d go to the gym almost every day – over a 4 month period I lost 1 pound’.
Of course for some people, they may also lose weight with the fluctuating hormones and cortisol levels.
Your Digestion may change
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “oh you scared the **** out of me” – well, it’s based on truth. PTSD can trigger the release of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) which can have a massive affect on your intestinal function – your fear system believes, if you remove any excess weight from your system, it will allow you to flee any dangerous situation quicker – hence many animals (and humans) will poop uncontrollably if they are scared.
With this CRF remaining in your system over long periods of time as a result of PTSD, it can cause havoc to your digestive system – even causing IBS in some people.
In addition to this, cortisol can be responsible for bloating, gas, indigestion, heartburn, acid reflux and other irritable bowel problems. Excess cortisol erodes the lining of your digestive tract via inflammation, and increased cortisol also inhibits your stomach from digesting foods properly.
You may get frequent aches and pains
Prolonged high cortisol levels from PTSD can deplete your adrenal glands, which in turn, raises the level of prolactin and therefore your sensitivity to pain increases. It’s real physical pain caused by PTSD.
In addition to this, the anxiety and hypervigilance that often comes with PTSD can also increase the tension you put on your muscles and joints in general. One PTSD suffer commented, ‘I’d wake up in the morning and my wrists and ankles would be agony – I’d been sleeping in such a tight, wound-up position what my joints just couldn’t keep up’
It can be really difficult to gain muscle (and any you do gain is lost very easily)
Cortisol restricts the uptake of amino acids into the muscle cells, making it almost impossible to gain muscle. Any muscle you do gain, or have already can be lost in a matter of days. This can result in overtraining, which ultimately creates more stress on your system, which creates more cortisol and adrenaline – interfering with the release of growth hormones and then reduced muscle growth & recovery! It’s a vicious cycle. Be kind to yourself and your body, and take any training and exercise at a sensible pace.
You may get icy hands and feet
During the fight/flight/freeze period (so all the time with PTSD) your blood flow is redirected away from your extremities and towards your larger organs in your torso necessary for your body to protect the heart and other organs essential to your survival. This redirection can result in poor blood flow to your hands and feet, and cause them to feel cold. One PTSD sufferer who noticed this too said, ‘At times, my toes would be white – they looked close to falling off – there was almost no blood in them at all.’
You might find you yawn more
PTSD can often cause nervous sweating, and when the brain becomes too hot yawning helps cool it down. Additionally, the quickened breathing from the anxiety that often comes with PTSD can make your brain think you’re not getting enough air, causing you to take deep inhales of a yawn.
Allergies may flare up, or you may develop new ones
Just over 60% of your immune system is located in your digestive system. If your digestive tract is full of inflammation from increased cortisol levels, your immune function will be severely compromised. An Ohio State University study found an increase in allergy flare ups based on this. The founder of PTSD UK, Jacqui, developed a dairy allergy during the peak of her PTSD, ‘It was obviously something that I’d always had, but it wasn’t enough of an issue to show itself. During my worst times of PTSD I couldn’t have any dairy products without having an allergic reaction’.
As the extra cortisol from PTSD surges through your bloodstream, it dulls your body’s defences and can also potentially turn things like previously acceptable soaps and creams into irritants triggering skin issues like eczema flare-ups or other sensitivities and allergies.
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.