Are your emotions to blame for your joint pain?

Could stress and low mood be causing your joint pain?

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S.A.C. Dip (Diet, Exercise & Fitness), Advanced Human Anatomy & Physiology Level 3
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23 January 2018

An introduction to your joints

Your joints are extremely complex and there are many components including the ligaments, cartilage and tendons that surround the joint which can be the source of or fall victim to joint pain. A joint is the connection made between two bones in the body and they are designed to allow different types and different ranges of movement. They can be divided functionally depending on the range of movement they allow or structurally depending on what type of material they are made of.

Our bones are at their thickest and strongest in our early adult life and their density increases until your late 20s, then after the age of 35 we begin to lose bone density gradually. This is a completely normal process and happens to us all, although the rate of losing bone density can occur much faster in some people than in others. 

This increased sensitivity makes us more vulnerable to fractures, osteoporosis and other injuries. Keeping fit and active and maintaining a healthy balanced diet are among some of the best ways that you can look after your joint and bone health.

Emotions and joint pain

How you feel mentally can impact how you feel physically meaning that emotions such as stress, anxiety and depression could have a negative effect on your joint health. According to the Arthritis Foundation people who tend to be depressed or anxious are more susceptible to pain. What’s more, multiple studies of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and fibromyalgia indicate that those who experience more negative emotions also report more pain.1 Below I’ve explored the relationships between joint pain and stress, depression, low mood and poor immune function.


Stress affects every area of the body from your sleep, to your digestion, immune function, to your hormones. When it comes to your joints, stress causes your bones to release the minerals they need for bone formation into the bloodstream for the benefit of other tissues. 

Your body does this because, when you are stressed, your fight-or-flight response is activated and your repair processes are suppressed. Any expendable nutrients are sent to the essential organs – being the brain, heart and lungs – for quicker decision making and response times to help get you out of danger.

Unfortunately, if you experience chronic stress, your bones are continuously deprived of minerals, which can result in bone loss. The problem is that in modern society stresses crop up in all shapes and sizes and usually they aren’t cause for our stress survival instincts to kick in.


Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal gland and released when you’re under stress. While this may seem like a negative thing, we need cortisol for many other important functions such as breaking down carbohydrates, lipids and proteins.  

High amounts of cortisol suppress the body’s repair functions and affect the joints because they choose to spend energy on fight-or-flight functions than in response to inflammation. Inflammation in either the intestinal tract or from inflammatory chemicals circulating throughout the body as a result of poor diet or anti-inflammatory drugs triggers the release of enzymes that damage the joint cartilage, resulting in arthritis.2

Small amounts of cortisol are necessary for normal bone development, but large amounts block bone growth. The stress hormone indirectly acts on bone by obstructing calcium absorption which inhibits bone cell growth. This causes an increase of bone resorption, and ultimately reduces bone mineral density.

When your cortisol levels are high, your body goes into a state of inflammation where it becomes less able to absorb calcium and there is even a significant increase in excreting calcium. The ability of bones to renew and repair themselves to keep healthy is significantly impaired as a result.

What’s more, chronic stress causes calcium depletion that’s so fast that our diet alone is unable to replace the lost mineral. When our bones are extremely depleted in calcium we are likely to develop porous bones, brittle bones and conditions such as osteoporosis.

Magnesium depletion

Another mineral that is affected by stress is magnesium, also known as the ‘original chill pill’ because of its balancing effect on mood. Similar to calcium, the more stressed you are the greater the loss of magnesium from cells. If you have low magnesium you’re likely to experience symptoms such as muscle cramps, fatigue and mood swings. What’s more low magnesium increases pain receptivity which means that our joint pain will only be aggravated further.

How to protect your joints from stress

Bottom line? Stress causes us to waste our calcium and magnesium like crazy! So what can you do to stop stress from aggravating your joint pain? Ensuring that you have a balanced diet that contains plenty of calcium and finding easy ways to effectively cope with stress will help to prevent stress from causing your joint pain to flare up. According to research, mindfulness can help lower cortisol levels in response to a stressor, as well as lowering indices of anxiety and feelings of negativity.3

Impaired immune function and inflammation

Inflammatory conditions such as cardiovascular disease and IBD give rise to an increased risk of developing depression. This is particularly the case with long-term conditions such as autoimmune diseases which arise as a result of problems with the immune system. This problem causes immune cells to attack your body by mistaking them as foreign pathogens. Examples of autoimmune disorders include conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or type 1 diabetes.

As I have mentioned before stress can impact how our immune system functions. While it can’t directly give us viruses or infections it can weaken the immune system and leave it more vulnerable.


Zinc is another mineral that we lose more of when we are stressed but it is also plays an important role in inflammatory responses within the body. Zinc affects how the immune system responds to stimulation, especially inflammation. 

Research has found that zinc deficiency increases inflammatory responses in cells, causing improper immune cell activation and dysregulation of inflammatory cytokine IL-6. Without zinc the cells that control inflammation appear to activate and respond differently, causing the cells to promote more inflammation.4 While a little inflammation is good for the body, helping us to repair injuries and get rid of toxins, a lot can be damaging for the body and cause all sorts of side effects – including joint pain!

Depression and low mood

Like stress, depression can exhibit a lot of physical symptoms in the body. On a neurological level physical pain and depression have a deep biological connection; the neurotransmitters that influence both pain and mood are serotonin and norepinephrine.5 Joint pain is just one of several common physical symptoms people with low mood and depression can experience.

Vitamin D deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency is thought to be one of the contributing factors of Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. Our primary source of vitamin D is sunlight and, this isn’t always plentiful in countries such as the UK. According to research Vitamin D could be an important part of treatment of SAD although further studies are needed to confirm this. 

Vitamin D has been shown regulate production of serotonin and dopamine, which is why it is thought to create moderate but statistically significant effects on depressive symptoms. In relation to our joints, vitamin D has shown the ability to be able to increase levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines as well as reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines.

Low oestrogen

Low mood can sometimes be triggered by lower oestrogen levels which, in turn, can affect tissue elasticity. Why does this happen? Oestrogen stimulates serotonin, which, as we already know, is a neurotransmitter that is thought to play an important part in making us feel good. 

Declining oestrogen levels are therefore linked to declining levels of serotonin which can result in us feeling low in mood and could even trigger symptoms of depression.7 Fluctuating levels of oestrogen are most commonly found in women experiencing PMS or during the menopause where levels of oestrogen drop (sorry ladies!). 

According to the NHS, women are more at risk of developing osteoporosis than men because these hormonal changes (particularly in the menopause) directly affect bone density. In men usually the cause of osteoporosis is unknown however there is thought to be a link between low levels of testosterone and a higher risk of osteoporosis.8

What can I do if my emotions are to blame for my joint pain?

There are a number of simple ways that you can look after your bone health to help prevent joint pain:

• Read my blog 7 tips on keeping your joints healthy and strong for some general advice to help you to look after your joints.

• For stress I’d recommend investigating our breathing tips to relieve stress to help you to stay in control of your stress levels. 

Our product recommendation: If you feel like you need a helping hand to manage your stress I’d suggest our herbal remedy Stress Relief Daytime which contains Valerian which is thought to help regulate nerve cells and have a calming effect on the body.9

• Our diet really is important when it comes to our joints because what we eat can impact how our joints feel – some foods can help our joint pain whilst others can hurt our joint pain. Ensure that you have a healthy balanced diet including the following nutrients; magnesium, calcium, vitamin D and zinc. For a list of foods that could help with joint pain check out my blog ‘Is your food helping or hurting your joint pain?’

Our product recommendation: I’m a big fan of our Balance Mineral Drink because it is packed full of all of the above nutrients that are not only beneficial for our joints, but are also extremely important for a whole range of other functions throughout the body. 

3  Brown KW et al. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2012; 37 (12): 2037-41
4  Wong, Carmen P et al. Zinc deficiency enhanced inflammatory response by increasing immune cell activation and inducing IL6 promoter demethylation. Molecular Nutrition and Food Research. Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1002/mnfr.201400761

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