Your Brain on Food

How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings.

Treating Psychic Pain

Treating physical pain with drugs might also lessen psychic pain.

The loss of someone you love hurts.  Losing your job is painful.  No one wants to be ignored because it brings on heartache, depression and possibly increase your chances of developing cancer or dementia. The field of psychoneuroimmunology has evolved to study the link between social and physical pain.  Obviously, to anyone who has experienced any of the above events in life, the link between psychic and physical pain is quite real and the symptoms are very difficult to treat.

During the evolution of our brain those areas that were once only responsible for experiencing the sensory component of pain slowly evolved to provide the sensations associated with the affective components of the experience.  Thus,the psychic ache that develops due to social isolation is often accompanied by headache, nausea, depression and loss of appetite.  Recently, psychologists from the University of Kentucky and The Ohio State University demonstrated that because these two systems overlap functionally and anatomically in the brain it might be possible to reduce the social pain experience by targeting the physical pain experience with common over-the-counter drugs.

Two different types of common analgesics, acetaminophen and ibuprofen (i.e. Tylenol and Advil), are capable of producing this combined benefit by enhancing the action of the brain’s endogenous marijuana neurotransmitter. A more recent study (May, 2013) by these same psychologists demonstrated that regular marijuana use reduced the experience of low self-worth and the incidence of major depressive episodes in lonely people. Their research supports the hypothesis that treating physical pain with simple over-the-counter drugs might lessen the psychic pain as well.

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How are these simple over-the-counter drugs able to provide relief of psychic pain?  They enhance the action of anandamide.  Anandamide and the other marijuana-like chemicals in your brain are well known to control happiness and euphoria.  Once anandamide is released inside your brain it is rather quickly inactivated by specific enzymes. One of these enzymes is called cyclooxygenase (COX). Ibuprofen and acetaminophen inhibit the function of COX. Thus, taking these drugs may enhance the actions of anandamide and thereby mimic the effects of marijuana in your brain. Obviously, their action in the brain must be rather subtle; otherwise these products would no longer be so easily available.  Ultimately, targeting the biological mechanisms underlying the symptoms of loneliness might only require a trip to your corner drugstore.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford Univ Press)

Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University.

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