Stress takes a huge toll on our health
It’s almost impossible to exist in today’s world without stress. We all feel it: the pressures of job, home, kids, health, finances. Every day, our personal time shrinks. We consider it an indulgence if we can squeeze in the time to simply sit and enjoy a cup of tea, read a book for the sheer pleasure of it or take a long, leisurely bubble bath. Never before in history have humans had so much to do and so many varieties of ways to do it.
We rarely get a chance to catch our breath. And it’s taking a huge toll on our health. Unresolved stress can lead to a downward spiral of depression and anxiety, and cause a wide range of physical problems, from headaches and heart disease to weight gain, gastrointestinal problems and more.
The causes of stress
Stress isn’t always bad. It can be a motivator. It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning and sends you to the office or for your semi-annual dental check-up. But when stress takes over your life and when you’re unable to release it, it sets up a toxic cycle that can make you sick.
Be aware that even the emotional stress of generally happy life events such as having a baby, getting married, buying a new house or getting a promotion can have the same physiological effects as dealing with the major illness of a close member of your family or losing a job. The stress itself is not the issue.
Stress is in our lives whether we like it or not. The real question is this: how do you deal with stress?
The cost of stress
Unresolved stress, the kind of stress you haven’t dealt with and eliminated from your body and mind, is sometimes called chronic or toxic stress. This sustained stress overrides your body’s natural abilities to bounce back.
Stress keeps piling upon stress, leaves stress hormones at high levels and suppresses your immune system, making you vulnerable to colds, flu and all kinds of illnesses. In fact, it’s been found that people who are diagnosed with various types of cancer have frequently undergone a recent major life stress, such as the break-up of a marriage, bankruptcy or the death of a close family member.
Our responses to stress are ancient and instinctive. When we think we are in danger, our adrenal glands release adrenaline. This increase breathing and heart rates and sends extra blood sugar to the muscles in preparation to fight or flee from the threat.
This fight-or-flight response worked just fine when our ancestors were fleeing from saber-toothed tigers. However, that protection mechanism doesn’t serve us very well today, when the threats are far more often mental and emotional. After all, you can’t run away from your sick child or your boss.
Toxic stress diminishes your body’s ability to produce cortisol and another adrenal hormone, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), when you need them. You then become even less able to respond in an appropriate way to stressors and to end the stress cycle.
Some of the prices you pay for toxic stress in the short term
These can include a suppressed immune system, increasing risk of infections, reduced rate of the body’s ability to repair itself, slower metabolism and reduced ability to absorb vital nutrients.
You may experience the following symptoms
Anything from recurring headaches, vague aches and pains, dizziness, heartburn, muscle tension, dry mouth, excessive perspiration, pounding heart, insomnia and fatigue.
The long-term price you pay is even heavier
Including acceleration of the aging process, weight gain and increased risk of digestive problems, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease and even cancer.
When your brain runs out of feel-good brain chemicals, you experience the following:
- Anxiety, fear, restlessness
- Irritability, anger
- Loss of sex drive
- Excessive eating, smoking, drinking or drug use
There’s another important mechanism that takes place when you are chronically stressed: your blood sugar levels rise and then abruptly fall. That’s because adrenaline and cortisol dump sugar into your bloodstream, and in an hour or two your blood sugar crashes. This is a serious problem because 20% of your body’s entire intake of glucose fuels your brain, so when your sugars crash, you start feeling foggy, nervous, tired and irritable. Your instinct is to reach for a doughnut, cola or cup of coffee, so you feel “up” for an hour or so before the cycle begins again. This toxic downward spiral can result in headaches, colds and flu, and even weight gain.
Dealing with stress
We all need to learn how to stop the stress cycle and rest, recover and rebuild ourselves – every day, if necessary.
Many turn substances, all of which have their own destructive effects. Booze, pills and other substances can throw your neurotransmitter and blood sugar levels out of balance, causing all kinds of trouble, ranging from emotional and mental imbalance to addiction and withdrawal. Happily, there are natural choices that will help you break the cycle safely and without side effects.
There’s no such thing as a quick fix
Taking medication that is symptom-masking, superficial, “Take-two-of-these-and-call-me-in-the-morning-and-that-should-do-it” tricks don’t usually help long-term. Supplements can help protect your heart and brain and help if you’ve suffered from adrenal exhaustion from years of exposure to stress.
Conventional medical treatment
Although at least 75% of visits to doctors’ offices are due to stress related illness, conventional medicine has nothing to offer besides symptomatic care. And that is only once you have developed a “real” illness, whether it’s high blood pressure, ulcers, migraine headaches, back pain or diabetes. The best way to handle stress-related illness is prevention.
Natural stress relief
Herbs and supplements that are effective stressbusters and energy-rebuilders include valerian, theanine, GABA, glutamine, taurine, magnesium and B-vitamins.
Are you getting enough sleep? Lack of quality sleep can make you cranky and irritable. It can even raise your blood pressure and cause physiological stress.
Is your diet optimal for good health? You should eliminate processed foods, especially refined sugar, from your diet. Consider withdrawing (gradually if necessary) from caffeine to eliminate a big-time dietary stressor. Eat high quality protein from seafood, poultry, lean meats, soya, beans and whole grains to keep your blood sugar stable.
Also add high-quality omega-3 fats from sources like salmon and tuna and omega-6 from vegetable oils. Fats make up 60% of the brain’s weight and these essential fats promote healthy brain-cell communication, powerfully affecting your mind and mood.
A good run, game of tennis or fat-burning aerobic workout helps let off excess pressure. It helps to break the acute stress cycle and allows your body and your hormonal system to reset and return to balance. It also helps to raise the level of mood-elevating endorphins in your brain.
Yoga is one of the best long-term ways of addressing the stresses of modern life. Don’t be fooled by the slow, contemplative pace. You’ll get a great workout, while your stressed-out mind will get a break.
You can’t control the world around you, but regular meditation can help you control your reactions to it. By slowing your mind’s chatter, you automatically become calmer and more focused. Meditation helps you find a way above the turbulence of daily life and it just might help awaken you to the “big picture” in which everything falls into place.
Acupressure is a wonderful do-it yourself part of traditional Chinese medicine. It works on energy meridians in the body in much the same way acupuncture works, but without the needles! By simply pressing key points on the surface of your skin, you’ll be stimulating your body’s natural self-healing abilities.
SOLAL is a trusted, holistic-living partner to being well-balanced in mind and body, and more still than that, in soul.
Excerpts of this article are from integrative psychiatrist Dr Hyla Cass’ book 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health
Brent Murphy – B.Pharm (Rhodes), MPS Pharmacist and Head of R&D at SOLAL