27 Jul Natural Stress Management
STRESS – WHAT IS IT? HOW DOES IT AFFECT ME?
Stress, put simply, is the way our body reacts to change.
It is a natural human response, designed to increase our alertness and energy, allowing us to face challenging situations. When we sense a threat, our sympathetic nervous system switches on, moving us into a state of “fight or flight”. In this state, our adrenal glands release stress hormones, including
Adrenaline: adrenaline is released immediately and only for short-term effect, giving us a surge of energy we need to outrun the lion or fight the tiger
Cortisol: this takes a bit longer to be released and has a longer-lasting effect. In a high cortisol state your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises and your body dumps glucose into the bloodstream so it can be pumped to your brain and muscles. Your body switches its focus to survival – and away from other less urgent processes such as digestion, growth, immunity and reproduction.
Stress is essentially a protective mechanism, designed to keep us out of danger. The stress response can be switched on due to an external stressor (i.e. someone chasing you), but – and this is important – can also be activated due to perceived stress (i.e. worrying about your work performance).
Types of stress
Some stress can be good. The stress of a deadline can increase your productivity, while the stress of car horn & screeching tyres allow you to jump out of the way of an oncoming car. Healthy levels of stress challenge us, encourage change, and make us stronger.
But extraordinary stress or constant, chronic stress can be damaging. A healthy state allows us to activate this stress response appropriately (i.e. in response to a true stressor) and then DEACTIVATE it again when the stress has passed. For example – you need to do a presentation in front of your colleagues at work. You work hard on it, perhaps harder than you normally would, and your blood starts pumping in the minutes before you get up to present. You feel hot and energised, your brain and body running at maximum efficiency (i.e. your adrenaline and cortisol have spiked) – and you use this energy to give a great presentation. And then once it’s over, you calm down. You sit down, relaxed, and happy, take a break – and sleep like a baby that night. That is productive, good, healthy stress.
However, unfortunately, a lot of us get stuck in this stress response or “fight/flight” mode, meaning that EVEN WHEN THE PERCEIVED STRESSOR HAS PASSED, you still don’t relax. Using the same example as above, rather than going into this high-cortisol state only when needed – you stay there. So every work meeting is a big stress, you panic about deadlines, and you can’t switch off when you leave the office.
Unfortunately, modern living has made chronic stress “normal”. High-paced jobs, big city living, lack of familial or community support, and constant technology (so we never shut off) means we live much of our lives in this highly charged “ready for danger” state, rather than healthy cycling between stress and relaxation. This can cause ongoing issues with sleep and circadian rhythm disruption, immune function, hormonal disturbances, cardiovascular issues, gut dysfunction and mental health issues (to name just a few)!
So, is the answer to quit our jobs and move to the country?
Not exactly – although if this is right for you then go for it!
But what we DO want to do is help people navigate their high-stress environments, see what tweaks we can make to their lifestyles, and to also help build up their RESILIENCE to stress.
How do you know if you are stressed?
Most people know. They feel… stressed! Even in periods of downtime, they just can’t switch off. Which can lead to issues such as anxiety, worry, insomnia etc.
However, for some of us, we have been in this fight/flight state for so long that it becomes to be our normal. We may not realise that we are, in fact, in a constant state of stress all day.
Things like gut pain, bloating, heartburn, digestive issues & stress are really strongly linked with stress. When you are under stress and in this sympathetic nervous system dominant state, your body diverts blood flow (and nutrients) away from your digestive system – because it’s more important to outrun that tiger than digest that sandwich, right? So when we are constantly under stress our gut function suffers.
Immune issues are common with chronic stress too. Maybe you are constantly falling sick, taking a long time to recover or have allergies flaring up all the time.
STRESS – WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT (NATURALLY!)
Now I’d like to run through the three key pillars of Natural Stress Management: Lifestyle, Diet, and Supplementation.
Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress. Make time for 30 mins of exercise, 3 times a week. Aerobic exercise releases pent-up stress and tension.
However, a note of caution – if you are highly stressed, running may not be the best option for you. Studies show that running raises cortisol levels, especially seen in marathon runners.
(Sara Gottfried MD. 2014, Simon & Schusler Inc. USA). So if you are under a lot of stress try yoga, walking, pilates or other more relaxing exercises that switches on the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest phase.
Don’t exercise too close to bedtime, as cortisol and adrenalin levels in the blood increase during exercise. Why? Because glutamine and glucose levels in the blood both decrease as a result of strenuous exercise. The lower the blood glucose levels, the higher the cortisol levels, which is not good for sleep.
(Dr Hart, New Holland, 2016).
Sleep & Sleep Hygiene
20-30% of Australians experience disrupted sleep, inadequate sleep duration, daytime fatigue and excessive sleepiness. Sleep disorders can affect alertness, cognition, productivity, learning, mood and behaviour. New scientific research also shows that sleep may even be a mechanism during which the brain promotes the clearing of neurotoxins implicated in the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
Our bodies work on a circadian rhythm, or our “body clock”. When we wake up we expose ourselves to morning light and our body starts producing cortisol that makes us alert and energised. As the day progresses our cortisol levels reduce and as it gets dark we start to produce melatonin, the sleep hormone, which makes our body feel sleepy and restful. Many things can interrupt this circadian rhythm so sleep hygiene is a collection of practices around sleep that help promote melatonin production.
Some healthy sleeping habits include avoiding blue light exposure from computers and phones late in the evening. No screens an hour before bed is also a good way to prepare your body for sleep. Instead have herbal tea and a warm bath.
It’s important to put your work away at least an hour before bed to clear the mind. If your mind is racing try writing what’s on your mind down and letting it go until the morning.
Sleeping in complete darkness is also beneficial as it stimulates melatonin. Blockout curtains/blinds are best, but if you have unavoidable light bleed, try wearing an eye mask.
Commit to a regular pre-bed routine. I tell my patients to “treat yourself like a toddler” – you don’t expect a toddler to go from racing around the living room to falling fast asleep, do you? A warm bath/shower, low light, perhaps some meditation or book reading before bed – these are all cues that you can give your body and mind to relax, unwind and prepare for sleep.
Finding a way to relax is key to help switch your body from sympathetic nervous system to parasympathetic nervous system (or “rest/digest”) dominance. You have to find what works for YOU. Meditation is one of the best ways to do this – however, it isn’t for everyone (although if you haven’t tried it, I do urge you to give it a go). Other options include walking, breathing exercises, singing, stretching.
Social & community connections
We often live away from family, and our lives can be too busy for regular social contact with close friends. We have lost our “tribe”. This is so important in activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Make time for it as best as you can.
Taking breaks in your work day
You need to see this as an essential, not a luxury. A quick walk, a tea break, a couple of stretches. Struggling to fit this in? The reality is it makes you more efficient – so when you come back, clear-headed, you can achieve more.
Eat a diet rich in fresh fruit & vegetables
We all know we should do this – but why? In terms of our stress response, it’s because they are full of antioxidants – which boost your resistance to stress. They make you more resilient to the onslaught of everyday life.
A recent Australian study of 60,000 people, measuring psychological distress, found that eating 5-7 servings of fresh fruit & vegetables resulted in 14% reduction in stress (both genders), and a 23% reduction in women https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/7/3/e014201. That’s significant!
Eating good fats – oily fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado
These foods are high in Omega-3 fatty acids – which are essential to the health of your brain cells.
There’s a lot of emerging research linking low omega-3 intake with mental health issues such as depression & anxiety. Depression appears less in countries that eat large amounts of fish. Why? Because they are anti-inflammatory. Omega-3s can cross Blood Brain Barrier, reducing inflammation in the brain.
Fish oil has also been shown to improve healthy cortisol balance. EPA and DHA also exert anti-inflammatory properties, reducing inflammatory-related HPA axis activation.
2016 Netherlands study: older adults that eat at least 1 seafood meal per week performed better on a “thinking skills” test than those that didn’t eat seafood. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160510124831.htm
A 12-week study on psychosis found supplementation of Omega 3 reduced the risk of progression to psychotic disorders in young people over 12 months. A follow-up study was completed after 6.7 years and over the entire period, Omega 3 reduced the risk of progression to psychotic disorders during the follow-up period. (Bio concepts 2019).
2g of Omega 3 (1400mg EPA/200g DHA taken as 250mg caps twice a day over 12 weeks) along with psychoeducational therapy showed improvement in behaviour and hyperactivity disorders.
We drink a lot of coffee! Caffeine is like a shortcut to this “fight or flight” mode. It stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, raising cortisol levels. This is never popular advice… but if you are stressed, it’s time to cut the caffeine. Or at the very least, reduce your consumption.
Alcohol increases cortisol levels. This increases hot flushes and can promote poor sleep, brain fog and mood disorders.
Eating balanced meals, regularly
The simple process of eating actually reduces your cortisol levels. In this high-stress state – we can dent to graze, skip meals etc because we are short on time – but this actually perpetuates high cortisol.
Eating switches your body back into “rest & digest” mode, reducing cortisol levels. So take the time to stop, sit down and eat a balanced meal with good quality protein.
There’s no magic pill that will make your stress go away. I do need to emphasise this. The focus is squarely on diet and lifestyle, as these are the key drivers in natural stress management. But there are a number of nutritional or herbal supplements that I use to help build this resilience to stress.
Magnesium – the wonder supplement! It increases GABA – our primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. This promotes relaxation, sleep, feeling of calm. So much so that is has been dubbed “Nature’s Valium”.
It restricts release of cortiso and also acts a muscle relaxant. Tight muscles can trigger the fight/flight reaction in the body, so by releasing tight muscles – you feel better, but you can also reduce your stress levels.
B Vitamins – these are essential for nervous system health and energy production, as well as adrenal function (stress resilience).
Chronic stress depletes B Vitamins in the body. And in today’s world, everyone is chronically stressed! This is why almost everyone in my clinic (myself included) is on some form of B-vitamin complex. They are water soluble – so don’t get stored in the body. We need to get them regularly (i.e. daily) from diet & supplementation.
A 2014 Swinbourne University study showed a 20% reduction in work-related stress from B-vitamin supplementation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4290459/
Omega 3’s – for all the reasons we talked about above
Probiotics – there is so much emerging research linking gut health and brain health. Again, this comes back to inflammation. An inflamed gut = an inflamed brain.
A recent rat study shows that by boosting the “good” gut bacteria, you can reduce brain inflammation – which is linked with mental disorders, anxiety, depression. Rats colonised with healthy gut bacteria also showed less physical & mental effects when put under stress – meaning they were more resistant to that stress.
Taking Saccharomyces boulardii (SB) can help to restore secretory immunoglobulin A levels, which in turn may improve the effectiveness of probiotic recolonisation. SB also helps to reduce local inflammation and restore healthy digestive function, which are affected by chronic stress.
As a naturopath, herbs form one of the cornerstones of my clinical practice. I want to introduce to a few of my favourites – called Adaptogens. Adaptogenic herbs are all about the adrenal gland – they improve the body’s resistance to stress and normalise cortisol levels.
Withania (Ashwagnda) is a herbal medicine often referred to as a “hug in a bottle”. It is clinically trialled proving to significantly reduce stress. It has been shown to reduce cortisol by 30%, and increase DHEA levels,(Harza J, Mitra A et al. A Standardised Withania extract significantly reduces stress-related parameters in chronically stressed humans: a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled study. JANA 2008: 11(1):50-56)
It improves resistance to stress, enhances the quality of life, reduces psychiatric measures of stress and its impact on an individual, improves sleep quality, enhances productivity and creates a greater extent of mental calmness and relaxation. (The business of adrenal fatigue seminar Bio Ceuticals).
Siberian Ginseng has been used traditionally as an adaptogen, improving resistance to stress and enhancing vitality, and physical and mental performance. In Germany Siberian ginseng is approved as a tonic for convalescence. Siberian ginseng has been widely used traditionally as a restorative tonic to help relieve general debility, weakness, exhaustion and tiredness, and to aid with convalescence. It has also been used to enhance mental and physical capacity. Studies have shown Siberian Ginseng:
- Improves social and mental functioning in the elderly on a short-term basis.
- Reduce blood glucose levels and increase time to fatigue.
- Beneficial against oxidative stress in post-menopausal women.
- Improving immune function, particularly chronic issues. indicated for states of chronic immune deficiency.
Rhodiola is an important adaptogenic herb with traditional use in European medicine systems. Clinical trials have shown that Rhodiola significantly reduces the symptoms of stress-induced fatigue and improves anxiety and depression, which contribute to sleeping disorders. Results of a study of Rhodiola for binge-eating showed that it abolishes stress-induced increases in serum corticosterone levels. (2010 study on chronic stress and binge eating/obesity).
That’s a lot of info, I know. Now I’ll leave you with a few last pearls of wisdom:
Keep on top of your health. Identify and tackle these issues early, before they become all-consuming.
Get regular blood tests, correct any nutritional deficiencies, and explore any hormonal imbalances
Maintaining a healthy weight.
By taking these steps, we promote resilience. The stronger our bodies (and minds) are, the more we will be able to rise up to the inevitable stress, deal with it – and then swing back into relaxation mode.
If you are looking to improve your health and reduce stress, working with a local Perth Naturopath such as myself can help immensely.
Book online or call 9339 1999 to book a scoping session to see how we can help you.