We live in a world of hustle-bustle with high demands and schedules always having us on the go.  No wonder so many people are stressed and dealing with the negative physical, mental and emotional ramifications.  I recently saw that April is National Stress Awareness Month in the UK and it inspired me to put the spotlight on stress – what is it, how does it affect our bodies and ways to manage it.

Now stress itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as it is low level, short term and not causing distress.  Things like training for an athletic competition, having a baby, buying a house or getting a job promotion are stressors, but are usually considered “positive stress” as they can also bring us joy or cause us to be more productive. Our bodies are also built to deal with negative stressors like an injury, a frightening experience, or the loss of a loved one.  Stressors alter hormone production, especially from the adrenal gland, and affect nerve conduction shifting the body into a protective “fight or flight” response and stimulate adaptation to help us navigate difficult or dangerous situations.  Stress becomes a problem when an extreme event results in dysfunction (such as in PTSD), it becomes a chronic issue resulting in maladaptation, or the perception of stress results hypersensitivity.

Chronic stress tends to be the culprit most often in the United States. If stressors remain present day in and day out the system gets stuck in overdrive which causes wear and tear to the body, mind and spirit.  It can result in physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, jaw clenching/teeth grinding, muscle tension, heartburn, diarrhea or constipation, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, irregular menses, erectile dysfunction, rashes, weight gain or loss, and frequent infections.  Mental and emotional symptoms include brain fog, forgetfulness, insomnia, decreased libido, irritability, anxiety, and depression.

Luckily there are things we can do to help reduce the stress load, support our bodies to better tolerate stress, and to manage symptoms.  If your stress level is causing symptoms it is time to take a pause to assess your lifestyle.  Are there are things you can cut back on or adjustments you can make to reduce the stress impact?  This could be as simple as delegating a task to someone else, rearranging your schedule, or just reframing your expectations and cutting yourself some slack.  It could be as extreme as changing jobs or moving either closer to family for extra support or closer to work for a shorter commute.

Obviously removing stressors or making major changes isn’t always possible. The next best thing to do is optimize the foundations of health to support normal body function.  This starts with good nutrition through healthy food choices.  Common nutrient deficiencies include iron, vitamin D, vitamin B6, vitamin C, calcium and magnesium so emphasizing foods high in these nutrients can be helpful.  Getting adequate sleep is critical since this is when the body does most of its rejuvenation.  Lack of sleep results in slowed tissue repair, decreased energy, poor brain function and emotional lability.  Exercise is a great stress reliever as it provides an outlet to release tension, produces endorphins that boost mood, increases energy, improves sleep, and has many other health benefits.  Set aside “down time” to relax and enjoy hobbies, especially ones that get you outside or stimulate creativity.  Also nourish relationships and seek support from family and friends.

Besides basic lifestyle factors, it is often useful to implement relaxation techniques.  Examples include activities such as meditation, journaling, progressive muscle relaxation and breathing exercises.  You can engage in practices such as yoga, tai chi, or qigong.  Use hydrotherapy or aromatherapy.  See a practitioner for therapies such as massage, acupuncture, biofeedback or counseling.  Thinking positive thoughts has been shown to reduce effects of the stress response not just on the mental-emotional level but physically as well.  So just having some self-compassion, giving yourself some encouragement or having an upbeat mantra can help you cope with stress better.

Finally, there are natural medicines that booster regular physiologic processes as well as help with symptoms of stress.  B vitamins are important for many functions throughout the body especially those of the adrenal glands and for neurotransmitter synthesis.  They can be depleted in times of stress so the need for them may be higher.  There are herbs known as adaptogens which are adrenal tonics including Ashwaganda, Ginseng, Rhodiola and Licorice. Increasing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods and supplements can help mitigate tissue damage from stress. These include things like berries, artichokes, dark leafy greens, beets, green tea, omega-3 fatty acids, turmeric, ginger, N-acetylcysteine and alpha lipoic acid.  There are also natural medicines to help with muscle tension, sleep, digestive upset, mood and more.  As always consult a specialist to see what options are best for you.  

Dr. Jennalyn McBride is a Naturopathic Doctor at Northwest Center for Optimal Health in Marysville, WA. Contact her at 360-651-9355 or info@ncoh.net.

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