Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Anti-Stress Program

What is stress?

Stress is the body's innate and natural response to unusual impulses coming from the environment. Our reaction is genetically programmed as a response to danger and has a self-preserving quality. It is a physiological reaction of the entire organism that helps us to make instant judgment about the danger of the situation and the possible consequences we might experience if we do not take immediate action. We react to unexpected challenges as well as the demands of daily life. Stress can be caused by both, positive and negative events and our emotional response to them. In this regard it is very much an individual affair. What one person experiences as a positive challenge and motivation to action may be very stressful and overwhelming to another.



Some stress in life is necessary for us to enjoy life and perform optimally. We feel motivated and find balance between our work and leisure. Lack of challenge leads to boredom and lack of motivation. Our performance is mediocre and we feel frustrated. Too much stress, on the other hand, is counterproductive. We feel overwhelmed, lose motivation, become chaotic and disorganized. Our performance lacks quality. We make mistakes and get sick more often. We might become chronically stressed.

Research shows that stress is the leading cause of disease in the civilized world. Stress is not only a direct cause of many disorders such as heart disease, but it also influences our response to life pressures. To cope, many people under stress often chose health damaging strategies. They consume more coffee or alcohol, they smoke more, overeat, eat unhealthy food, resort to tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and painkillers thus even further weakening the body's ability to cope with external and internal stressors.

Physiology of stress 

Stress response is a mind-body phenomenon. It is a very complex process that involves the nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system. When we perceive a situation as stressful and decide that we cannot cope with it, a series of physiological reactions in the body takes place. Information from the cerebral cortex which is the seat of our thought processes, is sent via neurons to the hypotalamus. Hypotalamus produces sympathetic arousal of the Autonomic Nervous System or the ANS. ANS controls the heart, lungs, stomach, and blood vessels. It regulates blood circulation, respiration, digestion, and the body temperature. The ANS consists of two systems:
  • the parasympathetic nervous system
  • the sympathetic nervous system
 
The parasympathetic nervous system maintains homeostasis in the body through the release of acetylcholine. It is responsible for energy conservation and relaxation. Sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is responsible for the arousal through the release of epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) by the adrenal glands, and prepares the body for action. Among others, our heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, sugar and lipid levels in the blood increase, digestion slows down, perspiration increases. We become alert and ready to "fight". The stress response also involves the activity of the thyroid and the pituitary glands. Pituitary gland releases oxytocin and vasopressin as well as hormones which stimulate the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol, and the thyroid gland which releases thyroxin. Among others, cortisol increases the blood pressure and mobilizes the release of lipids and glucose from the adipose tissues. Thyroxin increases the metabolic rate, rises blood sugar levels, increases heart rate, and the blood pressure. Our whole body is ready to either fight or flight. When we consider that the situation is no longer threatening, the parasympathetic nervous system helps to restore the equilibrium in the body. We can relax.

In our modern world however, we often perceive daily situations as stressful. Consequently, the body constantly releases cortisol. Increased levels of cortisol over a prolonged period of time lower the efficiency of our immune system and we are more susceptible to infections. The adrenal cortex releases hormone called aldosterone which is responsible for the re-absorption of sodium and water and the subsequent release of potassium from the kidneys. This increases the blood volume and, consequently, the blood pressure rises. On the long run, this causes hypertension. A wide variety of other health problems such as headache, pain in the back, heart disease, and even cancer, may be related to chronic stress. The worse we feel, the more difficult it is for us to handle stressful situations.

How to deal with stress

As mentioned before, response to stressors is very individual. Even an objectively dangerous situation will be interpreted as stressor only when a person recognizes the danger and decides that he or she cannot cope with it. A person may feel immobilized. The belief that there is no solution and that one is powerless, determines the level of stress. On the other hand, a person who feels empowered and believes that he or she can cope, will not feel stressed, but rather challenged to take action.

Our personal disposition and experience influence our reaction to stressful situations. In order to successfully deal with stress in daily life one must

  • become aware of what stresses us - identifying stressful factors in life may help us reduce daily stress through better organization and time management.
  • what are our beliefs about stressors and our ability to deal with them - when we become aware of our thoughts and beliefs associated with stressful experience, we will be able to take a better control over our lives and learn to better deal with stress. We may learn to develop resilience to stressful situations.
  • what strategies do we apply to cope with stress - taking an honest look at the strategies we developed to deal with stress will help us understand that we may not be supportive of our bodies and minds and are rather on a way to a chronic disease. Relaxation, adequate sleep, moderate exercise, and healthy nutrition will help us develop a strong and healthy body that will be more resistant to emotional and physical stress. Learning some relaxation techniques such as the Progressive Muscle Relaxation Technique, or Relaxation Response, for instance, will help one to relax instantly in a stressful situation or at the end of a long work day.
 
Nutrition and nutritional supplements

We can support our behavioral strategies with balanced nutrition and nutritional supplements. Chronic stress depletes the adrenal glands and may lead to adrenal exhaustion. We may develop range of stress-related symptoms and disorders such as:
  • chronic fatigue
  • headache
  • back pain
  • irritability
  • insomnia
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • gastro-intestinal problems
  • nutritional deficiencies
  • diabetes
  • skin problems and allergies
  • frequent infections
  • addictions
  • PMS
  • libido and fertility problems
  • systemic inflammation
  • cancer
 
A diet rich in nutrients and high quality protein is essential for people who are exposed to chronic stress. Nutrients such as vitamins, especially vitamin A, C, E, and the B vitamins, and minerals, especially magnesium, calcium, selenium, potassium, and zinc, are quickly depleted under stress and must be replenished. The more stressed we are the more quickly we become deficient. Vitamins and minerals are also helpful to restore immune system weakened by chronic stress. The alkalizing minerals help us to take care of the hyperacidity resulting from stress. One may also want to supplement with a free form of amino acids to balance energy and deliver protein in times when digestion and absorption of nutrients is compromised by stress. Some amino acids, like taurine for instance, are natural relaxants. To enhance digestion and ease digestive problems associated with stress, a good digestive enzyme and probiotic formula should be taken with meals. To better cope with stress, one should also supplement with omega-3 essential fatty acids. Studies show that people consuming high amounts of fish and fish oil are more resistant to stress and recover much faster from emotional traumas.

Adaptogens

Adaptogens are herbs with remarkable healing properties. They are able to restore and balance our bodily functions, to strengthen the body, and to relax the mind. When we are under extreme pressure, adaptogens help us relax. When we feel lethargic or fatigued, adaptogens give us energy and help us build up stamina and resistance. The best known adaptogens are:
  • ashwaganda (Whitania somnifera)
  • eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
  • Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng)
  • reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
  • rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
Adaptogens can boost the energy levels and treat mental fatigue. They are best taken in a concentrated capsule form or as a tincture. To restore the adrenal balance it is sensible to take the adaptogens for at least three months.

Conclusion 

Stress is an inevitable fact of daily life, but it can have serious consequences. It can negatively affect not only our mental and physical health, but also our relationships. We can learn to alter our responses to physical, mental, and emotional stressors and develop strategies to better deal with stressful situations. Learning how to relax and devoting some time to peaceful, quiet activities is essential. Moderate exercise, hatha yoga, qi gong, or tai qi quan, help restore flexibility to the body and relax the mind. Supporting the body with wholesome foods will further increase our capacity to face life's challenges. 

By Dominique Allmon




      



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The Anti-Stress Program by Dominique Allmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


This information is for educational purpose only. It is not meant to diagnose or cure a disease.
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