A Brief introduction to stress and its effects on the body
The sympathetic tone of the nervous system is responsible for body’s stress response, also known as the flight-or-fight response. It aids in the control of most of the body's internal organ functions, promoting survival. Pupil dilation, increased heart and breathing rates, dampened gut motility are just some of the effects of activated sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The stress response is normal and healthy when it is short-term, temporary. Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) counteracts the SNS and generally works to promote maintenance of the body at rest. PSN lets the body, physiologically, relax and can be activated unconsciously as well as when we make a conscious effort to de-stress.
When faced with stress, whether physical, emotional, physiological, or mental; the brain triggers the release of various hormones and neurotransmitters and stress response is activated. The signals are sent from the brain to the adrenal glands to release stress hormones and a chain reaction of biochemical and physiological changes is triggered.
When exposure to stress response becomes chronic, damage is done. Long-term exposure to stress hormones promotes increased production of cholesterol (body’s repair material as well as the raw material to hormone synthesis) and blood clotting. This, in turn, promotes heart disease, elevated serum cholesterol, hypertension, and increases risk of having a stroke. Immune system weakens due to chronic stress and becomes inefficient in protecting us from various infections. Chronic stress may lead to chronically tensed muscles that cause pain, such as headaches, as well as in the neck and shoulders. Long-term exposure to elevated levels of cortisol interferes with serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for making us feel good and happy. Thus, with chronic stress increases one’s risk of having a depression, anxiety issues, and insomnia.
As mentioned previously, PSN counteracts the SNS and the stress response. PSN triggers the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that calm and relax the body. This is the primary mechanism our body uses during rest and sleep. Just as the SNS, the PSN functions consciously as well as unconsciously. This is very advantageous. This means that stress response, its initiation and inhibition may be modulated by one’s actions, thoughts, and emotions.
What Can Be Done to Combat Stress?
Move over stress! Movement and exercise stimulates serotonin production; down-regulates insulin production and in turn reduces cortisol levels and stress. Swim, dance, bike, go trampolining, or rock climbing, do yoga, or walk. Do whatever you like, just keep moving.
It is important to mention that while exercise is can be an integral part of stress management, overtraining will be counter-productive and stress the body even further. The best way to prevent over-training is to listen to your body. Exercise shouldn’t hurt or drain out energy. One should feel light, invigorated, and energized after exercising: immediately as well as several hours after. Likewise, there should not be pain associated with exercise as well as after it. Painful limbs or exhaustion are give-away signs of overtraining. Another way to exercise in a healthy way is to be mindful of exercise intensity level. Aerobic exercise is most efficient at stress reduction and promoting health. Exercising within a range of 50%-75% of one’s maximum heart rate (MHR) will assure aerobic activity. An easy way to calculate MHR is to subtract one’s age from 220. Beginners should start their work-outs at the lower end of the range, while more advanced athletes will benefit from work-outs in the upper limits of the MHR.
Sleep is essential for life. You can survive without food for a while, not without sleep however. Numerous research studies have demonstrated importance of sleep for overall well-being as well as optimal mental, endocrine, and immune function. Lack of sleep or its deficiency promotes general stress on all organs and systems; it activates the adrenals and raises cortisol levels, while lowering melatonin production (inversely related to cortisol), and promoting stress. Commit to at least 7 hours of sleep per day. Try meditation and visualization to promote sleep. Deep slow breaths taken through the nose and exhaled through the mouth promote relaxation. Keep the bedroom dark and quiet. Light disrupts melatonin production and dropped melatonin levels will trigger cortisol production. Chamomile or peppermint tea before bed and a few lavender essential oil drops on the pillow are known to promote relaxation and sleep. Rescue Sleep remedy may also be helpful for optimal sleep.
Everyone is stressed to a lesser or greater degree, so it is our duty, with our health in mind, to decrease or avoid stress when possible; and learn and practice stress-relieving techniques and activities. Avoid depressing media news; choose to turn on music or a hobby channel instead. Watch comedies and cartoons, as well as other feel-good programs instead of suspense and crime dramas, so popular nowadays. Listen to audiobooks while driving to take the edge off stressful traffic jams. Take a few minutes to appreciate the weather, trees, sky around you before getting inside or into the car. Think of something to be thankful for daily. Take up a hobby and enjoy it whenever time permits without regret of not having more time. Always seek out a positive side to any situation. Laugh. Laughter has been shown to stimulate serotonin production, so did smiling. Whenever feeling yourself getting extremely stressed out, think if the cause of your stress is truly worth your health in the grander scheme of things, most often you will realize how insignificant it is when introspected on. Practice self-hypnosis to talk yourself out of being frustrated and stressed out. Be patient with yourself. Self-hypnosis is a difficult skill to acquire but dedication, persistence, and regular practice will prove extremely beneficial. Various forms of meditation have shown again and again in scientific studies to reduce stress. This effect is due to release of calming hormones such as DHEA-S and melatonin as well as neurotransmitters
serotonin and GABA during and after meditation. Guided meditation also known as imagery uses visualization techniques to see oneself in a calm place to induce relaxation. Mantra or transcendental meditation uses a word or a phrase that is repeated through the meditation process. The goal is to clear the mind of thoughts with the aid by focusing attention on a chosen mantra. The idea behind counting the sheep so often recommended as a sleep aid is similar to that of mantra meditation. Various Asian practices such as Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qui Dong utilize meditation, gentle body movement, and deep breath to induce a relaxed state of being.
Deep breathing so important in these practices is the fastest, easiest, and the most effective way to switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic tone of the nervous system to dampen stress and induce relaxation. Another way to quickly turn on the PSN is leg elevations. Lie down horizontally on the back and with a help of a bolster or pillows elevate legs at a 90⁰ angle so that the part of the leg from hip to knee is perpendicular to the body and the lower leg is parallel to it.
Thoughts, feelings, and emotions affect the stress response as well as the state of relaxation. Thinking, feeling, imagining, or talking about scary, upsetting things; worrying; dwelling on the past will fire up the stress response. At the same time; remembering happy moments, smiling even without a reason, joking, enjoying the little things in life that count most will stop the vicious cycle of stress; they are excellent stress relievers that act not only on an emotional level but physiologically as well.
Healthy eating habits and wholesome food is essential for health in general. Proper nutrients give or body ability to function optimally, including being able to manage stress in a healthy way. Organic food is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides; chemical fertilizers; it is not genetically engineered or modified or irradiated; animals are raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics. Food grown in such way has more bioavailable nutrients and is easier for the body to utilize compared to conventionally grown food.
Whole foods, those that are minimally processed or are in their original state are healthier, more nutritious, and are more likely to promote proper blood sugar balance and metabolism essential for stress management compared to processed foods. For example, real cheese is a better choice compared to American Cheese cheese food slice or a packet of powdered cheese in Mac’n Cheese. Brown rice has more vitamins and fiber than white rice because it hasn’t been processed as much and retains its bran and germ, parts of seed that have the most nutrients. In addition to knowing what to eat, it is also important to know what to avoid. Stimulants disrupt the cortisol rhythm and feed in to the cycle of chronic stress. It is best to avoid coffee and other caffeine containing foods and beverages, they activate the sympathetic nervous system and stimulate adrenaline secretion. Sugar in any form, whether as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or fructose or glucose, stimulates insulin production and increased insulin increases cortisol and should be significantly limited.
Unfortunately, even with the best diet our bodies may be depleted of many vitamins and minerals. This is due to depleted soil, poor air and water quality, chemicals in water run-offs, and general chronic stress. Supplemention with B-complex vitamins has shown to help manage stress response and prepare our bodies for coping with stress related factors in our lives. B-vitamins have a wider degree of safety because they are water-soluble and do not therefore accumulate in the body. Different B vitamins have different effect on the body and on the ability to cope with stress. For example, Niacin (B-3) is known to help maintain nervous system function; B-12 plays a significant role in melatonin and serotonin synthesis; while folic acid (B-9) deficiency amplifies stress response. Keep in mind that it is best to avoid supplementing with only individual B vitamins. This may disrupt a vital balance of all the vitamins. Taking B vitamin complex along with additional B vitamins assures balance and proper ratios for optimal health.
Trace minerals are also very important for proper stress management, nervous system function, and ability to control our muscles. Among them is magnesium well known for its essential function as muscle and nervous system relaxant. Other trace minerals such as chloride, potassium, and sodium play equally important role in muscle contraction and relaxation.
Herbs and Homeopathy
Various herbal remedies and homeopathic preparations have been used for centuries to relieve various ailments and stress is no exception. Single substance remedies such as Cina, Ignatia amara, Stramonium, and Magnesium phosphorus (Mag. Phos.), as well as many combination remedies are available on the market to help to calm the nervous system in general or address specific nuances such as stress due to irritability or anxiety. Herbs such as Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm), Lavandula augustifolia (Lavender) and Passiflora incarnata (Passion Flower) are known to support the health of the nervous system and help to maintain a calm, balanced mood. Skullcap, lady's slipper, arnica, German chamomile, and valerian contain active ingredients that improve the functioning of the nervous system. Bach’s Flower Essences may also serve as a great addition to you stress management program. Rescue Remedy is a “one-size-fits-all” severe stress relief combination formula; while single flower essences may be custom chosen for specific disposition and state of mind. It is advisable to consult a physician before taking any of these remedies.
Disclaimer: For informational purposes only; not for prescribing or endorsement