An interesting transition in any primary care physician’s career occurs when he or she realizes that the real culprit filling up the office every day is stress. It’s not “disease,” like you’re taught at medical school. In fact, people under age 65 are remarkably free of disease these days. So why the waiting room crowds complaining about headaches, skin rashes, back pains, colds, stomach distress, insomnia? Of course, all these people undergo “tests” to rule out the diseases they’re worried about. The results are routinely normal. So you, the doctor, having to do something, write out a prescription for medication to mask the symptoms. Years later, tired of fighting off decades of unrelenting stress, the body falls prey to real ulcers or genuine heart attacks.
So at WholeHealth Chicago, we have no doubt that understanding stress, taking it seriously, learning how to cope and how to make successful life changes (not just swallowing a pill) may well be the most important single step you can take toward enhancing your day-to-day health–and also promoting your longevity.
What is Stress?
Excessive physical, emotional, or environmental demands on an individual produce what is commonly referred to as the “stress response,” or simply “stress.” A certain amount of stress is normal, an inevitable part of life and probably even good for you. The body is well equipped to handle, or even thrive, during brief episodes of great stress, as witness the acts of courage during war or a daring rescue mission or an unexpectedly high score on an important examination. But persistently high-level stress eventually wears down the body’s defenses, leaving it susceptible to many different health problems, both physical and psychological. Stress manifests itself in symptoms ranging from irritability and emotional depression to a whole variety of seemingly unrelated physical symptoms. The normal stress response in the body is a complex interplay between the nervous and endocrine (glandular) systems, and especially involves the adrenal, or “stress,” gland. The stress response is meant to go “on” when needed, then “off” as the source of stress goes away.
Prolonged high-level stress keeps the entire system functioning excessively. As a result, systems in the body literally run on overdrive until they’re exhausted. The physical results of chronic stress include increased risks of developing heart disease, constant muscle aches and pains (fibromyalgia), high blood pressure, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headaches and, later, chronic fatigue and decreased immunity with susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections, and possibly even cancer. In other words, stress can kill you.
The key to managing stress is to identify and eliminate the avoidable stresses and then increase your coping skills. Exercise, mind-body techniques such as biofeedback and tai chi, or just learning how to relax can help you shed stress. Antistress herbs and nutritional supplements will increase your body’s resistance to stress by relieving tension, supporting your adrenal gland and your immune system, and generally helping your body cope with it all.
- Fatigue or sleeplessness
- Nervousness or unusual excitability
- Difficulty concentrating
- Loss of appetite, stomach upset, nausea, diarrhea, or constipation
- Lack of interest in sex
- Anxiety, irritability, resentment, anger, apathy, pessimism, or mood changes
- Increased number of colds, flu, and other infections
What Causes Stress?
Life is full of stresses: family problems, work pressures, financial woes, illness, injuries, traumatic events and simply having to cope with too many pressures all at once, especially situations where you seem to have little control.
When confronted with a stressful event–physical or emotional–the body’s first reaction is the “fight or flight” response. This is when the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys, release adrenaline and other stress hormones. The extra burst of strength and energy these hormones provide allows the body to confront the perceived threat or flee it.
The fight-or-flight response is a normal healthy reaction to a passing danger. It does become a problem, however, when the source of stress doesn’t go away. Persistently high levels of stress hormones eventually exhaust the body by depleting its reserves of energy and nutrients.
In addition to fatigue, a chronic oversupply of stress hormones causes blood pressure and cholesterol levels to rise, which can adversely affect the heart and circulatory system. The stomach releases too much acid, which can lead to ulcers. Sex hormones (and as a result, sex drive) diminish. Even mental ability may suffer as the brain receives insufficient supplies of glucose, its only source of energy. A weakened immune system becomes increasingly unable to defend the body against infection and disease.
Treatment and Prevention
Physical exercise, relaxation techniques, yoga, meditation, and massage are among the tools at your disposal for relieving or coping with stress. Supplements can also play a very important role in stress management, both by fortifying the body’s coping mechanisms in times of stress and by relieving specific symptoms of stress, such as anxiety and insomnia.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it’s always a wise idea to talk with your doctor before beginning a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
The body’s ability to deal successfully with stress is dependent on many different nutrients, which is why it’s especially important to take a daily multivitamin and minerals, as well as vitamins C and E, when you’re under stress.
Also take a vitamin B complex. The extra B vitamins help fight fatigue and are beneficial for the health of the nervous and immune systems.
Add extra magnesium to help anxiety and depression and relieve muscle tension.
The antistress herbs Siberian ginseng and Panax ginseng help fortify the adrenal glands and have an overall tonic effect on the body, helping it adapt to challenges and stay resilient. Available singly or in adrenal formulas that combine several stress-fighting substances, both types of ginseng can be taken safely with vitamins and minerals.
Certain nutritional supplements and herbs target specific stress symptoms. Take kava for stress-related anxiety (limit use to times of high stress and do not take for longer than three months). If you’re unable to fall asleep, try melatonin. St. John’s wort may help ease mild depression caused by stress. All these supplements can be taken singly, together, or in combination with other stress-fighting herbs and nutrients.
Adrenal formulas, sold in health-food stores, can be a helpful addition to your stress-reduction regiment. They usually contain B vitamins, licorice, Siberian ginseng, and even extracts of cow adrenal glands. These are all considered stress-fighting elements, and are safe to take with other supplements.
Stress-reducing herbal teas include chamomile, skullcap, passionflower and valerian. They make a good change from adrenal stimulants containing caffeine, like coffee, tea, or sugar-filled cola beverages.
Get supplement dosages and tips in ourWholeHealth Chicago Supplement Recommendations for Stress.
In addition to its many other health benefits, regular physical exercise is a great reliever of stress.
Learning to relax is a major component of any stress-management program. A common technique for inducing a deeply relaxed state is progressive muscle relaxation, which calls for tensing and relaxing specific muscle groups, from head to feet, while breathing deeply and regularly. Another technique, called the relaxation response, is a form of meditation in which a word or phrase is repeated until the mind clears and the body thoroughly relaxes.
Deep breathing exercises, biofeedback, yoga, tai chi, meditation, and massage can all help you relax and better cope with stress.
Limit your consumption of caffeine and alcohol or, better yet, give them up altogether. Both can make you jittery and keep you awake at night.
A close network of family and friends is good for your health and can be a great help in coping with life’s stresses. (Keeping a pet is beneficial too.) If you feel that the pressures you’re facing are overwhelming, consider seeking psychological counseling and therapy.
When to Call a Doctor
- If you experience persistent or severe stress symptoms. (These can weaken your immune system and leave you susceptible to a host of medical problems.)
- If insomnia, irritability, loss of sexual interest and other symptoms of stress begin to have a negative impact on your relationships, work life or daily activities, or if they lead to substance abuse. (Such problems could be signs of depression, for which you should seek counseling and treatment.)
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: At WholeHealth Chicago, we recommend various supplements to repair some of the damage that chronic stress can cause. Some of these supplements work on a physical level to help relax your muscles, improve the function of your adrenal glands (which can be depleted by chronic stress), and replace any vitamins and minerals lost during the time you might not have been paying attention to healthful eating habits. Other supplements work best on an emotional level, calming you down a bit or relieving the depression that might be accompanying your stressful situation.
But let’s face it. These are simply pills and, by themselves, they don’t solve the problems in your life that may be creating or aggravating your stress. You also need to get to the heart of the issue–your life situation and the potentially unhealthful way you’ve been responding to it. But as you identify and try to resolve the actual stress triggers in your life, the supplements in our list can enhance the lifestyle changes you’ll be initiating.
How to Take the Supplements
Among nutritionally oriented physicians, magnesium is a long-time favorite for reducing stress and anxiety. A deficiency of magnesium is common, and many ailments triggered by stress–such as asthma, migraine, insomnia, mitral valve prolapse, and high blood pressure–can be helped just by using this mineral on a daily basis. Likewise many of the B vitamins are involved in the healthy functioning of the nervous system. These can quickly be depleted by stress and definitely need to be restored.
Either or both of the ginsengs (Siberian or Panax) are invaluable during any long-standing period of stress. Numerous clinical studies have proved ginseng’s value as an “adaptogen,” meaning a substance that helps the body adapt to stress, improve stamina and mental focus, and generally function at a higher degree of efficiency.
The other supplements can be taken depending on your individual need and circumstances. Kava is an excellent nonsedating mild tranquilizer, capable of quickly taking the edge off of a sense of anxiety. Kava is very safe and not habit-forming.
Equally useful is the amino acid GABA (or gamma-aminobutyric acid), a natural tranquilizer already present in your brain. When taken as a supplement, GABA has been shown to be as effective as physician-prescribed mild tranquilizers.
Sometimes a chronically stressful situation leads to a sense of depression. Here, the herb St. John’s wort will be helpful; however, you’ll need to take this herb for a month before you can appreciate its full effects.
Finally, difficulty with sleep is a frequent companion to being stressed. Mild insomnia will often respond to melatonin, an over-the-counter sleep aid, which, like GABA, simply duplicates a chemical already present in your body.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD