Stress

A Guide to Overcoming Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Scientific research is now validating that stress has a considerable influence on our body’s physiology, contributing to many acute and chronic illnesses. A report by the World Bank stated that 1 in 5 people suffer from depression or anxiety. Typical stresses that may be encountered in daily life include physical, chemical, infectious and psychological stresses.

The stress cycle involves our thoughts, emotions, the chemical reactions in our brain, our body and the physical sensations we feel as a result of these. Once this process begins it snowballs, gains momentum and life may feel out of control. The first stage, our thoughts is the most powerful as it is not the event that causes us stress, but the way we react to it. Thoughts start in the cortex of the brain and move quickly to the limbic system or mid brain where our emotions lie. Negative thoughts trigger an immediate emotional response such as anger, fear, hatred, grief, regret, anxiety, sadness, embarrassment or jealousy. These thoughts stimulate our nervous and hormonal systems to release stress hormones, most notably adrenaline and cortisol from our adrenal glands (kidney bean shaped glands which sit above our kidneys). In response chemicals are released throughout the body which reach the pituitary gland in the brain and stimulate the release of more hormones and stress chemicals. The final stage of the stress cycle is activated as these chemicals alert every organ in the body to work faster. This results in symptoms such as sweating, tremor, anxiety, churning stomach, reduced salivation, dry mouth, increased muscular activity and hyperventilation, irregular heart beat (palpitations), chest pain, visual disturbances and tingling and numbness, as well as muscle tremors, exhaustion, general weakness and sleep disturbances.

Once upon a time it was very beneficial for the human body to undergo these physical changes, as the main emotion experienced by our ancestors was fear triggered by an attack from a wild animal. The stress chemicals released during the attack enabled the early humans to push their bodies to the necessary extremes and escape the attack. In the 21st century however, more complex stress emotions are triggered far more often and they don’t necessarily require a physical reaction. As a result, this continual stress response starts to wear out the body – the over production of stress chemicals and hormones eventually take its toll on the body and may eventually lead to cell death. Cortisol one of the predominant hormones released by the adrenal glands in response to stress, produces many of the adverse effects of long-term stress. This includes depletion of DHEA, a hormone which is important for the manufacture of sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone; an antidepressant and our so-called anti-aging hormone. A reduction in DHEA produces symptoms of fatigue, hormonal imbalance, depression and general unwellness. Consistently elevated cortisol levels may also lead to a reduction in serotonin neurotransmission. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which is required for healthy mood. Low serotonin transmission is a major defect in depression.

Stress Lowers Immunity

Immune system function is also adversely affected by excess cortisol leading to depression of antibacterial, antiviral defense and increasing our allergy response. This may result is symptoms such as frequent colds and flus, cold sores, hay fever, asthma, sinusitis, migraines, and food intolerances.

Stress Increases Toxins

Stress also has significant effects on toxicity. The intestinal barrier function is a major defense against an immense load of disease causing microorganisms from ingested food, resident bacteria, invading viruses and other insults. Psychological stress has been clearly demonstrated to disrupt intestinal permeability. Acute stressful events are closely associated with inflammation of the colon; cells of the mucous membranes of the colon have been shown to produce elevated levels of inflammatory substances such as prostaglandin 2 and cyclooxygenase 2. This situation not only increases bacterial adherence to the intestinal lining, but also reduces the secretion of important immune system compounds such as immunoglobulin A. This may lead to a condition called leaky gut, whereby improperly digested food particles and other matter leaks into circulation leading to immune activation with subsequent enhanced stress response. Certain foods in particular seem to provoke this response, including wheat, dairy and yeasts. Symptoms of leaky gut include low appetite, bloating, flatulence, abdominal pain and cramping, irregular bowel movements, as well as sinus, headaches and skin rashes.

What Can You Do?

Fortunately there are an abundance of treatment options for stress, anxiety and depression. If the symptoms are severe or have been persisting for a considerable length of time, it may be useful to combine several approaches as outlined below:

Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicines may be very beneficial for the treatment of stress, anxiety and depression. In fact, many clinical trials have found herbs such as St Johns Wort to be as effective as pharmaceutical anti-depressants in treating mild to moderate depression. Other herbs which are useful for alleviating symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, include Oats, Lemon Balm, Skullcap, Zizyphus, Passionflower, Verbena and Chamomile. Another class of herbs which assists our bodies to cope with stress are the adaptogens. These include the ginsengs, such as Panax or Korean Ginseng, Siberian Ginseng, American Ginseng and Indian Ginseng also known as Ashwaganda or Withania. Other important adaptogens include Rhodiola, Shisandra, Codonopsis and Gotu Kola. Since herbs are powerful medicines, it is best to consult a professional naturopath or herbalist who can prescribe an individual prescription containing a combination of herbs specific for your needs.

Supplements

Nutritional supplements may also be of benefit in times of increased stress since increased physical, emotional and mental demands increase our demand for certain vitamins and minerals, most notably:

• Magnesium required for muscle relaxation, energy production, hormone production and healthy heart function. Magnesium deficiency is a very common occurrence. Symptoms of deficiency include muscle cramps, headaches, neck and shoulder tension, premenstrual tension, period pain and low energy. Dietary sources of magnesium include: nuts and green leafy vegetables;

• B vitamins required for healthy nervous system function, hormone and neurotransmitter, production and energy production. As B vitamins are water soluble they are easily removed from the diet. Consuming excessive amounts of diuretics such as tea, coffee and cola drinks as well as certain medications will promote their removal from the body. Good dietary sources include: whole grains, such as oats and brewers yeast;

• Vitamin C is important for many functions in the body, including immune system function and adrenal gland function. It is also an important antioxidant and is required for collagen production;

• Essential fatty acids such as fish oil and evening primrose oil. These are essential for healthy brain function and are often deficient in the diet. Good sources include oily fish such as salmon, ocean trout, snapper, wild barramundi and deep sea cod. Evening Primrose Oil is best taken as a supplement. When buying oil supplements ensure you buy ones with added antioxidants such as vitamin E as all oil supplements are prone to oxidation. In addition, since many fish are contaminated with mercury and pesticides, ensure you buy fish supplements which has been tested and purified.

Dietary Recommendations

In times of stress we often go for an afternoon coffee or a cola drink with sugary snacks such as chocolate, cakes, biscuits, donuts, etc, which give us comfort and a short burst of energy. Unfortunately these may be exacerbating our anxiety and in the long term promoting weight gain and reducing our energy and immunity. As a result, these foods should be kept to a minimum. During times of acute anxiety it is best to avoid caffeine containing substances altogether as coffee (especially instant), chocolate, cola and tea may precipitate anxiety and panic attacks. Instead eat a diet of whole grains including oats, grain breads, nuts, seeds and vegetables, particularly leafy greens such as broccoli, bok choy, spinach and rocket. Include more good oils in the diet, including deep sea fish, nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews), seeds (sunflower, pumpkin) and good quality proteins such as eggs, lean pasture fed red meat and antibiotic free chicken.

Lifestyle Recommendations

There are many other therapies which are useful for reducing stress, including massage, hypnotherapy and acupuncture. Listening to relaxing CDs may also be beneficial. Practices such as yoga, meditation and tai chi are also beneficial as they not only calm our body by producing “feel good” chemicals called endorphins but also improve immune system function, bone density and promote the removal of wastes from our bodies.

As a Naturopath, I am passionate about educating people regarding drug free alternatives to pharamaceutical medications to treat their anxiety and stress. One such alternative which I am particularly excited about is Brainwave Entrainment. Brain Wave Entrainment Technology has made it possible to alter your brainwaves by using audio technologies to tune your brainwaves to specifically designed brainwave states simply by listening to a CD or MP3 recording. The entrainment process has been scientifically proven to naturally synchronize your brainwaves to the embedded carrier frequencies on the CD. I have personally used these technologies for over a decade with great success for insomnia and anxiety issues as well as for memory enhancement. For detailed information on our brainwave CDs visit our website listed below.

You should also aim to get adequate exercise such as walking, swimming, cycling, aerobics or weight training at least four times per week for at least 20 minutes. This will not only improve your fitness levels and cardiovascular function but will also increase the body’s production of endorphins-chemical substances that can relieve anxiety and depression. Scientific research shows that routine exercise can positively affect mood and help with depression. As little as three hours per week of aerobic exercise can profoundly reduce the level of depression. The most important thing is that you find something you like and do it regularly.

Below is a list of additional recommendations to help reduce stress:

  • Develop a positive attitude about everything you do; associate with positive attitude people
  • Make time to relax. If you don’t know how now’s the time to learn!
  • Learn proper breathing exercises (yoga, taichi)
  • Cultivate a good sense of humour & laugh more…
  • Listen to relaxing music
  • Pamper yourself or be nice to yourself, e.g. have a massage or facial visit with friends and do things that you enjoy
  • Permit yourself to stretch from time to time
  • Get out of the hum-drum and do something different (a vacation, bush-walk, picnic)
  • Always get proper rest
  • Learn about your inner spirit, pray or meditate according to your conscience and beliefs
  • If your not enjoying yourself, ask why & do something about it – Life’s too short
  • Keep a diary of your feelings to monitor your progress
  • Find something to appreciate about life every single day!

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