In the thirty years that I’ve worked within the health and nutrition industry, there is one question that customers and clients ask on a consistent-almost daily basis, “what can I do for stress and anxiety”. Populations have been suffering from the physical, mental, and emotional effects of stress and anxiety since time immemorial. Many of us have learned to accept stress as a fact of an everyday life-a consequence of modern living, family problems, job pressures, financial burdens, and political instability. For some people the biological changes that characterize the stress response come and go relatively unnoticed. For a growing majority, however, “stressors” that are extreme, insidious, and long-lasting can overwhelm our adrenal defense mechanisms and cause physical and psychological harm including organ system damage, immune depression, insomnia, cancer, and hormonal dysfunction. To keep it in perspective, Hans Selye, M.D., a talented physician and authority on modern stress research summarized it best when he said, “No one can live without experiencing some degree of stress all the time. You may think that only serious disease or intensive physical or mental injury can cause stress. This is false. Crossing a busy intersection, exposure to a draft, or even sheer joy is enough to activate the body’s stress mechanisms to some extent. Stress is not even necessarily bad for you; it is also the spice of life, for any emotion, any activity, causes stress. But, of course, your system must be prepared to take it”. So, the question becomes, is your body healthy enough to adapt to a chronic level of stress without experiencing a deterioration of normal functioning? This question takes on new significance when you consider that almost all of us live with some level of chronic stress at every stage of life. Increasingly, clinicians are seeing patients that present with high circulating cortisol and low DHEA levels, a common clinical sign of increased stress hormone production and low sex hormone biosynthesis.
Treating the physiological and emotional sequelae of hypoadrenia related to chronic stress can be difficult. Conventional medical therapy relies heavily on a combination of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications. Some physicians will recommend hypnosis, counseling, and exercise to complement drug therapy. While it is true that prescription medications have been successful, they are not without risk. For many, the side effects of anti-depressant medication create a whole sub-set of health problems. I favor a more comprehensive approach to treating chronic stress that includes behavior modification, lifestyle modification, and evidence-based nutritional formulas that support anti-stress physiology. Developing positive coping strategies and exercising on a regular basis can significantly reduce stress symptoms and help the body adapt to future stressors in a healthy way. Work with a counselor to develop a stress-busting attitude and make time to engage in regular physical exercise. Increasing physical activity has powerful mood-enhancing and anxiety-relieving effects. Also, clinicians are having great results in treating stress and anxiety with evidence-based nutrition. The amino acid L-theanine, which is derived from green tea, has been studied for its ability to stimulate alpha brain wave activity. Clinical effects include reduced stress, improved sleep, heightened mental acuity, and diminished PMS symptoms. PharmaGABA, a plant-derived, non-synthetic form of GABA (neurotransmitter) is even stronger than L-theanine in activating the parasympathetic nervous system to produce a relaxation response. In addition, the botanical preparations of Rhodiola and Ashwagandha have been used for their adaptogenic actions on neurotransmitter/endorphin pathways, and modulation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. For the “stressed out” individual this means greater resistance to fatigue, increased mental clarity, and improved resistance to stress and tension.
Living in a stressful environment may not be a choice, but how your body reacts to life’s stressors can be influenced by how you choose to live. Nourish your body with whole, fresh foods that are high in nutrients such as the B complex family, magnesium, and vitamin C-all of which are essential for healthy adrenal gland function. Engage life by participating in activities that you’re passionate about while developing a positive attitude that you can share with others. Stay active and exercise on a regular basis, and work with your health care professional to maximize the benefits of evidenced-based nutritional formulas.
Michael Chase, MS, NTP
Nutrition Science and Dietetics
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