Stress and Anxiety

a man on his daily commute

Everyone has felt his or her “flight or fright” response go into action.  This response gives us a sudden increase in blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, metabolism, and blood sugar that helps us react quickly to stressful situations.  When the danger is over, our parasympathetic nervous system takes over with a compensating period of rest and relaxation. This nervous system balance is essential to our survival.  What exactly is stress? It can best be defined as a psychological and physical response to the demands of daily life that exceed a person’s ability to cope successfully.

Stress, however, can be negative or positive.  Short-term activation of the sympathetic nervous system releases hormones (from the adrenal glands), causing the heart to beat faster, muscles to tense, and blood pressure to rise.  Stress is often characterized by fatigue, irritability, poor sleep or insomnia, and constant worrying. These are positive responses to normal sources of stress, such as a new job, meeting deadlines, a death of a loved one, sitting in traffic, waiting in line, worrying about the kids, pregnancy, etc.

Negative stressors are events or situations that cause these physiological functions to stay elevated for long periods of time without appropriate release.  These forms of stress can lead to dis-ease, or illness, such as anxiety, depression, nervousness, a nervous breakdown, heart attack, migraines, backaches, fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal problems, bowel problems, and infections.

Stress is a normal aspect of living that our bodies are designed to handle.  When stress gets out of control, beyond our body’s ability to handle it, then potential damage can occur.  Keep in mind, nothing is inherently stressful unless we perceive it to be. It is just a choice. Nothing or no one can stress you unless you give them permission to. Stress management techniques such as deep breathing, physical exercise, yoga, prayer, meditation, and relaxation must be learned.

Categories of Stress

Acute stress lasts a relatively short period of time (anger, allergic reaction, and fright.)  The adrenal glands pump adrenaline into the blood stream, kicking the body into high gear to react to “fight or flight” mode.  This can be a good thing, as long as the situation can be dealt with quickly.

Episodic stress occurs whenever acute stress happens more frequently.  Typically, “Type A” individuals have consistent problems with acute stress (ceaseless worry, nervous energy, over-arousal) and can suffer from continuing headaches, stomach distress, depression, anxiety, dizziness and high blood pressure.

Chronic stress is the most serious form, described by the American Psychiatric Association as “the stress of unrelenting demands and pressures for seemingly interminable periods of time.”  As the pressures build up over time, the body tries to adapt by secreting excess cortisol from the adrenal glands. As time goes on, the adrenals start to exhaust, resulting in fatigue or exhaustion, immune suppression, and increased demands on the cardiovascular and digestive systems.  This makes chronic stress an underlying cause in many degenerative diseases, including heart disease, cancer, obesity, arthritis, diabetes, auto-immune diseases, and substance abuse.

Signs and Symptoms

All stress originates in the adrenal glands.  When a person perceives a threat, the body responds automatically.  The pituitary gland signals the thyroid and adrenals to go on alert.  The adrenals release two hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, which focus on concentration and release of glucose, as well as speedy recovery time.  These hormones naturally decline when the threat has abated, but when stress is ongoing the body never fully recovers. Then cortisol and adrenaline levels remain high and adversely impact cardiac function, metabolism and energy.

Stressors can be emotional, physical or environmental.  It’s not always “in your head.” Some of the common symptoms of anxiety and stress overload include forgetfulness, irritability, a proneness to anger, fatigue and low initiative, a proneness to crying, sadness and depressed feelings, panic attacks and teeth grinding.  Some medical conditions associated with stress and anxiety include hypertension, insomnia and waking up in the middle of the night, gastrointestinal problems (ulcers, heartburn, reflux), migraines, backaches or frequent headaches, and dementia.

Stress can also be induced by mineral deficiencies.  Low levels of the four principal minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium) can be associated with stress (physical or emotional.)  The body reacts to stress by increasing sodium levels. The body then responds by producing corticosteroid hormones in order to increase one’s potassium level to help adapt to the stress.

Stress for years exhausts both the thyroid and adrenal glands. When the adrenal glands are overactive and stressed for years, calcium is excreted from the body.  Long-term stress can cause low sodium and higher potassium levels, indicating exhaustion. People under stress have fewer than half of the antibodies in their systems than subjects with less stress do.


There is little doubt that proper nutrition is critical to any stress treatment.  Research has found dramatic links between diet and the body’s response to stress. What we ingest has a direct impact on our brain chemistry, and our brain chemistry has a direct impact on how we handle stress.

Try to choose an “energizing diet” that is high in complex carbohydrates and avoid refined carbohydrates.  Here are some healthy dietary tips:

  1. AVOID REFINED SUGAR.  Sugar causes hypoglycemia and anxiety that can make one feel restless, tired and depressed. Sugar also robs the body of B vitamins.
  2. AVOID CAFFEINE.  Caffeine activates the sympathetic nervous system, making you feel jumpy and nervous, and also robs the body of B vitamins.  Especially avoid soda and diet colas.
  3. LIMIT SALT/SODIUM USE.  Anxiety states are frequently associated with high sodium and low potassium levels (an indication of adrenal insufficiency) which can translate into hypoglycemia.
  4. LIMIT ALCOHOL.  Alcohol intake is a mood depressant and can lead to depression, anxiety and hypoglycemia.
  5. AVOID EATING PROCESSED AND JUNK FOOD.  These foods deprive the body of nutrients, especially minerals like magnesium and calcium, and B vitamins.
  6. DESENSITIZE FOR FOOD ALLERGIES.  Food allergens can be stressful to the body, causing chronic fatigue and anxiety.  The most common food allergens are dairy products, wheat gluten, chocolate, eggs and nuts.
  7. AVOID CHEMICAL ADDITIVES IN FOOD.  Many foods contain antibiotics, steroids, and xenoestrogens, especially poultry, meat, dairy foods, and eggs.  Try purchasing organic or free-range meats. Especially avoid ASPARTAME in diet soft drinks.  This toxic chemical will deplete nutrients from your body, induce tiredness and weaken the immune system. Excess minerals such as iron and copper may induce anxiety and depression.
  8. EAT A WELL-BALANCED DIET.  Try eating whole foods comprised mostly of complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) and high-protein foods, along with natural, unsaturated fats.

A GLUCOSE TOLERANCE TEST should be done when stress and anxiety are chronic.  If depression occurs, psychotherapy is possible. However, low thyroid hormones and low adrenal function can contribute to low energy, exacerbating stress and anxiety.

STRESS MANAGEMENT AND EXERCISE.  Lack of exercise is always a factor in stress and anxiety. Regular exercise is a key to lifestyle change, as it helps to reduce stress, increase blood circulation, and promote a positive mood. Stress management includes activities such as yoga—one of the most beneficial and inexpensive ways to enhance well being and reduce stress and anxiety.  Other stress-management techniques include walking, meditation, prayer, going out into nature, a hot bath with soft music and practicing silence.

a woman doing yoga

A HAIR ANALYSIS may be useful in identifying stressed adrenal and thyroid function, as well as possibly identifying heavy metal toxicity, which may also lead to anxiety.

Supplement Protocol

    A potent multivitamin is a foundation of nutrients needed by the body to ward off stressors.  Supplementing with extra ANTIOXIDANTS (vitamins C, E, selenium, beta-carotene, alpha lipoic acid, green tea) affords additional protection for the body.  Dosage: As directed.
    B vitamins are essential for calming the nerves and enhancing mental stability. B vitamins rejuvenate cells involved in energy (mental, emotional, physical) and are sometimes referred to as the “stress” vitamins.  B vitamins are found in unprocessed whole grains, green vegetables, cold water fish, legumes, nuts, and seeds. BIOTIN is critical in enhancing the body’s utilization of glucose.  VITAMIN B1 (thiamin) helps the body release energy from carbohydrates. VITAMIN B5 (pantothenic acid) is a cofactor in energy transfer at the cellular level. FOLIC ACID has been linked to mood stabilization.  VITAMIN B6 (pyridoxine) is important in manufacturing neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Dosage: 50-100 mg daily. Additional vitamin B12 (1,000-2,000 mcg daily) and vitamin B6 (50-200 mg daily) are advisable for maximum benefit.
    Magnesium is the most critical mineral for coping with stress, mostly because of its ability to relax tense muscles.  Magnesium deficiencies are indicative of anxiety attacks. Good food sources include almonds, green leafy vegetables, buckwheat, oats, lima beans, figs, bananas, dates, nuts and seafood.  Dosage: 250-800 mg per day.
    Calcium (like magnesium) acts as one of nature’s tranquilizers.  Calcium bio-unavailability in the body is one of the most common mineral patterns associated with anxiety.  In many cases HAIR ANALYSIS can prove that higher levels of calcium (in tissues, not bones) lend toward extreme anxiety since calcium exerts a “calcium shell,” protecting the body from stress.  Limit dairy products due to hormones, antibiotics and steroids in cows. Other sources include cultured yogurt, nuts, pancakes, legumes and dark green vegetables. Dosage: 600-1,500 mg daily.
    Essential fatty acids are quality fats that are effective in treating mental disorders and dysfunction. Fish oil reduces hostility and stress, and improves chronic fatigue, poor concentration and depression. Flaxseed, nature’s natural blood thinner, lowers blood pressure and improves heart function.  EFAs protect against stress ulcers. Dosage: 1,000-4,000 mg daily.
    An amino acid found in green tea, L-theanine is a safe alternative to kava and other prescription anti-anxiety medicines because it relieves anxiety and promotes relaxation without promoting sedation or grogginess.  It also promotes deep muscle relaxation and improves good quality sleep. Dosage: 50-200 mg daily.
    Ginseng is greatly valued in traditional medicine as a stress tonic.  According to traditional Chinese medicine, individuals who are overwhelmed and exhausted benefit the most from ginseng.  Eleutherococcus (Russian ginseng) has an anti-fatigue effect, may stimulate sexual function, has been shown to reduce anxiety, and is used to increase tolerance to stress.  Ashwagandha is the primary strengthening tonic and adaptogen of Ayurvedic medicine. It is used for physical weakness, nerve weakness, and the effects of old age. Dosage: As directed by a qualified practitioner.
  8. 5-HTP
    5-HTP is an amino acid derivative that acts as a precursor to serotonin and melatonin, two brain chemicals necessary for preventing anxiety, facilitating sleep, regulating mood, and controlling appetite.  When supplemented at bedtime, 5-HTP induces relaxation and sounder sleep. Dosage: 50-150 mg nightly.
    Used extensively in Eastern Europe to resist various stressors, rhodiola rosea is recognized as an ‘adaptogen’ herb that increases physical work capacity and dramatically shortens the recovery time between bouts of excessive stress and anxiety.  Rhodiola is effective in decreasing fatigue, increasing attention span, memory and work productivity. Dosage: As directed on package; safe for use with young people to improve mental fatigue.
    Chromium is a mineral required in trace amounts by the pancreas to produce the blood-sugar regulating hormone insulin.  Balanced levels prevent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which may result in depression, anxiety and craving of sweets. Teenagers who consume excess refined sugar show symptoms of nervousness and shakiness, as well as a chromium deficiency.  Dosage: 200-400 mcg daily.
    St. John’s wort is an herb that has long been effectively used in treating anxiety due to mild or moderate depression. St. John’s wort lifts the mood and alleviates anxiety. Dosage is 300-900 mg daily.
    This antioxidant hormone compound is being investigated by French researchers in its association with chronic stress and the function of the hypothalamus-pineal gland axis.  Melatonin helps improve sleep and immune suppression, and also may decrease stress-induced cortisol release. Dosage: 3-10 mg daily, as directed by a health practitioner.
    These two aromatic herbs have strong relaxant and sedative properties.  Valerian is useful in chronic and severe conditions where the whole system needs to be relaxed; it is helpful in treating chronic anxiety, migraines, panic attacks, palpitations and vertigo.  Passionflower encourages sleep by reducing nervousness, worry and muscular twitching. Dosage: 150-300 mg at bedtime. Passionflower tincture can be safely used in children.
    Chamomile tea is a mild, safe, and effective home remedy for treating nervousness.  Chamomile is especially recommended for the very young or the weak and aged. Catnip and chamomile teas are clinically proven to be effective as a nervine to calm over-excitability and anxiety in general.  Babies can take chamomile tea for colic. Let the baby suck the tea off a sterile cloth dipped repeatedly in the brew. Dosage: As directed.
    Vitamin C and bioflavonoids are antioxidants that support the adrenal glands in manufacturing the stress hormones (epinephrine, norepinephrine, adrenaline, cortisol). Vitamin C stimulates the immune system to produce the virus-killing protein interferon, which prevents metabolic stress. Dose: 1,000-5,000 mg a day.
    Kava is extremely effective in treating acute stressful situations or insomnia, although in the last few years it has been associated with liver damage. Use only in acute instances. Do not take if you have liver or kidney damage or disease, are pregnant, or drink alcohol. Dosage: Only as directed.
    Grape seed is a natural extract that significantly reduces stress-induced gastrointestinal injury.  Grape seed extract has been shown to provide significant protection against both acute and chronic stress-induced GI injury by scavenging free radicals and preventing the damage they cause.  Dosage: 100-300 mg daily.
    Holy basil is an herb with adaptogenic activity that has been found to affect multiple aspects of physiology, including enhanced motor activity.  Also known as “Tulsi,” holy basil is one of the most sacred plants of India. It has a powerful antioxidant effect and has been used as an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial agent.  Its adaptogenic affect enhances the body’s natural response to physical and emotional stress and nervous irritability. Dosage: As directed on the particular product.
    Aromatherapy may be highly effective in calming one’s emotions, inducing relaxation, and easing anxiety associated with fear and anger.  Some effective aromatherapies include chamomile, geranium, jasmine, green apple, sandalwood, sweet basil, lemon, rose and lavender. Dosage: As directed.
    Cordyceps has been used as a Chinese traditional medicine for thousands of years.  Cordyceps is used to treat fatigue by boosting energy and endurance. It may increase blood flow to the liver and other organs and thus improve oxygen use.  Dosage: As directed on package.
    This compound is being studied for its impact on stress. Marketed as Relora, it has been shown by one study to lower cortisol levels and increase DHEA.  Dosage: 500-750 mg daily, or as directed.
    Licorice is used to boost adrenal function.  In most instances, low adrenal function induces stress and anxiety.  Licorice may increase blood pressure over extended use. Dosage: As directed.
    Inositol is a B-complex vitamin that acts as a natural tranquilizer.  It may be a key vitamin required for stress and anxiety management. Dosage: 100-500 mg daily.
    This nonessential amino acid helps the brain produce two mood-boosting chemicals, dopamine and noradrenaline.  Dosage: 500 mg up to 3 times a day.
  25. GABA and TAURINE
    These two amino acids can help raise serotonin levels during depression and anxiety.  Dosage: See package.
    This Indian herb has been used to mitigate the impact of both acute and chronic stress.  Bacopa appears to increase serotonin levels and has also been used in reversing dementia and foggy thinking.  Dosage: As directed on package.
    Reishi mushrooms can have a dramatically relaxing and strengthening effect on the nervous system.  They are also reported to relax tense muscles, relieve insomnia, and increase sleep time. Dosage: As directed

NOTE: Teenage girls taking anti-depressant drugs in the presence of depressed iron levels may very well increase their risk of anxiety disorders.  One study showed 70% of teenagers with anxiety disorders were seen by ten different doctors before being properly diagnosed. Try biofeedback, yoga, meditation, regular exercise, dancing, and/or sleep.


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