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.

Diet

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.

  1. B-COMPLEX VITAMINS
    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.
  2. MAGNESIUM
    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.
  3. L-THEANINE
    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.
  4. 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.
  5. RHODIOLA ROSEA
    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.
  6. VALERIAN ROOT and PASSIONFLOWER
    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.
  7. HOLY BASIL (OCIMUM SANCTUM)
    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.
  8. GABA and TAURINE
    These two amino acids can help raise serotonin levels during depression and anxiety.  Dosage: See package.

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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