Stress has become a pervasive force in our lives. Today many of us are living life in the fast lane – running around from one commitment to the next with no time to relax, and feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. Our modern day stresses have become so constant that many of us do not even associate the headaches, tight muscles, anxiety, racing heart, or difficulty sleeping to our daily stresses. We also don’t realize that stress is an underlying factor in many chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Stress can also reduce immune function and impair libido and fertility. It is estimated that 43% of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress and stress-related ailments account for 75 to 90% of all visits to physicians.

Understanding the stress response

The term “stress” was coined in 1936 by Dr. Hans Selye, a Canadian endocrinologist. He defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” In other words, stress is not an external force but rather the body’s reaction to external stimuli. It is how we react to rush hour traffic, financial problems, work deadlines and other events that we perceive as stressful.

Dr. Selye recognized the mind-body connection involved with stress and claimed that it isn’t stress that harms us but distress. Distress occurs when we prolong emotional stress and don’t deal with it in a positive manner.

In response to stress our body enters a fight-flight state. The hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are secreted from the adrenal glands. The body enters catabolic state breaking down fuels (fats, protein and sugar) to provide energy. Heart rate and blood pressure soar to increase the flow of blood to the brain to improve decision-making. Blood is shunted away from the gut, where it not immediately needed for digestion, to the large muscles of the arms and legs to provide more strength and greater speed. Clotting occurs more quickly to prevent blood loss from lacerations or internal hemorrhage.

The cortisol secreted during stress is now known to have many deleterious effects on health. Chronically elevated cortisol can wreak havoc on the nervous system, particularly the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for memory, concentration and cognitive function. It can contribute to weight gain and obesity, particularly in the abdominal area. In extreme cases, it can compromise the function of the neurons (nerve cells) resulting in neuron death.

This fight-flight response is an immediate and automatic response that was developed over human evolution as a life saving measure to help us deal with  physical challenges. Today however, the nature of our stress is quite different. It is not an occasional confrontation with a wild animal or a hostile warrior but rather an onslaught of continuous emotional threats, such as like feeling anxious when you are stuck in traffic, dealing with confrontations with family members, or struggling with financial problems. For many of us, these emotional stresses often occur several times throughout the day. Unfortunately, our bodies still react with those immediate and innate responses. Over time, these reactions can take a toll on our physical and emotional well-being.

Tips for De-stressing

While we can’t always avoid the things in our lives that cause us stress, we can develop better coping strategies and support our bodies with proper nutrition and supplements. Here are some suggestions for reducing stress and promoting relaxation:

Exercise
Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise can alleviate stress. It takes your mind away from your worries, reduces nervous energy and promotes relaxation.  Try a combination of both aerobic activities (walking, cycling, and swimming) and stretching activities, such as yoga.

Nutritional Support
Your nutritional status can have a great impact on your ability to cope with stress. Start by eating a good breakfast. Choose foods that are low in the glycemic index (process slowly into sugar) and high in nutritional value, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Avoid processed and fast food as much as possible, since these foods can cause mood swings, irritability, and anxiety and worsen stress.

Supplements
Nutritional supplements containing B-vitamins, vitamin C and magnesium can help support the body during stress as they are essential for the health and function of the nervous system. These nutrients are also depleted in the body during times of stress.

L-theanine, an amino acid found naturally in green tea, can help promote calming and relaxation and improve sleep quality. Unlike prescription tranquilizers, L-theanine is not addictive and does not cause drowsiness or impair short-term memory. In fact, studies show that L-theanine can actually heighten mental clarity and focus, while promoting relaxation. The benefits can be noticed within 30 minutes. Look for Suntheanine®, the clinically studied form of L-theanine.

Breathing techniques
Otherwise known as belly breathing, deep breathing is a simple yet effective stress reduction technique. Deep breathing increases oxygen levels in the body and has a natural calming effect. Sit comfortably in a quiet area. Take a deep breath in through your nose, counting from one to four as you breathe in. Exhale through your mouth as you count down from four to one. Repeat 20 or 30 times. Try to practice deep breathing several times throughout the day, especially when you are feeling stressed.

Visualization
Visualization, also known as mental imagery or guided imagery, is a method of connecting mind and body to promote relaxation and healing. Sit or lie in a comfortable, quiet spot and close your eyes and think of a place or memory that makes you feel good and relaxed. Take slow deep breaths, relaxing all your muscles and focusing on that happy place that makes you feel good.

Sleep
With today’s busy lifestyles, sleep deprivation has become a common concern. When we are tired, we feel edgy, irritable, and are more reactive to stress. To improve your ability to cope with stress, make sleep a priority. Dedicate 7 to 9 hours each night for sleep.

Meditation
Meditation involves turning attention to a single point of reference and entering into a deep state of relaxation. In addition to promoting calmness and a sense of peace, meditation also slows heart rate and breathing, normalizes blood pressure, improves oxygenation, lowers cortisol levels, improves immune function, and slows the aging process. To meditate, go into a quiet area and sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and work on clearing your head. You may focus on a sound, like “om,” or on your own breathing, or on nothing at all. Try to hush the inner voices and thoughts so that you can achieve internal silence. It will take some practice, but eventually you will be able to let go of your thoughts and enjoy the feeling of relaxation. Allow 10 to 20 minutes to meditate.

To learn more about stress, its impact on health, and important stress management strategies, pick up a copy of The Canadian Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine.