Stress can be thought of as the general response of our bodies to any demand in our lives. A certain amount of stress in our lives is what keeps us active and action oriented. We certainly need stressors, such as exercise, love and family, an interesting job, holidays and laughter to lead exciting and animated lives. The nervousness associated with these events should be viewed as normal, healthy responses of our bodies.
However, with our pursuit of colourful, highly active lives today comes unpleasant stressors such as long-lasting injuries or poor health, a fight with a loved one, separation or divorce, continuous pressure to perform at our job, financial worries, and loss of loved ones. If these periods of negative stress continue for long periods, our minds become so overloaded with worries and problems that our entire body becomes hampered by our dysfunctioning mind. This is CHRONIC STRESS. Chronic stress is a mental and physiological condition recognized by the medical community as significantly contributing to many common and deadly afflictions. These include asthma, diabetes, ulcers, arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, muscle joint pain, migraines, obesity/leanness, irritability, emotional problems and the common cold.
Unfortunately, stress has become an accepted part of our existence. Short of turning off the world, what steps can we take to help us cope both mentally and physically with stress? A simple look at what is going on inside our bodies when we are under stressful conditions will help us understand and eventually deal with our own stress in healthy positive ways.
The Psyco/Physiology of Stress
When the human body is faced with physical or mental external stressors, a series of changes occurs in the body enabling us to react. Nature gave us this ability called FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE, so that we may stay and fight our enemies or run for our lives. With having to adjust to today’s faster pace and today’s complex social and environmental psychological stresses, this FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE may be initiated many times a day. This results in large internal chemical and nervous system changes. The problem is that our human body was not meant for such a barrage of chemical and nervous system inputs and has not yet adapted genetically to our new lifestyles. As you will see, it is the excess of the FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE that contributes to the diseases associated with stress.
How the Fight or Flight response works
Our brain initiates this response by first perceiving events that threatens our survival or events that require quick reaction and then by activating our sympathetic nervous system.
Our sympathetic nervous system is so named because it “sympathizes” with our requirement to Fight or Flee, that is it, activates our FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE. It acts alone by releasing adrenaline and activates our adrenal glands in periods of higher stress. We might say that the sympathetic nervous system uses the adrenals as a “gas pedal” or “booster” to really get us moving.
The adrenal glands, located on top of each kidney, then release large amounts of adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol, which together create the FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE. Adrenaline release increases the body’s metabolic rate and acts with our sympathetic nervous system to divert blood (and thus nutrients) from areas not required for fighting or fleeing (such as from our digestive system, skin and kidneys) to areas that require blood for fighting and fleeing such as the muscles, heart, lungs and brain. Cortisol works with adrenaline and other nervous system hormones to mobilize fats, sugars and proteins from tissues so that we have the energy to sustain our “running” or “fighting” (our adaptation to stress). It also shuts down our immune system in order to conserve energy for fleeing.
At this point we should mention the parasympathetic nervous system, which is involved with “RESTING and DIGESTING”. When we are no longer fighting or fleeing, our brain perceives a period of rest and activates the parasympathetic nervous system to replenish our reserves of energy and allow our injured tissues to heal. The parasympathetic nervous system slows our heart rate, diverts blood
to our digestive system and replenishes our lymphatics for fighting infections and viruses.
How long-term stress affects the body
Under chronic fight or flight responses (i.e. chronic stress that unfortunately includes worrying, emotions and life changes), our brain activates our sympathetic nervous system and releases hormones almost continually. The result is a sympathetic nervous system and adrenal glands that maintain the body in a state primed for fighting and fleeing. As this continues, our system resets itself to operate at this higher level (sometimes referred to as being “High on your own hormones”). Unfortunately, our body was not designed to withstand this additional strain for long. Our muscles, now continually turned on, fatigue and require increased amounts of nutrients to work. This includes the heart and muscles associated with our blood vessels and our organs. You can begin to see how conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, muscle/joint pain and stomach ulcers are created or made worse from stress.
More general changes that occur for everyone in a state of chronic stress include an increase in our body’s demand for fuel that far outstrips its intake from a digestive system that is operating at reduced capacity. Eventually, our adrenals release so much cortisol in an attempt to get more energy from our tissues and sustain our fight or flight response, that our body starts consuming its own tissues. You might see these as the effects of aging due to stress (muscle wasting/ thinning/weakness and skin changes). Our immune system, including our lymph glands and thymus gland, begins to atrophy due to the prolonged excess of cortisol. Our white blood cell count drops and our ability to fight infections and viruses is reduced; our colds never seem to go away. Eventually, our adrenal glands become fatigued and no longer support us in even simple day-to-day pleasant and unpleasant events; we have no energy even for things we enjoy doing.
The continual stimulation of the adrenals causes its excessive release of other hormones. Excessive aldosterone, which regulates our salt and water retention, can lead to edema or puffy tissues. Potassium is lost in the urine resulting in low potassium levels and contributing to nervous disorders, constipation, irregular heartbeat and muscle cramps. For women, one can understand the aggravating
effect of stress on PMS symptoms. Also for women, the increased release of androgens from the adrenals can result in the excessive growth of facial or body hair. For both sexes, the combined effects of excessive hormones from stress can lead to hair loss on the head. Hard to believe that so much damage can result from too much stress in your life!
Our program to help reduce stress and the effects of stress
In general, our approach to stress management is three-fold.
First, with formal visits to your Naturopathic Doctor, many of your treatments including Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Chinese herbs, Western botanicals and diet therapy will act directly on your body’s ability to cope with stress and indirectly to reduce your stress by providing pain relief and improvement of your condition. In addition, the major stressors in your life will be considered and if deemed to have medical repercussions, or are leading to medical problems, the staff of NaturoMedicTM.com will work with you on our unique stress management program.
Second, with our stress management program, you will learn how you can deal better mentally with stresses in your life by showing you how to take positive, active steps to improving your outlook on life, your self-esteem, your confidence and your ability to make positive change in your life. This will allow you to reduce your stress level and improve your ability to cope with stress. In so doing, you will reduce your brain’s perceived need for invoking the FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE.
Third, you will also learn how to physically invoke a RELAXATION RESPONSE so that your brain turns off your sympathetic FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE and turns on your parasympathetic REST and DIGEST RESPONSE. Thus, for the same amount of stress in your life, you will now have the capability to reduce your body’s negative responses to that stress.
At the Nature Medicine Clinic we incorporate the HeartMath intervention. It is a research-based system of scientifically validated tools, techniques and technology to transform stress, harness the power of the heart/brain communication and increase emotional self-regulation. The HeartMath system uses a non-invasive ear sensor to monitor heart rate patterns and variability. The sensor examines the state of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system to provide information on the coherence of the brain, lungs and heart. The level of synchronization between these organ systems will help to assess not only the brain’s ability to process information but also the physiological depletion that can be directly affecting your health.
Nature Medicine Clinic’s Stress Management Program involves 5-6 sessions with qualified medical staff operating the HeartMath system to teach emotional refocusing, restructuring and acute stress reduction skills. The program helps to establish a new physiological and psychological baseline to reinforce positive behavioral changes long-term.