STRESS – What is it and how do we deal with it?
This is a great series of articles on Stress, what it does to us and what steps we can take to ease our stress and the effect it has on our health.
Personally as a health coach I take USANA supplements, exercise, eat well, get plenty of quality rest and relaxation, do deep breathing exercises and keep my life fairly simple and free of most unnecessary drama.
What do you do to control your stress? Leave a comment at the end of the articles.
BY: Dr. Brent Barlow, Naturopathic Physician, Kelowna, BC
– CASTANET Column July 28, 2011
What is stress?
When most people think of stress they think of being “stressed out”. While this is a sign of stress it is not the true definition of stress. Stress can be defined as anything that challenges the body. Stress is anything that makes the body respond in order to stay in homeostatic balance. Stress can be emotional, physical, biochemical, or energetic. The following paragraphs are intended to broaden the definition of stress to help identify if stress is an obstacle to cure for you.
There are many stressors that challenge the body in a positive way. Exercise puts a physical stress on the body, breaks down muscle fibers, and stimulates the muscles to become stronger. Exams challenge the mental body and stimulate us to acquire more knowledge and become wiser. Even stressors that seem at first glance to be bad can make us stronger. When we lose something important to us like a business deal or a job it can trigger us to dig deeper, learn more about ourselves, and eventually move forward to a better future.
“Good stress” is anything that challenges the body and leads to growth, positive change, and improvement.
Given the definition of “good stress” would “bad stress” not be the opposite? Would it be anything that challenges the body and leads to negative consequences? Actually, this is not a good definition. The reason for this is that perception makes the difference between “good” and “bad” stress.
The way you interpret the stressor makes all the difference in the world. If you see it as a challenge to overcome and grow from it will be a positive stressor. If you see it as something that defeats you it will be viewed as a “bad stress” and have negative consequences physically and emotionally.
Your perception makes the difference between a stressor being “good” or “bad”.
Workload, Rest, and Recovery
Too much work and not enough rest or recovery can be a major stressor. I see so many people in my practice who love what they do but they work too much and don’t get enough time for themselves to recover. The old saying, “too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing” applies to this type of stress. Workaholics have a tendency to take on too much and neglect their healing. The most important thing to do if you work too much and neglect your recovery time is to change your lifestyle.
At the heart of everything we perceive to be emotionally stressful is one fundamental concept. “I am not happy with where I presently am and I would like to be somewhere else”. This can be a physical feeling like when you are waiting in line in the grocery store, stuck in traffic, or late for an appointment. It can be an emotional feeling like when you are having an argument with someone. It can be a timeline problem like when you feel your career should be progressing faster, when you are looking for a partner, or when you are looking at your retirement savings plan.
At the heart of everything that stresses you emotionally is the fact that you are not happy with where you currently are.
This is the fundamental sign of not being present. To be present means to be living in the essence of the each moment. It means that you are focused on the here and now not the past or future. Many stressors are things that don’t exist, have never existed, and may never exist. While there is a time to plan for the future most of your time should be spent in the present moment.
“Nothing ever happened in the past. Everything that happened occurred in the present moment at a previous time”.
Stress and the nervous system
By Dr. Brent Barlow, Naturopathic Physician, Kelowna, BC
Source: CASTANET Column, July 5, 2011
In this week’s column we investigate the impact of stress on the nervous system and on the way our DNA is selected.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that works automatically and independently of our consciousness. It controls our heart rate and breathing rate. It regulates the function of the visceral organs like the stomach, liver, kidneys, intestines, bladder, and reproductive organs. It does all the things that we don’t have to consciously do or control.
There are two divisions of the autonomic nervous system that the body can switch back and forth from. Both divisions evolved to regulate and protect the body and they both serve very important purposes. However, when the body remains in one division for too long, specifically the sympathetic division, problems occur.
The parasympathetic division is the wing of the autonomic nervous system that promotes healing and optimal function. It is also known as the “rest, digest, and repair” nervous system. When the body is primarily in the parasympathetic mode, the organs and tissues receive a rich supply of nutrients, perform their regular functions optimally, and regenerate. The parasympathetic is the mode your body is in when you feel most relaxed, at peace, and in deep sleep. The more time you spend in parasympathetic dominance the better the organs and tissues function.
The sympathetic division is the wing of the autonomic nervous system that allows you to make it through a crisis. It is also known as the “fight or flight” nervous system. When the body is primarily in the sympathetic mode, blood flow and resources are shunted to the muscles and periphery of the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are produced, blood pressure increases, and blood sugar rises. The core visceral organs are almost abandoned in the sympathetic mode as things like digestion, bowel movements, urination, and most non-stress hormone-related hormone production significantly decreases. The body becomes focused on preparing the body to fight or run away from a threat.
The sympathetic division evolved to protect us from physical threats, and allows humans and other mammals to survive crisis situations. The sympathetic division is one of the most important mechanisms that has allowed humans to make it this far. However, we now live in a much different world than our ancestors did 1,000, 10,000 and 50,000 years ago. We don’t face the physical threats from predators and other events like our predecessors did.
Unfortunately, the body doesn’t know this, and still shifts into sympathetic dominance every time we perceive a threat. This threat could be very legitimate, like when you witness an accident, when you are threatened by someone, or when you are playing a competitive sport. However, most of the threats we face in our modern world are not life-threatening, but the body still shifts into sympathetic dominance. In fact, the vast majority of threats and stressors we face are mundane and not really that important – yet our body chemistry gets turned upside down when we perceive them to be threatening.
Think of what happens to your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, posture, cognitive function, and bowels when you feel “stressed out”. Your physical and emotional bodies change drastically compared to when you are at peace. Now think about how much time you spend each day in sympathetic dominance. If there is no imminent threat, there is no need to be in sympathetic dominance. When you are waiting in line at the grocery store, stuck in traffic, arguing with your boss, applying for a new job, disagreeing with your spouse or disciplining your child, you don’t need to be in sympathetic dominance because these are not really the threats your body perceives them to be.
If there is no imminent threat, there is no need to be in sympathetic dominance.
There is a field of medicine and research called epigenetics that examines the way DNA is selected on a cellular level. Researchers in this field investigate the reasons why certain sequences are selected and others are not. While some questions can be answered by genetic or inherited reasons, it appears as though environmental factors play a large role. There is a great deal of research investigating the impact of stress on gene selection. Dr. Bruce Lipton is on the forefront of this research, and his book, “The Biology of Belief”, describes how stress alters the genes selected inside cells. In a nutshell, this research suggests that the way we think and handle stress impacts the selection of DNA and alters our physiology.
The way we think and handle stress impacts the genes selected on a cellular level and either leads to healthy cellular function or disease.
Negative effects of Cortisol
By Dr. Brent Barlow, Naturopathic Physician, Kelowna BC
Source: CASTANET Column, Jul 12, 2011
Cortisol is a hormone that is absolutely crucial for life. Without it we would not be able to survive. However, when we live in chronic strain, worry, and stress, the adrenal glands produce relatively high amounts of cortisol. The problem with cortisol is that our bodies are not meant to be exposed to these relatively high amounts for long periods of time. However, many people who have stress as an obstacle to cure are experiencing the negative effects of cortisol.
- High cortisol decreases immunity. Cortisol is a corticosteroid and like prednisone, cortisone, and beclomethasone, it inhibits the actions of white blood cells. Initially, this usually leads to increased susceptibility to infections. Eventually, this may actually lead to long stretches of time without colds because the immune system is so weakened.
- High cortisol increases abdominal fat deposition. For reasons still unknown, high levels of cortisol induce the body to lay down adipose tissue in the abdomen and upper back/neck. In fact, for those people affected it is next to impossible to lose abdominal fat without addressing stress.
- High cortisol breaks down muscle, bone, and connective tissue. Cortisol is a gluconeogenic hormone. Gluconeogenesis is a process that creates sugar from existing tissue. Cortisol promotes the breakdown of muscle, bone, and connective tissue in order to increase blood sugar for the brain.
- High cortisol inhibits thyroid hormone activation. The thyroid gland makes 2 major hormones; thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyroine (T3). It predominantly makes T4, which is actually an in-active hormone. T4 is carried in the bloodstream and eventually hits a receptor on or in a cell and becomes activate to T3. High cortisol inhibits this conversion and thus creates a form of hypothyroid.
Healthy Cortisol Levels
Cortisol is a hormone that fluctuates during the course of the day with the circadian rhythm of the body. However, stress can greatly affect the way cortisol is produced and secreted and result in significant changes from the optimal circadian rhythm. Upon rising each morning cortisol levels are about at their highest. In fact, relatively high cortisol levels are one of the things that wakes us up in the morning. As the day goes on cortisol levels should gradually decline until they hit a trough around 8-10pm. They will stay low during deep sleep and gradually begin to increase around 4-6am until you awake.
Stress significantly impacts the production and secretion of cortisol during the day and night. Chronic stress not only elevates cortisol levels during the stressor but may also lead to cortisol spikes during the evening and overnight. High cortisol in the evening is one of the major reasons for insomnia, frequent waking, and night sweats.
Natural treatments to restore healthy cortisol levels are crucial for anyone suffering from the effects of elevated cortisol. Stress management techniques are extremely important and may include deep breathing, meditation, or yoga. Adaptogenic herbs, B complex vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, glandular extracts, and homeopathic remedies support the adrenal glands and help restore the circadian rhythm. Consult your naturopathic physician for a specific plan to evaluate and address your cortisol levels.
Signs of stress
By Dr. Brent Barlow, Naturopathic Physician, Kelowna BC
Source: CASTANET Column, Jul 19, 2011
Many of the signs of stress are relatively straightforward and easy to see. In fact, most people inherently know when they are under too much stress. These more obvious signs include feeling stressed out, feeling overwhelmed with responsibility, high blood pressure, anxiety, agitation, heartburn, and difficulty falling asleep. There are many less obvious signs like difficulty staying asleep, headaches, weight gain, difficulty losing abdominal fat, heart palpitations, indigestion, bowel disorders, constipation, diarrhea, abnormal hair loss, acne, and shingles to name a few.
What’s on your mind? What’s in your mind? Where is your mind?
You know that stress is a problem when your mind is occupied with things that your body is not presently facing. When you are thinking about the past or future too much and neglecting the present moment. You also know stress is a problem when you get stressed out by relatively small or unimportant things. Remember the sayings, “don’t sweat the small things”, and “don’t make mountains out of molehills”. If you are doing these things and have difficulty changing it is time to seek help from a counselor, life coach, or physician.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine and many other traditional medical philosophies emotions are not seen as good or bad. Since all emotions exists they are seen to serve purpose. In Western cultures, we often think of emotions like anger, sadness, fear, and regret as being “bad”. However, the traditional belief is that these emotions are just as important and functional as “good” emotions like happiness, satisfaction, and joy. All emotions “good” or “bad” have the same potential problems. When they are in excess or deficient they lead to emotional and energetic imbalance.
Emotional imbalance leads to anxiety, depression, and other emotional disorders. In TCM philosophy it is important to honor emotions, process them, and then let them go. This prevents us from neglecting emotions and it prevents emotions from lingering. The Traditional Chinese approach to stress management and emotional health can be very helpful for many people.
A good physical exam should look for the signs of stress like high or low blood pressure, abnormal orthostatic blood pressure, the response of the pupils to light, rapid or thready pulse, abnormal hair loss, poor wound healing, and digestive disturbances.
Orthostatic blood pressure is extremely valuable to check. This is the change of blood pressure when a patient goes from seated to standing. When the adrenal glands are able to produce adrenaline appropriately blood pressure increases. However, when the adrenal glands are not working properly blood pressure will drop upon rising.
Blood tests are not very useful for identifying stress. However, certain blood tests can give some valuable information for the health of organs that are often injured with chronic stress. It is very important to investigate the health of the thyroid gland and the conversion rate of thyroid hormones. However, many people who suffer from thyroid conditions do so unknowingly because the proper testing was not conducted.
A thorough thyroid panel includes TSH, Free T3, Free T4, and TPO. TSH identifies how well the pituitary gland is communicating with the thyroid gland. Free T3 and Free T4 identifies the levels of each of these hormones and gives a very good indication for how well T4 is converting to T3. TPO is a marker for auto-immune thyroid disease. The most common form of hypothyroid is auto-immune and it is very important to routinely test for this so that it is not overlooked.
Saliva testing is the most accurate way to identify imbalances in adrenal gland hormones and sex hormones. An adrenal gland panel should include at least 4 samples identifying cortisol levels. This shows the amount of cortisol in the system at 4 specific times in the day and compares your levels to the ideal. An adrenal gland panel should also include DHEA. Low levels of DHEA are a major sign of adrenal gland fatigue or exhaustion and often indicate problems with sex hormone production.
A sex hormone panel can identify the toll stress has taken on sex hormone production. This can be very important for women, especially women looking to conceive or women experiencing menopause-related complications. A sex hormone panel should include estrone, estradiol, estriol, progesterone, and testosterone. Imbalances in any of these sex hormones can be treated with natural agents.
Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability (HRV) is a testing measure that identifies and evaluates the variability in timing between heart contractions. Through extensive research over several decades many patterns of heart rate variability were discovered. These patterns are very good indicators of autonomic nervous system function and cardiovascular health. HRV testing has become very well accepted as an accurate and reliable prognostic indicator for several health measures.
Heart rate variability testing can be used as an assessment tool for the autonomic nervous system. It is also accepted as a measure for overall health and useful for assessment of cardiovascular health and diabetes. HRV testing can be used to evaluate how well the body is able to self-regulate during and after stress. It can be used to promote optimal recovery after exercise and training. Some HRV testing units can also be used therapeutically to teach patients how to shift the body away from sympathetic dominance and into parasympathetic dominance.
Stress Relieving Exercises
By Dr. Brent Barlow, Naturopathic Physician, Kelowna BC
Source: CASTANET Column Jul 26, 2011
In this week’s column I highlight five ways to reduce the toll that stress has on both the physical and emotional body.
One of the most important things you can do for stress management is be present. Being present is all about living in the moment. You can only do one thing at one time, be in one place at one time, and have one conversation at one time. When the mind is in more than one place at any given moment you have slipped out of the present moment.
Buddhists monks spend most of their lives attempting to live in the present moment. They often spend hours upon hours meditating in solitude. One of the most interesting things I’ve ever learned about Buddhists is that even they don’t stay present continuously. They are just as susceptible to slipping out of the present moment as anyone else. However, what they see as the most important part of being present is catching yourself when you slip away.
Being Present Exercise:
Every time you notice you have more than one thing on your mind catch yourself and pull yourself back to the present moment where you can only deal with one thing at a time.
The way we breathe changes significantly when we are under stress. Breathing usually becomes shallow, more rapid, and involves the upper lobes of the lungs mostly. Deep breathing exercises are a wonderful way to regain control over the physical body during times of stress. It is a great way to shift the body away from “fight or flight” and back towards “rest, digest, and repair”.
Deep Breathing Exercise:
Sit or lay in a comfortable position and turn off your phone, TV, computer, or any other distraction. Place one hand over your chest and one hand over your belly button. As you breathe ensure that the hand over the abdomen is moving in and out but the hand over the chest is not being moved much. Deep breathing comes from the diaphragm and should involve very little motion over the sternum but a great deal of motion over the abdomen.
As you inhale your abdomen should expand significantly as your diaphragm lowers. This allows a full inhalation of air into the lungs, promotes oxygenation of the blood in the lungs, and forces old de-oxygenated blood out of the abdominal organs. As you exhale your abdomen should contract as your diaphragm moves upward. This forces the oxygen-rich blood out of the lungs and into circulation. It also creates a pressure gradient that allows oxygen-rich blood to return to the core abdominal organs.
Try keeping a rhythm to your deep breathing exercise. For many people it works quite well to inhale through your nose for 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, exhale through your mouth for 3 seconds, and then hold for 3 seconds before repeating the steps again for at least 5-10 minutes.
Good planning can prevent many stressful situations. It is usually easier and healthier to have contingency plans set in place rather than waiting for things to fall apart. Many stressful situations can be avoided all together by preparing things properly beforehand. Sometimes it can be stressful to plan ahead and create contingency plans. However, there is no doubt that the more prepared you are for a situation the better you are likely to handle it.
Hope and Faith
We use these words all the time without truly knowing what they mean and what their implications are. There is a big distinction between hoping for something and having faith in something. When you hope it is an inherently stressful process that takes emotional energy. You are putting pressure on a specific outcome to happen. However, when you have faith in something the emotional energy does not need to be invested. Having faith in something means that you know it will work out but you don’t know how yet and you are OK with it. When you hope for something you are ultimately wishing for some form of control or impact on the outcome beyond your actual ability. When you have faith in something you realize you can have an impact but you understand that that impact is limited.
Responding vs. Reacting
This is another example of words we use almost interchangeably that actually have very different implications. When you react to something it usually involves instinctual behaviours that often result in a less than optimal outcome. Reactions are usually made with little thought behind them and little time to develop. However, when you respond more time and thought is taken to come up with a solution. A response is a calculated maneuver that helps you achieve something. A reaction is an instinctual action that has little purpose and often does not get you closer to your goals.
Natural Stress Relieving Therapies
By Dr. Brent Barlow, Naturopathic Physician, Kelowna BC
Source: CASTANET Column Aug 2, 2011
In this week’s column I will highlight four of the most effective natural therapies for reducing stress and supporting the body’s stress coping mechanisms.
Yoga exercises are a fantastic way to handle stress both physically and emotionally. Yoga usually involves stretching, breathing, and visualization techniques. The combination of these activities provides unique support for stress management. I highly recommend incorporating yoga into your exercise and stress management routines.
Acupuncture is one of the best treatments for stress management. It is a great therapy for tapping into the subconscious component of stress. This is the component of stress that can’t be consciously controlled by thought or exercises like meditation, deep breathing, and yoga. Acupuncture is great for helping the body process and let go of old emotions it no longer needs anymore. In fact, it is very common for people to feel weight lifting off their shoulders during and after acupuncture sessions.
Neural therapy is known as “German Acupuncture” and involves the injection of vitamins, anaesthetics, and homeopathic remedies into acupuncture points and scar tissue. It provides many of the benefits of acupuncture like tapping into the subconscious but also adds some other unique therapeutic effects. Neural therapy can restore healthy nerve conduction, shut down unnecessary pain signals, and break down scar tissue. Old emotional traumas are often stored in scar tissue, tight muscles, and nerves. Neural therapy addresses these sites of physical stress extremely well and helps prevent emotional stress from taking a physical toll.
Intravenous Nutrient Infusions
Intravenous nutrient infusions are one of the most potent ways to supply the body with the vital nutrients it needs for optimal health. IV infusions provide nutrients directly into the bloodstream and thus all cells of the body. IVs bypass faulty digestion and metabolism in the liver. The body is designed to obtain nutrients primarily through the digestive tract but there are many situations where intravenous infusions provide great benefit. Sometimes oral supplementation can’t be digested well, doesn’t provide high enough dosage, or can’t be administered fast enough.
Adrenal Support Supplements
By Dr. Brent Barlow, Naturopathic Physician, Kelowna BC
Source: CASTANET Column Aug 9, 2011
The adrenal glands are the organs in the body most susceptible to the negative consequences of stress. As they wear down and fatigue the health of the overall body declines and healing becomes more and more difficult. Therefore, it is very important to identify adrenal fatigue or exhaustion and support the adrenal glands to recovery. There are several different botanicals, vitamins, minerals, and glandulars that can be used to successfully restore the health of the adrenal glands.
Adaptogenic botanicals like licorice, ashwaganda, ginseng, schizandra, wild oat, and macca are often used alone or in combination to support the optimal function of the adrenals. These herbal remedies have been used for decades with very safe and effective track records. I recommend a combination product as it seems that adaptogenic herbs work best for most people in combination.
The B complex vitamins are crucial for cellular metabolism and energy production. In fact, the B vitamins are required to produce energy as part of the citric acid cycle. The adrenal glands have a high demand for the B vitamins because they are so metabolically active and this demand increases during periods of high stress and recovery.
Vitamin C is utilized by the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones like cortisol in healthy amounts. During periods of high stress the amount of Vitamin C required by the adrenal glands increases. If vitamin C is deficient during stressful times the body is not able to respond optimally. When vitamin C is deficient in non-stressful times the adrenal glands may actually produce more cortisol because of the stress of vitamin C deficiency.
The adrenal glands are highly metabolically active organs and thus have a high demand for minerals that act as co-factors in the production of energy and hormones. Magnesium is one of the most important co-factor minerals and also happens to be one of the most deficient minerals in our soils. The trace minerals like zinc, selenium, and copper are required by the adrenal glands for energy production.
Glandular extracts provide the raw materials and nutrients required for regenerating the adrenal glands. In fact, they can significantly increase the speed of recovery. It is important to use high quality sources of glandular extracts because of the potential for toxicity.
Intravenous Nutrient Infusions
Intravenous nutrient infusions are one of the most potent ways to supply the adrenal glands with the vital nutrients it needs for optimal function. IV infusions provide nutrients directly into the bloodstream and thus all cells of the body. IVs bypass faulty digestion and metabolism in the liver. Intravenous infusions are a highly effective way to help regenerate the adrenal glands and provide them with many of the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other nutrients they require.