Dr. David M. Brady
Stress is increasingly becoming a root problem in most health conditions, and is an especially significant element in global pain and fatigue conditions such as fibromyalgia. Physical and occupational stressors are commonly encountered throughout life and may include a busy schedule, a demanding occupation, managing children and family life, financial burdens, a heavy school load, planning for a large event such as new move or job, and the never-ending pinging of electronic devices and communications invading everyday life.
Emotional stress is more complex and often stems from weightier matters such as relationship difficulties, abuse, death, fear and anxiety.
While everyone experiences temporary physical stressors throughout their life, emotional stressors can linger and lead to damaging feelings of despair and hopelessness if there’s no resolution. Both forms of stress can have a significant impact on physical and mental health, reducing the body’s resiliency and arresting the healing process.
The health effects of chronic stress have been the subject of many studies in recent years, owing to the fact that stress has been linked to increased risks of cardiovascular disease and upper respiratory diseases, not to mention psychiatric conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders, widespread inflammation, and autoimmune conditions. In light of this, the fight for optimal health requires a serious commitment to daily stress reduction.
An individual’s stress response is highly dependent on genetics, coping mechanisms, personality, and the presence of social and familial support. Any type of stress puts excess pressure and demands on the body, prompting various biological systems to respond. Individuals with a high level of resiliency and a strong support system are often able to cope with and manage greater levels of stress, compared to those whose constitution is weak and who lack the support of others.
Chronic stress triggers the production of cortisol and catecholamines such as dopamine and norepinephrine – hormones which activate the “fight or flight” response. As these hormones surge through the body, they suppress the immune system by blocking the production of various immune cells. Stress hormones also disturb normal sleep patterns and cognitive function as they interact with and alter brain neurotransmitters.
Temporary stress is unlikely to create long-term positive health effects; however, chronic stress easily disrupts several biological systems, illustrating why it has become a root element in chronic health conditions, and especially in global pain and fatigue disorders such as fibromyalgia.
One of the most basic behaviors that can help in reducing stress and improving health is to decide whether or not you are over-committed. Life is full of opportunities, but the human body is limited in its capacity. Learning to focus on a few important commitments— while simultaneously forgoing less important opportunities— will help prevent stress associated with over-commitment. Establishing boundaries and fully committing to a few select obligations often produces a deeper sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
Regularly participating in some form of mind-focusing exercise is shown to have significantly positive impacts on stress levels and mental health. Meditation, prayer and guided imagery are all excellent tools for focusing the mind. Meditation trains the brain to become aware of the moment and to be single-focused. Chronic stress often exerts itself as “mind-racing” and hyper-vigilance. Regular meditation brings thoughts into focus, improves attention, facilitatea problem-solving, reducing all stress biomarkers, and improves cardiovascular risk factors.
Similarly, prayer is a form of religious meditation that confers all the same benefits as other forms of meditation. Throughout history, it has been noted that religious practices such as prayer are significantly beneficial for reducing anxiety, improving mood and mental outlook, pain tolerance, and general health. Guided imagery is a powerful relaxation tool that encourages optimism and positive thoughts. It has also been proven to improve sleep, pain, anxiety and depression.
Creating a calming environment through the use of music and light is a simple way to sustain a state of relaxation. Like guided imagery, music therapy promotes positive emotions while reducing anxiety and stress. Classical music, particularly, has been shown to positively stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to slow the heart rate and relax muscles. Colored light has the ability to affect brain hormones such as serotonin and melatonin, both of which are important for establishing a healthy wake/sleep cycle and contribute to positive moods. Specific colors have been used to foster specific moods in the practice of chromotherapy. Most individuals notice the positive effects of warm sunlight compared to the cold, fearful feelings provoked by dark, shadowy colors. Aromatherapy is yet another means of generating a calming environment, helpful for reducing stress.
Various botanicals may be helpful for supporting the biological systems that are weakened by stress.. Panax ginseng, Eleutherococcus senticosus, and Rhodiola rosea, are among the best known species of plants in a class of botanicals known as adaptogens. These botanicals support the adrenal glands and balance the production of stress hormones, thereby improving the body’s resiliency to stress and helping to recover. However, some of these classic adaptogens can be somewhat stimulating to the system and can make issues such as anxiety and hyper-vigilance issues even worse. I prefer using calming or neutral adaptogens mainly such as Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha).
Other botanicals can help reduce anxiety, promote relaxation, and improve sleep by supporting neurotransmitters in the brain. These botanicals include valerian, chamomile, lemon balm, Bacopa, passionflower, and hops. Natural brain hormones such as melatonin and 5-HTP are temporarily helpful when disrupted sleep patterns and increased pain perception prevent recovery from stress. Similarly, amino acids such as L-theanine, L-tryptophan, and L-tyrosine can be useful in boosting natural hormone production. (Note: L-tyrosine may provide an unwanted stimulatory effect in some circumstances so it should be used under the guidance of a licensed naturopathic physician or other health care professional skilled in managing the stress response with nutritional and botanical agents.)
Stress is a major contributor to many health conditions. It’s both a roadblock to healing, as well as a root cause of poor health. Stress-reduction often clears the muddy waters of poor health and allows for a better representation of any genuine health concerns, making it an essential lifestyle modification.
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Dr. David M. Brady is a Connecticut and Vermont licensed naturopathic physician and author of the The Fibro-Fix.