How to Control the Adverse Effects of Stress
[Editor's note: This post was originally written by Larry Altshuler, MD.]
Stress—it can be everywhere and anywhere and can occur in numerous forms: mental, emotional, physical, social and environmental. We can't avoid it, no matter what we do.
That's not to say that some stress is not beneficial. In the short term, stress allows us to react quickly and appropriately to harm or danger. The problem is, if stress continues on a chronic basis, it can instead cause a variety of medical problems.
Stress causes the production of various hormones, especially cortisol and catecholamines such as epinephrine. These hormones help gear us up to fight stress in the short term, but if they continue to be produced in excess due to chronic stress, they instead cause wear and tear on our bodies and can damage every organ system.
It is well established chronic stress can cause an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and acid reflux. It can worsen symptoms of asthma, cause disruption in digestion and elimination and depress the immune system, leading to a predisposition for infection. It can lead to chronic musculoskeletal problems and cause or worsen pain. It can induce infertility, erectile dysfunction and increase symptoms of PMS and menopause. It also can affect us mentally, causing anxiety, depression and even panic attacks. Additionally, it can cause premature aging and decreased longevity. Finally, it can worsen any existing medical condition.
Both men and women can be affected by stress, although each gender may deal with it differently. In women, hormones such as oxytocin and estrogen help prevent stress, but this may be lacking in post menopausal women. Men do produce oxytocin, but in smaller amounts, and their primary hormone is testosterone, which may increase the effects of stress. Women's brains are also wired differently than men; rather than a "fight or flight" response, women tend to negotiate, and stress can affect them more as a result.
The best way to deal with stress is to avoid it, but we all know that may be difficult to accomplish. So the next best solution is to prevent it from affecting you adversely by taking actions that block the effects or decrease the production of cortisol and catecholamines.
As April is Stress Awareness Month, explore the following tips on how prevent stress from affecting you adversely.
- Meditating daily is one of the best and easiest ways, having a profound effect on preventing the harm of stress and being the most cost-effective method available.
- Maintain a good, balanced diet (avoid junk food). Comfort foods, like a bowl of warm oatmeal, boost levels of serotonin, a calming brain chemical. Other foods can decrease the levels of cortisol and adrenaline. Complex carbs are the best, but fish, veggies, fruits, and nuts are all beneficial to counter stress.
- Exercise regularly, especially aerobically. Although it has long been thought exercises reduce stress by the release of endorphins, it is now thought a different neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, is better at helping the brain deal with stress.
- Another important step is psychological counseling, to either uncover the cause of the stress and/or find better ways to deal with it. An alternative method called Interactive Imagery (also called Active Imagination) may be even more powerful.
- Several medications, called anxiolytics (Valium, Xanax and Ativan), can help reduce the symptoms of stress but often have side effects. I instead recommend a Chinese herbal formula called Ding Xin Wan, which is very effective at relieving stress with minimal to no side effects.
- Acupuncture, which has a direct physiologic effect on the brain, can also be beneficial for anxiety and depression by rebalancing neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine. The Chinese exercises Tai Chi and QiGong, as well as yoga, can be beneficial and may provide long-lasting relief.
- There are also beneficial western herbs and supplements that can help you ‘chill out,' either in pill form, tea or through aromatherapy. These include St John's wort, dill, sage, chamomile, red clover, rosemary, tarragon, kava and valerian.
The bottom line is stress occurs in everyone's life and you can't avoid it. However, there are many actions you can take to deal with it more effectively and block its adverse effects on your body and mind.
Larry Altshuler, MD, is the author of the DOCTOR, SAY WHAT? Series; Part 1 - The Inside Scoop to Getting the Best Health Care and Part II - The Guides: What Works and What Doesn't for Over 90 Medical Conditions. He is a practicing internist, hospitalist and integrative practitioner at a major medical center in the Midwest.