Sandra Justice, P.D., FACA
Stress is a broad, ambiguous, and often poorly understood concept. In its most simplified sense, stress is what one feels when life’s demands exceed one’s ability to meet those demands. In a much more elaborate sense, stress goes far beyond what one actually feels, causing predictable changes in immune function, hormone levels, enzymes, and gastrointestinal function. In fact, prolonged stress, whether a result of mental/emotional upset or due to physical factors such as malnutrition, surgery, chemical exposure, excessive exercise, sleep deprivation, or a host of other environmental factors, causes certain predictable systemic effects.
Prolonged stress ultimately forces us to accommodate to maintain a relative balance in the face of the continued challenges. But, in time, we all reach a point beyond which compromises are no longer possible, function suffers, and we experience a decline in performance.
Who’s Most at Risk?
People with the following conditions or characteristics are at a higher-than-average risk for developing a stress disorder.
- Women are at greater risk than men
- Older people and children
- People with the following personality traits: neurotic, extroverted, poor self-confidence, past history of psychiatric problems
- Genetic disposition
- Guilt or shame
- Lack of social support or financial security
- Early separation from parents, childhood neglect
- Alcoholic parents
Signs and Symptoms
A stress disorder often has the following signs and symptoms:
- Flashbacks, dreams, and intrusive thoughts
- Avoidance of anything that prompts recollection of the trauma
- Inability to recall aspects of the traumatic event
- Detachment, a decrease in emotional response
- A sense that one’s future will be cut short
- Impulsiveness, risk-taking á Hopelessness
- Overreactions, such as increased arousal, anger, and startled response
- Problems functioning normally in work and social settings
Health Consequences of Chronic Stress
From headaches to heart disease and immune deficiencies to digestive problems, stress is a factor in many illnesses. A substantial contributor to stress-induced decline in health appears to be an increased production of stress hormones and subsequent decreased immune function.
Stress and emotions associated with stress are strong risk factors predictive of future cardiac events, including myocardial infarction and cardiac death, among individuals with existing coronary artery disease.
Research clearly indicates a bout of acute stress in virtually any form will cause, at the very least, a temporary decrease in functioning of the immune system, while chronic stress will result in continued decline in immune system function. Daily problems, lack of a sense of humor, and negative emotions can decrease immune system function. To demonstrate the profound effect of emotions associated with stress on immune secretions, a single five-minute experience of anger can produce a significant decrease in these secretions that can still be measured up to five hours after the emotional experience. 1
Stress has a significant influence on the balance of intestinal microflora. In fact Moore et al found, “the composition of the flora was not significantly affected by drastic changes in diet, but statistically significant shifts in the proportions of some species were noted in individuals under conditions of anger or fear stress. 2
Traditional Drug Therapies and Treatment Plans
While symptoms associated with acute stress decrease with time, chronic stress requires a longer and more complex treatment plan, which may include crisis intervention, education, and psychotherapy. Your provider may also prescribe anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, and sedatives.
Complimentary and Alternative Therapies
Following these nutritional tips may reduce symptoms.
- Avoid refined foods and inflammatory foods such as caffeine, alcohol, dairy, and animal products.
- Increase foods that nourish the nervous system, such as whole grains, fresh vegetables, and foods rich in essential fatty acids such as nuts, seeds, and cold-water fish.
- Take B-complex (50 to 100 mg per day), calcium (1,000 mg per day), and magnesium (400 mg per day), which may be depleted by stress.
- Vitamin C (1gram 3 times daily) can support adrenal function and decrease high cortisol levels found in individuals under stress.
- Amino acids such as tyrosine (100-150 mg/kg of body weight per day), lipoic acid (100 mg 2-4 times per day), and phosphatidylserine (800 mg per day) are beneficial in reducing the acute effects of stress and fatigue on task performance.
The term “adaptogen” is used to categorize plants that improve the non-specific response to and promote recovery from stress. Perhaps the best-known adaptogen is ginseng, in particular Siberian ginseng. Ingestion of extracts from this plant has shown increased ability to accommodate to adverse physical conditions, improved mental performance, and enhanced quality of work under stressful conditions. 3
Other herbs that may provide relief from symptoms of stress include passionflower, lemon balm, kava kava, valerian, ashwagandha, St. John’s wort, wild yam, and chamomile.
Plant sterols and sterolins are pytochemicals generally described as plant “fats’ which are chemically similar to cholesterol but appear to have “adaptogenic” biological activity. These phytochemicals might be a valuable nutrient intervention to counteract the systemic effects of stress.
The addition of nutritionals and herbs to current traditional drug therapies should be done only under the guidance of a healthcare provider knowledgeable in traditional and alternative medicine.
Self Help Tips
It is important to learn practical ways for venting your emotions rather than holding them in or taking it out on others. And learn warning signs that you are out of control and need help handling your emotions. 4
- When feeling strong emotions or anger, remove yourself from others immediately.
- Then, when you are alone, feel the anger in your body while breathing deeply and slowly. This will immediately calm you down so that you can regain control of yourself. Then the anger will dissolve until you can release the cause of the problem. If you resist feeling the anger, it will only get worse.
- A warning sign is that you cannot hear another perspective- instead you shut down and withdraw or lash out and make others wrong.
- You resort to physical violence to solve problems or want to.
Many find regular yoga, massage, and breathing exercises beneficial to combat stress and negative thought patterns and emotions. Moderate aerobic exercise is an important component of a daily wellness regimen.
Acute and chronic exposure to stress results in measurable changes to a variety of critical aspects of immune, enzyme, and hormonal function. While the scientific investigation of the use of nutritional supplements and herbal adaptogens to counteract some of the detrimental effects remains in its infancy, based on available research, the aforementioned recommendations can be made.
Acute stress is usually self-limiting with symptoms decreasing with time. Chronic stress requires a longer treatment period with most patients being more responsive to a multifaceted approach.
- Rein G, Atkinson M, McCraty R. The physiological and psychological effects of compassion and anger. J Adv Med 1995;8:87-105.
- Moore WE, Cato EP, Holdeman LV. Some current concepts in intestinal bacteriology. Am J Clin Nutr 1978;31:S33-S42.
- Farnsworth NR, Kinghorn AD, Soejarto D, Waller DP. Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus): Current status as an adaptogen. Econ Med Plant Res 1985;156-215.
- Dr. Teresa Dale, N.D., AlternativeMedicine.com