By David Blyweiss, M.D., Advanced Natural Wellness
May 18, 2012
- The only thing more important than diet and exercise to your health
- No, it’s not all in your head
- Why retirement is no less stressful than working
Obviously, I think what you eat is critical to your health. Moving your body is essential to protect your mobility. And exercising your mind keeps your brain swimming in BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein stimulating and protecting some very special nerves!
But there is another element of your health more important than you may realize. An element you may be overlooking… to your detriment.
In fact, 60% – 90% of all doctor visits can be traced to this one health concern. And it plays a role in a long list of conditions and diseases including heart attack, hypertension, diabetes, asthma, chronic pain, insomnia, allergies, diabetes, cancer, headache, backache, depression, and even car accidents and suicide.
I’m talking about stress.
The problem with stress is that it has very real physical downstream effects we treat like a psychological condition. And unlike a virus forcing you into bed, or a broken limb requiring a cast, stress is a chronic, daily part of your life that can go unchecked for years.
By the time you can’t ignore it any more, the effects of stress can be deadly.
In today’s issue, we’ll discuss a few easy, convenient ways to reduce your stress level every single day. And a few compelling reasons not to ignore your stress and simply hope it will go away…
To clear up a common misperception once and for all… stress is not all in your head. Its product is all in your adrenal glands though. These tiny glands sit on top of your kidneys. Their main job is to produce and release hormones.
One hormone in particular, cortisol, controls how your body chemically experiences and handles stress. But that’s not all it does. Cortisol also controls the strength of the immune system. Too much weakens it. And too little leads to an overactive immune system which is a huge part of autoimmune disease.
Cortisol also plays a role in normalizing blood sugar, and regulating blood pressure.
This goes to show that stress is a very real physical force. And it can wreak havoc on your health if you don’t take steps every day to address it.
Relaxing on weekends or taking an annual two-week vacation isn’t enough. Stress builds up daily, and needs to be reduced daily.
Studies have shown stress reduction dramatically improves the response to treatment for patients with cancer, autoimmune conditions and other diseases. And yet, when we are healthy, we don’t take our stress very seriously.
Now, I understand that not everyone is comfortable with some of the more popular stress reduction recommendations, such as yoga, meditation or even a professional massage.
But even if there’s no yoga mat hiding in your closet and you can’t sit cross-legged for more than 30 seconds without getting leg cramps (or feeling silly) there are some simple – and very important – stress reducing steps you can take every single day.
Change Your Breathing, Lower Your Stress: Using your breath to lower your stress is one of the simplest and most effective approaches. You can do it anywhere, anytime. While sitting in traffic, during your morning routine in the bathroom, and before you turn out the lights and go to sleep. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is as easy as taking a deep breath through your nose to the count of 4, holding it for a count of 5, and releasing it through pursed lips for a count of 6.
Yes, breathing is a natural, automatic act. But when you are under the effects of stress hormones, you unconsciously take more shallow breaths. Meanwhile, deeper breathing can drive down your cortisol levels, introduce more oxygen into your system (all the way to your colon), and promote a general feeling of relaxation.
Trick Yourself Into Meditation: There are many ways to meditate – not just sitting on a cushion and chanting. Any repetitive activity that focuses your mind on the present can be considered relaxing and meditative, such as knitting, throwing a ball back and forth, chopping vegetables, walking, and gardening.
Regardless of your chosen form of meditation, it’s hard to argue with the statistics.
In hundreds of studies, people who meditate experience less stress-related diseases and conditions than people don’t.
Less Caffeine, More Relaxing Herbs: You may think you need that shot of caffeine in the morning to wake up, and maybe more throughout the day to keep going. But the truth is, caffeine doesn’t just wake you up, it compounds stress, both physically and psychologically. Not only does it increase your blood pressure and heart rate, it also enhances your perception of stress.
Instead, try using relaxing herbs, especially at the end of the day to unwind. Chamomile, lemon balm, passionflower, kava kava, schisandra, hops, lavender and valerian are all known for having relaxing, anti-anxiety qualities. You can find these in teas, tinctures, and as part of herbal blend supplements.
You can also switch to green tea, which is lightly caffeinated, but is also high in antioxidants and has many other health benefits.
If stress or caffeine – or both – keep you awake at night there are two amino acids that can help. L-Theanine is a caffeine suppressant, and 5HTP, also known as tryptophan, makes you feel more relaxed and even sleepy. Consider these supplements to help you both relax and get a good night’s sleep, so you reset your stress meter each day.
Physical Intimacy: All forms of physical intimacy, from hugging and hand-holding, to massage, to lovemaking, counteract the negative effects of stress by stimulating the release of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, and reducing stress hormones.
A great Catch-22 of course, is that people often say they are “not in the mood” to be physically intimate when they feel stressed out. And yet, research shows that men and women alike experience a reduction of stress and an increase in positive feelings after sharing physical intimacy.
Turn Off The TV and Turn On The Music: Another popular myth is that watching television is a good way to relax and unwind. Not true! Depending on what you watch, TV can be stressful – or at the very least mind-numbing – but rarely does it lower stress. You would be much better off listening to music, especially classical or light jazz. Music is often used with patients before surgery to keep blood pressure down, or with cancer patients in conjunction with treatments that cause pain, stress and anxiety. Television may be distracting, but music is relaxing.
Just in case you were thinking you would have plenty of time to relax when you retire, studies show that stress during your working years can haunt you long after your last day, well into your retirement.
Think about it. You spend years building up a tolerance to your daily stress. You might not even have noticed it until you went on vacation and felt the difference.
Unfortunately, the body remembers that daily stress for years after it goes away.
Not to mention, retirement can usher in a whole new set of stressors, such as money concerns, health challenges, and changes in relationships and new daily schedules to adjust to.
Finding new post-retirement activities that spark your passion and make you feel vital and challenged can help you to re-direct that old stress habit in new, positive ways.
Allen K. et al. Normalization of hypertensive responses during ambulatory surgical stress by perioperative music. Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol. 63, May/June 2001, pp. 487-92.
Salonen PH, et.al., Long-term associations of stress and chronic diseases in ageing and retired employees. Psychol Health Med. 2008 Jan;13(1):55-62.
Brand S, et.al., Influence of Mindfulness Practice on Cortisol and Sleep in Long-Term and Short-Term Meditators. Neuropsychobiology. 2012 Feb 24;65(3):109-118. [Epub ahead of print]