Hyla Cass, MD
One of my patients, Ashley, is a 35-year-old real estate agent, single parent, and self-styled “soccer mom.” Ashley recently decided to take a week off to go to the beach to hang out, read books, eat seafood and just relax. But that didn’t happen.
“After two days, I was jumping out of my skin,” Ashley told me. “I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t focus on the novel I was reading and I just wanted to get up and do something.”
Sound familiar? Like many people, Ashley was chronically stressed out and experiencing “adrenaline withdrawal.” She was so addicted to the constant rush of adrenaline her body generated to help her cope with the stress in her life that she didn’t know what to do when it stopped. In fact, she was so addicted that she was willing to do anything, even abandoning her vacation, to return to the stressful life that was the source of all her anxiety.
Ashley’s problem is not unique – few of us exist in the modern world without coping with constant pressure to balance our jobs, home, kids, health, finances…the list goes on. And every day our personal time gets put aside and being connected 24-hours to our cell phones makes it even harder to find time to decompress from work and family responsibilities. The bottom line is that we barely catch our breath, and it’s taking a huge toll on our health.
Making matters worse, most of us are consumed with anxiety, constantly worrying about things that haven’t happened yet, things that might happen someday, and even things that might not ever happen at all. How many times have you laid awake in bed at night worrying about paying the bills? Finding a job? Fretting over your children or spouse?
As Mark Twain once said, “I have lived a long life and had many troubles . . . most of which never happened.”
Coping with Stress
The American Psychological Association estimates that 75% of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related problems, and surveys reveal that 75% of us report feeling “great stress” at least once a week. A study by the American Psychological Association found that more than one-third of Americans suffer extreme stress on a daily basis.
Left unresolved stress can lead to a downward spiral of depression and anxiety, causing a number of physical problems ranging from headaches and heart disease to weight gains, gastrointestinal problems, and worse.
Ashley was the first to acknowledge her problem. “I know I’m stressed, and I know my headaches are related, but I just don’t know how to break this vicious cycle,” she told me. I could see she was already paying the price of her stress with weight gain, frequent colds and chronic tiredness.
As I told Ashley, stress isn’t always bad. Stress can be a motivator. It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning and sends you to the office or to your semiannual dental checkup. But when stress takes over your life – and when you’re unable to release it – it can turn into a toxic cycle that makes you sick.
The real issue is not stress – its a part of our lives whether we like it or not. The real problem is how do you deal with stress? Without a way to resolve and release stress, you’re setting yourself up for a vicious cycle that can damage your health in the long run.
When Stress Becomes Toxic
The human response to stress is ancient and instinctive. When we think we’re in danger, our adrenal glands release the fight or flight hormone, adrenaline. Adrenaline in turn increases breathing and heart rate, sending extra blood sugar to muscles to prepare us to either flee from danger or fight for our lives.
This “fight-or-flight” response worked just fine when predators such as saber-toothed tigers threatened our ancestors. Unfortunately this mechanism doesn’t serve us well today when the threats we face are more often mental and emotional. After all, you can’t run away from your desk, your ringing telephone, your sick child or your boss’ insistence that you work overtime. You may grumble, growl or grit your teeth, but the stress response is still going to kick in, triggering the adrenals to release cortisol, the hormone of chronic stress, in an attempt to shore you up
Unresolved stress, also referred to as chronic or toxic stress, can override your body’s natural ability to adapt and get on with your life. As stresses pile up, stress hormones become chronically elevated, suppressing your immune system and leaving you vulnerable to colds, flu, and all kinds of illnesses.
In his book “Waking the Tiger,” psychologist Peter Levine described the coping mechanisms of wild animals. When stressed, animals instinctively go through a series of movements to disperse their energy and complete the stress cycle. Modern-day humans seem to have forgotten how to do this. Thus, this toxic stress stays inside us, exacting a high price.
Over time toxic stress can diminish your body’s ability to produce cortisol and another adrenal hormone, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), leading you to become even less capable of responding to respond to common stressors in an appropriate way.
Here are some of the common, short-term effects of toxic stress:
- Suppression of immune system, increasing risk of infections
- Inhibition of body’s ability to repair itself
- Slowed metabolism and subsequent weight gain
- Reduced ability to absorb vital nutrients
Some of the most common symptoms of toxic stress include:
- Recurring headaches
- Vague aches and pains
- Muscle tension
- Dry mouth
- Excessive perspiration
- Pounding heart
Left unresolved, long-term toxic stress exerts a serious toll on physical health, leading to:
- Premature aging
- Accelerated senescence
- Obesity and diabetes
- Digestive problems (ulcers, colitis)
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Inflammation and even cancer
Emotionally, long-term unresolved toxic stress affects the brain leading to:
- Anxiety, fear, restlessness
- Irritability, anger
- Loss of sex drive
- Excessive eating, smoking, drinking, or drug use
Stress, Hypoglycemia and Weight Gains
Another important mechanism kicks in when you are chronically stressed: your blood sugar levels rise and then abruptly fall. That’s because adrenaline and cortisol, another stress hormone, dump sugar into your bloodstream, resulting in blood sugar crashes. This is a serious issue, because 20 percent of your body’s entire glucose supply is required to fuel your brain. When blood sugar levels crash, you start feeling foggy, nervous, tired, and irritable. For many people the instinctive reaction, like Ashley’s, is to reach for a doughnut, Coke, or cup of coffee, so you feel “up” for an hour or so before the cycle begins again. Ashley began to recognize that the toxic downward spiral was causing her headaches, colds and flu and even weight gain.
Getting Stress Under Control
As I explained to Ashley, the key to managing stress is 1) learning to recognize stress when you experience it, and 2) taking action to break the cycle to prevent it from spiraling out of control.
Unfortunately stress is such a pervasive part of modern life that most of us think of it as normal. So how do you recognize stress? Here is a list of the most immediate signs:
• Muscle tension
• Irregular breathing
• Pounding heart
• Butterflies in stomach
• Sudden flushing
Dealing with Stress
All of us need safe and effective tools to cope with stress so that we can relax, decompress and recover. For many people the tools of choice include drinks, downers, or dope, along with their well-known, destructive side effects. And while these substances can temporarily promote the release of feel-good neurotransmitters (dopamine) and endorphins, they also lead to unbalanced neurotransmitter and blood sugar levels, resulting in emotional and mental imbalances caused by addiction and withdrawal.
And while the majority of visits to doctors’ offices are due to stress-related illness, conventional medicine has nothing to offer besides symptomatic care once you’ve developed a “real” illness, such as high blood pressure, ulcers, migraine headaches, back pain, or diabetes.
Clearly the best approach to preventing stress-related illnesses is to recognize stress when it affects you, learn to manage your stress before it becomes toxic, and take steps to break free of repeating chronic stress cycles. Happily, there are a number of natural options for helping you manage stress, safely and without side effects.
Lifestyle and Dietary Options for Reducing Stress
Take time to reflect on your diet and lifestyle. Are you getting enough sleep? Lack of quality sleep can make you cranky and irritable. It can even raise your blood pressure and cause physiological stress.
Is your diet optimized to support good health? You should eliminate processed foods, especially refined sugars, from your diet. Consider withdrawing (gradually if necessary) from caffeine to eliminate a big-time dietary stressor. Eat high-quality protein from seafood, poultry, lean meats, soy, beans and whole grains to keep your blood sugar stable.
To change her lifestyle, Ashley first decided to begin saying “no” to requests for more volunteer work at her son’s school and she asked that her business partner share the workload more evenly. They worked out a better schedule so that she had more time off. She then stopped eating on the run. She began to eat three meals a day, starting with a protein shake to which she added some fruit and a tablespoon of flax oil and a midmorning and afternoon snack of fruit, cheese, or veggies. Her overall energy immediately began to improve, without the daily dips.
She also increased her intake of high-quality omega-3 fats from sources like salmon and tuna and omega-6 from vegetable oils. Because they support the activity of neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin, these essential fatty acids (EFAs) are especially important for stress and stress-related disorders. Fats make up 60% of the brain’s weight and these essential fats also promote healthy brain cell communication, powerfully affecting your mind and mood.
Relieving Stress Naturally
If you’re experiencing too much stress and need help getting it under control, nature is your best bet for a long term and healthy solution. Nature has provided us with a number of safe, effective, and non-addictive compounds that relax both the mind and body. Instead of using drugs that attack our symptoms and leave us with side effects, herbs work more subtly to promote the body’s natural functions.
Here is a list of some of my favorite supplements and herbs for stabilizing moods and relieving stress naturally. No more side effects, impairment, drowsiness, or loss of judgment. In the proper dosages and potencies, these all have been shown to work together synergistically to regulate brain chemistry:
• B-vitamins: There are 17 essential B vitamins and you need them all, every day. B-vitamins play a critical role in maintaining energy levels and work in close combination to influence a wide variety of vital body processes. Stress, exhaustion and anxiety can drain the body of B-vitamins as they are used up to manufacture stress hormones and neurotransmitters. In addition to delivering oxygen to the brain and protecting it from harmful oxidants, B-vitamins also help to convert glucose into energy for brain cells and keeping neurotransmitters in circulation. B-vitamins also support healthy nerve function and aid in calming over-reactive neurons from firing during times of emotional stress. No single food provides all 17 B-vitamins, but fish, nuts, dairy products, soy, enriched whole grains and pork are good sources.
• Magnesium: The mineral, magnesium is involved in more than 300 body processes, including helping your body assimilate calcium and vitamin D, essential for healthy bones and a variety of other critical body processes. Often deficient in diabetics, magnesium also improves insulin’s ability to transport glucose into cells. Magnesium has a direct effect on serotonin balance and helps keep us calm and relaxed. It provides relief for both migraine and tension headaches.
• L-Theanine – This amino acid has sometimes been called “Zen in a bottle” for its unique ability to promote a sense of alert calmness. Theanine increases levels of the calming neurotransmitter, GABA (gamma amino butyric acid) to induce the relaxed, yet focused “alpha” state normally attained through meditation. As the active substance in green tea, one of the oldest, calming mood-stabilizers known to man, theanine has been used for centuries to increase focus, concentration, learning and memory, while providing a sense of “alert relaxation” and shutting off “worry” impulses.
• GABA – Referred to as the “cool” neurotransmitter, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) acts as a significant mood modulator by regulating the neurotransmitters noradrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin. GABA helps to shift a tense, worried state to relaxation, and a sad mood to a happy one. Reduced levels of GABA in the brain and nervous system are linked to anxiety, tension, and insomnia. In fact, prescription tranquilizers like Valium and Xanax work by increasing your system’s response to GABA. In the mental health community GABA is widely acknowledged for its ability to help regulate brain and nerve cell functioning to produce a calming and focusing effect.
• L-Taurine – L-Taurine is an amino acid that plays a major role in neurotransmitter regulation, helping to calm and stabilize your mind much like GABA does. Taurine levels are very concentrated in the brain where it aids in transporting potassium, sodium, calcium and magnesium in and out of cells. Because of its ability to generate nerve impulses, stabilize nerve cell membranes and prevent erratic firing of nerve cells Taurine is used to control epilepsy and other excitable brain states, including stress and anxiety. By slowing down the release of adrenaline, taurine also protects you from the fight-or-flight response and post-stress anxiety. In addition to functioning as a mild sedative Taurine has many other uses. In my practice I have used it in treating migraine, sleep problems, agitation, restlessness, irritability, alcoholism, obsessions, depression, and even the “high” phase of bipolar disorder (manic depression). Because taurine is found in protein-rich organ meats, vegetarians are especially at risk for taurine deficiency.
• L-Glutamine – L-Glutamine is used directly by the brain as fuel as well as to build and balance GABA. It has been shown to enhance both mental performance and memory. Glutamine is absorbed quickly and can provide an almost instant pick-me-up similar to longed-for stimulants, including food or alcohol. In fact, a capful under your tongue will stop cravings for sugar and alcohol, as well as other substances. As the most common amino acid in muscle tissues, glutamine improves mental energy and relaxation, reduces addiction, stabilizes blood sugar and promotes memory. Glutamine naturally elevates levels of growth hormone in your body, making your cells multiply faster and slowing aging. Additional amounts of growth hormone help mobilize fat from storage to make it available for energy.
Here are three wonderful naturally grown herbs that work to dramatically reduce levels of stress-related anxiety. They promote the relaxation needed for restful sleep, a prime component in your body’s ability to resist stress.
1. Hops: Hops has been used for centuries as a mild sedative and sleeping aid. The herb is primarily used to calm nerves and induce sleep, usually in combination with other herbal sedatives such as passionflower, valerian, and skullcap. Its sedative action works directly on the central nervous system– think happy snoozing!
2. Passionflower: Passionflower has a mild sedative effect that has been well substantiated in numerous animal and human studies. The herb encourages a deep, restful, and uninterrupted sleep, with no side effects. Passionflower has been commonly used in the treatment of concentration problems in schoolchildren and as a sedative for the elderly.
3. Lemon Balm: Lemon balm is used to counter mental fatigue and low mood.
In addition to her regular supplement program, I suggested that Ashley take my special formula, a combination of theanine, GABA, glutamine, taurine, hops, passionflower and lemon balm, with B vitamins and magnesium. Within a week, she felt calmer, more focused, and no longer jittery. She also reported that her headaches were infrequent and far milder, and she was sleeping better. She was actually looking forward to a trip to Disneyland with her son, when a few short weeks earlier she would have dreaded it.
Our lives cannot be completely free of stress, but we can control how we respond to it. By following these steps, we can break the toxic stress cycle and restore our natural ability to release stress:
- Balance blood sugar
- Promote the release of GABA
- Support the release of dopamine and endorphins
- Supply the appropriate nutrients to produce them