A guest blog by: Dr. Michael Schutz
Stress. We all experience it. It is a natural response to adverse or very demanding circumstances and tests our well being. It is not a new phenomena but has been around for thousands of years since our ancestors were searching for food, shelter and warmth. It causes changes to our body chemistry and processes, hormones and every body system and can make us more susceptible to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, neurologic changes and more.
Stress has both short and long term effects on the body. When stress becomes chronic over a long period of time, many changes occur to our bodies and different organ systems. This can alter our normal bodily activities to ones that can damage our health.
Stress, whether momentary or prolonged, changes our body chemistry. Our bodies respond to stress by releasing adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is a hormone that causes a short term change and will usually come back to normal rapidly. It is the hormone responsible for the racing feeling, dry mouth, possible difficulty controlling our bladder and bowels and the increased alertness that you notice when you are in a stressful situation.
Cortisol is produced in the adrenal gland and helps us by adjusting our response to inflammation, prolonged stress and our glucose balance. If you have too little cortisol, you get Addison’s disease and this is life threatening. President Kennedy suffered from this. There is a normal daily variation in the cortisol level with higher levels in the morning and lower levels in the evening. With stress, we produce more cortisol initially and usually this comes down after the stress is relieved.
If the stress is persistent, over time this prolonged rise in cortisol is a large problem. Elevated cortisol over time will make our bodies less sensitive to insulin and increase our risk of diabetes. It disturbs the daily high and low cortisol levels that can alter our daily functions.
Other physical problems associated with chronic stress include:
- an increased risk of cancer or infection due to suppression of the immune system from cortisol.
- reduce a man’s testosterone level and reduce his muscle mass or bone density or libido. The loss to testosterone can add to a feeling of less energy and memory loss.
- cause chromosomal changes that accelerate aging
- affect your thyroid gland.
- cause changes in the brain that can interfere with thinking or memory or increase frustration
- cause sleep disturbances and change sleep patterns
- increase tobacco or alcohol or substance abuse or overeat as we try to find a way to relieve ourselves of the uncomfortable feelings that accompany stress
We know that stress is a natural response to demanding circumstance and can serve us well in some circumstances but prolonged stress is responsible for changes that can be very detrimental to one’s health.
What are some strategies that can reduce stress?
Most of us cannot quit our jobs or send our kids away or easily solve our other problems, but there are herbal, dietary and behavioral choices that can help.
- Ginseng and green tea can help relieve some of the problems associated with stress. L theanine is a green tea extract that can increase neurotransmitters in brain to relieve stress.
- Certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies can amplify the reaction to stress. Vitamin D and B vitamins are often low in chronic stress and replacement may help with coping with stress.
- Adrenaline gives you a burst of energy but your blood sugar drops once the stress response ends. Avoid foods that can cause a rapid rise and fall in blood sugar or it can lead to a pattern of sweet cravings. These include foods with refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
- Crunchy foods like carrots, celery, radishes, apples, pears and frozen berries can relieve tension in the jaws with chewing and add fiber which increases your feeling of satiety.
- Breakfast is very important to keep a steady blood sugar and avoid a feeling of being famished and cravings. Proteins, complex carbohydrates and whole grain foods give a slow change in the blood sugar and help us avoid cravings.
- Lunch and dinner should include low fat, high fiber foods that balance proteins and complex carbohydrates to keep us feeling satisfied. Nutritious snacks such as fruit, nuts, yogurt help level out the blood sugar and are also good for weight control.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine can worsen your sleep pattern and affect your stress hormones.
Exercise and yoga are both excellent releases for stress. Daily activity should be the goal, not just a long workout once a week. Walking, running, swimming, or just about any activity is good. The release of endorphins from exercise can raise your mood and get your mind off the problems that are causing stress. Exercise can improve your sleep pattern which can help manage stress. Even the physical activity itself can change your focus and concentration from the problem or adverse circumstance that is bothering you. Exercise will improve your insulin response and lower your blood glucose if it is elevated.
Need a quick fix; try taking a time out or even deep breathing can relieve the stressful feelings.
One last strategy is to be thankful for what you have. I try to remember the good things in my life and how much worse things could be. Alcoholics Anonymous has a serenity prayer that members say when they feel overwhelmed. It reminds us that each person has power over some things and no power over others and the person needs to recognize which is which. If you have power over a situation, then use your power to correct the problem. If you do not have power to change things, then you need to come to acceptance. I think a large part of our response to stress is our desire to change or correct things that we are unable to affect.
How each person handles stress will be different. For example, for me, most days it’s as simple as coming home to my dog Domino. He is always there when I come home and does not ask any difficult questions or where I have been. His only requirement is rubbing his tummy and giving him treats. His friendly reception each evening is a wonderful change from the hectic day that I usually have. His smiling face is always ready to greet me and helps me put things in perspective. He is a very good boy.
About the author:
Dr Schutz was born in Newport News, VA and grew up in Flemington, NJ. He attended Rutgers University and New Jersey Medical School where he graduated in 1985. He was selected as a “Top Doc” in NJ Monthly Magazine and is the former President of the Medical Staff at Shore Memorial Hospital. He is married and has 3 children. He is active in religious and youth activities.