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Stress Effects, Health & Healing

Updated: Aug 21, 2022

“I will breathe. I will think of solutions. I will not let my worry control me. I will not let my stress level break me. I will simply breathe and it will be okay because I don’t quit.” – Shane McClendon


Stress! It seems to be a rampant struggle in our world today. For so many, they deal with it almost daily. Our lives have become much busier and filled with multiple obligations, bills, activities and ever-increasing work responsibilities that it’s a normal response to feel overwhelmed. Our bodies are physiologically designed to withstand acute stress from time to time. Swerving to avoid a car crash, studying for an exam, finishing a project at work by the deadline, giving an important presentation or running from a mountain lion or a bear on a hiking trail. (Hopefully not that last one!) Chronic stress over many years, on the other hand, is catastrophic to our bodies and results in a variety of symptoms. Our bodies are always “speaking” to us telling us what’s going on. “Something’s not right and I’m definitely out of balance” it whispers to us. If we continue to ignore our bodies, it gets our attention later with more blatant symptoms. These symptoms may take months to years to fully develop. The long-term effects of stress adversely affects how our bodies are supposed to function properly. In some cases, this can lead to chronic illnesses if left untreated.


Listed below are common symptoms that indicate our bodies are overworked and need a much-needed respite from stress.

  1. Chronic abdominal pain, heartburn and gastric or duodenal ulcers

  2. Change in bowel movement regularity – looser stools, diarrhea or in some cases constipation

  3. Headaches, muscle and body aches

  4. Chronic anxiety and/or panic attacks

  5. Depressed mood related to change in hormones, neurotransmitters, fatigue, poor sleep, unhealthy food choices and more.

  6. Overreactive, anger, irritability and outbursts

  7. Increased emotional sensitivity and crying

  8. Ongoing fatigue, either in the morning or crash in the afternoon or early evening – all worsened by ongoing stress

  9. Weakened immune system and increased risk of infections

  10. Increased heart rate, palpitations; in extreme cases, chest pain

  11. Eyelid and muscle twitching

  12. Sleep disturbances and other circadian rhythm disorders with trouble falling and/or staying asleep

  13. Hair loss and hair turning gray prematurely

  14. Skin thinning, especially the face and around the eyes leading to dark circles

  15. Weight gain, especially more abdominal fat

  16. Irregular menstrual periods – either skipping monthly periods, early or delayed

  17. Earlier onset of perimenopausal/menopausal symptoms and early Andro-pause (male hormone decline) symptoms

  18. Decreased or non-existent libido or sex drive

  19. Blood sugar dysregulation: hyper or hypo glycemia, insulin resistance, pre-diabetes

  20. Increased sensitivity to light, sounds and smells

  21. Increased blood pressure or in some cases extremely low blood pressure as in adrenal fatigue

  22. Metabolic Syndrome: a combination of conditions including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess abdominal and waist fat, elevated cholesterol or triglycerides and therefore increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

  23. Lab test results will show elevated cortisol (for a short time, then severely low cortisol after years of chronic stress). Will also demonstrate elevated glucose, triglycerides, LDL Cholesterol – the potentially harmful atherosclerotic lipid. And may also indicate reduced reproductive hormones like progesterone, estrogen, DHEA and testosterone.

As you can see, stress significantly affects the entire body! What can we do to help alleviate these stressful symptoms? So many excellent healing choices that we can make are listed below.


Breathe


Oxygen is essential for survival. When we are stressed, we tend to engage in shallow breathing. Practicing mindfulness based slow deep breathes can not only saturate our brain and other vital organs with oxygen, it also shifts away from the adrenaline/cortisol driven sympathetic nervous system (“Fight or Flight” response) to the calming parasympathetic nervous system – which helps us feel relaxed and a sense of peace. Try this very simple, quick and effective exercise anytime, anywhere. Find a quiet place to retreat if possible. Practice this until it becomes a positive habit. This is really effective!

  1. Slowly inhale for a count of four.

  2. Hold for a count of four

  3. Slowly exhale for a count of four

  4. Wait for a count of four.

  5. Repeat this process several times until you feel a sense of serenity.

Binaural Beats


Binaural beats, if you have heard of them, go far beyond just simple musical sounds. Binaural (related to both ears) beats are a form of soundwave therapy in which the right ear and the left ear are listening to two mildly different sound frequencies and yet a third sound frequency is “created” or perceived. For example, if the left ear hears a tone at 100 Hertz and the right ear hears a tone at 110 Hertz, the binaural “beat” is the difference between the frequencies – in this case 10 Hz. The two sounds travel separately to the inferior colliculus in your brain where it attempts analyze and synchronize the sounds (brainwave entrapment).


The two sounds of varying frequency are combined together (aka “interference”) into an additional tone – what’s known as “beat” at a perceived new frequency. The brain follows along at the new frequency and produces brainwaves at the same rate – 10 Hz. Many talented musicians, scientists and sound engineers understand and practice this concept and it certainly isn’t new information as it’s been listened to in the natural world for thousands of years. Fortunately, modern musical technology has made it available by creating binaural beats sounds and tracks of varying lengths that we can listen to on the radio, cell phones, TV, computers and most significantly with certain headphones for the most profound effect on our brains. Why is all of this important? Several studies have shown that listening to binaural beats and brainwave entrapment can help lower the stress and anxiety responses along with many other conditions. Certain brainwave frequencies can help us feel more alert or focused while others a greater sense of peace and rest. For example, listening to binaural beat tracks that stimulate Alpha Brainwaves (8-12 Hz), are more for feeling calm yet alert, productive and more mentally stable. Theta Brain Waves (4-8 Hz) are slower and invoke a sense of creativity, intuition, daydreaming, emotional processing and are present during meditation, prayer and spiritual awareness. Not really ideal for working as this subconscious state typically reflects the time between wakefulness and sleep.


Delta Brain Waves (0.1 to 3.5 Hz) are the slowest, best for deep sleep and that’s also when we are able to access information from our unconscious mind. When listening to certain binaural beat tracks with headphones, Cortisol, an adrenal hormone and Adrenaline (Epinephrine), a neurotransmitter, both released when we are stressed, are reduced. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter produced to give us a sense of calm and well-being is enhanced. If you are trying to stay calm yet focused during a stressful workday, listen to binaural beats during the daytime to stimulate alpha brain waves. If you are having difficulty falling asleep due to overwhelming stress, listen to binaural beats that create Delta Brain Waves. You can find an abundant variety of tracks for free on YouTube.com. Simply use your smart phone and a pair of headphones or earbuds.


Food as Medicine


The most important foundation to health is making sure that you feed your body with healthy, nutritious foods. Depending on the patient and their symptoms, I typically recommend eating a Paleo Diet. Contrary to what many might presume, the Paleo Diet does not recommend mostly animal protein. The Paleo Diet emphasizes mostly vegetables, fruits, normal size serving of healthy sources of animal protein (3-6 oz). You can substitute plant protein like beans, legumes and some nuts if you are a vegetarian. The Paleo Diet also promotes plant-based fats and oils like olive, coconut, avocado, grapeseed oil and many others. And most importantly, the Paleo Diet limits ALL grains, especially gluten containing grains, that for many contributes to digestive complaints, inflammation, sluggishness, brain fog, increased body weight, glucose and lipids. Eating a healthy, balanced diet ensures glucose, cholesterol, triglyceride levels and blood pressure stay within the normal reference ranges. When our body is stressed, our blood sugar increases as our body senses we are in fight or flight mode and therefore our caloric demands increase to provide fuel for our body, including our muscles (to run from the “predator” that doesn’t exist that often in our world today. Today’s “predators” might be work, family, financial, traffic stressors and more. During chronic stress, our bodies get depleted of essential nutrients at a faster rate. Plus, we tend to crave more refined carbohydrates under periods of stress due to erratic cortisol levels. It is extremely important to give our bodies healthier sources of carbohydrates like vitamin and mineral rich fruits and vegetables, rather than breads and desserts and alcohol like so many do. Your waistline and your brain will thank you and you’ll be much happier in the long run. For more information on the Paleo Diet, visit https://thepaleodiet.com.


Exercise


Move your body! Stimulate your oxygen rich blood to provide nourishment to all of your organs, including your brain, GI Tract and your adrenal glands to allow for increased production of hormones, endorphins and neurotransmitters like serotonin which allows for a sense of well-being, calm and positive mood. If possible, temporarily and physically remove yourself from the stressful situation or environment and rejuvenate your body, mind and spirit. This helps to re-focus and re-frame what you might be struggling with and assists in putting things into a different and clearer perspective. Go for a walk or bike ride right outside your home, your place of work, or a hiking trail out in nature. Walk or run along the beach, lake, river or stream. For many, the sight, sound and smell of water is exceptionally therapeutic. And as an added bonus, the calorie burning activities will lead to stronger muscles, weight loss, positive mood, deeper sleep and better relationships.


Plant Based Medicine


The Earth has such an amazing cornucopia of healing plants and herbs that are so beneficial for our organs, including those precious adrenal glands that take a hit during stress. Using evidence based herbal medicine can help heal the body in so many wonderful ways. I’ve seen it countless times with patients over the years in practice and I’ve experienced it in my own health in very positive ways. While some herbs are focused on calming the nervous and endocrine systems during times of acute stress, others are designed to be more uplifting and rejuvenating during cases of ongoing stress related fatigue. Many of these herbs are balancing and nourishing in a way that helps support the body and bring it back into better equilibrium and vigor. These plants are known as adaptogenic herbs, meaning they help your body to adapt to the stresses of life without the extremes of over-stimulation or sedation to sleep. Think of them as moderators. Uniquely based on symptoms and medical conditions, a few of my favorite herbs that I recommend to patients include the following:

  1. Withania somnifera (aka Ashwagandha or Indian Ginseng),

  2. Eleutherococcus senticosus (aka Siberian Ginseng),

  3. Rhodiola rosea, (aka Arctic or Golden Root)

  4. Lepidium meyenii (aka Maca Root or Peruvian Ginseng),

  5. Ocimum tenuiflorum (aka Holy Basil or Tulsi)

  6. Schisandra sinensis (aka Chinese Magnolia Vine).

Many of these herbs are contained within one product and provide a beautifully synergistic effect to help people adapt to life’s many stressers. Some of my most commonly recommended products are listed below and each one is carefully suggested based on the patient’s individual symptoms, medical conditions and medical history. All are available on Fullscript – an excellent online dispensary that has thousands of professional grade products used by Integrative, Functional Medicine Doctors like myself. https://us.fullscript.com/welcome/ktompkins

  1. A-Drenal by RLC Labs – 2 caps 1-2 times per day

  2. HPA Adapt by Integrative Therapeutics – 1-2 caps 1-2 times per day

  3. HPA Axis by Gaia Herbs – 1 cap 2-3x/day

  4. Phyto-ADR by Pure Encapsulations 1 cap 2-3 times per day

  5. Adren-All by Ortho Molecular Products – 2 caps 1-2 times per day

  6. Adrenotone by Designs for Health – 1 cap 2-3 times per day

Sleep


For some of us when we are stressed, our sleep is one of the first things to get disrupted. Whether its trouble falling asleep due to racing thoughts and inability to calm the mind or difficulty staying asleep leading to choppy, interrupted sleep. Regardless, our circadian rhythm is out of balance and that will continue to have significant health effects if left untreated. Keep in mind that interrupted sleep could be related to a myriad of other conditions including menopause, andro-pause, blood sugar issues, excess alcohol and/or caffeine intake, chronic pain as well as psychological conditions like depression and anxiety. When we are able to get quality sleep or even a much-needed nap, our bodies are able to heal much more efficiently. Rest = Recovery and Rejuvenation! This is when our Nervous System switches to the parasympathetic mode and allows for healing of those over worked adrenal glands as well as every other organ in the body. With sleep, our brain and cognitive ability is much sharper. And when our brain is functioning optimally, it sends hormone messengers to all of our organs and allows for better production of hormones and neurotransmitters to make us feel better, happier, energized and yet calmer. What are some things that you can do to improve sleep? This will be another detailed article in itself. In a nutshell – Exercise, consume a clean, healthy diet and drink herbal non-caffeine teas in the evening, limit or avoid all caffeine sources and alcohol, meditate, pray, talk to friends, family members and a therapist, read an enjoyable book or listen to an audio book or your favorite podcast, and Journal – write or type out your innermost thoughts, dreams, goals, desires. Releasing stress (even if seemingly temporary) as frequently as you can will allow your body to relax, sleep and heal.


Therapy for your Beautiful Mind


I am a huge advocate for seeking out counseling to help you better navigate through life.