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Nutrition and Naturopathy: Stress Management

by Tricia Tikasingh(more info)

listed in stress, originally published in issue 158 - May 2009

It's fair to say that stress is a universal affliction! We all suffer from it at some point, in different ways, and have different strategies to cope with it. From childhood to adulthood we are exposed to various stressors, which may be related to relationships and social interactions, work, illness, our environment, and unexpected challenges. In the current economic climate, stress levels are set to go through the roof, as it is easy to get caught up in the drama of everyday uncertainty. It is really necessary, therefore, to find coping strategies that allow us to still enjoy our lives, maintain good health and rise above our challenges in a positive way.

It is interesting that the word stress, as a description of our state of health and wellbeing, is fairly new. Before the 1960s, if the word was used, it was usually within the science discipline of physics to describe tension or pressure of a different nature. The first use of the word to describe a human state of mind or wellbeing appeared in The Stress of Life by scientist Hans Selye (1976). Since then, the word is almost a part of everyday life, not even 50 years on!

There are many different definitions of the word stress. Seaward (2006) suggests: "Stress is the inability to cope with a perceived (real or imagined) threat to one's mental, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, which results in a series of physiological responses and adaptations." We often think of stress as a purely bad thing, a negative and unhealthy state. However, scientists over the last century have explored the physiology of stress, and have demonstrated that stress can be good for us as well. It mobilizes us to action to get out of a bad situation. This acute response to stress has been very well illustrated by Robert Sapolsky in his acclaimed book Why zebras don't get ulcers. In the animal world, stressors are not long term threats. As Sapolsky suggests, think of a zebra escaping a hungry lion – it runs for its life, is either caught and eaten, or injured and dies shortly after. Alternatively, the lion is hungry and has to do something about it or it will die. We spend a lot of time dwelling on our stressors, and so they affect us negatively in the long term. This is chronic stress, and this is what we have to learn to cope with positively. Stress Management, should therefore help us in our ability to cope and give us techniques to change our perceptions of threats, whatever they may be.

The physiological response to stress involves several stages. Hans Selye was the first to describe the link between chronic stress and the damaging effects on the body. Over the years, scientists have clearly linked the nervous system, endocrine and immune systems. The central nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord, triggers a cascade of events which results in various physical, mental and emotional changes. The endocrine system, which releases a series of hormones in response to the perceived threat, has a direct effect on the immune system, and prolonged exposure to these stress hormones can cause dysfunction within the body. Conditions associated with this dysfunction include irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension, coronary heart disease, asthma, arthritis, cancer, allergies, chronic fatigue syndrome, ulcers, and lowered immunity to infections. Chronic stress may also result in depression, anxiety, insomnia and moodiness. It's a vicious cycle; the important thing is to bring yourself out of that negative space and stop the cycle.

So what are some of the things we can do to manage our ability to cope and minimize the damage? Well, nature offers us some support! You must be familiar with the saying "let your food be your medicine, and your medicine your food". If the integrity of the foundation is poor, nothing that is superficially done to the inside or outside will offer reinforcement, and eventually all will still fall. Think of your state of health as the structure, and food as the foundation. When you are taking in the right kinds of foods and nutrients, you are building a strong foundation. Chronic stress can affect every system of the body, and nutrition plays a role in every system of the body. Therefore, good nutrition can support the nervous, endocrine and immune systems as they respond to stressful situations.

How do you Create this Strong Foundation?

  • First thing's first – eat a balanced diet! What does that mean? Make sure you're getting correct portions of protein, carbohydrates, fats, fruit and vegetables, and drink lots of water. Everybody may have different needs, especially if you have existing allergies to particular foods. If you are unsure about how to balance your diet to suit your needs, then get professional advice from a qualified dietician or nutritional therapist;
  • Vitamins and minerals! Make sure you're taking a multivitamin. B Vitamins have been found to be necessary for the proper functioning of the nervous system. Vitamin C, E and Beta-carotene have been found to protect again oxidative stress (which may occur as a result of certain disease conditions or as a result of high fat diets, smoking or exposure to other environmental hazards). Zinc, Selenium and Magnesium are also important minerals that can be depleted during periods of chronic stress;
  • Essential Fatty Acids – Omega 3, 6 and 9 have been found to be beneficial in the maintenance of good mental and nerve health. They are also anti-inflammatory and have antioxidant properties;
  • Herbal supplements – St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been widely researched, and found beneficial in cases of mild depression. It should not be used for more severe cases. Additionally, it does interact with prescription medicines, and should not be taken at the same time. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has also been traditionally used to promote sleep. However, there is conflicting evidence as to whether this is effective as a sleep enhancer. Chamomile tea (Matricaria recutita) is used for its sedative properties and has an additional beneficial effect on the digestive tract.
When taking supplements it is important to use good quality supplements which provide optimum bioavailability. It is also important to get professional advice from a qualified practitioner.

Stress Management also includes other techniques like cognitive restructuring, relaxation, exercise, meditation, expressive therapies (like Art Therapy and Journal writing), communication and management skills, and creative visualization – to name a few. Each person will have individual needs, and may benefit from an individually tailored stress management plan. Stress is, after all, an individual experience. So look towards the light through the clouds that gather, make sure you are able to cope, and hopefully your perception of things will change – where there are challenges and changes, you will see opportunities for growth and expansion.

References:

Seaward BL  Managing Stress. 5th Edition. London: Jones and Bartlett Publishers. 2006.
Roy-Byrne PP. et al. 'Use of Herbal Medicine in primary Care Patients With Mood and Anxiety'. Psychosomatics 46 2: 117-122. 2005.
Sapolsky R. Stress Hormones Good and Bad. Neurobiology of Disease. 7: 540-42. 2000.
Sapolsky R. Why zebras don't get ulcers. USA: W.H. Freeman and Co. Ltd. 1998.
Selye H. The stress of life. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1976.
Wilkinson D. Understanding Stress. Poole: Family Doctor Publications. 2005.

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About Tricia Tikasingh

Tricia Tikasingh BSc MSc  qualified in Nutritional and Herbal Medicine, has been involved in research and regulatory programmes and initiatives in the UK, USA and the Caribbean. She is currently Programme Leader in Complementary Medicine at Thames Valley University, Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health, Brentford, London. She  may be contacted on Tel: 0208 568 8735;   tikkimaria@yahoo.com

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