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What are the effects of stress?

Stress is defined as any disturbance or stressor - for example, excess heat or cold, chemical toxin, micro-organisms (viruses, bacteria), physical trauma, strong emotional reaction that can trigger the stress response (the body's hormonal response to stress). How an individual handles stress plays a major role in determining their level of health. If stress is extreme, unusual or long-lasting, the stress response can be overwhelming and quite harmful to virtually any body system and will exacerbate any disease. It is usually the individual's weaker systems that manifest most of the symptoms of stress. Because the stressors of life cannot be taken away, improving the immediate and long term response to stress is the key to reducing the negative effects of stress.


"How an individual handles stress plays a major role in determining their level of health"

The general adaptation syndrome

The stress response is actually part of a larger response known as the general adaptation syndrome, a term coined by the pioneering stress researcher Hans Selye. To fully understand how to combat stress, one must understand the general adaptation syndrome. The syndrome is composed of three phases - alarm, resistance and exhaustion. These phases are largely controlled and regulated by the adrenal glands.

The initial response to stress is the alarm reaction, which is often referred to as the fight-or-flight response which is the immediate release of adrenalin and other stress hormones from the adrenal glands. This response is designed to counteract danger by mobilising the body's resources for immediate physical activity by increasing heart rate and force of contraction and therefore blood pressure. Blood is drawn toward the muscles and there is an increase in glucose to the muscles and brain. The rate of breathing increases and becomes more shallow and sweating increases but the activity of the digestive system is severely reduced. Blood sugar levels rise dramatically.

The resistance phase allows the body to continue in a heightened state long after the effects of the fight-or-flight response have worn off. Other hormones such as corticosteroids secreted also by the adrenal glands are largely responsible for the resistance reaction. These hormones stimulate the conversion of protein to energy, so that the body has a large supply of energy long after the glucose stores are used up and promotes the retention of sodium to maintain elevated blood pressure. The effects of adrenal hormones are very necessary when the body is faced with crisis, but when prolonged the resistance reaction/continued stress response increases the risk of certain diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer and results in the final stage of the general adaptation syndrome, exhaustion.

Exhaustion may manifest as a partial or total collapse of a body function or specific organ or the overall weakening of organs and body processes. Prolonged stress places a tremendous load on many organ systems, especially the heart, blood vessels, adrenals, and immune system and is associated with many diseases.

The stressor itself is not the problem but the individual's response to the stress that causes the negative effects of stress. There are effective ways to build up resistance to stress and reduce the long term effects of prolonged stress, developing health promoting, rather than disease-facilitating responses to both short term and long-term stress.


What reduces ability to handle stress?


"If stress is extreme, unusual or long-lasting, the stress response can be overwhelming and quite harmful to virtually any body system and will exacerbate any disease"

The following substances/factors can exacerbate stress:

  • Caffeine: exacerbates the negative effects of stress by increasing the activity of the adrenals. Caffeine consumption can produce symptoms of nervousness, irritability, recurrent headaches, heart palpitations, insomnia and depression all reducing the person's ability to handle stress well. People prone to feeling stress and anxiety tend to be especially sensitive to the effects of caffeine

  • Refined carbohydrates: contribute to problems in blood sugar control, especially hypoglycaemia which impairs mental function leading to anxiety and depression and decreased ability to cope with stress. Refined carbohydrates are foods such as sugar, including white, brown, raw sugar, honey, fruit juice; white flour products such as bread, pasta, cakes and buns. Carbohydrates are commonly used as a means of coping with stress probably because they quickly raise the blood sugar levels giving a quick burst of energy

  • Food allergens: any foods you have determined as allergic or detrimental plus the foods which commonly provoke a stress response, in particular wheat and cows milk products will also initiate the stress response

  • Sodium: when you are under stress part of the effects of the adrenal hormones is to retain sodium therefore foods high in sodium chloride (salt) including canned food, takeaway food, packaged food and potato chips can increase the negate effects of stress. This does not include mineral rich unrefined sea salt

  • Cigarettes: puts a chemical stress load on the body, commonly used as a way to deal with stress but although this seems to provide instant relaxation, long term it increases the stress response and hinders more functional ways of dealing with stress

  • Drugs: puts a chemical stress load on the body, commonly used as a way of avoiding/blocking stress and although this gives some instant relief, long term it increases the stress response, damages the nervous system and hinders more functional ways of dealing with stress

  • Alcohol: puts a chemical stress load on the body, increases adrenal hormone output, increases anxiety and interferes with normal sleep cycles


Stress management

How an individual handles stress plays a major role in determining their level of health. Also, if stress is extreme, unusual or long-lasting, the stress response can be overwhelming and quite harmful to virtually any body system and will exacerbate any disease. It is usually the individual's weaker systems that manifest most of the symptoms of stress

  • Techniques to calm the mind, relax the body and promote a positive mental attitude: activities such as meditation, yoga, walking have been shown to improve resistance and reduce the negative effects of stress

  • Lifestyle factors: including time management to reduce overactivity, the removal of as many unnecessary stressors as possible and improve the handling of the stressors you cannot remove from your life. This includes establishing a good work-life balance and possibly a daily routine

  • Exercise: developing an exercise regime that is enjoyable and maintainable long term

  • A healthful diet: to nourish the body and support physiological processes while restricting substances which increase the stress response. The body requires optimal nutrient status to handle stress well and during times of stress certain nutrients will be quickly depleted

  • Dietary and botanical supplements: to support the body as a whole, reducing the negative effects of stress, especially the adrenal glands and nervous system and minimising the body's reaction to stressors


What about herbs?

The following herbs are useful for stress management.

  • Withania: A relaxing restorative herb which improves resistance to stress. Specific for nervous exhaustion

  • Siberian Ginseng: A potent restorative herb for the adrenal gland. Improves mental and physical performance, minimising the effects of stress

  • Korean Ginseng: The strongest restorative but only used short term. Very effective for assisting with depression associated with extreme exhaustion

  • Licorice: Restores adrenal function


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