Women have had an interesting evolution, and fought through a revolution, in the past five decades. We’ve certainly “come a long way, baby” to a point where a woman is neither chastised nor rebuked for choosing her own life path, be it a career, motherhood, neither, or both. Women have been holding the top jobs in multimillion dollar companies for years now and achieving the highest office in the country in many nations around the world. Women have now finally found the balance they have been looking for; where they can be their own person without feeling they must succumb to the expectations of society, and where their aspirations are supported by their spouses, families, and the community of women they have around them.
Today’s woman no longer has to “roar”, but quietly, confidently, and intelligently is taking responsibility for her own health and welfare while attaining heights far above the glass ceiling. She knows that in order to look after others, she must first look after herself. She no longer mistakes self-help for selfishness and knows it is not a weakness to look to others for assistance.
Unfortunately, along with all this added opportunity comes the possibility of added stress. While in the process of achieving her goals, even a healthy woman can start to feel unwell, have headaches, digestive upset, mood swings, and feel anxious and on edge. Once these health issues begin to crop up, it’s a safe bet that stress has already imbedded itself unawares into her daily routine and is the cause of some of her physical and emotional symptoms. In this chapter, we’ll have a look at which parts of the body deal with stress, how the mind copes with stress, how a woman’s physical reaction to stress is different than a man’s, and how to feed/exercise your body to support it in the presence of stress. Let’s start with the physiology of stress.
Stress and the Body
The Adrenal Glands
When you think of stress and the body, the first things that come to mind are the adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands are one of the major endocrine organs in your body. Endocrine glands produce hormones that are released into the body via the blood or lymph fluid.
These thumb-sized yet complex little organs function as a pair and sit atop your kidneys. Three major groups of steroid hormones, collectively called corticosteroids, are produced in the adrenal cortex. One group of hormones are important in regulating both water and electrolyte balance in body fluids. A second group of hormones produced include cortisone and cortisolwhich help the body resist long-term stressors and reduce pain. The third group of hormones produced in the adrenal glands are considered sex hormones and include estrogens.
When the adrenal medulla is stimulated by sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) neurons, its cells release two similar hormones, epinephrine and nor-epinephrine, which are pumped into the bloodstream to increase heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and dilate the small passageways of the lungs, enabling the body to better deal with short-term stressors.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is also produced in the adrenal glands, serves as a precursor to estrogens, and helps to neutralize the effects of cortisol. Levels naturally begin to decrease after the age of 30 but can also be affected by type 2 diabetes, anorexia, end-stage kidney disease, and certain prescription medications.
Chronic stress, real or perceived, can eventually cause your adrenal glands to reach the point of exhaustion. A woman in a state of adrenal exhaustion is likely to find herself at a distinct disadvantage when entering perimenopause, because perimenopause itself is an additional form of stress. Abnormal adrenaline and cortisol levels can result in mood disorders, sleep disturbances, reduced resistance to disease, and changes in vital circulation. 1
DHEA and cortisol work opposite to each other; when levels of one are high, levels of the other are low. DHEA, which assists the body in returning to normal after a stressful event, is in high demand when stress never quits, desperately trying to help return the body to a more relaxed state.
The first sign of adrenal exhaustion is usually the adrenal glands’ severely reduced ability to produce DHEA resulting in symptoms such as incapacitating fatigue, mood swings, irritability, and disinterest in daily activities. The following stressors can lead to fatigue and, ultimately, adrenal dysfunction – which may, in turn, make some stressors worse:
- Excessive, unremitting worry, anger, guilt, anxiety, or fear
- Excessive exercise
- Chronic exposure to toxins
- Chronic or severe allergies
- Overwork, both physically and mentally
- Chronically late hours or insufficient sleep
- Unhealed trauma or injury
- Chronic illness, surgery
- Light-cycle disruption (shift work)
from The Wisdom of Menopause by Christiane Northrup, M.D.
Mindset, Adrenal Hormones and Your Immune System
If you are in a continual state of worry that things are not as they should be, you are, in a sense, telling your adrenal glands that a chronic state of emergency exists. And being the compliant and protective glands that they are, they will try to comply with this chronic state of stress for as long as they can. Unfortunately, along with overactive adrenals, a chronic state of stress is also coupled with less-than-perfect nutrition, inappropriate meal times, suboptimal digestive abilities, insomnia, all of which result in a compromised immune system and increased exposure to illness.
In addition to causing a deranged output of cortisol, overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) also causes decreased production of progesterone, one of your body’s natural calming agents. The result is that women who are chronically stressed also tend toward hormonal imbalance between estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone (which is important in women as well as in men).
Stress or Tension Headaches
With the pace of today’s life, it’s not surprising that stress, or tension, headaches are the most common type of headache with 30%-80% of the adult U.S. population experiencing them occasionally (called “episodic” headaches). The more frequently you have one, the more likely you’ve moved from the “episodic” camp to the “chronic” camp when you experience these headaches more than 15 days per month. The more often you have them, the more severe they become.
A tension headache feels like someone’s put a tight band around your head, putting pressure on your forehead and/or back of your head and neck. Stress is only one reason these headaches arise. Other causes include anxiety, fatigue, irritability, lack of concentration, overexertion, emotional upset, depression, and lack of sleep/quality sleep. Life stressors such as having a new baby, having no close friends or support system, losing a job, facing tight deadlines, being a “perfectionist”, returning to school, or having family issues can also lead to tension headaches.
Relief from these headaches can come in a few different forms, including over-the-counter pain medications (NSAIDs). However, the best way to avoid these headaches is to avoid the stress in the first place. Easier said than done, right? But think of all the other damage the stress is doing to your body; the headache is just one symptom, and luckily, it’s a symptom you can control. You might try stress management techniques (breathing exercises, biofeedback, daily exercise) or simply eliminating things that are cluttering up your life like a cell phone that is constantly turned on. For more information on migraines and other types of headaches, CLICK HERE.
Stress and Digestive Upset
Have you ever noticed that your appetite shrinks to next to nothing when you’re upset? And if you do eat when you’re upset, you stomach hurts afterward? There’s a simple explanation for this. Digestion and your digestive system are easily upset by things like stress. Stress can turn your digestive tract into the perfect environment for infections and inflammation.
Life-sustaining functions, such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, and body temperature, are regulated through the autonomic nervous system. This complex network of nerves extends from the brain to all the major organs of the body and has two major divisions. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the “fight or flight” response. The parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down after the danger has passed. Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems interact with another, less well-known component of the autonomic nervous system — the enteric nervous system, which helps regulate digestion.
The enteric nervous system is sometimes referred to as a “second brain” because it relies on the same types of neurons and neurotransmitters that are found in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). After sensing that food has entered the gut, neurons lining the digestive tract signal muscle cells to initiate a series of intestinal contractions that propel the food farther along, breaking it down into nutrients and waste. At the same time, the enteric nervous system uses neurotransmitters such as serotonin to communicate and interact with the central nervous system.
This “brain-gut axis” helps explain why researchers are interested in understanding how psychological or social stress might cause digestive problems. When a person becomes stressed enough to trigger the fight-or-flight response, for example, digestion slows or even stops so that the body can divert all its internal energy to facing a perceived threat. In response to less severe stress, such as public speaking, the digestive process may slow or be temporarily disrupted, causing abdominal pain and other symptoms of functional gastrointestinal disorders. Of course, it can work the other way as well: persistent gastrointestinal problems can heighten anxiety and stress.3
Most common problems associated with the digestive system such as heartburn, esophageal reflux, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis, and peptic ulcers can either be caused or aggravated by stress.
Stress and Your Heart
No one needs to tell you that chronic stress is hard on your heart卭r do they? We all tend to explain away our stress (long to-do lists, busy work environment, time of school year) and believe that it will eventually slow down, but we never stop to take a look at how it might be affecting us in the moment.
Doctors cannot say for sure whether it is stress itself or the side effects of chronic stress (high blood pressure, lack of proper diet, lack of sleep) that are dangerous for your heart. What they do know for sure is that studies have linked stress to changes in the way blood clots, which increases the risk of heart attack.4 For a further discussion on how stress affects your heart, CLICK HERE.
Stress and Insomnia
It’s not just the worrying that keeps you awake at night. There’s a biological reason and connection between stress and feeling exhausted in the morning. In a healthy, normal body, cortisol levels are highest upon awakening in the morning. For many stressed-out women, however, the rise-and-fall pattern of cortisol secretion begins to invert itself. Levels are lower in the morning, affording little or no “gas in the tank” to start the day, and they’re higher at midnight, making it virtually impossible to wind down and rest.5 Your best bet lies in recognizing the cause of your insomnia and constructing a bedtime routine that evokes rest and relaxation rather than affording another opportunity to mull over the days’ events in your mind.
Stress and the Mind
some of which actually happened.” Mark Twain
The old saying that stress “ages” a person faster than normal was recently verified in a study of women who had spent many years caring for severely ill and disabled children. Because their bodies were no longer able to fully regenerate blood cells, these women were found to be physically a decade older than their chronological age. Extended reactions to stress can alter the body’s immune system in ways that are associated with other “aging” conditions such as frailty, functional decline, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, inflammatory arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Research also suggests that stress impairs the brain’s ability to block certain toxins and other large, potentially harmful molecules. This condition is also common to patients suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.6
Brain Chemistry and Neurotransmitters
It is what it is…only your mind decides whether it’s stressful or not. Too simple? Possibly, but not if you approach stress from a strictly intellectual point of view which is never possible because it leaves out one of the deciding factors in how an individual interprets/handles stress…their brain chemistry, or more specifically, their balance of neurotransmitters.
A neurotransmitter is a chemical in the brain responsible for transmitting signals between nerve cells of the brain. We talk about the following four most often because they are most responsible for memory, attention, personality and temperament, and physical health.
Acetylcholine (pronounced eh-settle-ko-lyn) is a “stimulating” neurotransmitter found in the central and peripheral nervous systems, primarily responsible for nerve-to-nerve or nerve-to-muscle impulses. Acetylcholine is also involved in mood, focus, memory, and learning and is generally in short supply in people with Alzheimer’s.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is an amino acid found in the central nervous system (primarily the brain) that functions as an inhibitory neurotransmitter (a “brake”) by slowing nerve transmissions. GABA produces a calming, even sleep-producing, effect on the body, working opposite to the effects of acetylcholine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that affects your emotions, movements and your sensation of pleasure and pain. Dopamine has been identified as being responsible for physical movement, learning, behavior, lack of attention span, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. Dopamine also regulates mood, sleep, motivation, reward, decision-making, and creativity.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which influences psychological, emotional and physical health, including depression, migraine headaches, bipolar disorder, anxiety, appetite, learning, mood, and sleep. Some antidepressant medications exert their influence on serotonin (SSRI’s) when used to treat depression.
Perception of an event can be determined by past experiences held in your memories. For a more in-depth explanation of memory, CLICK HERE. It’s the age-old lesson learned; when you touch a hot stove, it hurts, so you generally avoid doing it again because the pain involved was “seared” into your memory.
Such is the case when you encounter a stressor; in a nano-second your memories involved with this stressor are accessed and you either come to the conclusion that you can handle the stressor or that this is a threat that requires a bodily heightened state of alert. Your brain then begins a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones that act on the thoughts you’ve just had. If you decide that this stressor is a threat (real or perceived), your brain sends the appropriate message to receptor organs (such as adrenal glands) and your body is flooded with the necessary chemicals you’ll need to handle it. All this happens as quickly as if you’ve just thought, “I want to change the channel” and your finger hits the button on the TV remote control.
The problem starts when everything in your day-to-day life morphs into stressors which all need to be handled at DefCon 1. Once this way of viewing situations becomes chronic, your overall health begins to deteriorate. The good news is there are many stress management tools that enable you to “retrain your brain”; over time, and with a little practice, you begin to recognize and deal with daily stressors on a much more realistic, and healthy, level. Once you’ve recognized your reaction to stress for what it is and what might be causing it, you can go back to saying “it is what it is”, keeping your emotions in check, using your stress management tools, and reviewing the situation once again from a more intellectual point of view. The result? You stay calm, your body stays healthy, and no one gets hurt.
Stress is Stress is Stress
Whether the stress is real (a car hurdling toward you at breakneck speed) or perceived (thinking everyone’s talking about you behind your back), your body handles this message of stress the same way; by opening the flood gates. Before you can blink, you body is in full-on fight or flight mode. That’s why just thinking about stressful events can make your heart race, decrease your appetite, and tighten muscles. The trick is to recognize this before it happens or, alternatively, if you can’t yet prevent yourself from worry and anxiety, use your stress management tools to prevent a real panic attack. Easier said than done, right?
Dr. Michael T. Murray, N.D., in his book “Stress, Anxiety, and Insomnia” lists seven steps to a stress-busting attitude. Dr. Murray advises that it’s important to “become an optimist”; to develop a positive mental attitude because optimism is “a vital component of good health”. Dr. Murray goes on to explain how to become aware of self-talk, how to ask better questions so that you’re getting the right feedback, how and when to employ positive affirmations, how to set positive goals, how to practice positive visualizations, and the age-old stress-buster of laughing, long, hard, and often. You can see Dr. Murray’s book in the Resource section of this chapter. Most Nutter’s stores also carry Dr. Murray’s book.
In her book, “The Wisdom of Menopause”, Dr. Christiane Northrup, M.D. explains how “understanding how your thoughts and your emotions affect every single hormone and cell in your body, and knowing how to change them in a way that is health-enhancing, gives you access to the most powerful and empowering health-creating secret on earth…when all is said and done it is your attitude, your beliefs, and your daily thought patterns that have the most profound effect on your health.” You can find a link to Dr. Northrup’s book in the Resource section of this chapter.
Over and above outlook and attitude, scientific studies have found a link between temperament, personality, and the ability to deal with stressors. Why is it that some people can handle stress brilliantly and others fall apart at the drop of a hat? Why are some anxious and fearful, even when they are in a secure environment? To a degree, we are born with one of these temperaments and there is evidence of measurable biological differences that go along with each temperament. Dr. Stephen Porges, M.D., has been able to measure on an EKG what he classifies as individual “vagal tone”; the balance between your parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest) and your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). Porges found that even babies who have a higher vagal tone (meaning that their PNS is more activated) are less stressed by external events in the nursery. He also observed that the personality characteristics that go along with low or high vagal tone (happy, resilient, down, melancholy, anxious, trusting, fearful) appear to follow each individual throughout life. This can explain much about our individual responses to life situations but shouldn’t be used as an excuse for unhealthy behavior.
Control is an Illusion
So, now that we understand that your attitude, outlook, and to some extent your temperament, have a direct effect on your health, how will you be at relinquishing control? Did you flinch just now? Was the first thought that flashed through your mind of your children? Being a woman, it almost seems as if we are biologically inclined to worry about things such as aging parents, raising children, financial security, etc., more than our male counterparts. That’s not to say that they don’t worry, but their worry manifests itself in a much different form than a woman’s. And, in a woman’s mind, sometimes relinquishing control has a direct correlation to “somebody’s gonna get hurt”. For example, if your child comes home and wants to join the football team, the father’s response might be “sounds like a good idea”, however the mother’s response might be “is our health insurance paid up” and “can I find my way from the football field to the emergency ward in a hurry?” Being a woman comes with its inherent facets such as worrying about our kids or parents but you do, at some point, need to realize that the better you take care of yourself, the better you can take care of those around you. Yes, you do get to have a life, and yes, there is a way to lower your daily stress levels to a dull roar. Your first step is to realize that being in complete control of life is about as doable as nailing Jell-O to a tree.
For example, have you ever undertaken a renovation project? You contact your contractor, make all your lists, purchase all your supplies, make sure your sub-contractors have their dates arranged and coordinated, and think you’re well on your way to finishing by your target date. And then it rains and sets you back weeks. This is the first lesson you learn when you think you have it all under control…control is an illusion. The next lesson you learn is “max flex”. Max flex is such an important concept when it comes to keeping stress at arm’s length and it fits right in with what Dr. Murray talks about in his chapter on having a positive mental attitude. Rather than focusing on the setback, have a look at what’s been accomplished so far because there will be accomplishments. Even if your renovation hasn’t begun in earnest, you can remind yourself that you’ve secured the best contractor for the job, you’ve managed to get the exact materials you wanted, and you just bought a new umbrella.
See the Resources section of this chapter for more online stress management options.
Stress, Depression, and Anxiety
Stress you can’t handle easily with your stress management tools can quickly turn to depression. Everyone can have a few bad days when they’re feeling out of sorts but when your blue days turn into blue weeks and months and other symptoms kick in, it’s time to speak with a healthcare professional. Depressive symptoms can include sadness throughout the day, nearly every day, loss of interest in or enjoyment of your favorite activities, feelings of worthlessness, excessive or inappropriate feelings of guilt, thoughts of death or suicide, trouble making decisions, trouble concentrating, feelings of irritability, lack of energy, aches, pains, sleeping too much or too little, a change in weight or appetite, or feelings of restlessness or of being slowed down. If you’re unsure about how you’re feeling, have a chat with your primary health care professional to clear up any doubts you might be having.
Feeling anxious about something is a normal human emotion. It’s when this anxiety and/or panic takes control over how you’re able to cope that it becomes a problem. When worry and fear interfere with normal functioning, it could be an anxiety disorder. This type of disorder is more common than you might think. Relationship anxiety was recently the subject of some new research from Ohio State University. Their study revealed that “[people] who were more anxiously attached produced higher levels of cortisol…and had fewer T cells – important components of the immune system’s defense against infection”. To read the full article on this study, CLICK HERE.
Being stressed out for a long period of time might increase anxiety, a new study shows. The study, conducted at Harvard Medical School and its affiliate, Boston’s McLean Hospital, and published in Behavioral Neuroscience, lays some of the blame on hormones. Those stress hormones – such as cortisol and corticotrophin-releasing hormone – can help respond to an immediate threat. But if stress stays high instead of easing up, those hormones could boost anxiety and lead to mood disorders.7
Right from square one, we can all agree that women and men are biologically miles apart for obvious reasons. But dig down a bit deeper, specifically to the cellular level, and we can see exactly why this is true. And it’s all down to one little substance; the hormone. John Gray, Ph.D., in his book entitled “Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice” explains that “recent research has revealed that women release a hormone called oxytocin to cope with stress while men release testosterone for the same purpose” and that “…men and women have very different biochemical needs when they seek to cope with stress…”. Dr. Gray also goes on to explain that, while under the influence of a cascade of hormones, the cycle of “action and rest” helps men cope effectively with stress while the cycle of “giving and receiving nurturing support” helps women cope effectively with stress. This covers the differences between hormones and responses to stress in men and women.
Moving further into the brain, its responses, emotions, and acute stress, the region of the brain known as the amygdala is activated by stress, helps regulate stress responses, and is the one region of the brain that is physically and effectively different in men and women. It was noted by the authors of the study “Sex Differences in How Stress Affects Brain Activity During Face Viewing”, that “stress influences emotional perception differently for men and women”. Their study observed the brain activity, via MRI’s, of a man’s brain and a woman’s brain under acute stress and how each responded to emotional faces. While a man’s response to emotional faces was diminished by acute stress, a woman’s response was amplified. It also revealed that men lost some of their ability to “interpret and understand others’ emotions” while under acute stress and viewing angry faces, while this ability actually increased in women.
Both of the above examples conclude that stress leads men to withdraw socially but leads women to seek social support.
More evidence that women handle stress differently than men appears in the article “Women and Anxiety”, from Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, Ontario. They report that “girls have higher rates of anxiety disorders than boys” and that “this difference continues through adolescence and into adulthood, when twice as many women have an anxiety disorder compared to men.” Anxiety also looks different in woman. Women report more body-based symptoms than men, such as shortness of breath, faintness, smothering sensations, with panic disorder appearing to be more chronic in women.
The key is to identify your stressors and the best methods of keeping them under control for the sake of your own health and the health of those around you.
Stress and Your Thyroid
Your thyroid produces thyroid hormone, often referred to as the body’s major metabolic hormone. In actual fact, it is two separate hormones, T4 and T3 which are very much alike. Chronic stress can have detrimental consequences for the thyroid but in order to understand how this happens, we first have to look at how hormones (chemical messengers) are dispatched.
Think of a relay race — a set of runners passing a baton from one to the other to accomplish a single goal…to win the race. Your hypothalamus, pituitary, thyroid and adrenal glands work much the same way. Signaling for the release of hormones begins in the brain in the hypothalamus. These hormonal messages are, in turn, passed off to the pituitary. From there, these messages are relayed to both the thyroid and the adrenal glands. In response to receiving these messages (or hormones), more hormones are produced to perform tasks and send feedback to the brain. This chain is referred to as the HPTA axis or loop.
In order for your thyroid to function properly, just the right amount of cortisol needs to be present, as the two work in concert with each other. Chronic or acute stress can cause an imbalance anywhere along the HPTA axis or loop, resulting in either hypothyroidism (underactive) or hyperthyroidism (overactive). The following is what happens when an imbalance occurs.
Any kind of stress prompts the brain to release CRH (corticotrophin-releasing hormone). This hormone tells the pituitary to send a message to the adrenal glands: make cortisol! But both cortisol and CRH can inhibit thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and the conversion of thyroid hormone T4 to T3. Because every cell in the body uses T3 to maintain healthy functioning, the decrease in T3 can lead to symptoms like fatigue, cold intolerance, weight gain, memory loss, poor concentration, depression, infertility, hair loss, and more. This inhibition of your thyroid and hormone receptors often takes place quietly behind the scenes for years without causing overt symptoms. And this is why so many women are caught off-guard when they are diagnosed with a thyroid disorder. They think everything has been going fine and all of the sudden, they feel horrible. The fact is, if you’ve been experiencing chronic stress, stress hormones may have been inhibiting your thyroid function for years. Some patients can even remain in what we call subclinical hypothyroidism, where their lab results are still within the standard normal ranges, but they’re experiencing symptoms.8
Fortunately, there are very simple things you can do to prevent thyroid issues:
- Take a high quality multi-vitamin that supplies selenium, iodine, vitamins A, B, C, and E.
- Eat regular meals, especially breakfast and avoid sugary snacks between meals.
- Choose high-quality, lean proteins.
- Moderate your caffeine and alcohol intake.
- Recognize and address insomnia issues with natural options such as valerian, melatonin, or 5-HTP.
- Find, learn, and use stress management tools to mediate stress levels.
Nutter’s Can Suggest…
While men seem to be able to lower their stress levels by rushing off to the garage to change the tires or fix the broken blender from the kitchen, women need to seek out others who will listen, understand, and respond to their concerns. This is fine in the short-term, however, women also have to deal with hormonal changes that can affect their moods and stress levels and last for days, sometimes weeks or months. And it’s just impractical to expect a get-together over coffee to last for more than a week. In this instance, there are wonderful products available for a woman to choose from that can help her keep her stress levels to a minimum while her hormones are doing, well, what they’re supposed to be doing.
One such product is Serenity Formula from Natural Factors. Chronic stress (stress that is not alleviated right away) can manifest itself in so many different physical symptoms such as fatigue, listlessness, insomnia, and anxiety. Over time, unrelenting daily stress will cause damaging mental, physical and emotional “burnout”. While there is no “quick-fix”, the Serenity Formula provides natural herbal help to calm down those persistent stress hormones and bring the body back into balance.
Prolonged daily minor stresses accumulate and become as damaging as severe stressful events. Mental Calmness contains pure L-Theanine (Suntheanine®), an amino acid found in tea leaves, particularly green tea (Camellia sinensis). The effects of L-theanine are truly amazing. Clinical studies have demonstrated that L-Theanine reduces stress, improves the quality of sleep, diminishes the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, heightens mental acuity and reduces negative side effects of caffeine. These clinical effects are directly related to L-Theanine’s ability to stimulate the production of alpha brain waves as well as reduce beta waves (associated with nervousness, scattered thoughts and hyperactivity). Derived from green tea using a specialized enzymatic process, Suntheanine L-Theanine does not cause daytime drowsiness. It provides help for persons who have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep because their minds refuse to shut down at night. Being calm also facilitates weight control because emotional stress is a major reason why many over eat.
Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey says that an estimated 3.3 million Canadians over the age of 15 suffer from insomnia. Insomnia is a debilitating problem and is characterized by difficulty falling asleep and maintaining sleep, and where overall sleep quality is non-restorative. Tranquil Sleep is a fast acting and very safe sleep formula can help you fall asleep more quickly, stay asleep, sleep more soundly, and wake up feeling refreshed. Tranquil Sleep combines L-Theanine with 5-HTP and melatonin. These ingredients exert a gentle yet powerfully synergistic effect to promote restful sleep and calm nervousness. These ingredients are supported by extensive research for their role in treating insomnia.
Nutter’s can suggest other supplements that can help you lower your stress levels: include a good quality B vitamin complex, omega 3-6-9, valerian root, and magnesium.
When we perceive that something is out of balance in our body, the first thing we look to do is add something; add more vitamins, add more water, etc. And because our philosophy as a society says it’s better to gain than to lose, this isn’t surprising. But what you have to do, in actual fact, is develop a “losing” attitude toward the stressors in your life. Yes, adding more magnesium to your diet is likely to physically help you relax but losing the added cups of coffee you drink every day to “relax” is cheaper and more effective. You have to change your mindset and adopt an “attitude of loss” rather than an attitude of addition. Lose the time wasted in front of the TV, lose the double espressos you have after work (no, they’re not helping you relax), lose the cigarettes, lose the foods that are causing inflammation in your body. Get the idea?
Exercise Your Stress Away
Exercise brings with it all kinds of physical benefits but we need to recognize the psychological benefits as well.
Time spent exercising represents an accomplishment and acknowledges that you’re really serious about taking care of yourself. Exercise releases that all-important neurotransmitter serotonin that women need for stress relief. If you can exercise outside in the sun (for moderate periods of time), it boosts your serotonin level even further. Add in a massage after your workout and you’ll have achieved a serotonin trifecta; massage, sunlight, and exercise. If you can exercise with a friend, you’ve just added a social element that also alleviates stress.
It comes as no surprise that you sleep better if you’re on a regular exercise schedule. Here are three of the reasons why:
- When you exercise, you breathe more deeply which helps you to relax.
- Adrenaline levels rise during exercise but drop to lower-than-pre-exercise levels afterward.
- Exercise releases endorphins; naturally-occurring brain chemicals which reduce pain and increase pleasure.
Some people can exercise at night and have no trouble sleeping, however it’s best to exercise at least two hours before you go to bed so you will settle and fall asleep faster.
As you exercise, your ability to think straight increases as there is a direct correlation between exercise and increased cognitive function. What scientists have learned so far is that brain neurons, the special cells that help you think, move, perform all the bodily functions that keep you alive, and even help your memory, all increase in number after just a few days or weeks of regular activity. In a study where researchers used an MRI machine to measure the amount of brain tissue in adults 55 years of age and older, they found, consistent with other studies of aging and brain volume, that there were substantial declines in brain tissue density as a function of age in areas of the brain responsible for thinking and memory, but importantly, the losses in these areas were substantially reduced as a function of cardiovascular fitness. In other words, the fittest individuals had the most brain tissue. Researchers also found that the fittest individuals had the highest scores on tasks like coordination, scheduling, planning, and memory. And, in a recent study of 1,740 adults older than 65, researchers found that the incidence of dementia in individuals who walked three or more times per week was 35% lower than those individuals who walked less than three days per week.9
The prefrontal cortex – the most evolved area of the brain – is the area responsible for complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision-making, moderating social behaviour, etc. Unfortunately, it is also the one area of the brain that is most affected by stress. Even a short but extreme episode of stress can cause a very noticeable loss of ability in this part of the brain.
Let Food Be Thy Medicine and Medicine Be Thy Food
Hippocrates had something there when he said “let food be they medicine”. More and more, we’re beginning to understand how things like antioxidants in foods help fight off the ravages of free radicals in our body and how healthy flora in our gut keeps our immune system in fighting shape. We now recognize that plants, in their natural habitat, have built-in mechanisms that keep fungus and bacteria from harming them. We also recognize that by ingesting these same plants raw, we can translate that protection from the plant to us.
By avoiding over-processed, sugary, caffeinated foods containing inordinate amounts of saturated and trans fats, and feeding our body with the very best foods we can, we help support our body’s efforts to function at peak capacity and keep us healthy. The very best foods include:
- Raw dark green, leafy vegetables (nutritional powerhouses)
- Raw vegetables of all other colors
- Raw fruits of every color of the rainbow
- Lean proteins
- Low-fat dairy
- Whole grains, nuts, seeds, lentils, legumes
- At least two litres of filtered water or green tea per day
Following the rules of portion control is also important. For more on portion control, CLICK HERE. To help balance blood sugar and keep your metabolism constantly ticking over, eat smaller meals and snacks, spaced evenly throughout the day. Stop eating heavier foods by 7:00pm. If you need a quick snack before bed, try to make it something like a few thin slices of lean turkey; the tryptophan in the turkey will help relax you.
Rather than immediately turning to prescription medications to help control the stress in your life, why not explore what nature has to offer first?
Since we’ve already talked about serotonin, why not start here. Serotonin has been referred to as the brain’s own mood-elevating “drug” and how much your body produces is dependent upon how much tryptophan is delivered to the brain. You can’t buy serotonin in pill form but you can help by supplementing your diet with tryptophan-rich foods such as avocados, cheese, chicken, chocolate (dark, in minimal quantities), cottage cheese, eggs, granola, oats, ricotta, turkey, wheat germ, whole milk, and yogurt. The full explanation of serotonin and your brain can be found in “The Edge Effect” by Eric Braverman, M.D. A link to this book can be found in the Resource section of this chapter.
Another neurotransmitter we’ve already touched on is GABA. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a natural calming and anti-epileptic agent in the brain. In fact, it is one of the brain’s most important regulators of proper function and neurotransmission. It appears that many people with anxiety, insomnia, epilepsy, and other brain disorders do not manufacture enough GABA on their own. Many popular drugs, such as Valium, Neurontin, Baclofen, and Valproate act by increasing the effects of GABA within the brain. However, these drugs have numerous side effects and are highly addictive drugs, making them unsuitable for long-term use. GABA, in the right form, is completely safe and remarkably effective without side effects. Natural GABA is an aid to conquer stress and promote relaxation. It is also particularly helpful in counteracting the effects of caffeine.
5-HTP or 5-hydroxytryptophan is the building block for serotonin. Numerous double-blind studies have shown that 5-HTP is equal to SSRI’s and tricyclic antidepressants in terms of effectiveness, but is less expensive, better tolerated, and associated with fewer and much milder side effects.10 Fortunately, 5-HTP can be purchased in pill form and is available from a few different suppliers via Nutter’s stores.
SAMe or S-Adenosylmethionine is better tolerated and gets results faster than typical antidepressant drugs. Overall, in the double-blind studies comparing SAMe to antidepressant drugs, 76% of the SAMe group showed significant improvements in mood compared to only 61% in the drug group.11 Further benefits of SAMe include being beneficial for disorders of the joints and connective tissue, including arthritis and fibromyalgia, promoting liver health, assisting with lowering levels of homocysteine (associated with cardiovascular disease), and it may even help slow the aging process. Clinical research also shows that SAMe has positive effects on behaviour.
L-Theanine is the ‘feel-good’ amino acid found in green tea. Studies show that L-Theanine produces tranquilizing effects in the brain without drowsiness. It calms by helping to increase alpha-brain waves, the electrical brain activity commonly present when you are very relaxed. By diminishing the feeling of stress, worry and anxiety, L-Theanine may actually help with focus, learning and concentration. L-Theanine also improves sleep quality, diminishes PMS symptoms, heightens mental acuity and reduces the negative side effects of caffeine. Single dosages of 200 mg of L-Theanine have been shown effective in studies. L-Theanine is very safe as attested to by the billions of green tea drinkers over thousands of years. It is estimated that a person who drinks 6 to 8 cups of green tea a day may consume between 200 to 400 mg of L-Theanine. L-Theanine helps us benefit from this relaxing amino acid without having to drink pots of green tea every day.
Adaptogen is a term used in alternative medicine to describe a substance which helps regulate metabolism and increases the ability of an organism to adapt to environmental factors and to avoid damage from such factors. Here’s a more clinical description:
The term was first introduced in 1947 by Russian scientist N.V. Lazarev to describe the unique action of a material claimed to increase nonspecific resistance of an organism to an adverse influence. In 1958, I.I. Brekhman, a Russian holistic medical doctor, and his colleague I.V. Dardymov, established the following definition of an adaptogen: It “must be innocuous and cause minimal disorders in the physiological functions of an organism, it must have a nonspecific action, and it usually has a normalizing action irrespective of the direction of the pathological state.”12
Chronic stress can be a miserable thing to have to deal with. Probably the most valuable suggestion for you to remember is – it’s not weak to ask for help, it’s smart. In a quote from her book The Wisdom of Menopause, Dr. Christiane Northrup says, “You have within you the power to create a life of joy, abundance, and health, or you have the same ability to create a life filled with stress, fatigue, and disease. With very few exceptions, the choice is yours.” Once you’ve made the request for help, you’re no longer carrying the load on your own. Options begin to open up to you through your support system and you can begin the journey back to health in body and in mind.
Stress Management Tools Thought Awareness: A process by which you observe your thoughts and become aware of what is going through your head. This site addresses job-related stress management techniques but
many of its techniques can be adapted to everyday situations.
Stress, Anxiety, and Insomnia, Michael T. Murray, N.D. – Available at most Nutter’s stores.
The Magnesium Miracle, Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D. – Available at most Nutter’s stores.
2. The Wisdom of Menopause, Dr. Christiane Northrup, M.D.
5. The Wisdom of Menopause, Dr. Christiane Northrup, M.D.
8. How Adrenal Fatigue Affects Thyroid Health, Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
10, 11. Stress, Anxiety, and Insomnia, Dr. Michael T. Murray, N.D.