For some, navigating the pandemic and continued lockdown with its surrounding uncertainty brings new challenges, stress and overwhelm. Feeling stressed is understandable – it is a normal biological and psychological response by the body that helps keep us ‘safe’ from perceived threats. The good news is that there are plenty of practical solutions for managing your stress levels and supporting your nervous system. But first, let’s consider the role of stress and why it is so important that we implement healthy strategies for dealing with it.
What is stress?
The nervous system has two divisions; the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which both have vital functions within the body. Exposure to stress results in overstimulation of the SNS, responsible for the fight-or-flight response and suppression of the PNS. The PNS controls rest, digestion, and sleep, which the body considers less important during increased stress.
Stress is any demand on the body to adjust – positive or negative. When we encounter a stressor (physical, mental, emotional, environmental), our body responds with a cascade of physiological reactions such as activating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. HPA axis activation leads to several changes in the body, including increased hormone levels (i.e., adrenaline and cortisol) that help us overcome a stressor and protect our survival.
Our interpretation of stress determines its impact on our health, which may differ entirely from person to person. Although the experience of stress is different for everyone, a few common changes may occur, including changes in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, blood sugar level regulation, pain response, reproductive function, and digestive function.
When we encounter mild stressors every day, our stress response goes almost unnoticed – we build tolerance, and the body returns to homeostasis. However, when stress persists to the extent that we feel overwhelmed and unable to cope, it becomes ‘distress’. Prolonged stress and increased hormone levels that do not return to their normal levels can cause many serious health issues:
· Addictions, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders
· Anxiety and panic disorder
· Compromised immune function, i.e. increased susceptibility to infections
· Depression, impaired memory and cognitive function
· Effects on bone density & bone health
· Hormonal disturbances
· Increased fat storage (especially around the abdomen)
· Insulin resistance and blood sugar regulation issues
· Lack of motivation & pleasure
· Sleep disturbance
· Thyroid dysfunction
So what can you do today to help manage and reduce your stress levels? The following recommendations will help you become better resourced both mentally and physically to improve your coping ability, especially when your nervous system needs some extra support.
Nutrient-dense whole foods can better resource our bodies and improve our physiological ability to cope with stress. On the other hand, poor eating habits and food choices deprive the body of essential nutrients, causing further stress and harm.
· Eat a variety of whole foods, i.e. high-quality protein sources, whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables in different colours to ensure you get a range of essential nutrients.
· Replace refined carbohydrates with whole grains, i.e. brown rice, buckwheat and oatmeal containing B vitamins for energy production and fibre to regulate blood glucose.
· High-quality protein sources, i.e. lean meat, oily fish, eggs, legumes and seeds, will provide necessary amino acids for neurotransmitter synthesis and decrease carbohydrate cravings. Stress induces the breakdown of protein from muscle tissue to fuel the stress response.
· Consume meals in a relaxed environment as eating under ‘stress’ or on the go can impair digestion. Chew food thoroughly to optimise digestion and improve nutrient release and absorption.
· Reduce caffeine intake, which can over-stimulate the HPA axis and cause insomnia for some, further contributing to stress and fatigue. Replace caffeinated drinks with filtered water or herbal teas, i.e. Restore Tea.
· Long-term meditation and mindfulness practices have been shown in studies to reduce stress, alleviate anxiety symptoms and improve mood. Meditation may also beneficially modify brain structure and neurochemistry.
· Exercise helps to modulate the HPA axis, reduce stress and build stamina. Studies show that regular physical activity (especially in nature) can help reduce stress, depression and anxiety. Choose restorative forms of exercise, such as walking, stretching and certain types of yoga.
· Diaphragmatic belly breathing may reduce stress and anxiety by stimulating the vagus nerve and activating the PNS. Breathe in deeply using your diaphragm so that your belly expands outwards, take a long, slow exhale and repeat.
· Journaling or expressive writing (i.e. writing therapy) can reduce anxiety, improve mood, and alleviate stress. Use journaling as an outlet for expressing your innermost emotions, thoughts and feelings without judgement.
· Essential oils such as lavender, rose, and ylang-ylang have been shown in studies to ease anxiety, uplift mood, and promote relaxation. These can be added to a diffuser, bathwater or even applied topically (in small quantities) when mixed with a carrier oil or cream.
· Although it may be challenging to do at home in lockdown, try to set aside some time for yourself – even if that means waking up 30 minutes earlier than the rest of your household. Use this time to avoid digital devices and do a stress-relieving activity, like meditating or walking – choose an activity that brings you a sense of calm (however that might look for you).
· Speak to a trusted friend or family member, or seek further support from a registered counsellor or psychologist.
Supplementing specific nutrients can further support the nervous system, regulate the stress response, and provide essential co-factors for synthesising hormones, including serotonin – our ‘happy hormone’.
· B vitamins and coenzyme Q10 (coQ10) are co-factors in the Krebs cycle, essential for energy production. B vitamins are beneficial for combating fatigue and chronic health conditions. They are also required to synthesise adrenaline and cortisol – stress increases the body’s demand for these nutrients.
· Magnesium plays a role in over 300 biological reactions in the body. Its a co-factor in energy production, neurotransmitter synthesis, is required for glucose regulation and relieves muscle tension. Prolonged stress may deplete magnesium stores, further leading to the release of stress hormones.
· Vitamin C is a crucial vitamin in lowering the stress response. It has been shown to reduce adrenaline and cortisol and is a powerful antioxidant, supporting our ability to cope with stress.
· Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E, the minerals selenium and zinc, bioflavonoids and coQ10 can help combat free-radical damage and oxidative stress associated with chronic stress.
· Omega-3 fatty acids support a healthy nervous system and brain function and are beneficial for use in depression. Due to their anti-inflammatory properties, omega-3 fatty acids reduce the release of inflammatory cytokines (proteins) induced by stress. Food sources include oily fish, nuts and seeds.
· Multivitamins with B vitamins (activated are best), vitamin C, zinc and magnesium can support the reduction of perceived stress and mild psychiatric symptoms. They provide critical co-factors for neurotransmitter production and function.
In addition to dietary and lifestyle changes, herbal medicine can also support the nervous system, improve coping ability, increase energy levels and mood, promote relaxation, regulate stress-induced hormonal imbalances, and support immune function.
The following herbs are adaptogens – these increase resistance to a range of stressors by regulating body functions and supporting body systems impacted by stress.
· Korean ginseng is an adrenal tonic, anti-depressant and immune-modulator in addition to being an adaptogen. It is used in the West to combat mental and physical fatigue and stress, enhance energy, wellbeing and performance.
· Siberian ginseng has similar properties to Korean ginseng – it is an adaptogen, tonic and immune-modulator. It can enhance resistance to stress and fatigue and modulate the HPA axis by balancing hormone levels.
· Rhodiola has been shown in clinical trials to perform effectively as an adaptogen, alleviate anxiety, insomnia and depression. It can also increase physical and mental performance and reduce fatigue in stressful situations.
· Withania is a less stimulating adaptogen and superstar all-rounder that regulates the HPA axis by positively influencing the endocrine, nervous and cardiovascular systems. Withania also functions as a mild sedative, immune-modulator and mood enhancer and has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties!
· Holy basil is the most sacred of all plants within Ayurvedic medicine, serving as an ‘elixir of life.’ Studies support the use of holy basil for its adaptogenic, stress-relieving and energy-enhancing properties.
· Reishi mushroom is an adaptogen that supports healthy mood, immune function and promotes calm energy. Reishi is considered in Traditional Chinese Medicine to calm and nurture the mind, body, and spirit.
There are various medicinal herbs, each with unique strengths that can increase your resistance to stress and alleviate stress-related symptoms. Many adaptogenic herbs also exert actions on multiple body systems and organs. If you are currently experiencing various health issues or would like to uncover the root causes for your stress in more depth, feel free to book in with our naturopath at the Tonic Room.
Note: always seek advice from a natural health care practitioner to ensure herbal medicines are suitable for your presentation and are safe to take alongside any prescribed pharmaceutical medications.
Written by Jessica Lloydd, Naturopath & Medical Herbalist
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Hechtman, L. (2019). Clinical naturopathic medicine (2nd ed.). Elsevier.
Sarris, J., & Wardle, J. (2018). Clinical naturopathy: An evidence-based guide to practice (2nd ed.). Churchill Livingstone.