An interactive infographic to learn more about the symptoms of stress on your body

In my practice, I see many patients suffering from the effects of stress. You have probably heard of the terms “adrenal fatigue syndrome” or “adrenal insufficiency” or more commonly “burnout”. These stress factors might be emotional, relationship, work, family etc. and interfere with our daily living. Some people or even practitioners confuse this with depression as they portrait similar symptomatology. I have previously wrote other articles about stress such as this one. Click here for the interactive functionality of the infographic below.

the Effects of  stress on the Body

The Effects of Stress

Combat Stress with Natural Remedies

For the Greek version please click here.

Introduction

A medical dictionary definition of stress is any emotional, physical, social, environmental, or other factor that requires a response or change. In holistic terms, stress is not a disease but a fact of life. Stress is more often seen as a negative factor in our life, but it is actually stress that motivates us to win over a game or race, concentrate during exam or even escape from a dangerous situation. This article examines the detrimental effects of prolonged stress and how it negatively influences our health including physical changes such as digestive disturbances, reduced immunity and imbalanced hormones and also how we can combat stress and its effects with natural remedies.

Physiology of stress

The stress response is actually part of a larger response known as the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which is introduced by the famous endocrinologist Dr Hans Selye. Dr Selye in 1936 defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change” and concluded that failure to cope with stress can result to many different states of ill-health. The GAS is composed of three phases: alarm, resistance and exhaustion.

General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

In the alarm phase, stress is usually acute and lasts for few minutes to sometimes hours. This is also called the fight or flight response and it is essential for our survival. Several hormones are released by the brain and adrenal glands to counteract danger by immobilizing the body’s resources for immediate physical activity. Our heart rate, breathing rate and strength of muscle contraction increases, our blood vessels dilate and more glucose and oxygen is supplied to the brain and muscles. Fortunately, after the stressful situation resolves our body returns to normal. However, if the stress continues and becomes chronic such as having a stressful job, having a difficult time at home, unresolved grief, financial pressure etc, the body will use up large amounts of energy and nutrients, which will eventually lead to a state of nutritional deficiency and burn out.

Chronic stress will lead to the resistance phase where the body continues (resist) to fight the stressor after the alarm reaction dissipates. Other hormones come into play mainly cortisol and aldosterone, which are responsible to break down protein for energy production when glucose is depleted and keep the blood pressure elevated, respectively. Prolongation of the resistance reaction results in adrenal insufficiency or total shut down of the adrenal glands which leads to the final stage of the GAS: exhaustion. The main causes of exhaustion are depletion of adrenal hormones and loss of potassium ions, which the latter leads to cell death. Prolonged stress increases the risk of significant disease including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and recurrent infection and is associated with many common ailments.

Some common complaints that people with stress may present with include insomnia, anxiety, depression, fatigue, irritability, digestive disturbances, and headaches. Other ailments where chronic stress may be a factor include cardiovascular complaints, chronic fatigue, over- or under-eating, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), alteration of normal bowel flora, loss of sex drive, autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis, asthma, menstrual irregularities and premenstrual tension.

Nutritional and Herbal Support

Several nutrients are important in supporting the adrenal function and combat stress including vitamin C, the B vitamins particularly B5, B6, B9, zinc and magnesium and also the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine. All of these nutrients play a critical role in the health of the adrenal gland and the synthesis of adrenal hormones. For example, urinary excretion of vitamin C is increased during stress and vitamin B5 deficiency leads to adrenal atrophy characterized by fatigue, headache, sleep disturbances, nausea and abdominal discomfort. In human studies, tyrosine supplementation has been found to have positive effects on physical performance and cognitive function during stress.

The herbs mainly prescribed for stress are called adaptogens. Adaptogenic herbs have a normalizing effect on the body rather than being curative to specific disease states. They are natural bioregulators, which increase the ability of the organism to adapt to environmental factors and to avoid damage from such factor. Examples include Panax ginseng (Korean Ginseng), Euletherococcus senticosus (Siberian Ginseng)Withania somnifera (Ashwaganhda), Schisandra chinensis (Schisandra) and Rhodiola rosea (Rhodiola).

Both Korean and Siberian ginsengs exert an anti-stress action and enhance the person’s ability to cope with various stressors, both physical and mental. They actually delay the onset and reduce the severity of the alarm phase response of the GAS. They also improve stamina, energy levels, immune function, and cognitive function, increase memory and concentration and work efficiency.

Withania has a similar potency to Korean Ginseng in terms of its adaptogenic and tonic activity. It also protects the nervous system, stabilizes the mood and therefore helpful in anxiety and depression, is calming and antioxidant.

Schisandra is used in Russia as an adaptogen to increase endurance and mental and physical efficiency. It exerts a milder adaptogenic effect but it has a protective effect against liver and nervous system damage and it is an antioxidant. Human studies have also shown that it stimulates mental performance, increases the speed of adaptation to darkness, and has anti-fatigue and antidepressant properties.

Rhodiola is an adaptogen, tonic and antioxidant and used in debility, physical stress, improves mental performance and concentration and may be used during chemotherapy or radiotherapy for cancer and as an adjunct in HIV/AIDS. Rhodiola appears to offer an advantage over other adaptogens in circumstances of acute stress because it produces a greater feeling of relaxation and anti-anxiety effects.

In conclusion, exercise, a healthful diet and lifestyle such as time management and relationship issues are very important in managing stress levels.

Insomnia and Sleep disorders

A regular good night sleep will:

  • sharpen your attention
  • avoid accidents
  • improve your athletic performance
  • lower your stress levels
  • spur creativity
  • curb inflammation
  • improve memory and concentration
  • improve school grades
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • help with depression
  • live longer

There are a lot of nutritional and herbal supplements that may help with insomnia depending on the cause of insomnia such as melatonin and 5HTP.

Herbs that help with insomnia are called hypnotics and include Valerian, Zizyphus, Passion flower, Wild Lettuce, Chamomile, Lavender, Hops, Californian Poppy, Kava Kava and St John’s wort. These herbs posses several other therapeutic activities such as anxiolytic, antidepressant, anodyne, anti-inflammatory etc.

The “Sleep tonic” formula contains two great herbs that are regarded mild sedative and hypnotic, Valerian and Zizyphus. This formula is indicated in conditions such as insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, waking up frequently, mild anxiety, nervous tension and stress.

Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)

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Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)

Skullcap was introduced in 1773 by Dr Van Derveer for the treatment of rabies, and subsequently became known for its reputed tonic, sedative and antispasmodic effects. In Western herbalism Skullcap is used for for nervous tension due to chronic stress, illness or exhaustion; for neuralgia, insomnia as well as depression.

Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is part of my Nervous tonic and Stress formula and is used to support the nervous system in cases of chronic stress.

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