Stressed? Anxious? Yes, it’s normal. But no, you don’t have to put up with it!
Stress and anxiety affect almost everyone at some stage in life, but for different reasons, and to different degrees. Work, family, finances – the list goes on.
Our stress response is tied up with our autonomic nervous system, which directs our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When our brain senses a threat or immediate danger, the sympathetic nervous system takes control, telling our adrenal glands to release a host of stress hormones. These hormones include epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and cortisol, which are designed to help prepare your body to “run away” from the threat. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase to send nutrients and oxygen out to your muscles; digestion slows; your pupils dilate; you feel tense and perhaps even a little shaky.
This response is also known as ‘fight or flight’ mode, and is actually a built-in characteristic from our hunter-gatherer times when humans were surrounded by predators. When the threat has passed, it may take up to 20-30 minutes for your body to return to the control of the parasympathetic system. This is called “rest and digest”. The PNS lowers blood pressure, promotes digestion, and allows normal restorative processes to take place.
The problem is that although we no longer face the same kinds of threats as our ancestors, we still suffer from attacks of stress and anxiety. Our ‘triggers’ are more likely to be psychosocial because our bodies can’t always tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined threat.
Worse still, being under chronic stress can mean that your brain believes the threat is still present. It will tell the adrenal glands to keep releasing stress hormones, which means your body stays in fight or flight mode. Frequent or chronic activation of the fight or flight response means that ‘rest and digest’ can’t happen, which leads to digestive issues, increased risk of heart disease, chronic inflammation, insomnia, anxiety, and many other stress-related disorders.
The naturopathic response to stress and anxiety
We each perceive ‘threats’ differently, which means treatment for chronic stress and anxiety must be personalised. When assessing your stress level, a naturopath will closely examine your diet, sleep, lifestyle, and other health issues in order to create an effective, evidence-based treatment plan.
If you’re constantly stuck in ‘fight or flight’ mode, my aim is to help you switch back into ‘rest and digest’ mode more easily. I can help you manage stress hormones by minimizing your daily stress levels, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and incorporating specific herbs into your daily health regime. This may include mindfulness exercises, meditation, yoga, biofeedback, breathwork, and various natural supplements.
Deep breathing is one of the most effective ways to help your brain realise that there is no threat present and that the PNS can take over. Research has shown that deep breathing directly affects the levels of noradrenaline, the neurotransmitter involved in arousal, attention, and emotional control. And it’s very easy to do!
Simply find a quiet place in which you can sit or lie comfortably without distraction. Breathe from your belly, not from your lungs. Allow the air to move up through your diaphragm into your chest, then exhale deeply. Try to spend at least five minutes a day practising this.
Meditation, yoga, and tai chi are important relaxation practises that can have a profound impact on neurotransmitters, particularly gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and norepinephrine.
GABA is an important neurotransmitter that helps to reduce neuron activity in the brain and central nervous system. Adequate levels of GABA can mean you feel more relaxed, less stressed, calmer, and sleep better.
Regular practice of meditation, yoga, and tai chi helps to boost both GABA and serotonin. Serotonin is our ‘happy chemical’, which helps to regulate anxiety and mood.
Meditation also results in greater activity of the parasympathetic than the sympathetic nervous system, which in turns reduces the production of stress hormones including epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Herbal and nutritional support
American skullcap also helps to boost levels of GABA, reducing anxiety and boosting positive mood. It has also been used successfully to treat and insomnia and promote calm.
A powerful anxiolytic, kava kava has been used for centuries to induce relaxation. Research shows that it increases levels of dopamine in the body, and may be useful in treating acute anxiety.
Magnesium status is closely linked to stress levels and low levels have been implicated in chronic fatigue syndrome and physical stress, amongst other disorders. It’s believed that magnesium has important effects on serotonin and adrenergic neurotransmitter systems, as well as via several neuro- hormones.
Magnolia officinalis has long been used in TCM to treat anxiety and nervous tension and to promote relaxation. Studies have shown that the anxiolytic properties are due to a natural compound called honokiol. It has also been found to reduce levels of cortisol and the perception of stress/anxiety, which may help to reduce stress-related eating.
Lemon balm is a renowned anxiolytic and mild sedative thanks to its ability to boost levels of GABA. It also improves cognitive performance, mood and sleep.
Green oat extract has been shown to produce acute cognitive effects, while long-term supplementation can improve cognitive function and reduce the physiological responses to a stressor.
If you would like to try some of these herbs for yourself, you can buy them in my Calming Night Blend. This is designed to help slow down your thoughts to get to sleep and uses herbs to help you stay asleep throughout the night. You can also drink this at half strength during the day so that you dont become drowsy!
Life is too short to be constantly stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed. You can get in touch with me here and discover a healthier, more relaxed you.