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Posts tagged ‘anxiety’

Keep Cortisol at Bay for Better Health

Christine Davis, Naturopathic Doctor

We all know that stress isn’t good for our bodies… so what can we do about it? Stress can come in many forms. Many of us think only of the psychological stress, caused by family, work, life events or persistent worrying. However, physical stress is just as real and just as dangerous for our bodies. Lack of exercise, poor diet, food allergies or even weather changes can be a physiological stressor for our bodies. In contrast, excessive exercise can also be a major stressor for our bodies.

So why is stress bad for us? Stress can impact a multitude of physiological reactions in our bodies. Symptoms of excessive stress can be; insomnia, fatigue, weight changes (especially an accumulation of fat around the abdomen), headache, respiration problems, heart irregularities, digestive disturbances (e.g., bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation), and psychological upsets (e.g. anger, irritability, rage, depression, anxiety). These stress responses can result in further complications. For example, stress can disrupt sleep, which can result in hormonal imbalances and will also trigger more stress. Many hormones are up-regulated during sleep, including growth hormone and melatonin. Growth hormone is an anabolic hormone that helps to build muscle and decrease fat mass.

Acute stress produces the hormone cortisol in the adrenal glands. Cortisol serves the body in non-stressful times and when called to respond to an acute crisis, however, it can cause damage when levels are high during chronic stress. Cortisol suppresses the immune system, in particular white blood cells, which is why it is used as an anti-inflammatory medication. Cortisol is also a catabolic steroid hormone, meaning it breaks things down (versus anabolic hormones, which are building hormones). It is known to break down collagen, bone and muscle. This can result in osteoporosis, joint pain and in severe cases, abdominal obesity and loss of muscle mass in the extremities.

How do we combat stress? There are many strategies to help cope with stress. Firstly, it is important to recognize what causes you stress and try to reduce or manage this stressor. If the stress is modifiable (e.g. time management), then take steps to manage this. For example, if your stress is caused by a busy lifestyle, make sure to create lists, assume tasks to reasonable expectation and to delegate whenever possible. Participating in relaxing activities, such as yoga, pilates, baths, singing, baking, laughing, and journaling can also help. Seek out care when necessary including massage, acupuncture or body-work. Take regular vacations, even media vacations from blackberries and e-mail can be helpful.

Another useful relaxation practice is deep breathing. Breathe in for a count of 7, and out for a count of 11. Breathe into your belly and expand you diaphragm, rather than your chest and shoulders. Repeat as often as needed- ideally 10-15 min 3 times per day.

There are also nutrients and supplements that can help. Magnesium supplementation can help to reduce cortisol after aerobic exercise. Omega-3 Fatty acids can help manage psychological stress. Vitamin C and B-vitamins dampen cortisol release in response to mental and physical stressors. Licorice (glycyrriza glabra) can help to build up the adrenals after chronic stress (don’t take this if you have high blood pressure). Herbs such as Ashwaganda and Rhodiola are known as adaptogens, meaning they can help you adapt to stress. L-Theanine supports normal brain alpha-wave activity, resulting in a calming effect to the sympathetic nervous system. It is always best to consult a medical professional when beginning a new supplement regime.

Deep Breathing for Relaxation

Written by: Dr. Christine Davis, Naturopathic Doctor

Deep breathing is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Studies have shown that deep breathing techniques are extremely effective in handling depression, anxiety, stress-related disorders, chronic pain, eating disorders and obesity.

Not sure if you’re deep breathing…

What kind of breather are you?  Try this test: Place one hand on your chest and one hand on you abdomen.  Take a normal breath while looking down. If the hand on your chest rises first, you tend to breathe in your chest. If the hand on your abdomen rises first, you are more of a belly breather. Shallow chest breathing causes a constriction of the chest and lung tissue over time, decreasing oxygen flow and delivery to your tissues.

Benefits of Deep Breathing

Relaxation: Your nervous system is made up of two sub-systems, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system, which is stimulated in times of stress and anxiety, controls your fight or flight response, including spikes in cortisol and adrenaline. Chronic stress depletes the body of nutrients and destabilizes brain chemistry and hormonal balance. Depression, muscle tension and pain, insulin sensitivity, GI issues, insomnia, and adrenal fatigue among scores of other conditions are all related to an overworked sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the relaxation system. By turning on the parasympathetic system, you are turning off the sympathetic system. Deep breathing is the fastest way to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system.

Detoxification: By deep breathing you are expanding and contracting your diaphragm. This action actually massages your internal organs and stimulates your lymphatic system to rid itself of toxins. The consequences of a sluggish lymphatic system and therefore improper detoxification include weight gain, muscle loss, high blood pressure, fatigue, and inflammation.

Facilitates weight loss: Deep breathing delivers many of the benefits of exercise. It improves the efficiency of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and helps to facilitate weight loss. Interestingly, when you are stressed, your body tends to burn glycogen, not fat, and through triggering the relaxation response, deep breathing encourages your body to burn fat instead. In addition, triggering the relaxation response will result in less stress, depression and anxiety which can trigger emotional eating.

Breathing technique

Find a comfortable place to sit. Sit up straight with your hands resting on your knees and relax your shoulders. There are two important things to remember before you start deep breathing. One is that your breath begins with a full exhalation. You can’t inhale fully until you empty your lungs completely. Secondly, it is important to breathe in through your nose.
A simple count for deep breathing is seven-eleven. On your next exhalation, breathe out slowly through your nose, to a quick count of 11. Tense your abdominal muscles, drawing in your diaphragm to help your lungs deflate. At the bottom of your breath, pause slightly, and then inhale to the count of seven. Expand your belly as you breathe in. Now close your eyes and repeat 5–10 times.

Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass. Remember to work within your comfort zone. It will take a while for your body to adapt to deep breathing. Start with four breaths and slowly increase over time.

Once you develop this technique by practicing it every day, it will be a very useful tool that you will always have with you. Use it whenever anything upsetting happens – before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension. Use it to help you fall asleep. This exercise cannot be recommended too highly. Everyone can benefit from it.