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Posts tagged ‘depression’

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.

Study shows caffeine “perks” us up

Roasted coffee beans, the world's primary sour...

Image via Wikipedia

Let the coffee drinkers of the world rejoice. A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine has discussed a positive relationship between caffeine and depression. This study looked at more than 50,000 women who were free from depression at the beginning of the study. This group was followed for 10 years to observe the relationship between caffeine and depression. Interestingly, those who drank 2 to 3 cups of caffeinated coffee a day had a 15 % decrease in depression, and those that drank 4 cups a day had a 20% decrease.  Those who drank decaf coffee or other beverages with lower caffeine levels such as tea did not show the same association. The study also found that regular coffee drinkers were more likely to drink more alcohol, be current smokers and were less likely to be involved as volunteers or in community groups. They also had less obesity, fewer blood pressure issues and lower rates of diabetes.

The proposed relationship between caffeine and depression is as follows. Depression is caused by an inadequacy in  3 neurotransmitters, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. A deficit in these neurotransmitters results in changes to brain chemistry thereby producing symptoms of depression such as decreased mood, motivation, activity level, sleep etc. The current thinking is that caffeine works on neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the brain thereby mitigating the chemical changes caused by depression.

While we do know that some caffeine increases our alertness, enhances psychomotor performance, and let’s be honest makes people happy, we also know that too much caffeine can cause jitters, palpitations and insomnia. So while this study does bring some interesting possibilities to future mental illness research, it does not mean that we should all run out and overdose on Starbucks.