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This is the third blog in a series of four on stress and stress management. So far I’ve defined stress and offered a few daily practices that you can incorporate into your life to help minimize stress. Sometimes, however, we need more concentrated and targeted therapies to reduce our stress, so that’s what I’ll be discussing in this blog post – natural stress relievers for long term support.
I run a busy medical practice with 12 employees and a growing list of patients.
Needless to say, life can get busy for me and if I don’t manage the stress of it all on a regular basis, it starts to take a toll on my health. I start to feel anxious. I have trouble sleeping and digesting my meals. My immune system also becomes imbalanced, which makes me more susceptible to bacterial and viral infections.
In addition to managing my stress daily, these are the natural stress relievers that I incorporate into my life at least once a week:
Floating is also known as rest therapy or sensory deprivation. During a floating session, you’ll be invited to lay in a dark, warm tank of salt water. The tank is soundproof and free of any intense sensory stimulation. The perfect environment for your nervous system to relax.
It feels like what I imagine a womb or a cocoon to be, and it is hands down my favorite natural stress reliever!
The benefits of floating include:
- lowers heart rate and stabilizes blood pressure
- normalizes digestive function
- balances immune and hormone systems
- calms the nervous system
I personally float 2-3 times a week and have experienced significant changes in my body – less stress and anxiety, better quality sleep, and decrease in body fat.
Stress affects our physical body, and it can also negatively affect our energy field. In addition to affecting your adrenal glands, immune system, and gut, it depletes your chi or life force, making you less resilient and less able to handle the smaller stresses of life.
Since acupuncture helps to restore our life force or chi, it is one of the natural stress relievers that I recommend often. It’s also effortless. Like floating, you have the opportunity to lay and relax while the acupuncturist inserts thin needles into different meridian points on your body to help restore balance.
Saunas or Hot Baths
If you follow Vitality Natural Health Care on Social Media, you know just how much I love saunas as a natural stress reliever. I personally sit in the sauna for 20-30 minutes once or twice a week and recommend that my patients do the same.
Of course, not everyone has access to a sauna, so you can also soak for 20-30 minutes in a bath with epsom salt and a few drops of a soothing essential oil, like lavender.
To make an Epsom salt bath:
- Use 2 cups of Epsom salt for a standard-sized bathtub with warm water.
- Pour the salt under the water spout so it dissolves faster. The water may feel soapy. You can also add any essential oils that you may be using at this time.
- Soak in the tub for 20-30 minutes.
The warm temperature of both the sauna and the bath will help calm your nervous system. If you do it at night, it will also help you to sleep better, which is essential for stress relief and management.
Meditation has become a buzzword in health and wellness over the past 5 years, and with good reason. It boasts the following health benefits:
- lowers cortisol and reduces stress
- reduces symptoms of anxiety
- decreases blood pressure
- improves sleep
I recommend meditation as a daily practice, but also as a moment to moment practice – living in the moment and being present in every aspect of your life. This is where the true stress relief occurs because if you’re present and in the moment, instead of getting stuck in what happened in the past or worrying about what might happen in the future.
Of course, it helps to have a 15-20 daily reflection practice. This will increase your ability to remain present from moment to moment.
Research has shown that exercise naturally helps to relieve stress, especially aerobic exercise.
When we’re stressed, our bodies accumulate cortisol, neurotransmitters, and other hormones at toxic levels. It’s important to have a way to flush these out of our body so that our body and nervous system can normalize.
Exercise doesn’t mean that you have to go to the gym, however. Find ways to move that you enjoy.
Some options include:
- Dance classes
- Walking or running in nature
- Tai chi
There are so many options, so make this a priority. I often hear from patients that they don’t have the time to exercise, but honestly, if you have time to scroll on social media and like images of other people exercising and prioritizing their wellness, you have time to exercise yourself.
Set aside 10-15 minutes each day to move your body.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, stress doesn’t go away, but we can learn to manage it and keep our bodies healthy and strong in the process. Using the resources mentioned here, in addition to the daily practices I shared in the last blog of this series will help significantly.
In the next and final blog post in this series on stress, I’ll be diving a little deeper into the ways that stress affects your physiology, hormones specifically.
Stay tuned for more!
Stress + Mood | 0 Comments
Many of the patients I see in my clinic in Tempe, Arizona are struggling with endocrine imbalances or hormone dysfunction that is triggered by stress. Of course, when they come into the clinic, they aren’t always aware that stress is triggering a hormone imbalance, so I think the information in this final blog post in my series on stress is really important.
Stress affects every aspect of our wellbeing, and since nothing happens in our bodies independently, it also affects our hormone production.
When you are stressed, your body produces higher amounts of a stress hormone called cortisol.
The elevation of this hormone makes it difficult for your body to regulate the production of other hormones, especially those necessary for optimal thyroid function. In this instance, the increase in cortisol causes an increase in thyroid hormone TSH, which increases your risk of developing hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s.
In addition to affecting the thyroid, prolonged elevation of cortisol can also affect the endocrine glands by triggering an increase in the production of an adrenal hormone called DHEA.
This increase can cause symptoms like:
- hair loss
- trouble focusing
- difficulty concentrating
But as you know, what goes up must come down. If you are under stress for a prolonged period of time, both your cortisol levels and your DHEA levels will decline. This happens when your endocrine system and adrenal glands become fatigued from overuse.
This condition is commonly referred to as adrenal fatigue and can be assessed using a saliva test. If your stress levels are causing adrenal fatigue and hormone imbalance, your test results will show one of the following:
- Minimal production of both cortisol and DHEA
- An increase of cortisol production at night with minimal production in the morning – the opposite of what is ideal and normal.
Unfortunately, the effects of prolonged stress don’t stop there.
In women, prolonged exposure to stress can also trigger an imbalance in the production of female hormones.
When cortisol increases, the production of bad estrogens also increases. This can cause you to become estrogenic, or estrogen dominant, resulting in the following symptoms:
- Increase in abdominal, inner thigh, and arm fat
- Digestive upset
- Heavy, painful menstrual cycles and PMS
- Acne, especially on your chin
- Breast Tenderness
- Decrease in libido
- Fertility challenges
- Increased risk of postpartum depression
In an effort to restore balance, your body will decrease the production of sex hormones progesterone and testosterone when estrogen production is increased.
Progesterone and testosterone help you to cope with stress, so without them, you may feel less relaxed and resilient than you would if they were being produced at optimal levels.
Another hormone imbalance that can be triggered by stress is insulin – the higher your cortisol levels, the more insulin your body produces. This can cause:
- Increase in body fat, especially belly fat
- Greater risk of developing diabetes
In many of the cases that I see in my clinic, chronic stress is the root cause of hormone imbalance, so the treatment plan will inevitably include stress management as a key component.
I may also recommend supplements to help remedy the hormone imbalance. A few that I recommend commonly:
In some instances, hormone therapy – replacement or detoxification – is also necessary to balance the production of testosterone and progesterone.
Stress can cause a host of health concerns, but if you suspect that stress may be triggering a hormone imbalance in your body, be sure to check in with a healthcare practitioner that you trust for testing and treatment.
You can also try to incorporate a few of the relaxing, holistic therapies that I mentioned in the previous blog post to help decrease your stress levels. The recommendations I’ve included in this series are all practices that I have incorporated into my wellness routine and those that my patients have incorporated with positive results.
I hope you find them to be just as helpful.
Stress + Mood | 0 Comments
Advances in research and technology are supposed to make life easier and less stressful, but in actuality, these things often create more stress. They give us more choices and opportunities to be engaged and involved, increasing our ability to do more and along with that, the expectation to be more productive.
The act of doing and always being engaged can increase our stress, but I want to offer some tools and daily practices in this blog post that will help you to minimize the stress that comes with living in a fast-paced, modern, technologically advanced world.
I come from a culture in Ecuador where life moves a bit slower, so one of the first daily practices to minimize stress that I want to offer you is to PAUSE.
Stress is not going to go away, whether you live in the United States or in Ecuador. We will always have demands on our time, physical demands on our body, family stress, and work stress, but pausing creates the time and space we need to become aware and understand the causes of our stress and how we react to those stressors.
Awareness is key if we want to change the way we react to stress and the impact that stress has on our body, mind, and spirit.
For example, if someone cuts you off on the freeway, you will naturally have a physiological response. You may experience an increase in your heart rate, rise in body temperature, or negative thoughts about yourself or the driver that cut you off.
This response is a natural one, but instead of letting the stress of the situation continue to affect you hours or even days later, you have the power to control the way it affects you in the long-run.
Instead of choosing to be angry and resentful every time you see a car that looks like the one that cut you off, you can choose in the moment to accept what happened, be grateful for your safety, and shift your interpretation of the situation.
Perhaps the driver that cut you off was late for work, or in a hurry to get to their child’s school to drop off a forgotten lunch box. We’ll never know, but we can choose in the moment to have compassion for them and whatever circumstances led to them make the choice to cut you off on the freeway.
The ability to shift your thinking and react differently increases your resilience to stress.
You’ll have the natural physiological response which causes an increase in stress hormones, like cortisol and epinephrine, but your body is also able to settle after the situation is over and return to its natural state of equilibrium.
This decreases your risk of developing the diseases and conditions that are caused by chronic and ongoing stress.
By pausing, you’ve actually created the space to accomplish the following:
- Become aware of your stress and what triggered it.
- Understand the way your body and mind react to stress.
- Shift the way you respond to stress, in body and mind.
You can, of course, use these principles for any situation, not just when someone cuts you off on the freeway!
So now you know how to manage stress in the moment, but what can you do on a regular basis to make it easier to pause when stressful situations arise?
1. Slow Down
The busier you are, the more you need to slow down.
I give this advice to my team at Vitality Natural Health Care all the time. We run a very busy practice and it’s very easy to react to the busyness of it and lose track of what’s happening in the moment. When this happens, mistakes increase – so not only are we stressed because we’re busy, but we’re also stressed because mistakes are being made and have to be fixed.
Even if you’re not busy, I encourage you to slow down.
Slow down your movements – walk slower, speak more slowly and intentionally, take your time to think things through – so your nervous system isn’t always in a state of hyperarousal, but is able to rest and relax.
This will also help you to respond more rationally when stressful situations do arise.
The way you breathe affects your heart rate and can either send the signal to your nervous system that it can relax or that it needs to be on the alert.
Set aside a few times each day to notice your breath, and make time for relaxing breathing exercises.
These are some of my favorites:
You may not have the time to do these exercises during a stressful situation, but practicing them in on a regular basis, several times a day will help to increase your resilience to stress and support your body’s natural need for homeostasis and regulation.
Breathing is a tool that I rely on often to manage stress. On days when I feel overwhelmed with what’s happening in the clinic, I find a quiet space, close my eyes, and focus on my breath for a few minutes – taking slow, deep breaths in and out.
I can’t eliminate the stress right way, but I can control my reaction to it.
3. Spend time in Nature
Put your phone down, go outdoors, and smell the flowers, literally.
Being outdoors with trees and grass, away from technology, makes it a little easier to slow down. So, if you can, find a nearby park, hiking trail, or your backyard and set aside 5-10 minutes to feel the warmth of the sun on your skin, watch the clouds float by, smell the flowers, or feel the leaves.
We can’t run away from or eliminate stress completely, but we can preserve our physical and mental wellness in the midst of it.
Stress + Mood | 0 Comments
No matter how many times a day we meditate or how many yoga classes we take, stress is something that we all experience on a daily basis.
Stress and feeling stressed are totally normal.
Our body is naturally wired to react to changes that occur in our environment.
It’s a survival mechanism that involves all systems and organs in the body. The adrenal glands, the brain, the heart, and the nervous system are all involved in helping us to react and adapt to our environment.
If we weren’t able to adapt to our environment, we wouldn’t be here!
Take, for example, our ancestors who lived on the Earth before there were houses and zoos. They braved the elements in whatever shelters they could find or design and lived with nature, which meant occasional run-ins with predatory animals, like lions and bears.
When being chased by these animals, stress and their response to it is what helped them to survive.
The stress of being chased triggered the activation of their sympathetic nervous system, causing blood flow to increase in the brain, heart, and muscles, so they could take flight and run away from danger.
That said, in modern day society, most of us aren’t being chased by lions and bears. Instead, we’re stressed by work, family, and other societal pressures. So you’re probably wondering if our modern day stress is the same as the stressors of old – is there such a thing as good stress and bad stress?
Good Stress vs Bad Stress
First, let’s talk about the positive benefits of stress. The most important being heart rate variability.
Our natural stress response causes hormone fluctuations:
- adrenaline and cortisol increase
- levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine also rise
When these fluctuations occur occasionally, they are actually good for the heart, providing it with exercise and practice should a more serious situation arise in which a quick response is necessary.
So occasional stress is not a bad thing.
Stress becomes bad stress when it’s chronic and ongoing. In these instances, our bodies don’t have the time and space needed to return to homeostasis.
If we were being chased by a lion or bear, we would run away to a safe space and once the threat was gone our hormone levels and blood flow would return to normal, and our parasympathetic nervous system could take over for a time to allow for rest and relaxation.
Impact of stress on the Body
When the stress we experience is chronic and ongoing, this back and forth between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t occur, which can lead to negative health outcomes like:
- Heart disease
- Autoimmune Disorders
- Weight gain, especially belly fat
- Digestive issues, like irritable bowel syndrome and leaky gut
- Anxiety and Depression
- Lower libido
As you can see chronic stress can have the same effect on your body over time as overconsumption of processed foods.
I see this on a regular basis on my practice – patients who are under chronic stress have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight and also have high rates of autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis and Hashimoto’s.
At Least 40% of my patients have Hashimoto’s.
The reason this percentage is so high is that when we are chronically stressed with high cortisol levels, our bodies produce more cytokines – a large group of proteins, peptides, or glycoproteins that are secreted by specific immune cells. They regulate immunity and inflammation. Overproduction of these can impair immune function and increase inflammation in the body, making one more susceptible to autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s.
Stress can also increase glucose levels.
High cortisol causes insulin levels to become elevated, which over time cause insulin resistance. if insulin cannot be processed in the body, diabetes develops.
I regularly see patients with diabetes who are doing everything right, eating well and exercising but are still having trouble managing their glucose levels. In these instances, it is usually stress that is keeping them from being well.
Additionally, chronic stress contributes to premature aging.
This most often manifests as:
- Premature greying of the hair
- Decreased skin elasticity
Impact of Stress on the Mind and Spirit
As I mentioned earlier in this blog post, stress affects every system of the body. It contributes to a host of diseases and disorders, but also impairs us mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Chronic stress impairs our ability to be fully present in the moment and makes us more prone to living in the future as our body and mind are anticipating the next threat. This can cause or contribute to feelings of anxiety or anxiousness. The impending sense of danger and ongoing stress can also lead to feelings of hopelessness or depression. These feelings and conditions can severely impact your quality of life, making it more difficult to relax and enjoy the positive aspects of life.
Chronic stress causes us to be hyper-focused on one area or aspect of life – running away from the lion or bear, for instance. In this state, we miss the details of life that you might be able to take in if you were more relaxed, like hearing the birds chirping, laughing with family and friends, and giving or receiving love.
There’s no space to reflect and cultivate our spiritual health, which decreases our capacity for kindness and compassion. It’s also harder for us to sit still to meditate and really focus on our spiritual health and healing, which is an essential component of wellness.
Chronic, or bad, stress can impact every aspect of our lives – body, mind, and spirit.
My hope is that you’ll use this information as well as the stress management tools I’ll be sharing in the next blog post of this series to begin to create changes in your life if this is an issue for you.
General Wellness | 0 Comments
In an effort to pull together all of the information I’ve shared with you so far about inflammation and provide you a bit more practical insight, I’m doing something different on the blog this week – sharing a case study.
The case study that will be shared here is about a former patient who was struggling with chronic inflammation.
Her name is Susan.
Susan, a school teacher, was a 52-year-old female who was experiencing heavy bleeding and painful periods. She had previously been diagnosed with endometriosis and in addition to the heavy bleeding and painful periods exhibited the following symptoms and concerns:
- Hot flashes
- Weight gain of 30lbs in 2 years
- Brain fog
- Skin rashes and acne
- Joint pain
- Hair loss
- Frequent yeast infections
- Depression and irritability
- Dry skin
- Frequent illness
- Hypercystic breasts
- High cholesterol
- Maternal family history of breast cancer
Susan came into my clinic and said “I’m a hot mess. Help me!”
One of the first things I did was run lab work for Susan. What I discovered when her lab results came back was that many of her hormone levels were low, with the exception of estrogen.
Her estrogen levels, which should have been between 60 and 100, were 500 – indicating estrogen dominance.
In running the estrogen metabolism test to find out what the ratio of good vs bad estrogens was, I discovered that most of the estrogen in her body was bad. Her elevated estrogen and the presence of so much toxic estrogen was what was contributing to the heavy bleeding, painful periods, and endometriosis.
Not only did we discover that she was estrogen dominant we also found through lab work that she had hyperthyroidism and Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease affecting the thyroid. Her TSH levels were 4.5 and thyroid antibodies were more than 600, which was contributing to the weight gain, lethargy, brain fog, hair loss, dry skin, constipation, and of course, lots of inflammation!
I know this because, in addition to hormone testing, we also tested her c-reactive protein (CRP) and Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR). Her CRP level, which should be less than 1, was 26. Her ESR was 40 and should be less than 10.
Another test I ordered was a saliva test to assess cortisol levels and adrenal gland function. Her cortisol level was 90 and elevated throughout the day, but the ideal is 40.
More in-depth testing determined that Susan also had several food allergies – gluten, dairy, and yeast.
Susan was under a lot of stress in her day to life, had lost her sister to breast cancer, and she was in the early phases of menopause, which explained why hormones like DHEA, progesterone, testosterone were low. Additionally, Susan was eating poorly – lots of fast food and several cups of coffee each day.
Her chronic stress and poor diet were most likely what triggered the cascade of illnesses and autoimmune concerns.
Armed with all of this information, I created a treatment plan.
- Natural hormone therapy with testosterone and DHEA to balance her hormones and also reduce inflammation.
- Enzymes to help her body clear out the bad estrogens.
- An anti-inflammatory diet, beginning with a 10-day cleanse of green juices and powders to help restore the ph balance of her body.
- Stress management, which included lots of rest and gentle movement, like yoga and nature walks.
- Cooling baths and acupuncture to help reduce the heat her body was producing.
- IV Hydration therapy to ensure that she was well hydrated during the cleansing process.
After several weeks, Susan began to notice improvement – weight loss, increased energy, decreased brain fog and improved brain function.
The improvements she noted were confirmed by her lab work as her inflammation markers were lower on her next lab order.
Susan came to see me in the clinic once a month and each time her lab work came back, the levels of inflammation decreased by 2 or more points.
After 6 months of treatment, we saw the following improvements:
- CRP was down to 2; her ESR down to 5
- Hormones were balanced
- Weight loss of 35lbs
- Hair growth
- Increased energy levels
- Clear skin
- Less painful periods
- No more hot flashes
She literally looked and felt 10 years younger!
To maintain the progress, Susan decided to retire early. She realized that her job was causing quite a bit of stress and felt it was best to eliminate this as a factor in her life. This freed up time for her to practice yoga regularly and play with her grandchildren – a much less stressful life, and one that felt more fulfilling and in line with what Susan believed to be her purpose.
True healing came on all levels with Susan – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
She was able to grieve and process the loss of her sister, connect more with nature, and she made her health a priority by incorporating the natural therapies that I recommended into her daily wellness routine.
As you can see in addition to lifestyle changes, balancing Susan’s hormones was key in reducing the level of inflammation in her body and helping her to heal.
Balance and good health are possible for all of us when we can get to the root cause of illness and find a medical practitioner that can support us holistically – using medical interventions when necessary as well as lifestyle interventions, like diet, stress management, spirituality, and sleep.
Sleep + Energy | 0 Comments
It’s a topic that often gets left out of many medical conversations, but one that I want to address as part of this month’s four-part series on inflammation. I think it’s an important topic to discuss since as a naturopath, many of the treatment plans I create for patients include lifestyle recommendations for things like movement and exercise, stress management, and sleep hygiene.
It’s also important because science is now discovering that individuals who lack quality sleep – sleeping too much, sleeping too little, or sleeping at times outside of the body’s natural rest cycle – tend to have higher levels of inflammation and are more prone to developing inflammatory diseases (1, 2).
In my opinion, getting quality sleep is one of the most important lifestyle components to address when it comes to inflammation and disease.
Your circadian rhythm, also known as your sleep/wake cycle, is an internal system that is designed to regulate your feelings of wakefulness and sleepiness.
It is controlled by the area of the brain that responds to light, the suprachiasmatic nucleus. This is why most of us are alert when the sun is shining and experience tiredness or fatigue once the sun goes down.
In addition to regulating sleep and wake patterns, our circadian rhythm also plays a role in immune system function. When you go to sleep at night, your immune system works hard to repair and heal any parts of your body that need to be tended to.
It also controls and manages the inflammation in our bodies. If you’re not getting quality sleep, you’re altering your circadian rhythms and ultimately, limiting your body’s ability to fight inflammation and disease, putting you at risk of weight gain, metabolic disease, heart disease, and cancer.
This is something I see frequently in patients who work unconventional hours, like night nurses who often work overnight. Their levels of internal inflammation tend to be higher than individuals who work during daytime hours.
Unusual sleep times cause inflammatory markers, like interleukin 6, tumor necrosis alpha, and c-reactive protein, to be elevated.
How to Get Quality Sleep
Understanding your body’s circadian rhythm, or internal clock is the first step to better sleep.
We live in a time where people are staying up later working, watching television, or scrolling on their phones. We’re also eating later in the day because we’re staying up late – both of these factors can adversely affect our sleep.
In order to honor your circadian rhythm, it’s best to wake with the sun and begin winding down when the sun goes down.
In an ideal world, we would all get 7-9 hours of quality sleep, and have at least two hours to wind down and decompress before heading to bed.
Keep in mind, however, that too much of a good thing is…well, too much.
Research has shown that excessive amounts of sleep, 10 hours or more, can contribute to inflammation in the same way that too little sleep can contribute to inflammation (3).
Aim for 7-9 hours each night and you’ll be golden!
Here’s how to make that happen:
- Set the intention to make quality sleep a priority – this is a must and will help you stay on track.
- Decide on a bedtime that will allow you to get 7-9 hours of sleep each night, and make a commitment to be in bed by that time.
- Avoid caffeine after 2pm and try to have dinner 3-4 hours before bedtime.
- Two hours before bedtime, reduce your exposure to electromagnetic frequencies by turning off all electronic devices.
- Take time to decompress and let go of negative emotions before getting into bed – journaling, meditation, deep breathing, and light stretching are great ways to do this.
Taking these steps will help to invite more calm, yin energy into your life, so you can fall asleep with ease and stay asleep, instead of waking up in the middle of the night with racing thoughts and feelings of stress and anxiety.
As I mentioned in the last blog article on hormones and inflammation, stress causes our bodies to secrete cortisol, which can contribute to inflammation. Managing stress will help you to have quality sleep and will also help to reduce inflammation.
What to do if you can’t sleep
If you’re having trouble sleeping after incorporating the suggestions mentioned earlier in this blog article, it’s a good idea to get your hormones checked – especially if you are a woman.
Progesterone is a hormone that helps us to relax and calm down at night. If you are lacking in progesterone, you may have difficulty going to sleep and staying asleep.
In addition to getting tested, you can also try supplementation. A few of the supplements I recommend to promote quality sleep are:
Each of these supplements is unique and I recommend them for different reasons, after checking my patients’ lab work. Consult with your health care professional to see if these are a good option for you.
Getting quality sleep is a must when it comes to reducing inflammation and supporting your health, even for me as a doctor.
On nights that I am unable to get enough sleep or get quality sleep, I definitely feel it the next day. I also experience weight gain and digestive disruptions.
I’ve learned from experience that the best way to get my body back on track is to follow the suggestions I’ve given you here in this log article and do my best to get to bed at a reasonable hour.
I trust that you’ll have the same results if you put these lifestyle recommendations into action.
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