The other day I was at an acupuncture appointment and was struck by how good it felt to simply lie down on the table, to just stop and let my body relax. It made such a difference and the acupuncturist hadn't even begun my session! Again and again, I'm amazed by our culture's obsession with how much we can do, and how quickly we can get it all done. It's not only stressing us out, but it's affecting our health on every level. From heart disease and hypothyroidism to Type 2 diabetes and plain old fatigue, stress can play a huge role in disease.
More and more healthcare practitioners are encouraging patients to slow down, hit the "pause" button, or to have a little fun because these breaks are essential to good health. Taking a moment to pause can change heart rhythms, relax muscles, and improve immunity, to name a few benefits. What I find so amazing is that the body can and will respond favorably to the moments we find in life to pause. Taking a deep breath, stopping to listen to a favorite song, or just lying flat on the floor to check in with your body are all ways to send your mind and body the message to restore. And I promise these moments will pay off for your health and wellness.
The Health Implications Of Stress
I'm pleased that science is now supporting the idea that stress is at the root of many health issues. Along with poor nutrition and environmental toxins, our own perceived stress can set off a cascade of events in the body. Perceived stress begins in the brain. When a potential threat is identified, two regions of the brain known as the amygdala and the cerebral cortex can send a message to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus that it is time to mobilize energy for action. The hypothalamus acts on the pituitary gland through something called the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis to ready the body for "fight or flight." Here is where our muscles begin to tense, our heart rate goes up, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and two tiny glands, known as the adrenal glands, begin to pump out stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in preparation for a crisis.
This system works well when we are in real physical danger, but we evolved to handle stress in small doses and to spend the rest of the time restoring. Our fast-paced modern lives seem to dole out stress from nine to five and beyond, which can eventually lead to real health consequences in the body. Here are a few of the health implications of chronic stress:
The good news is that we have the power to turn off our stress response. And when we do, the whole body responds positively. Our breathing becomes deeper, our blood is better oxygenated, our muscles are relaxed, our heart rate slows down, the immune system is more equipped to fight off infection, and the adrenal glands can tend to other responsibilities, like balancing blood sugar, regulating blood pressure and assisting in hormonal balance. (For more detailed information on the adrenal glands, please see my articles on adrenal health.) Taking those moments to pause in life has huge implications in the body -- and it's not as difficult as you might think.
Five Quick Tips For Moderating Stress
From what I've seen in my practice and learned in my own life, many of our patterns for stress stem from past relationships, family dynamics, and even genetics. It takes dedication to unwind these patterns, but as you work through the larger issues, take care of yourself by eating whole, fresh foods, getting regular exercise and checking in with your body daily by using some of the following techniques. These are all things you can do easily, and they don't cost you anything (except some of your precious time!):
Take Your Time
I have a friend who rushes out to the mailbox to retrieve her mail and then rips it open impatiently. We laughed the other day about this and thought maybe she could walk slowly to the mailbox, breathe while getting there, maybe look at the trees and sky, too. It's not like the contents of the mail are going to change before she gets there! There is always reason to rush through things, always something to tend to in life, and we could work until the wee hours of the morning and still never get it all done. It took me years to understand that, but my life has changed profoundly since I have.
In the end, is anyone going to say, "I wish I'd worked more"? I honestly don't think so. Take time to breathe, to enjoy a laugh or a moment with friends and family and take in the beauty of nature and the richness of slowing down. Your body will thank you.
Pizzorno, L., & Ferril, W. 2005. Chapter 32: Clinical Approaches to Hormonal and Neuroendocrine Imbalances. In Texbook of Functional Medicine, ed. D. Jones & S. Quinn. Gig Harbor, WA: Institute for Functional Medicine.
Talbott, S. 2002. The Cortisol Connection: Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health--And What You Can Do About It. Berkley, CA: Hunter House Publishers.
McEwen, B. 2007. Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: Central role of the brain. Physiol. Rev., 87 (93), 873-904. URL: http://physrev.physiology.org/content/87/3/873.long (accessed 01.21.2011).
McEwen, B. 2006. Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators: Central role of the brain. Dialogues Clin. Neurosci., 8 (4), 367-381. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17290796 (accessed 01.20.2011).
Alexander, J. 2005. Chapter 13. Environmental Inputs. Trauma. In Textbook of Functional Medicine, ed. D. Jones & S. Quinn, 145. Gig Harbor, WA: Institute for Functional Medicine.
Douillard, John. 2001. Body, Mind, and Sport: the mind-body guide to lifelong health, fitness, and your personal best, 157. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Rainforth, MV, et al. 2007. Stress reduction programs in patients with elevated blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Curr Hypertens Rep, 9(6), 520-8.
Schneider, et al. 1995. A randomized controlled trial of stress reduction for hypertension in older African Americans. Hypertension, 26, 820-827.
Patel, et al. 1985. Trial of relaxation in reducing coronary risk: four year follow up. British Medical Journal, 290, 1103-1106.
Chiesa, A and Serretti, A. 2009. Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: a review and meta-analysis. J Altern Complement Med, 15(5), 593-600.
Epel, E, et al. 2009. Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1172, 34-53.
Ertel, KA, et al. 2008. Effects of social integration on preserving memory function in a nationally representative US elderly population. American Journal of Public Health, 10, 2105.
Giles, LC, et al. 2004. Effect of social networks on 10 year survival in very old Australians: the Austrailian longitudinal study of aging. J Epidemiol Community Health 59, 574-579.
Follow Marcelle Pick, OB-GYN N.P. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/marcellepick