In Part 1 of this two-part article, we will look at the profound effects of stress upon both mind and body and in Part 2 (The Top Ten Stress-Busting Strategies) I will suggest a gameplan for proactive stress management.
As I travel around the globe, I am frequently amazed at the scale of stress that we have created in the brave new world we inhabit. I often ask my audiences this question; “How many amongst you can honestly say that you do not feel low levels of anxiety more often than you would like?”. In a crowd of 200 there will usually be just a couple of hands raised. I am sure that if I had posed that same question 100 years ago, most of the hands would have lifted. Our less stressed ancestors actually had more reason to be anxious. There were no antibiotics, antiseptics, anaesthetics, antidepressants or antioxidant concentrates. The surgical skills were crude and the biochemical knowledge was basic. In fact, your chances of surviving through to a ripe old age were considerably lower, and yet there was less stress. What has driven the change and what has it meant to our sense of wellbeing?
In a world where the only thing certain is change, there appears to be more insecurity. We have more expectations and place more pressure upon ourselves in trying to achieve diverse goals. We are multi-tasking and spreading ourselves gossamer thin on every front. Child rearing is more challenging and on the economic front, the home owning dream has become a much more difficult goal to achieve. Paying off the family home now requires a far greater percentage of the weekly wage than in the past (even though there are now often two wage packets involved).
The all-pervasive media delivers the woes of the world in graphic detail on a daily basis and it can be hard to be positive in a sea of negativity. The profit motive mentality of capitalism has also sponsored a marked decline in spiritual values and the associated rise in crime and violence hardly promotes a sense of peace and calm. There is also a dietary link and the associated vicious cycle that develops when a loss of stress-reducing nutrition begets more stress, which further switches up the heat.
The Top Ten Stressors
There are a plethora of ways in which this low level anxiety exacts its toll and we will consider some of the key stressors. Here are my top ten, in no particular order:
1) Stress Depletes Magnesium (Mg)
Up to 90% of us are deficient in this mineral and the shortage can feed upon itself to significantly increase the stakes. A magnesium deficiency produces stress symptoms that further deplete magnesium and when the symptoms are treated with drugs, they also deplete this master mineral.
It works like this – stress hormones create a sudden rise in magnesium-dependent reactions. The “flight or fight” response involves increases in energy, nerve impulses, muscle function, and heart and blood vessel responses, all of which sap magnesium reserves. Magnesium is often mobilised from the bone surface to satisfy increased demand. The blood normally contains just 1% of the body’s magnesium but stress increases that percentage. There are balance mechanisms that are triggered. The temporarily elevated levels can be misread by the kidneys which eliminate the “excess” magnesium via the urine. Cell membranes consist of fats and proteins held together by magnesium ions. Magnesium deficiency weakens these membranes and can facilitate further losses when magnesium flows out of the cells through the faulty membrane and is often replaced by calcium. Once again the blood levels of Mg are temporarily raised and the kidneys respond by excreting the excess.
This is how stress can convert a slight magnesium deficit into a serious shortage that can precipitate a heart attack or stroke. The obvious solution is to take a magnesium supplement, but once your deficiency is advanced, this may not solve you problems. The gut lining becomes less capable of absorbing oral magnesium in the magnesium-deficient. There is a new problem-solver we shall discuss in the second part of this article entitled, The Top Ten Stress-Busting Strategies.
2) Stress Kills Beneficial Gut Biology
The one hundred trillion organisms that should inhabit a healthy digestive tract are hugely important to our health and longevity. They deliver nutrition through the gut wall, protect us from disease and train our immune system. They also produce and deliver key nutrients to effectively sustain us. Several of the B group vitamins are amongst those key nutrients, but it just happens that these vitamins are as important to the health and vitality of the gut creatures as they are to us. When we are stressed, we draw heavily upon these biologically produced, B group supplements. The beneficial gut organisms can actually die when we have depleted the supply of B vitamins in the gut. In this manner, stress literally kills our benefactors and we become more stressed as a result. There is now a reduced supply of stress reducing B vitamins and an increase in digestive discomfort associated with dysbiosis.
3) Stress Produces Cortisol, which Limits Production of DHEA
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a remarkably protective hormone that doubles as an antioxidant. In fact, the risk of dying from heart disease and cancer rises considerably as DHEA levels decline. DHEA has also been shown to counter obesity, support the immune system and it combats stress. Like magnesium, this is a depletion that can feed itself. As levels decline, stress levels rise and DHEA production is suppressed when the stress hormone, cortisol, is elevated. The vast majority of those prescribed DHEA report a dramatic improvement in their sense of wellbeing and general health.
4) Stress Limits Production of Glutamine
This is the body’s most abundant amino, but unfortunately, it is a conditional amino acid, i.e., it may not be synthesised during periods of stress. When I think of all of those thousands of hands that were not raised in response to my stress question it becomes clear that huge numbers of us would benefit by supplementing with this nutrient. This amino is essential for proper brain function, immune function and for good kidney and liver function. It is also a powerful antioxidant. Glutamine is a major player in restoring digestive function for those with leaky gut syndrome, it reduces the craving for sugar (the most addictive of all substances) and, most importantly, it sponsors the release of Human Growth Hormone (a key component of longevity). Body builders have used glutamine to boost muscle development for years.
5) Stress Increases Consumption of Alcohol and Cigarettes
It has been said that if you don’t drink or smoke, you don’t actually live longer, it just feels like it! I won’t buy into the hedonistic gamble associated with damaging habits but there is no doubt that one is more likely to seek this dubious “relax factor” when stressed. These legal drugs come with a hefty price and ironically their long term effect is more likely to be anxiety rather than tranquility. We will look at ways to neutralise some of the negatives and to combat hangovers in Part 2 of this article.
6) Stress Increases Free Radical Production
The Free Radical Theory of Ageing dominates longevity research with good reason. These unstable molecules damage arteries and organs if they are not neutralised with anti-oxidants. A stressful life greatly increases the need for antioxidants, particularly vitamin C and vitamin E. Vitamin C is a water soluble blood conditioner while vitamin E is the fat soluble nutrient so important for brain and heart health.
7) Stress Fuels Inflammation
This insidious flame burns beneath many disorders, in fact, inflammation is linked to all degenerative diseases. The balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and food sensitivities are primary root causes of inflammation but stress also fans the flames.
8) Stress Compromises Digestion
If you are not relaxed when eating your meals, then you have a much greater chance of digestive difficulties. The most obvious of these is nervous dyspepsia, but several other digestive disorders have a stress link. Once again there is the likelihood of a vicious cycle developing when you are not breaking down your food well. The compromised nutrient delivery increases the likelihood of nervous tension and the associated anxiety further increases the indigestion. In this case we need to break the cycle and we will discuss the best strategies in Part 2.
9) Stress is the Forerunner of Anxiety and Depression
The former PM of Australia, John Howard, once commented in Parliament that 7 out of 10 Australian adults complain of depression when visiting their GP. Depression is the end product of prolonged stress and anxiety and it is a serious issue that should be addressed immediately. Depression forges brain patterns that dramatically increase the odds of a repeat bout of blackness, so it is a great idea to address stress before you get to this stage.
10) Stress Impacts Release of Human Growth Hormone
Over 100 reputable studies have now been published confirming the life-extending potential of this natural hormone. Supply of this hormone dramatically diminishes with age to the extent that a 60-year-old has just 25% of the HGH found in a 20-year-old. However, it is now understood that although there is abundant quantities of HGH in the pituitary gland, the release of the hormone is negatively affected by several factors. One of these factors is stress and once again we see the multi-factorial nature of the statement, “Stress Kills”.
Hopefully, you now have a greater understanding of the multi-dimensional potential for damage linked to the tensions of modern living and perhaps you are motivated to take a proactive approach and deal with your stress. The second part of this article will offer some suggestions.