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Stress: A 21st Century Health Concern

A little bit of stress is a healthy and normal part of everyday life. But too much stress, from today’s financial concerns, long workweeks and not getting enough sleep, can start to cause wear and tear on the body. According to the American Institute of Stress, 75 to 90 percent of primary care doctor visits are due to stress-related problems. Further, 90 percent of disease is caused or complicated by stress, according to the Congressional Coalition on Prevention and Stress.

“The disability caused by stress is just as great as the disability caused by workplace accidents or other common medical conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes and arthritis,” said Bill Chioffi, director of education at Gaia Herbs, Inc. in North Carolina.

Symptoms of stress can range from feelings of fatigue, anxiety and anger, to weight gain, sleep difficulties, gastric ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), said Scott Theirl, DC, DACNB, FACFN, board-certified chiropractic neurologist and clinical medical educator at Wisconsin-based NeuroScience, Inc. But stress can cause problems that are much more serious. According to Angela Hein, executive vice president of Texas-based Genesis Today, stress increases risk of heart disease by 40 percent, risk of heart attack by 25 percent and risk of stroke by 50 percent.

Chronic stress can also lead to hypertension, atherosclerosis, insulin resistance, disorders of immune function, depression and digestive disorders, according to Chioffi. He added that there are two pathways that affect health: the behavioral and the endocrine response. “On the behavioral side, people who are not managing their stress are prone to sleep poorly, smoke more, adopt poor eating habits, and are less likely to exercise and Comply with medical treatment,” he said. “In terms of the endocrine response, those who are stressed suffer a release of hormones that can influence multiple biological systems, including the immune system, the nervous system and inflammatory pathways. Stress can also put a heavy load on the adrenal glands.” 

The Anatomy of Stress 

The adrenal glands are two endocrine glands that sit at the top of the kidneys. When a stressful event occurs, the brain triggers the “fight or flight” response in reaction to the perceived threat. Heart and breathing rates rise as the nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the body. This release is helpful in truly threatening situations, but today’s fast paced lifestyle keeps many in a needless and permanent state of over-stimulation.Chronic stress can wear the adrenals down, leading to adrenal fatigue, according to adrenalfatigue.org. 

Adrenal fatigue is a term introduced by Dr. James L. Wilson, founder of Arizona- based ICA Health, maker of the brand Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations. The company’s goal is to provide clinicians with a holistic approach, protocols and products they can count on to help patients struggling with stress-related problems, according to Vivien Wilson, managing editor of ICA Health.

“The sources of stress are many … but the body’s stress response follows a similar pattern no matter the source,” said Wilson.“Twenty-first century stress can have far reaching negative effects on health, particularly when cortisol levels are either chronically elevated or less than optimal, as in adrenal fatigue.” 

Daily stressors trigger the hypothalamic- pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which regu- lates the stress response by stimulating production and modulating circulating levels of adrenal hormones. Chief among these adrenal hormones is cortisol, said Wilson.“Nearly all cells in the body have cortisol receptors and this one hormone affects every physiological system, including blood sugar and energy production, cardiovascular func- tion, digestion, and immunity,” she added.

The company offers 16 dietary supplements, including the Adrenal Fatigue Quartet, which consists of the four supplements in Dr. Wilson’s adrenal fatigue protocol: Adrenal C Formula, Adrenal Rebuilder, Herbal Adrenal Support Formula (or the licorice free version Herbal HPA) and Super Adrenal Stress Formula. All four products are designed to be used together, but may also be used separately.

Wilson suggested Dr. Wilson’s book, Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome, for detailed lifestyle, dietary and stress management suggestions that can make a difference in stress-related adrenal fatigue.

Gaia Herbs, Inc., also offers a product for the adrenals called Adrenal Support. It works to nourish the adrenals with herbal extracts, enabling the body to adapt to stress in a healthy way. Adrenal Support contains ash wagandha, holy basil, rhodiola, schisandra, and wild oat milky seed extracts. Many of these extracts, like the herb ashwagandha, are considered adaptogens, as they help the body adapt to stressors. “Optimizing adrenal gland function is essential to combating stress,” said Chioffi.

Genesis Today offers a few supplements that can calm the body by supporting posi- tive mood, rest and relaxation. Relax Me, a liquid supplement, is a berry-flavored tea that helps promote relaxation. It contains GABA, melatonin, theanine and tryptophan to support stress. The company also offers Liquid Coral Calcium, harvested from above-ground fossilized coral. The 100 percent pure calcium is blended with magnesium, vitamin D, essential vitamins, minerals and trace minerals to support sleep, relaxation and overall health.

The Stress/Magnesium Connection 

A good night’s sleep is important for the rejuvenation of adrenal glands, but few patients get the recommended eight hours a night. “Many people try to cope with caffeine … [but] the problem is that caffeine stresses the system and gives a burst of nervous energy,” said Ken Whitman, president of Texas-based Natural Vitality, a company that has been supplying products to practitioners since 1995.

Natural Vitality offers Natural Calm, a formulation of magnesium citrate, and also Natural Calm Plus Calcium, which includes the company’s magnesium citrate, calcium gluconate, vitamins C and D3, potassium and boron to help with calcium assimilation.“Depleted levels of magnesium, common in 75-80 percent of the population, are caused by many things including stress, high calcium levels, caffeine, some prescription drugs and physical exertion,” said Whitman. “Low magnesium levels can cause or exacerbate stress.” 

According to an interview with Dr. Carolyn Dean that appeared on nutritional- magnesium.org, magnesium is the “anti stress supplement,” which influences overall health of the mind, emotions and body. According to the website, “a magnesium deficiency magnifies depression and stress.Serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical that is boosted artificially by some medications, depends on magnesium for its production and function. A person who is going through a stressful period without sufficient magnesium can set up a deficit that, if not corrected, can linger, causing depression and further health problems.” Dr. Dean said the symptoms of magnesium deficiency include anxiety, depression and being cold.

Other Natural Treatments 

Many people, when faced with stress and its side effects, head to mainstream physicians who almost always prescribe pharmaceuticals. But treating stress with drugs may only end up masking the problem.

“Some common medications include Xanax, Buspar, Paxil and Zoloft,” said Ed Lamadrid, DAOM, Lac, of Chicago-based Integrative Health Studio. “While most people enjoy the convenience of popping a pill, many people are looking for natural alternatives due to the serious side effects.” Some natural treatments for stress may include exercise, massage therapy, acupuncture and aromatherapy, he said.

Genesis Today’s Hein said traditional treatments are sometimes necessary when stress has built up for a long period of time and caused multiple issues with someone’s health. “Luckily, natural approaches often go hand in hand with traditional ones and may eventually end up being the only treatment a person needs,” she added.

NeuroScience’s Dr. Theirl suggested that practitioners start with a biomarker assessment test to see where a patient stands.“Assessment of neurotransmitter and adrenal hormone levels can provide valuable information about the status of the nervous system and its interaction with other systems in the body,” he said. “Once the biochemical levels contributing to stress are identified through a simple urine or four point saliva collection, a personalized treatment plan can be developed.” 

Dr. Theirl said his treatment usually con- sists of replacing low neurotransmitters with precursors such as 5-HTP or tyrosine, offering GABA enhancers such as glycine and taurine, and boosting natural GABA receptor stimulators such as 4-amino-3-phenyl- butric acid. Afterward, he retests to confirm improvement and provide guidance for further treatment.

Treatments such as this look for the underlying cause of stress. “It is important to treat the person and not just a set of symptoms,” said Gaia Herbs’ Chioffi. He said this includes first determining whether the stress is acute or chronic. If it is chronic, Chioffi noted the importance of treating any underlying causes, supporting stress adaptation, providing daily intervention to decrease frequency and severity of acute episodes and improving day-to-day comfort and quality of life. “These can be very effective when combined with the proper supplements and lifestyle changes,” he added.

Lifestyle modifications can include changing the patient’s diet, decreasing their caffeine intake and adding moderate exercise.Yoga is also a recommended remedy for stress. “When we breathe deeply in and out through our nose, as is recommended in many forms of yoga, we practice diaphragmatic breathing and insure proper oxygen flow to the vagus nerve, which calms us even in the midst of intense action,” said Chioffi.

Patients, especially those in the Baby Boomer generation, are losing trust in drug based medicines and are becoming more interested in natural remedies and alternative health care, said Whitman.

Hein agreed: “People are now starting to turn to natural stress relievers such as medi- tation, time spent with friends, ‘alone time’ and natural healing supplements to create a haven from their stressful lives,” she said.

Women, Stress & Anxiety

Anxiety is another issue that goes hand in hand with stress. According to National Institute of Health (NIH) data, women are 60 percent more likely to Data, women are 60 percent more likely to experience an anxiety disorder than men, said NeuroScience’s Theirl. With the added load of hormone fluctuations, packed work schedules and family obligations, it’s no wonder women get the balance of this stress-related ailment.

Dr. Tori Hudson, ND, who has 28 years of experience in women’s health, spoke at the Integrative Healthcare Symposium Show in New York, NY in March about the affects of anxiety on women. Dr. Hudson said the key to treatment is to find a solution for acute episodes of anxiety, treat underlying causes, support stress and provide daily intervention to decrease frequency. She added that anxiety symptoms could worsen in women who are premenstrual, or post partum.

According to an article by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP, on women-towomen.com, many women operate in a state of low grade anxiety that may erupt into episodes of panic attacks, phobias or anxiety disorders in the face of increased stress or biological changes, such as monthly periods, the birth of a child or menopause. “Most of my patients with generalized anxiety are so accustomed to living with it, that they don’t mention it until I ask, or until they enter perimenopause and their longstanding anxiety symptoms worsen,” she wrote.

During her seminar, Dr. Hudson sug- gested several botanicals that she uses in her practice to treat patients with anxiety.These include kava, lavender oil, valerian, skullcap, hops and the nutraceuticals GABA, omega-3 and L-theanine. She also discussed the cause and effect relationship between anxiety and adrenal dysregulation. For this, Hudson suggested magnolia as a treatment, which has been demonstrated to improve mood, increase relaxation and enhance stress reduction (Nutritional Journal, 2008).

Further, magnolia with Phellodendron has been shown to normalize hormone levels associated with stress-induced obesity (Living Longer Clinic, Cleveland, OH). Other adrenal support nutraceuticals include vitamins B6 and C, pantotheric acid, calcium/magnesium, and L-tyrosine/L-theanine (the core nutrients for adrenal dysregulation which are decreased in times of stress.)

Lavender oils, aromatherapy and oral supplements have also proven beneficial as a treatment. “The anxiolytic activity of lavender olfaction has been demonstrated in some small studies,” Dr. Hudson said.She added that lavender has been compared to benzodiazepines, and was actually superior to these sedating drugs.

Healthy Take Aways

Ninety percent of disease is caused or complicated by stress.

Symptoms of stress can range from feelings of fatigue and weight gain, to hypertension and adrenal fatigue.

More serious side effects include an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Magnesium is known as the antistress supplement.

Taking adaptogens, such as ashwagandha, help the body “adapt” to stress.

Lifestyle changes, such as a healthy diet and adding mild exercise, can help fight stress.