Life has many stresses, and often we are juggling tasks, rushing to activities, and putting out fires in a busy schedule. All of these activities stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. They keep us in a mode of constantly handling emergencies.
The sympathetic nervous system is the fire fighter that responds to demands and perceived threats. This is a very useful function for keeping us safe and alive in dangerous situations. We respond almost instantaneously to a threat. Our foot hits the brake before we think about it, our hand recoils from a hot pan without our conscious intent. People who can handle a barrage of daily crises are often seen as efficient. But persistent stimulation and vigilance creates tension, and that tension can take its toll on bodily functions, resulting in high blood pressure, headaches, inflammation, heart disease, and anxiety.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) calms the mind and body. It provides a counterbalance to the many distractions and calamities of the day. It is exceedingly simple to activate the PNS through a whole range of nurturing activities: meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and even just being in nature. These relaxing activities cause a release of tension and its harmful effects. If we incorporate these activities into our daily routine the result will be a sense of ease, comfort, and increased happiness.
Just doing deep breathing will cause a shift from tension to relaxation. Deep abdominal breathing is a simple technique that can be done at a desk several times a day, at a red light in traffic, or during any short break in a hectic schedule. Sit for one minute and just focus on the in and out of breathing. Make this a habit through the day to relieve stress.
More formal meditation sessions in the morning and evening provide a powerful tool for activating the PNS, resulting in long-term benefit for muscular tension, anxiety, and adrenal stress. It will help keep blood pressure under control and calm the mind to become more efficient with a relaxed and less frenetic pace. Many guided meditations are available online. Those from Insight Meditation Centers are especially helpful and easy to access.
For those who prefer a more active form of relaxation practice, yoga or tai chi may be a better fit. Yoga provides the benefits of meditation with a stretching and energetic practice. Tai Chi and Qi Gong are moving forms of meditation. These will require regular classes, but the popularity of yoga has created many opportunities and choices through yoga studios and classes at fitness centers in most communities. Tai Chi and Qi Gong are often offered as a series through local recreation centers. They are especially suitable for older patients who need gentle movement forms.
Getting out into nature has been documented in countless studies to counteract stress. Any form of exposure through hikes, walks outdoors, the ocean, or the forest will benefit physiological functions and relieve tension. Similarly, exposure to animals is beneficial whether they are pets, wild birds, or squirrels. Take breaks from work and get outdoors. Take children to the park. It’s good for them too. Put these activities into your calendar and make time to just enjoy the trees and clouds.
Many prevalent chronic illnesses including asthma, allergies, arthritis, and heart disease all have a common factor. Inflammation! Even cancer, Alzheimer’s and autoimmune diseases share inflammation as a fundamental mechanism that underlies these disease processes. And these disease patterns can be prevented and reversed by addressing the inflammatory reactions. These are all complicated diseases with many mechanisms. But a fundamental treatment principle is – Control the inflammation and you can control the disease.
Causes of inflammation
Why does inflammation occur? Poor diet choices are the most common sources of inflammation. Lack of sleep, immune system dysfunction, and intestinal imbalance all add to the problem. Persistent stress in the form of emotional or physical problems is also a common source of chronic inflammatory conditions. All of these disrupt the immune system and result in the body’s inability to control persistent inflammation.
Solving the problem
The first and foremost treatment principle is to establish sound nutrition. Eliminating pro-inflammatory foods is paramount. That includes refined sugar and corn syrup, processed foods, and fast food. All of these triggers will cause flares of inflammation and persistent inflammatory disease in the gut and mucus membranes. Impaired intestinal integrity will lead to immune system disorder. So establishing a healthy small intestine lining and large intestine elimination is essential. A diet that discourages inflammation is based on fresh fruits and vegetables, clean protein sources, and healthy fats. Grains tend to be pro-inflammatory, so they should be consumed in moderation. Many patients with inflammatory conditions are especially sensitive to wheat, and a gluten-free diet can be tremendously beneficial for them.
A healthy small intestine lining results in a healthy immune system. Patches of cells in the lining produce most immune mechanisms in the body. A healthy gut produces a resilient and resistant immune system that prevents chronic inflammation. Any digestive symptoms need to be controlled by correcting GI imbalances. Sometimes a stool test is necessary to detect the contributing factors, but taking a good quality probiotic is always a good idea for immune health. Take a broad- spectrum probiotic with at least 20 billion CFU and saccharomyces boulardii. Prebiotics in the form of fructo-oligosaccharides or in inulin are helpful as well in the formula.
Taking a curcumin supplement has proven useful in a wide variety of inflammatory conditions. Specific preparations to increase potency and absorption include Theracurmin and Curcum-evail.
Other important supplements include Vitamin D3 (with K2) in high doses (5,000-10,000 IU of vitamin D). An adaptogenic medicinal mushroom formula will also maintain healthy immune mechanisms. Vitamin C and other antioxidants will prevent free radical damage. A good antioxidant supplement program may include astaxanthin, resveratrol, and n-acetyl-cysteine.
Finally, a stress management program is crucial for everyone in our fast-paced culture. This includes an appropriate exercise regimen, sensible sleep schedule, relaxation techniques including meditation or yoga, and regularly getting out into nature. It is important to balance stress reactions with those calming tools that foster healthy metabolism and mental equanimity. This provides the link to the mind-body connection that leads to a smooth running immune system.
More to come
Next we’ll cover specific inflammatory diseases and tools for solving their problems. As always I welcome your questions.
Wherever you are on your life’s journey, health is always a foremost concern. You may be in great health or you may be struggling with symptoms or serious health problems. Everyone has weak areas that flare up. Athletes are plagued with stress injuries. Some of us have recurrent digestive issues or headaches or joint pains. Others struggle with chronic inflammatory conditions. Whatever your level of health, it’s always a good idea to periodically reassess your needs and consider the best program to achieve optimum energy and freedom from symptoms.
Start with diet, the key to good health. Stick to the program that fits your needs best. It may be a low carbohydrate paleo diet, or you may have discovered that you need more carbs for energy or sports performance. Stay away from those high-calorie bakery goods with empty calories. Focus on brightly colored fresh fruits and vegetables.
Stick to your exercise program. Increase it. Walk, run, lift, cycle, play. Get outside into nature. Take advantage of the healing power of the trees and sun.
Review the supplements you take. If you have digestive problems, take probiotics and herbal formulas that heal the intestinal tract (glutamine, licorice, aloe, slippery elm). If you have recurrent inflammatory conditions, take plenty of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory supplements (resveratrol, n-acetyl-cysteine, turmeric). If nervous system problems or memory problems are a concern, take nutrients that nourish brain and nerve function (huperzine, acetyl-l-carnitine). And if immune problems are prevalent, take medicinal mushrooms and Astragalus and vitamin D. These are examples of supplements that may help these conditions. The right program for you should be individualized according to your unique needs.
Our lives are filled with stressful events that trigger anxiety, worry, and discouragement. These need to be countered with positive experiences, support, and stress reduction techniques. Integrate relaxation and centering techniques into your daily practice. These may include meditation, yoga, tai chi, or deep breathing practices. Take breaks during your day and stretch, or close your eyes for a few minutes and focus on your breathing. Clear your mind and your mood will improve. Relax and your body tension will dissolve.
If you need help in developing or refining a program for optimum health, I am available for consultations in my office or through a phone or video conference. Stay healthy and live a long and joyous life.
Although most health related problems and concerns center around one individual, they often involve the whole family. This is especially true for any kind of chronic illness or ongoing problem. The ideal approach is to create a solution that includes other family members. Let’s look at some examples.
A child has persistent congestion or a skin eruption with a suspected allergic component. A reasonable suggestion is to try an elimination diet to reduce inflammation. That usually means eliminating wheat, dairy, and possibly eggs from the diet. For many families this dietary change involves a huge shift in eating. Siblings may resent the reduction in dairy products, or they may feel badly if they can eat things that their sibling cannot. New shopping lists need to be created with creative replacements for some favorite foods. A discussion about these changes among family members can create a communal sense of caring, cooperation, and empathy.
A learning difference such as difficulties with attention or cognition may have a global effect on the family. Children with ADHD or other behavioral symptoms can cause disruption that affects the family dynamic. Parents may need to devote their attention to disruptive or acting out behaviors that takes their time away from other family activities. Like any potentially destabilizing pattern of symptoms, the entire family will be affected.
As adults age, they often become less able to produce enzymes and hormones that maintain health. The effects of aging can include decreased ability to process carbohydrates that results in gradually rising fasting blood sugar levels. This is usually discovered on routine blood tests. Other related symptoms may be present as well, including weight gain, digestive problems, and high blood pressure. These are all warning signs of future serious health problems such as diabetes and heart disease. Often there is also a family history of these problems. A holistic treatment plan includes diet changes and increased exercise as well as targeted nutritional supplements. These lifestyle changes will affect the entire family. Shopping lists, meal plans, and schedules will need to change. Switching to a whole foods diet with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables and limited starches may be a significant change for a lot of families. An exercise regimen and taking regular nutritional supplements adds more discipline to families’ already busy schedules.
- Focus on positive solutions. This is an opportunity to improve the health of the entire family. Whether it’s more exercise, more sleep, or a better diet, these improvements will benefit everyone. Illness is an opportunity to correct imbalances and prevent patterns of behavior that foster symptoms.
- Communicate about the program. This is an opportunity to communicate and create a sense of community. Have an open family discussion about the program.
- Involve all family members. Make this an educational experience. Family members can support each other and share the project of improving health and improving discomfort. Everyone can learn how to make life more productive and happier, whether the issue is illness, emotional problems, or preventive health. Sharing the experience will create stronger bonds in the family and everyone will benefit.
These are difficult and challenging times for many people. Whether it is illness, financial difficulties, or just life’s seemingly interminable problems, we all need to take heart and have faith. Between frustrating political struggles in an election year and a government that has become increasingly dictatorial and corrupted by corporate interests, things can seem overwhelming at times. For many, 2016 is a year of upheaval and change.
During times of stress it is important to keep perspective and overcome doubts and fears. The best way to accomplish that is to remain positive, maintain our community support system, and pursue our own spiritual path. All of that begins with family support and communication.
Several tools can assist in the process of managing stress. Here are four things to do every day.
The first is meditation or relaxation, focusing on the breath. In times of stress, take deep breaths. And at regular opportunities close your eyes and just observe your breathing. Children can easily learn to meditate through guided meditation sessions. Here is a site with some meditation recordings for children.
Of course, exercise is a great way to work off stress and essential for children as well as adults. Exercise improves mood, helps concentration, and promotes quality sleep. Keep moving. Avoid sitting for extended periods of time. Take walking breaks. Consider a standing work station for your computer. Find an activity you enjoy, whether it’s yoga, hiking, running, biking, a sport, or resistance training with weights, and put it on your calendar.
Trees, grass, water, forests, mountains all provide nourishment for the soul. Countless studies have confirmed what we all experience, that nature has a calming and rejuvenating effect on the body and mind. Go outside. And make sure that children get outdoors to play.
If worry, anxiety, sleep problems, or persistent thoughts are a problem, supplements can help. Calcium and magnesium can calm children or adults. B vitamins assist in maintaining emotional and mental balance.
Several amino acid formulas can help balance neurotransmitter function and have a calming effect. GABA is probably the most important calming neurotransmitter to decrease stress reactions. Two specific amino acids assist in GABA production, taurine and 4-amino-3-phenylbutyricacid (phenibut). Combinations of these two chemicals reduce stress and anxiety.
Homeopathy can have a dramatic ability to balance stress reactions.
And finally, Chinese herbal formulas can reduce anxiety and support the spirit.