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Self Care and Stress Reduction

Self Care and Stress Reduction

Caring for our selves and finding ways to handle our stresses are clearly important practice for assuring our long-term health. They are definitely key aspects of Preventive Medicine, along with the right nutrition and exercise programs for our body, getting proper sleep, and maintaining a positive attitude toward our self, others, and the world. Learning the individual path that generates health rather than disease is really the finest art of medicine and personal development, and an extremely important process in which to invest. Let’s look at the area of stress and ways to protect our body from the negative effects and to create better health.

A self-inventory

One of the first steps in stress reduction is an honest inventory of where we are. Ask yourself:

  • Is anything very out of balance in my life? If so, what is upsetting me?
  • Why don’t I feel fully relaxed, happy, and able to sleep well?
  • What do I need to do to restore balance?
  • Is there anything I can do something about?

For most of us, the key life challenges are in areas of:

  1. Health–how we care for ourselves and the result we hu-manifest,
  2. Career–what we share with the world and the support that is returned, and
  3. Relationships–how we give and receive love.

If we can master these three primary areas of life, some might say we’re near enlightenment.


One of the sources of stress is inner tension between what we expect of ourselves and what actually happens. Often these expectations are quite unconscious. It’s important to identify unspoken expectations or attachments. Sometimes we need to work a little harder to bring reality in line with our expectations – to really go for our dream.

Letting Go

At other times, we need to develop more detachment to let go of counter-productive thoughts or desires. In this effort, a meditation practice can be very valuable. All the major religions of the world include some type of meditation or prayer. Your practice can be aligned with your spiritual beliefs.

Types of Stress (from the Anti-Stress Program, page 598, in 2006 Edition of Staying Healthy with Nutrition)

Stress comes in many forms. For example, many of us are surprised to learn that intense joy is a source of stress, but since it requires more of our body and mind, it genuinely qualifies as stress (with an increased heart rate and the manufacture of certain neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline). Exercise can also be a stressor even though it is great for us. This is because of the repetitive movement in certain areas of the body, and because we create and release more free radicals and toxins into the blood and tissues. This biochemical process can best be handled by being sure you drink enough water and take antioxidant nutrients, such as Vitamins A and C. According to researchers on stress, the most optimal form of vitamin C is paired with the bioflavonoid, Quercetin.

The various types of stress include:

  • Mental – high responsibility; financial or career pressures; working long hours at mental tasks, perfectionism, anxiety, and worry
  • Emotional – attitude toward self; issues or imbalance in our relationships; anger, fear, frustration, sadness, betrayal, bereavement
  • Psycho-Spiritual – issues of life goals; spiritual alignment, imbalance, or lack of spiritual nurturing; general state of happiness
  • Physical – exercise, physical labor; pregnancy and giving birth; developmental or life changes (adolescence, menopause, and aging)
  • Traumatic – infection, injury, burns, surgery, extreme temperatures
  • Biochemical – deficiencies of vitamins, minerals, specific amino acids, protein, or fats and fatty acids; food allergies; genetic errors in metabolism that can result in alcoholism, other addictions, or mental illness
  • Toxic – environmental pollutants such as pesticides, cleaning solvents, and other toxins; the use of chemicals such as drugs, alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine

Please realize that stress is not dictated by situations or incidents themselves; rather, real stress comes from the way we react to the issues of our lives. For stress to negatively influence our health, we must experience something as danger. If we experience a threat as stress, we may go into fight-or-flight mode (which shifts us into the sympathetic [adrenaline] side of our nervous system). That means our body actually prepares to battle or run, “fight or flight.” Our circulation slows and there may be greater muscle tension; our digestion slows down, heart rate goes up, and we begin using up important nutrients. Often immune function is affected – our level of T-cells may even be depressed. And clearly then, we are more prone to become ill or “catch whatever’s going around.”

Sometimes there’s no way around stress. For example, when a child falls on the playground, or we’re putting out a fire, our body prepares us for the emergency so we can respond immediately. That’s the way it should be as this level of response/reaction allows us to be more alert and ready for action.

But sometimes stress is subtler – and it may be more psychological or emotional. When there really is no physical danger, our body may still react as if there were. Then, if there’s no physical activity to provide an outlet for the increased internal activity, the response may remain inward and play havoc with our physiology and organs, as well as with our emotions and our mind. At that point, we run the risk of exhausting the adrenal glands and flooding our body with metabolic toxins, such as damaging free radicals (associated with the aging process and diseases such as cancer). This example also shows the reason why “a walk to cool down” really is a good idea.

When we’re under emotional or mental stress, and still stay in a relaxed mode, we can respond more calmly and experience less emotional and biochemical wear-and-tear. (Then our body doesn’t shift into full battle mode and begin pouring out the chemical signals that we’re in danger and must react.) This relaxed approach usually leads to a better outcome as well.

Anti-Stress Nutrients

Many anti-stress formulas are based on the B-complex vitamins and vitamin C because these important nutrients are all significantly depleted by stress. In addition, stress-related problems may be compounded by deficiencies resulting from generally poor nutrition. All of the B vitamins are important here – especially pantothenic acid (B5). B5, folic acid, and vitamin C are essential for the functioning of our adrenal glands. The adrenals carry perhaps the greatest load when our body is under stress.

The B-complex vitamins are ideally taken 2 or 3 times a day, particularly when we are under a lot of stress. This is especially important if the stress lasts over a period of months – a big project at work or a challenging job, a chronically ill child or parent, unemployment, divorce – any of the life events that tend to deplete us over time. It’s best to take the B-vitamins before dark so that we don’t become over-stimulated when it’s time to wind down and relax. I do suggest more minerals in the evening, as they tend to help with relaxation, especially a calcium and magnesium supplement. However, most vitamins and minerals are best assimilated if they’re taken with a meal.

Note: Prolonged stress or lack of sleep can lead to a myriad of health problems. If these issues do not resolve with home treatment, you may need to see your doctor or other health professional.

Sleep Nutrient Cocktail

If you have any trouble sleeping, either being unable to fall asleep or you wake up after a few hours and can’t fall back asleep, some natural remedies could be very helpful. Here are a few to try:

  • Vitamin C – 500-1,000 mg (to help mineral absorption)
  • Calcium – 400-750 mg
  • Magnesium – 350-500 mg
  • Potassium – 300-500 mg
  • L-Tryptophan – 500-2,000 mg (available from practitioners), or try 5-HTP (hydroxy-tryptophan) 50-150mg

Note: Tryptophan and 5-HTP are precursors of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which induces sleep for our brain. Improving serotonin levels can also help reduce depression.

Relaxing herbs, such as valerian root, kava kava, chamomile, vervain, catnip, hops, or linden flowers can also be used. Find an herbal formula that has one or more of these herbs, and take as directed at bedtime.

Here’s how to use these Natural Supplements:

Vitamins. Begin with the vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium. If these don’t work, add 500mg of L-tryptophan (or 50mg of 5-HTP) increasing the dosage if necessary by 500 mg of tryptophan (or 50mg of 5-HTP), every three days, up to 2,000 mg (or 200mg of 5-HTP). Increases in magnesium should be tried when you’re at home on the weekend, because higher dosages of magnesium can cause sudden diarrhea.

Herbs. If you still have no relief from your insomnia, try an herbal sleep formula, beginning with one or two capsules (or 3 or 4 caps as appropriate) of a single herb or multi-herb formula. Relaxants. A cup of warm whole milk before bed can also be beneficial, as long as you tolerate dairy products well. Sleepy-time tea or some other nighttime relaxant is a helpful addition to a calming evening routine. The homeopathic remedy, Calm’s Forte, is also helpful for some people.

Food and Stress … Food and Winter

In some ways, the needs of stress and of winter are different. We feel the need to eat warm, nourishing foods. Yet, when we’re under stress, our digestive function may slow temporarily to prepare us for physical activity (again, fight or flight). It’s best to wait to eat until our system calms down. Otherwise, we may not digest our food well. While waiting, we can simply take in liquids — water, tea, juice, even a protein drink, or some other light food if we’re hungry.

In winter, our needs are appropriate for the climate. We want foods that will sustain us and warm us against wind and chill. We may worry that this could lead to weight gain, but most of us don’t put on weight eating whole grains – it’s usually the sweets and simple starches that tend to add the calories and weight.

Nurturing winter foods include:

  • Nuts and Seeds (good snacks, but limit to one or two handfuls a day)
  • Whole grains and Beans – brown rice and black beans, millet and mung beans.
  • Sprouts – seeds, grains, and beans
  • Seaweed – agar, kelp, arame, kombu, dulse, nori, hijiki, wakame
  • Protein – soy, dairy products, eggs, fish, poultry. meats
  • Green vegetables – Bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, chard, kale
  • Spicy vegetables and condiments such as daikon radish, garlic, ginger, onions, leeks
  • Root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, potatoes, beets (include these foods in moderation)
  • Late autumn and winter fruits, especially those local to our region, including apples, cranberries, pears, persimmons, and navel oranges
  • Tropical and dried fruits, such as papaya or raisins, tend to be very sweet, which can cause weight gain, so regard these as a special treat

Putting together a healthy diet in each season and throughout the seasons of your life is definitely a worthy investment of your time, energy, and money. The Ideal Diet for most people, along with menu plans and recipes, as well as guidance for what changes might be necessary to assure wellbeing throughout your life can be found in Part III of my nutrition textbook, Staying Healthy with Nutrition.

Enjoy good food and great health!

Elson Haas, MD.

Integrative Family Medicine Physician, Author and Educator

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