An Integrative and Restorative Approach
By Rowena Chua, MD
Stress and your Health
Stress. Unfortunately, everyone has it in one form or another. Chronic stress can affect your overall health and well-being. In order to show you what stress does to your body, let’s take a look inside. Your nervous system has two important parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is responsible for action. It’s your “accelerator”. When this system is activated, your body experiences an increase in alertness, energy, euphoria, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle tone.
The SNS is responsible for “fight or flight”. It’s the stress response. Stress is an automatic response to any stimulus. We were meant to have this as a survival mechanism. When faced with danger, this response kicks in to help defend ourselves or run away. It was essential for our ancient ancestors to protect themselves from predators and other threats. In today’s world, it helps us against dangers such as stranger attacks, fire, avoiding car accidents, etc.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is responsible for the resting state. If the SNS is your accelerator, then the PNS is your “break”. When this system is activated, your body experiences decreased alertness, a feeling of calmness and relaxation, your heart rate and breathing rate decrease, your muscles relax and there is an increase in digestive activity.
The PNS is responsible for “rest and digest”. It’s the relaxation response. After you eat, the PNS mechanism shunts blood flow towards your digestive system to effectively break down food and absorb nutrients.
The ideal situation is a balance between these two systems, the stress and relaxation responses, in order for you and your body to achieve homeostasis.
Effects of Stress. (Click to enlarge)
Unfortunately, in this day and age, we are confronted with multiple challenges or stressors on a daily basis. We meet deadlines. Pay bills. Take care of children or elderly parents. Even a ring or text on a cell phone will trigger our sympathetic nervous system. Along with external stressors, there are internal stressors. These include pain, illness, excessive exercise, negative emotions/thoughts, medications, and toxins. All these things will activate your stress response. Our “fight or flight” response is normally triggered in extreme danger. Now imagine if this response is triggered constantly on a daily basis, multiple times during the day.
How Stress Affects Your Health
When your “fight or flight” response is constantly and chronically activated, a number of hormonal and biochemical changes can occur.
Response of the Neurohormonal System to Stress. (Click to enlarge)
If you are under a lot of stress (externally or internally), your body makes cortisol which is your main stress hormone. As a result, all of your body’s reserves are shunted towards the cortisol pathway and the production of all of your other essential hormones can be affected.
This can be demonstrated by looking at the Response of the Neurohormonal System to Stress (see figure). The production of all of your hormones begins in the brain in a small area called the hypothalamus. It sends signals to the pituitary gland, your master gland of all hormones. If your body is under constant stress, the pituitary gland sends signals to your adrenal glands to make cortisol and adrenaline in order to help your body deal with the stressors. However, this in turn can cause a reduction in levels of all of your other essential hormones which include:
- Thyroid hormone – responsible for energy and metabolism
- Growth hormone – helps build up your bone, muscle, needed for repair of all organ systems
- Progesterone, estrogen and testosterone – your essential sex and reproductive hormones
The resulting imbalance in hormones can contribute to symptoms such as low energy and fatigue, weight gain, headaches, difficulty sleeping, mood changes, poor memory, menstrual irregularities, infertility and more.
If your “fight or flight” response is constantly activated, then your “rest and digest” response is suppressed. This can impair your digestion causing various digestive problems (such as heartburn, reflux, constipation, irritable bowel symptoms) and affecting your normal gut flora that helps with absorption of essential nutrients.
When your body is under constant stress, your immune system becomes suppressed. Inflammation is your body’s response to a threat such as a bacteria or virus. However, any physical or emotional stressor, small or big, is considered a threat and can result in chronic, low-level inflammation. This can predispose you to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, immune dysfunction and increased risk of cancer.
Therefore, chronic stress can be a major root cause of symptoms and disease.
How to Manage the Effects of Stress on Your Health: An Integrative and Restorative Approach
Now that we know how stress affects your body and your health, let’s talk about how we can manage this.
Integrative Five-Point Restorative Approach. (Click to enlarge)
One of the core beliefs of my integrative practice is that the body can and will heal itself if function is optimized in 5 areas – hormones, nutrition, toxin clearance, mind and body (Integrative Five-Point Restorative Approach). An imbalance in one or more of these areas can contribute to your individual symptoms and conditions. In the case of stress, think of your body as a car. Your mind/body is your engine; hormones and nutrients are your fuel and oil. If your engine is constantly revved up, your fuel and oil tanks will eventually become depleted. Chronic stress throws the whole system out of balance and that’s how each person has their own particular set of symptoms and issues.
One of the ways to manage stress is to balance the mind/body connection and activate your body’s relaxation response. Some recommendations that I give to patients include:
- Breathe Consciously. One breathing exercise that is simple and helps induce the relaxation response is 4-7-8 breathing by Dr. Andrew Weil.1 You inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of 8 seconds. Perform this exercise for 4 cycles, 1-2 times a day.
- Meditate. Studies show that meditation activates the left prefrontal cortex, your happiness center in the brain. It also deactivates the right prefrontal cortex and amygdala, your emotional and fear centers in the brain.2 Studies also show that there are less inflammatory markers in the blood of those who meditate.3 There are many different ways to meditate–with a group, individually, or even with a mobile app. You can pick a method that feels right for you.
- Exercise. Start light walking 5 minutes a day and gradually work your way up. This is usually helpful for those who don’t typically exercise or those who are chronically stressed and fatigued that a regular workout is difficult for them. Exercise shouldn’t be exhaustive to the point where you can’t function afterwards. Yoga is wonderful for both the mind and body because of the connectivity with your breath and the various body poses that you perform.
- Practice Self-Care. Rearrange your schedule to include 30-60 minutes of protected time for you daily. Put it in your calendar. During this time, take a break from any electronics and do what makes you feel happy and relaxed. Make yourself the center of your own universe. In other words, take care of yourself first before anyone or anything else. This is sometimes difficult to do especially if you have kids or taking care of your elderly parents but it’s the most important thing you can do for your health and well-being.
In addition to balancing the mind/body connection, it’s important to address the 3 other areas – hormones, nutrients, toxin clearance.
It’s important to know your hormone and nutrient levels and optimize them as much as possible. A combination of natural hormone balancing, supplements, and dietary changes may be needed. Doing this will help fill up your fuel and oil tanks to help your body become more resilient to stress. It will help preserve your reserve. You may not be able to modify or eliminate all of your external stressors, but at least you can address these areas internally so your body is equipped to handle whatever comes its way.
Finally, toxins can act as another stressor on your body. Toxins can include harmful substances in our air, food, water, soil, and household products. Medications can also act as toxins. Identifying and eliminating toxins and supporting your detoxification system is important for your overall health in general.
In summary, when you balance the mind/body connection, optimize hormones and nutrients, and eliminate toxins you can mitigate the effects of stress on your health and achieve optimal health and wellness from the inside out.
- Weil, A. (2014, June 26). Video: Dr. Weil’s Breathing Exercises: 4-7-8 Breath [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.drweil.com/videos-features/videos/breathing-exercises-4-7-8-breath/
- Goldin PR, Gross JJ. Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion (2010) 10: 83-91.
- Bower JE, Irwin MR. Mind-body therapies and control of inflammatory biology: a descriptive review. Brain Behav Immun (2016) 51:1–11.