We have come to a curious place in the modern use of the English language. We commonly use the word "stress," but without common definition or meaning, especially as it affects our health.
Consider the definition in Wikipedia: "To draw tight" (Old French from the Latin stringere); the internal distribution of a force exerted on a material body (physics); a "mental strain, unwelcome happening, or a harmful environmental agent that could cause illness."
These terms do not well describe the human condition of events and circumstances that induce problems within the body. In terms of a healing response, stress is actually necessary to induce a beneficial response, such as the stress caused by hiking up the Mesa or Mount Garfield, causing the body to rebuild itself to be stronger than before the hike. In this regard, I think it will be most beneficial to describe how to take care of ourselves when we are faced with unnecessarily strong experiences that overwhelm our body's own natural ability to respond to a difficult situation.
In other words, I'd like to discuss how to handle life's inevitable challenges and difficulties by identifying and treating the cause of those difficulties, without requiring our poor adrenal glands to work themselves into exhaustion.
Let's say a bear stumbles onto the trail you're hiking on the Mesa. Immediately, our adrenal glands (ad-renals = above-kidneys, as they sit right atop the kidneys as a small, fat-rich pyramid-shaped gland) naturally respond with a dose of adrenaline, causing the fight-or-flight response that prepares the body for action. Our eyes dilate, our heart rate accelerates, the blood shunts away from the internal organs of the body to the muscles in the extremities, and release of nutrients from the liver to use by the muscles.
This "alarm phase" of the adrenal glands is all so that we can run away to live another day. This was originally proposed by Hans Selye (past director of Experimental Medicine and Surgery at the University of Montreal), who devised what he called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) in order to develop a general theory for the effects on the adrenal glands when animals and humans were exposed to stress. In a short period of time, the body in alarm phase begins to lose weight, stomach ulcers may develop quickly, and there may be a measurable shrinking of the thymus gland and lymph nodes.
As you have probably already determined, the body is not designed to run from bears all the time. From Seyle's research, we have discovered that over weeks to months, the body moves into what is called the "resistance phase" (also known as adrenal exhaustion) in which body weight was found to increase, and the adrenal gland strongly increased its production of stress-related hormones. Sound familiar to women who undergo great stresses and are unable to lose weight despite their greatest efforts? If the stress continues further, the body moves into the "exhaustion phase," in which the adrenal glands actually shrunk in size, accompanied by decreased stress resistance, premature aging, exhaustion and eventually death.
One of the most important factors in deciding what support someone with chronic stress needs, is to know what stage of adrenal fatigue that they are in. The other way to say this, is that we do not want to over-stimulate anyone in the alarm phase, and we do not want to over-suppress anyone who is in adrenal exhaustion. For example, the stimulating effects of glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice) can be fantastic medicine for someone in adrenal exhaustion, or an overwhelming addition to someone in the alarm phase.
There are fantastic tests to determine adrenal function, namely a salivary cortisol and DHEA test, which checks two of the most important hormones produced by the adrenal gland in any stress response. I do these in my office.
TREATMENTS FOR STRESS
Certainly, one of the greatest things we can do is increase our consumption of water, working toward half your body weight in ounces/day. B vitamins are a safe and welcome addition to anyone as well, as is any beneficial lifestyle modification, such as more rest, recreation, relaxation, meditation, or spiritual exploration. I am personally a huge fan of yoga, as I know how it has helped me to adapt to whatever challenges come my way.
Also, increasing the amount of nutrient-rich foods in the form of animal products is also generally beneficial, unless there are certain ethical or moral issues involved. I personally knew five vegans who switched to eating red meat and eggs during my medical schooling, because they simply did not get enough nutrition in the form of B vitamins, especially B12 while undergoing such a rigorous program.
Vitamin C, Vitamin E, selenium and Vitamin A (as beta-carotene) are also very safe and easy additions to a stress formula. I also personally prescribe people to use glandular formulas, in this case bovine or porcine (cow or pig) adrenal gland extracts, no matter what stage of fatigue they are in. There is a tradition amongst Chinese and other ancient healing modalities, to eat the part of the animal that you wish to support in yourself.
Perhaps the greatest thing you can do to begin to recover from a stressful state is to identify and treat the cause of that stress. For example, if you know that a job or relationship is the primary reason for your own stress or anxiety, are your avoiding that moment of confrontation, simply because it is uncomfortable? This may well be the greatest treatment you can do, either on your own, or with the help of a good therapist or doctor.
Other treatments will depend on someone's particular needs. They may need to be calmed by nervine herbs such as passiflora incarnata (passionflower), valeriana officinalis (valerian), or piper methysticum (kava kava), or they may need to be stimulated by the potent effects of panax ginseng or eleutherococcus senticosus (ginsengs) and other adaptogenic herbs like rhodiola. This depends on that person's own individual health story.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, himself said: "It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has." Get to know your own story, and start now by dealing with the cause of your stresses.
Dr. Christopher Lepisto graduated as a naturopathic doctor (ND) from Bastyr University in Seattle, Wash. He is a native of Grand Junction and opened his practice here in 2004. Previously, Lepisto lived and worked in New Zealand, where he developed a special interest in indigenous herbal medicines. For more information, visit www.grandjunctionnaturopath.com or call 970-250-4104.