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Adapting to Stress

As I continue to see patients in my office for the various conditions that they suffer from, I have noticed an emerging trend.  I see a common causative factor, regardless of what their particular malady may be, that contributes to their condition.  This information has really opened my eyes to the fact that if we can learn to modify this one single factor, we may be able to get better (or suffer less) from a multitude of “diseases." You see, this idea really goes against how medicine is practiced in industrialized countries like ours.  Around here, if you have high blood pressure, then we attempt to lower the blood pressure through the use of fancy medications like diuretics (to lower the volume of fluid within the blood vessels), Beta Blockers (to control the heart beat and relax the blood vessels), Calcium Channel Blockers (to relax the smooth muscles that make up the blood vessels), and so on. If you are depressed then one way or another we attempt to adjust your brain chemistry so that the levels of certain brain chemicals, like serotonin, are higher and you no longer feel depressed. If you get migraine headaches then you get medicines that numb you from the pain.  If you get terrible PMS symptoms then we give you birth control pills to regulate your hormones. If you get sinus infections over and over again, we give you one antibiotic after another to kill the bacteria that are causing the infections, and eventually have to resort to surgery to “clean out” the sinuses. But what if all of these conditions (and hundreds more) are really caused by, or allowed to happen because of, one common, underlying issue?  If that were the case then we may just be onto something big here! How you react to the world around you is that one, simple factor.  Yes… once again I am talking about STRESS!  And it doesn’t matter whether the stress is physical, emotional or spiritual.  It doesn’t matter whether the stress is real or only perceived… your body reacts the same way. Let’s imagine that we have a roller-coaster and we have 2 people that are going to go for a ride.  The first person loves the roller-coaster.  For her it is an exhilarating experience.  She revels in the big drop and the quick turns.  Her immune system is buoyed by this experience.  Her body creates endorphins and other hormones that make her feel good.  Even though her blood pressure and heart rate are elevated during the ride, this is like exercise for the cardiovascular system and soon after the ride is over they return to normal, maybe even a little lower than before this experience. The second person hates the roller-coaster and is scared to go on it.  For her, this is a terrifying, white-knuckle experience.  Her immune system may get buoyed by this event, but long-term, it gets dampened or “burned-out” and her adrenal glands create the hormones of stress.  Her blood pressure and heart rate remain elevated for hours or days after the ride.  She is nervous and tired. The really interesting thing about this illustration is that the roller-coaster ride was exactly the same for both of these people.  What was different was how they “related” to the ride. It is the same for you and the roller-coasters that are your lives.  You have the opportunity to allow the “stressful” events in your lives to either exhilarate you or scare you.  Your circumstances can either elevate your immune system to better function or impede its ability to do its work. Why is stress, and how you react to your environment, the common cause (or an important causative factor) of almost every chronic disease that you can suffer from?  Because, when you are under stress, your body begins a very complicated cascade of “chemical events” that leads to what we then call diseases… high blood pressure, heart disease, migraines, diabetes, cancer, all manner of auto-immune diseases, arthritis, hormonal imbalances, depression, irritable bowel, etc.  This chemical chain reaction begins in the adrenal glands. So why is it that you end up suffering from different diseases if the cause is the same?  Ah… that is where your genetics come into the picture.  Your genes dictate what each of your particular “weaknesses” or “tendencies” are.  If we had 10 people in a room and were able to expose then all equally to the same stress, they would react differently depending upon their genetics and how they interacted with the stress. A few of the people may actually react positively to the stress.  One may get headaches, another may get a dampened immune system allowing for colds or flu or even cancer, another may get hormonal imbalances leading to PMS or even certain cancers, another may get high blood pressure or depressed.  Another may not be able to sleep well at night.  Another may start eating all sorts of unhealthy foods or turn to alcohol or nicotine for solace or get reflux.  You get the picture. This is the very reason why many chronic diseases run in families.  You get your genetic set from our parents; this represents your weaknesses and susceptibilities.  But what you also get from your parents is the way that you react to your environment.  You learn from Mom and Dad your response to stressful events.  While you were growing up, if you saw Dad totally flip out when he got cut off on the highway, right from the very start you believed that flipping out was the appropriate response.  If Mom worried about everything in the world, you learned that habit too.  And biochemically speaking, you may have gotten used to a certain “soup” of negative or detrimental chemicals when your Mother was pregnant with you! So right now you are saying to yourself that it might seem impossible for you to change what has become a deeply ingrained habit over the years.  I do not agree with that; even though I certainly understand that point of view.  It is possible, although probably not very easy; to actually change the way you react to things. However, here is some really good news.  There is a major “half-step” that you can take to begin this process.  This is something that I have been recommending for my patients for years now that has netted some truly astounding results. There is a group of herbs known as “adaptogens.”  These herbs, in a non-specific way, calm down the adrenal response to stress.  Using these herbs does not necessarily change your reaction to the stress around you, but they do change or moderate the biochemical response to the stress. So, if you are in a stressful situation and your adrenal response to it would normally register a 10 on the “adrenal response scale” then when you are taking these adaptogens the response may only be a 4 or a 3.  Remember that it is the adrenal response to the stressor that begins the very complicated chemical chain reaction that ultimately leads to the chronic diseases that you suffer from.  Moderating the response can in turn moderate the disease. And this is what I have seen happen with countless patients over the past couple of years.  Blood pressure seems to normalize.  Cravings for things like sugar and alcohol and cigarettes tend to calm down.  Sleeping becomes easier and deeper, and people are apt to wake up more refreshed.  The day looks brighter and energy is better throughout the day.  Colds and flu and allergies seem less likely to occur.  Gastric reflux and heartburn begin to go away. Vital Adapt 4ozWhat are these seemingly magic herbs?  They have names like Eleuthero (Ginseng), Schisandra, Rhodiola Rosea, Ashwagangha, Ganoderma, Cordyceps, and Licorice Root, to name a few.  They come from all over the world; many tending to grow in cold areas like Siberia (almost like nature is providing the answer to the physical stresses that come with living in that environment).  These herbs are generally safe for everyone and are not very likely to cause any allergic or unwanted reactions.  Dosages would vary from person to person.  My favorite way to use these is in combination.  There are specific formulas that combine all of the adaptogens and it seems like I get the best results from using them.  My favorite formulas are Vital-Adapt” and “Power-Adapt” by Natura Health Products. I also like to use actual adrenal gland, in the form of tablets or capsules, in combination with adaptogens, to lend additional support to adrenal function. Adrenal and ADR Formula by Pure Encapsulations are my favorites. And the really great thing about using herbal adaptogens is that I get reports of “other” things happening that we didn’t necessarily anticipate changing.  It is very common for a patient to call me back after a few weeks on one of the adaptogen formulas telling me that, for example,  even though they are taking it to help them sleep; all of a sudden they are not having reflux any more, even if they didn’t tell me they had reflux in the first place. The last word is that there are other things that you may do that can contribute to adrenal over-reaction and ultimately to all of the aforementioned diseases.  Not getting enough sleep and sleeping at the wrong times is an issue (Did you know that studies of nurses that work night-shift show an increased risk of breast cancer?).  Improper eating habits by skipping meals are another negative factor.  Too much caffeine and other stimulants end up leading to inappropriate adrenal responses.  The same can be said of too much sugar in the diet. Ultimately, it would be great for you to become the observer instead of the reactor to events around you.  Until that day comes, try getting a little herbal help adapting!!
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