Stressed to Death

By Dr. Tracy Gilbert, ND
Naturopathic Doctor

It is estimated that between 75 and 90% of all doctor’s visits are for stress-related symptoms or illnesses.    Stress has been linked to a wide range of health conditions – examples include obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, infertility, IBS, headaches, fatigue, osteoporosis, eczema, and asthma.  But can stress actually kill us?  Some experts believe that it can.  In fact, the Japanese even have a name for it – they refer to it as karoshi, meaning death by overwork.       

Of course, our bodies are design to handle a certain degree of stress.  In response to acute or short-term stressors, our adrenal glands pump out stress hormones (such as cortisol) to help us to cope with the situation.  Our bodies typically recover quickly from this type of stress.  Stress becomes a problem, however, when it is chronic and our bodies do not have time to adequately recover.  The adrenal glands eventually become exhausted from chronic elevations of the stress hormones and our physical, mental, and emotional health begin to deteriorate.

So what can we do about it?  We may not have control over the situations that cause stress, but we do have control over the impact that stress has on our minds and bodies.  Here are some useful tips to help you move in the right direction:

  1. Have your Adrenal Function Tested

To determine the impact that stress is having on your body, have your adrenal function tested through urine (i.e., Koenisburg urine test) or saliva testing (i.e., salivary cortisol test).  Most Naturopathic Doctors offer these valuable in office tests and can provide a baseline of your current adrenal function.

  1. Activate your Body’s Relaxation Response

To reduce the impact of stress on your health, it is important to activate your body’s relaxation response on a regular basis.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but sitting in front of the television after work is not an effective way to lower the body’s stress hormones!  Instead, you have to engage in an activity that triggers your body to relax by reducing cortisol levels, lowering blood pressure, slowing heart rate, relaxing the muscles, and increasing blood flow to the digestive organs.  Research has shown various techniques to be highly effective at producing all of these desired results – these techniques include meditation, yoga, massage therapy, acupuncture, hypnosis and guided relaxation.  To reduce your risk of stress related illness, try one or more of these techniques on a weekly (or daily) basis.

  1. Take an Herbal Adaptogen

“Adaptogens” are herbs that help the body “adapt” to stress.  There are many adaptogens to choose from (e.g., ashwaganda, schisandra, rhodiola, and Asian ginseng) – my personal favorite is rhodiola.  Rhodiola has been extensively studied and has been shown to combat stress and fatigue, increase memory and concentration, reduce anxiety, improve ability to lose weight, and boost exercise performance.  How much more can we ask for from one little plant?  It’s an ideal remedy for our overworked and overtaxed bodies.

  1. Take a B-Complex Vitamin

The B-vitamins play a role in almost every function in the body.  But when it comes to stress, they are critically important.  B-vitamins are stored in the adrenal glands and are one of the first nutrients to become depleted from chronic stress.  It is hard to get adequate amounts from diet alone since the processing and cooking of food destroys some of the B-vitamin levels.  Supplementing with a high quality B-complex can help to improve energy, reduce stress, and elevate mood.

In conclusion, don’t underestimate the effect that stress can have on your health and on your life.  Practice preventative medicine – make time to relax before poor health forces you to take the time!