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BLOG: January 2007

Psychological stress and health

A well researched, informative article about psychological stress by Christine Gorman in Time Magazine brings some important facts of its biological mechanism and effects on health. Among its main points are:

the importance of regular daily relaxing breaks (friends, family, exercise, meditation) in alleviating long-term harmful health effects of stress,

direct relation between self-esteem and the level of stressful response,

other psychological traps that often intensify stress by obscuring escape routes, or realistically possible ways of handling potentially stressful situations ("learned hopelessness"), and

the longer stress is neglected, the more difficult it becomes to bring it under control.

Exposure to stress profoundly changes body's mode of function: it is switched by stress hormones to fight-or-flight state, at a price of burdening cardiovascular system on one, and suppressing vital functions like digestion, immune and detox on the other side. This is why longer-term exposure to stress - or even a single intense psychological trauma - can result in serious health problems, more so if combined with genetic vulnerability, unhealthy lifestyle, and/or nutritional deficiencies.

The subject of stress is rather complex, and something always can be added. For instance, as stress-prevention tool, a bit of planning and organizing in both, professional and personal life, can significantly reduce your daily stress level.

Another key factor which mainly depends on you is nutrition. It can greatly affect, positively or negatively, all of the above: your anxiety level, your ability to relax, your self-esteem and, inevitably, how difficult it is for you to manage stress.

On one hand, the body needs sufficient supply of nutrients needed for proper function of the nervous system - such as vitamin B complex - as well as those - like vitamin C - that are are used up by the body at a significantly higher rate when under stress. If they are low, the body - and you - will suffer.

On the other, certain substances found in foods can directly increase anxiety level and make you more vulnerable to stress and its harmful consequences to health.

 Among the most notorious, caffeine, a widely consumed bio-active amine, is well known for inducing anxiety states, which can escalate to a panic attack. Individual sensitivity vary significantly, but hardly anyone knows her or his personal limit. Thus, moderation is advisable.

Another source of anxiety can be hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which can many causes, including overuse of sugars and refined carbohydrates, or plain skipping a meal. Contrary to the popular belief, alcohol is also shown to actually increase anxiety level.

If your main stress-regulating glands - adrenals - are exhausted (by long or frequent exposure to stress, undernourishment, or both), they won't function well, and you may end up with chronic stress due to "blunted cortisol levels". So

make sure the adrenals get what they need

(particularly vitamin C, B5, B6, magnesium and zinc). Maintaining proper potassium-sodium ratio is also critically important for the proper adrenals function7.

The worst offender is anything that habitually raises your anxiety level. Such habit can be acquired as early as at toddler's age, carrying on to early childhood and adolescence. At this age, another potent factor, food additives (colors, flavors, preservatives), can and does change cause hyperactivity and other perceptional/behavioral changes in sensitive individuals. The consequences

can be life-long,

stemming from negative self-esteem built upon these early years' experiences (asocial behavior, rejection, isolation, attention deficit, lower grades, development of bad habits - smoking, drinking, drugs - in an attempt to cope with it, etc.)4.

Don't think that stress is something you should be concerned about? Think again. It may not look like it, but if you take a closer look, you may found out it is shaping up your life. We may not acknowledge it to ourselves, but it is the powerful modifier of a lifestyle, nevertheless. If you tend to:

- overeat and/or eat constantly

- have emotional outbursts

- develop addiction-like habits (gaming, drinking, smoking, watching TV,
surfing the Net)

- be doing something at all times (workaholic)

- be passive, even when things need to be done, etc.

it all can be - and often times is - your way of coping with stress that you are facing. It can be relatively harmless, but can also very negatively affect the quality of your life.

Stress levels you are exposed to are definitely something to pay attention to, and try to minimize as much as possible. Health consequences of the excessive, or prolonged exposure to stress can be very serious, not the least being it stealing from you the joy of life. Not seldom, we are not even aware of the degree of stress we're exposed to. We simply accept it, as "normal" - but it may not be not so.

A few simple, thoughtful changes in your lifestyle may be all that you need to significantly reduce level of stress you are exposed to, and keep it there.