What defines stress?  Stress is the way the body responds to some kind of challenge, be it external in our environment or whether driven from internal, often in response to emotional or mental stressors, or physiological dysfunctions.  Stress activates our sympathetic nervous system, the so-called, fight or flight responses.  Prior to the advent of civilizations, the activation of the fight or flight response would have been very adaptive, such that it allowed the individual to function optimally in defending itself or running away in the face of danger.  However, in modern times with our constant exposure to stressors, the sustained activation of the stress response contributes to the development of chronic diseases and ill health.

When I ask patients in the office what are their stress levels like, people often respond with 1 or 2 answers of stressors they are aware of but, that they are manageable.  People often do not realize the numbers of ongoing stressors they are constantly dealing with.  How many of us have financial stressors?  What about relationship stressors with a partner or loved one, family member, friends or even coworkers?  How about job stress?  What about the stress of exposure to environmental toxins daily, be it in the air, water, house, furniture, food, and in the form of electromagnetic radiation exposure from cell phones, computers, TVs, appliances, etc.  Nutrient deficiencies due to poor diets act as a constant stressor.  Lack of exercise and movement places significant stress on the body, as does a lack of exposure to natural environments, sunlight and open air.  Disrupted sleep cycles, poor sleep or lack of adequate deep sleep, when growth and repair occur, is very common in our society today and is a serious stressor to health.

When you begin to consider all these factors acting as stressors to the human body, you can see that everyone suffers from significant stress, whether they are aware of it or not.  And, we all have varying degrees in our ability to cope or handle these stressors.  For some, these stressors are compensated for and the individual may not be overly or outwardly affected by them.  Others, however, may be completely debilitated by them such that they contribute to disease processes and significantly impact their activities of daily living.

Now, while this can all seem gloomy and impossible to not get burdened by stress, we do have the capacity to change things.  And while stress is unavoidable in our lives, and sometimes necessary, we can work to minimize the damage that it causes.  First and foremost we must address the fundamentals that we have the most control over:  Diet, Exercise, Sleep, and last but not least, Stress Management Techniques.  Also, while it can be the hardest and most challenging to address, and often hard to hear, if you are in a situation that continues to cause you chronic stress, a serious life change may be necessary to change the course of your health and your life.  If you are in a job you hate, with a partner you cant stand, live in a polluted house or environment, if these situations dont change, dont expect your health to.  They will continue to weigh you down until something more serious arises. 

In addition to making dietary changes, getting movement and exercise, improving sleep, and learning and practicing some kind of stress management activity, plants and herbs can provide positive support in helping us minimize the impacts of stress on our bodies and making us more resilient in the face of our stressors. 

In future posts we will look at a number of herbs which improve our ability to handle stress and support numerous systems the body.

Author: Shawn Manske, BScH, N.D. Naturopathic Doctor