So You're Not Stressed... eh?
If you don't know how to recognize stress in yourself, all the information in the world is meaningless. So, here is a simple quiz to help you identify the early stages of chronic stress. Just ask yourself:
Do I crave sweets or other carbs, especially through the evening hours?
Do I have a thick waist or belly fat?
Is it hard for me to fall asleep or stay asleep?
Have I notice myself snapping more at my family or becoming more irritated with people in general?
Do I have midday fatigue?
Has my sex drive reduced?
Do I rely on heavy caffeine use to get me through the day?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, stress is most likely affecting you. If you answered yes to several of them, consider it a wake up call.
Living well and long, and one thing I can tell you is that stress is the enemy of a long and healthy life. The major stress hormones- like cortisol and adrenaline- serve important purposes in our body. In fact, we couldn't live without them. Without the signals they send to our body, we wouldn't be able to respond to emergencies. The stress hormones make it possible to run from a bear or fight off a wildebeest; they alert us when the teenager who's texting in the next lane is about to swerve into our car; they serve as an early warning system for danger, and prepare our bodies to either fight off an enemy or to run the other way. They're integrally related to our survival.
But our stress hormones were never meant to be "turned on" 24/7. While they're perfect for a quick response to an emergency, they also take a huge toll on our bodies when they're locked into the "on" position all the time. Cortisol, for example, sends signals to the body to break down muscle and store fat around the middle. Cortisol also shrinks an important part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is essential for memory and thinking. Stress can depress your immune system, make recovery from illness longer and more difficult, and can aggravate symptoms of a wide range of diseases.
Probably the single most effective way to bring down stress hormones is to meditate. Even deep breathing exercises, such as the Relaxation Response pioneered by Herbert Benson, MD at Harvard, can make a huge difference in lowering your stress hormones.
Ashwaganda, for example, is known as a "vitalizer" or energizer for the body, and can be very helpful in fighting fatigue and exhaustion. Magnolia bark contains compounds that have demonstrated anti-anxiety properties, and L-theanine is the amino acid found in green tea that's known to be a great stress reliever.
One herb that has a terrific resume for stress is rhodiola rosea. A number of studies have demonstrated that rhodiola has an antifatigue effect, and it's also been shown to improve endurance exercise capacity. The prestigious (and conservative!) Physicans Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines says of rhodiola, "Most users find that it improves their mood, energy level and mental clarity". Rhodiola should be taken early in the day because it can interfere with sleep. Between 50-200 mg a day is recommended for clinical effectiveness.
Remember that stress eats up B vitamins and vitamin C. The adrenal glands require vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) to do their job properly, so if you're under a lot of continual stress, you may feel better by supplementing with extra B and also with vitamin C.
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