Epidemic is not too strong a word to describe the rates of stress we are currently seeing in the United States. More and more Americans live much of their time in a constant state of stress and anxiety, leading to fatigue, depression, burnout, and physical illness. A Gallup poll reports that up to 25 % of the American workforce suffers from excess stress or anxiety. Any change in your environment can cause stress, whether related to work, finances, relationships, or lifestyle. Even positive change can be stressful.
15 % of the U.S. population has had an anxiety disorder, and, according to the National Commission on Sleep Disorders, one in five Americans suffer from stress-related insomnia. The conventional medical treatment for stress, anxiety and insomnia consists of prescription drugs, usually Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin, or other highly addictive “ benzodiazepines.”
A modern office worker afraid of being chewed out by the boss experiences many of the same physiological events as a caveman of 50,000 years ago about to be chewed on by a saber-toothed tiger. The “fight or flight” response, the complex set of physical and psychological responses we call “stress”, erupts spontaneously in a human body mobilized for danger. Just as the caveman could only see two options — fight or flight, the chronic stress that pervades our lives limits our vision in every way, narrowing our view of what’s possible in our jobs, our relationships and our society.
At the same time, many of us believe that we can’t afford to give up our stress level, for fear that we would lose our “edge”. We put off relaxing until we complete the next project, contract, or term paper. However, research shows that a state of relaxed alertness allows us to work better and smarter. True health involves both mind and body. The workaholic style, based on pushing ourselves “just a little harder” is not the answer.
Our bodies pay a steep price for the years of stress. Sixty-percent of doctor visits are connected to stress and the physical ailments it can cause, and the cost to business is estimated at $50-75 billion dollars a year. Modern research shows that stress is a major contributor to our most pernicious diseases — heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis and cancer. Yet medicine as a whole has failed to deal effectively in the prevention of these conditions. The best it can do is treat the symptoms, with little focus on the underlying causes. Faced with soaring costs, the frustrations of managed care, and the failure of modern medicine to provide adequate solutions to critical health problems, Americans are seeking alternative solutions in ever-increasing numbers.
There is now a marked trend toward the use of natural substances rather than drugs in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and insomnia. A significant advantage of herbs , or “phytomedicines” over the targeted “magic bullet” effects of synthetic drugs is that herbs are complex combinations of many ingredients with multiple actions. This increases the beneficial effects while reducing possible side effects.
Valerian, St John’s Wort, and More
Valerian is a familiar natural tranquilizer.
Anxiety is often combined with depression, making the natural antidepressant , St. John’s Wort, particularly useful. Besides enhancing the mood elevating chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) such as serotonin, it also has a calming effect, likely due to its action on the benzodiazepine receptor sites in the brain. Research shows it to be often as effective as prescription antidepressants, but without their side effects. There is no addiction or withdrawal, or problem when combined with alcohol, nor are there any accompanying food restrictions.
Siberian Ginseng known as an adaptogen helps the body cope with stress. It will support the adrenal glands, an essential part of our stress-fighting system that often becomes depleted.
Various vitamins and minerals are likewise needed, especially the B-vitamins, and the minerals, calcium, magnesium, and potassium which are all depleted during stress. B vitamins are required for the smooth running of the nervous system, and the production of adrenal hormones. The minerals have a relaxing effect on the body and emotions.
Supplements, however, are not a substitute for a proper diet, and good diet helps to balance our moods and energy. We are “running on empty” if we do not replenish our stores of raw material that run our inner chemical factory.
Add lifestyle enhancers such as meditation, exercise, massage, and other types of self-care for a well-rounded stress-reduction program. In many cases, exercise alone goes a long way toward enhancing mood, calming anxiety, and overcoming insomnia. The combination of all of the above, from herbs to diet and exercise to specific anti-stress techniques, can lead you out of the stress trap and into a more relaxed, healthy, and fulfilling lifestyle.
Article Author: Hyla Cass M.D. is a physician practicing integrative medicine and psychiatry. She combines the best of natural medicine with modern science in her clinical practice and appears regularly on TV, radio, and has been quoted in many national magazines. A member of the Medical Advisory Board of the Health Sciences Institute and Taste for Life Magazine, she is also Associate Editor of Total Health Magazine, she has served on the boards of California Citizens for Health and the American College for Advancement in Medicine (ACAM). She graduated from the University of Toronto School of Medicine, interned at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, and completed a psychiatric residency at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center/UCLA. She is the author of several popular books including: Natural Highs, 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health, and Supplement your Prescription: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know About Nutrition.
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