The secret life of stress

Friday, February 20, 2009
Image: Getty
Don't let stress get the better of you. Get in touch with how it affects your body and mind.

Being caught in the eye of a stress storm can be a little like operating on spin-cycle. You're overly busy with study or work, so get less sleep. You're tired so reach for a coffee or 10, and — surprise, surprise — have trouble sleeping. As for the energy you need to climb that mountain of paper and get on top of your work? Reserves are falling to say the least.

Rather than stress occurring solely in the mind, there are a number of physiological reactions which occur, too. For the most part, this activity centres on the adrenal glands — small triangular organs that rest on top of each kidney and produce adrenalin.

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"The adrenals work a bit like a bank account," naturopath and author Jennifer Jefferies explains. "You need to spend a little adrenal energy and each night you build up your reserves again. But the reality is that most people spend more than they reinvest."

In periods of prolonged stress, the adrenals become exhausted. "This signals that the bank account is empty and you are facing daily challenges to your health," Jefferies says. Telltale signs you've reached this zone include frequent colds and flu, weakness, dark circles under the eyes, constant tension in the shoulders, a "burnt out" feeling, and headaches or migraines.

How can natural therapies help?
During times of stress, the body has a higher demand for vitamins and minerals.

"With extended bouts of stress, many of the nutrients you draw from your foods are shunted off to feed the stress response, rather than being employed to keep you calm. As health practitioners, we seek to stop this cycle," says naturopath Christine Kavanagh.

For this reason, stress supplements are aimed at stabilising the stress response, whilst also providing energy support.

Any stress formulation worth its salt is packed with B vitamins, Kavanagh explains. "These are essential for your nervous system and also help you through the day by supporting energy production." B5, for example, has traditionally been tagged the "anti-stress vitamin".

"You would also have minerals in there: calcium, magnesium and potassium," she says — calcium for its capacity to aid nerve function; magnesium for its muscle tension relieving properties; and potassium for aiding mental clarity.

"When you go home and you're cerebrally overwrought, someone might ask you what you want for dinner and you think, 'Don't ask me questions'. You need potassium in order to think straight," Kavanagh says.

Other natural ingredients with stress-reducing effects include ginseng and withania. As Kavanagh points out, when stressed, your adrenal glands produce too much adrenalin. "To get off this treadmill and reduce these levels, ginseng offers what we call an adaptogen or a normaliser." Referred to as "the Indian ginseng", withania can aid flagging libido — often a casualty of an exhausted system.

Quick stress squashers

  • Debrief: Talk to others about what's bothering you.
  • Exercise: A major anti-stressor, fitness helps achieve a balanced mind.
  • Relax: Indulge in something you enjoy.
  • Decaffeinate: Don't overdose on stimulants like coffee and tea which might disrupt your sleep.

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