Stress Survival Guide

Life can be stressful, and though you can't avoid occasional stress, you can minimize its impact on you and your health.

Not all stress is necessarily negative. Some stress is "good" stress, like the stress you feel when you are in the middle of a river fighting white water rapids with a paddle and some gumption, or rock climbing over a breathtaking canyon, with your heart pounding, body perspiring, adrenaline and cortisol pumping through your veins . . . regular exercise puts stress on your body too.

So do positive life changes, such as getting married.

This "good" stress isn't harmful, and in small doses it can be invigorating and motivating. However, life also presents frequent, more than small doses of stress through issues like an uncertain economy, traffic jams during long commutes, relationship troubles and long working hours, and this creates bad stress that can have serious health consequences.

To understand why stress can be harmful to your health, it is important to understand how the body reacts during stressful or threatening times. An example is driving down the road and a car pulls out in front of you, forcing you to react quickly to avoid an accident.

When you first see the other car, your glands release large doses of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. In this instance, the hormones act as life savers, making it possible to react quickly when threatened with danger. After the threat of danger is gone, the levels of adrenaline and cortisol should drop to normal.

In some life situations, stress doesn't always go away so easily. In the case of financial or work troubles, difficult relationships or long-term care giving duties, the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the body can remain high, and that is where stress begins to negatively affect health.

Effects of chronic stress can range from headaches, digestive issues, chronic infections, skin conditions such as eczema, and insomnia to more serious, life- threatening conditions such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, and immune system disorders which may have their origins in stress.

Some people find relief in the form of prescription drugs, street drugs, alcohol, comfort foods and other potentially harmful behavior. These actions may ease the symptoms, temporarily, but consequences result.

Additionally, treating the stressful symptoms does not address the cause of the stress, and in fact prolongs the situation which could make it worse, leading to more destructive behavior and creating a vicious circle that can feel nearly impossible to break. You can avoid the cycle before it starts by managing stress positively.

There are plenty of natural, constructive ways of dealing with stress. A nutritious diet with a concentration on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, good fats, and high quality proteins is a good place to start.

Exercise is also an excellent way to combat stress and fatigue. Regular exercise has been proven to lower blood pressure, protect against heart disease, stroke and some cancers while slowing the aging process.

If the thought of fitting gym time into an already overbooked schedule is now causing you stress, relax! Recent studies have indicated that two or three short exercise sessions throughout the day are just as effective as a longer one. Activities like a quick walk around the office building on break or walking up and down a flight of stairs three times a day can help relieve stress almost as well as an hour at the gym will.

Stress has infiltrated our lives so deeply that researchers are devoting time to find out if and which vitamins, minerals, herbs and other supplements can be useful tools in a stress reduction plan.

A double-blind, placebo controlled study of eighty healthy men in the UK found that men given a multivitamin once a day for 28 days had significant reductions in anxiety and perceived stress, when compared to the group taking a placebo.

B-complex vitamins are also very important in times of stress; they are involved in nerve, muscle and brain functions, as well as energy production. B-complex vitamins help to reduce depression and anxiety, both of which lead to further stress.

Two stress-busting minerals stand out among the rest - magnesium and calcium. Stress has links to both heart disease and strokes, and high blood pressure is one of the most dangerous symptoms of stress. Calcium is known for its bone protecting abilities, but several studies are showing that calcium can encourage relaxation that leads to lower blood pressure.

Up to age 50, adults should get 1,000 mg of calcium daily, and adults over age 50 should get up to 1,500 mg daily. Few Americans reach these levels through diet alone, so supplementation is recommended.

Magnesium increases calcium's effectiveness in the body, and provides some of the same relaxing benefits as calcium, and they each enhance absorption of the other. Magnesium deficiencies are linked to chronic stress, so aim to get 400 mg daily, combined with calcium in a ratio of 1:1 or 1:1.5.

Herbs that are promising stress fighters include Valerian root which has a long history of use by the ancient Greeks. It has been used historically to relieve nervous tension, indigestion and insomnia. Valerian can also be paired with herbs such as hops and St. John's wort to treat insomnia and sleep disturbances, anxiety and restlessness.

5-HTP (5hydroxy-L-tryptophan) is a precursor to the amino acid L-tryptophan, and is involved in the formation of mood enhancing substance serotonin, has been proven effective at treating depression, insomnia and head aches. 5-HTP naturally increases the body's serotonin levels, helping to promote relaxation, calmness, a more positive mood and greater appetite control, making it an ideal stress reliever.

There are many other natural ways to deal with stress. Meditation, self-hypnosis, massage, many forms of yoga and spending time in nature or with animals are a few methods worth exploring. The important thing is to find the method that appeals most to you. Keep in mind that natural remedies are gentler than prescription drugs, so can take longer to feel the full effects.

Stress is a part of life that will never go away, but with a combination of nutritious foods, moderate exercise and supplements when needed, you can minimize damage to your overall health and well being. Just the thought of relief alone can reduce stress levels!

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