(NaturalNews) Stress happens. Whether you`re young or old, rich or poor, male or female, stress is an inevitable part of life these days. A little of the "good" stress that comes with new ventures or happy events isn`t harmful; in fact, in small doses stress can be invigorating! But a constant barrage of complications - an uncertain economy, traffic snarls, difficult relationships, and time shortages - creates the type of bad stress that can have serious health consequences.
If you`re feeling stressed, know that you are far from alone. Stress is an unfortunate fact of life for some 70 million Americans, costing the nation billions of dollars in lost work time and health care expenses.
To understand why unchecked stress is harmful to health, it helps to have a basic idea of how the body reacts during threatening or difficult times. Let`s say, for example, that while you`re driving, a car darts in front of you, forcing you to react quickly to avoid an accident. When the other car appears, glands release hefty doses of stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones can be life-savers, making it possible for us to respond quickly in times of danger. After the threat of an accident is gone, the levels of adrenaline and cortisol drop to normal - or at least, that`s the best case scenario.
Stress may not go away easily. As in the case of financial difficulties, troubled relationships or long-term care-giving duties, the supply of adrenaline and cortisol can remain high, and that`s not good. This sort of prolonged stress can have a ripple effect throughout the body. In fact, a long list of illnesses, ranging from headaches, digestive disturbances, chronic infections and insomnia to such life-threatening conditions as heart disease, cancer, stroke, and immune system disorders, may have their origins in stress.
For some people, relief may take the form of drugs, alcohol, overeating or other potentially harmful behavior. These tactics may ease the symptoms, but only temporarily, and not without consequences of their own. Plenty of prescription medications are available to treat stress symptoms, too. But treating symptoms doesn`t do much to eliminate the cause - in fact, it simply prolongs the situation, which generally makes it worse.
Fortunately, there are plenty of gentle, natural choices for dealing with stress. One of the best, say experts, is a nutritious diet, with a special concentration on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, good fats and high quality protein.
Exercise is an outstanding stress-buster, too. It has repeatedly been proven to lower blood pressure, protect against heart disease, stroke and some cancers, while slowing the aging process. But if you`re getting stressed out just wondering how you`ll ever fit exercise into your already overbooked schedule, relax! Several recent studies have shown that two or three short exercise sessions throughout the day are just as effective as one longer one. In other words, a quick five-minute walk around the block or up and down a flight of stairs three times a day can help shed stress -- and pounds! -- just about as well as a solid hour at the gym.
Stress is so pervasive in our lives, and researchers have been investigating other means of minimizing its effect. According to a number of new studies, there is ample proof that selected vitamins, minerals, herbs and other supplements are useful allies in any stress reduction plan.
Can a daily multi-vitamin reduce stress? Yes, say British researchers. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of eighty healthy men, they found that those who were given one multi-vitamin a day for 28 days had statistically significant reductions in anxiety and perceived stress, when compared to a group taking a placebo.
The family of vitamins known as B-complex is equally important in stressful times. These nutrients are involved in nerve, muscle and brain functions, as well as energy production. They also help reduce anxiety and depression. Although each of the B vitamins has specific duties, they work best when taken together in balanced doses (available in most B complex supplements).
In the mineral category, two supplements stand out - calcium and magnesium. With its links to both heart disease and strokes, high-blood pressure is one of the most dangerous by-products of stress. And although calcium is usually thought of as a bone protector, several studies have shown that this mineral`s ability to encourage relaxation leads to lower blood pressure. Up to age fifty, adults should be getting at least 1,000 mg of calcium daily; those over fifty need as much as 1,500 mg. Since few Americans reach these goals through diet alone, supplements are recommended.
Several other nutrients increase calcium`s effectiveness and magnesium is key among them. Calcium and magnesium not only provide some of the same relaxing benefits but also enhance each other`s absorption. And magnesium itself is shaping up as a potent stress fighter. An interesting study conducted at a military medical academy found that the more stress soldiers lived with the greater their magnesium deficiencies were likely to be. Conclusion: magnesium is essential for people living with chronic stress. Aim for 400 mg of magnesium daily, combined with calcium in a ratio of 1 to 1 or 1 to 1.5.
Nature has provided us with an arsenal of stress-fighting herbs, and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is clearly one of the most potent. Valerian also has a long history of use, dating back to the ancient Greeks. Historically, valerian has been used to relieve nervous tension, indigestion and insomnia. Today in much of Europe, valerian`s active ingredients, valepotriates, are widely used in more than 100 drugs. In addition, valerian is sometimes paired with other relaxing herbs, like hops and St. John`s wort. These combinations are used as a recognized medical treatment for insomnia and sleep disturbances, anxiety and restlessness.
Valerian has been studied extensively, with consistently good results. One of the latest studies found that 600 mg valerian taken thirty minutes before bedtime was just as effective a remedy for insomnia as a commonly prescribed drug.
In addition, a Swiss study found that a product combining 250 mg of valerian extract with 60 mg of hop extract eased symptoms of insomnia within two weeks and had no side effects. Valerian`s ability to encourage relaxation and rest without side effects was further established in a randomized, controlled, double-blind clinical trial with more than 100 men and women. Researchers compared the day-after results of taking 600 mg of valerian with a popular prescription sleeping aid. The results: Even after two weeks of steady nightly intake, valerian produced no effect the next day on reaction time, alertness or concentration.
Although it hasn`t been used as long as valerian, 5-HTP (5-hydroxy-L-tryptophan), a precursor to the amino acid L-tryptophan, which is involved in the formation of the mood-enhancing substance serotonin, has proven effective at treating depression, insomnia and headaches. 5-HTP naturally increases the body`s serotonin levels, helping to promote relaxation, calm, a more positive mood and greater appetite control, making it an ideal stress fighter.
In a recent double-blind study involving 65 patients with chronic tension headaches, the group taking 300 mg of 5-HTP daily experienced a "significant decrease" in both the number of days with headaches as well as the amount of painkillers they took.
This is just a small sampling of natural ways of dealing with stress. Meditation, self-hypnosis, massage, various types of yoga and spending time in nature or with animals are just a few other techniques worth exploring. Since stress affects different people in different ways, choose the substance or treatment method that appeals most to you. And remember, natural remedies are gentler than over-the-counter or prescription drugs, so it may take anywhere from two to four weeks for the full effect to be felt. During that time it`s important to keep taking the supplement as directed; mega-doses will not hasten the effects and could cause adverse reactions. Of course, if you are currently on medication or have a health condition, consult your physician before adding herbs or other supplements to your daily regimen.
Clearly, stress is one facet of life that isn`t likely to go away. But with a combination of nutritious foods, moderate exercise and appropriate supplements, you can minimize its damage to your health.
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About the author
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D. has specialized in Integrative Medicine for over twenty years, using conventional and natural methods to determine and discover the "root of the cause" in her clinic, Center for New Medicine in Irvine, California, each and every day. Many people come in to the clinic from all over the world with severe chronic illnesses that conventional medical protocols have been unsuccessful treating. She realized early on that she can truly change lives through education as well as treatment protocols. Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D. and her medical staff strives to look at the whole person while exploring the effects and relationships among nutrition, psychological and social factors, environmental effects and personal attunement. Out of frustration of trying to find the right products to help her patients she formulated the perfectlyhealthy brand of products. All perfectlyhealthy products are clinically tested. For more information on recommended products, please visit www.perfectlyhealthy.net or www.perfectlyhealthy.com.