new_health (2006-49)

Happy Holidaze

It’s the most stressful time of the year

by Wendy C. Smith

Ah, the holidays. Once again, our everyday lives get ramped up to warp speed. The Christmas carols began at Halloween this year, and I’m just thankful that there are no Thanksgiving songs to contend with as well. I’d be homicidal during the holidays if that were the case. I noticed the sudden increase in traffic, lines and delays on Wednesday, Nov. 23, the day before Thanksgiving; it hasn’t receded and won’t until Dec. 24 at midnight. It’s hard to find enough time to consume everything. Alas, I suppose it is all part of modern, marketed living.

But back to the point of this column: stress. There is a lot of stress in everyday living and, when the holidays come, the stress quotient can get upped a little or a lot. After a time, stress can take on a life of its own, so it’s a good idea to have a few stress busters in hand as we enter this fun-filled, activity-filled, family-filled time of the year.

When people undergo a lot of stress, many different things happen. One is that the level of cortisol (a glucocorticoid, or steroid, and anti-inflammatory produced by the adrenal gland) increases. Cortisol is associated with short-term memory loss and loosely associated with abdominal weight gain.

Another effect of stress is a reduced level of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter synthesized by the central nervous system, and low levels of it have been linked to depression, irritability and poor sleep. Diets deficient in C and B vitamins make it difficult for the body to produce serotonin.

Stress also affects the level of magnesium in the body. Magnesium is involved in over 300 chemical reactions in the human body, and the more stress a body is under, the more magnesium it uses. This mineral is also an important part of bone and muscle health. There is some evidence that it helps regulate blood pressure.

High stress also increases the body’s use of other nutrients like Omega-3s, vitamin Bs and vitamin C. It’s a vicious cycle. We need more vitamins, amino acids and the like when we’re stressed because we’re using more but, because we’re stressed, we’re probably getting less of these items. So how can we help our bodies deal with stress?

One of the easiest and healthiest ways to combat stress is with exercise. A daily trip to the gym or 30-minute walk with Ol’ Sparky (dog or spouse) can work wonders for body. Exercise increases physical fitness and also increases blood flow to the brain and the amount of endorphins that the body releases into the blood. Increased blood flow means that the brain is getting a faster supply of nutrients and the metabolic waste is being carried away faster. Endorphins are protein-based chemicals that are referred to as natural opiates because they give people a feeling of happiness and well-being. Exercise can also help with the insomnia that stress can bring on. If lack of sleep is a problem, yoga might be a good type of exercise to try. In addition to building muscle, endurance and strength, it has the additional benefit of being relaxing. 

Exercise is great, but there are also lots of supplements and natural remedies to help deal with the body’s reaction to stress. The amino acid PS (phosphatidylserine) is one. It was first used as a memory aid for older people, but it turns out that PS also lowers the level of cortisol in the body. Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil, flaxseed oil) help level moods and keep the mind sharp. Another amino acid that aids in relaxation is Theamine, a substance found in green tea. Theamine has been found to lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure. It also raises the levels of dopamine and serotonin, both of which promote relaxation and increased mental activity (alpha wave activity).

Green tea is a nice treat, but theamine supplements can produce a feeling of relaxed alertness without the caffeine. 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5HTP) is another serotonin enhancing supplement. This amino acid is a highly absorbable type of tryptophan and the precursor with which the brain produces serotonin.

Certain herbs can contribute to relaxation and thus stress reduction. Lavender (a mint) is probably one of the better-known herbs used for this and as a sleep aid. Passionflower and chamomile also have relaxing qualities. These herbs can be used in a diffuser, made into essential oils or, in the case of chamomile and passionflower, be drunk as teas. St. John’s Wort is often referred to as “Nature’s Prozac,” and there is some evidence that this herb helps with mild depression and raises serotonin levels. And Holy Basil is an interesting herb that has the effect of giving people a feeling of well-being and  reducing cortisol as well. Both St. John’s Wort and Holy Basil contain 5HTP naturally and can be taken as supplements. 

When it comes to stress, find out what works for you and do it. Any two people may react differently to the same thing, so you may have to do some trial and error to find out what your best stress remedy is.

The issue at hand though, is the holiday season. Exercise, eat right, take your vitamins and have a happy, low-stress holiday season.