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Natural Awakenings Sarasota / Manatee / Charlotte

Solving Stress: Holistic Tips From Lifestyle Doctors

Apr 28, 2023 09:30AM ● By Linda Sechrist

Medicine is changing as a new class of doctors endeavors to treat the whole person rather than the symptoms of disease, helping their patients achieve optimal health with lifestyle changes, medicine, herbs, supplements and modalities tailored to the individual. No longer reaching for a prescription pad as often, these functional and integrative physicians are spending an average of 45 minutes per office visit. Using their sleuthing skills and innovative skillsets, they ask probing questions about a patient’s current lifestyle and history, pinpoint the root cause of a problem and craft customized solutions.

To help someone manage stress, a functional or integrative doctor may suggest a daily dose of herbal tea, nightly entries in a gratitude journal, a visualization practice, brisk walks, gardening, art therapy, mindful meditation, a nutrient-rich diet that reduces food allergies, yoga poses and regular sessions of qigong or tai chi. Armed with an extensive list of better-for-you choices than addictive, prescription sleeping pills or tranquilizers, individuals are empowered to improve their health and eliminate stress. Studies suggest that 75 to 90 percent of illnesses are stress related. Getting to the root cause before it escalates into cardiovascular disease, depression or diabetes is what curious and compassionate doctors do.

“Because sleep is a great resolution to almost anything, it’s one of the first things I consider,” says Carrie Jones, a functional and naturopathic doctor in Portland, Oregon. "Stress can be physiological, caused by parasites, viruses, bacteria and toxins, as well as blood sugar imbalances. Not getting enough sleep, or poor sleep, is stressful to the body, which is on alert all the time.”

According to Jones, finding ways to coax the body into feeling safe can help people relieve stress and get a good night’s sleep. “People rarely realize that basic things such as joy, play, laughter and a community of supportive people have anything to do with feeling safe enough to sleep deeply. It’s why I inquire about those things,” she explains. 

Tips for Sounder Slumber

  • Turn the thermostat down in the bedroom. A cool ambiance combats insomnia.
  • Snuggle under a weighted blanket. The gentle pressure signals the autonomic nervous system to go into rest mode.
  • Install blackout shades. Light decreases melatonin, the sleep hormone.
  • Avoid alcohol before bed, which can disrupt the sleep cycle.
  • Stop using electronics, including social media, television and phones two hours before getting under the covers. The blue light emitted by screens restrains the production of melatonin. 

Connecting and spending quality social time with friends helps to alleviate stress. Anna Cabeca, a triple board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist, advises, “Every day, stress causes the stress hormone cortisol to go up and oxytocin, the connecting hormone, to go down, lessening the desire to connect. It’s a double whammy for women in perimenopause and menopause, because hormones are declining, and stress overloads the already overtaxed endocrine system.”

Rebecca Hunton, personalized medicine doctor and founder of Radiantly Healthy MD, in Melbourne, Florida, coaches her patients to modify unhelpful habits. “I’m always looking for that one thing that patients can easily change. Sometimes it’s teaching them the difference between stress resilience and stress avoidance. A stress avoidance activity is spending two hours playing a game on your phone that leaves you beating yourself up and feeling like, ‘Why did I waste all that time?’ If, on the other hand, an activity leaves you feeling energized and wanting to tackle the other things on your to-do list, you just did a stress resilience activity,” says Hunton. 

Stress Resilience Activities

  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Chanting a mantra
  • Expressing creativity, such as cooking or painting

Carol Penn is a dual board-certified physician and movement coach in New Jersey. While observing her 87-year-old father practicing qigong, a form of meditation in motion, she had an epiphany and saw a powerful life lesson occurring before her eyes. “Moving with strength and grace through his practice so close to the end of his life, it occurred to me that he was role-modeling what it would be like for me to be kind to my future self. I teach my patients from this perspective, visualizing their future selves full of health, vitality, wonder and awe,” says the author of Meditation in a Time of Madness.

Qigong has psychological and physical components, regulating the mind, body movement, breath and posture. “It balances and calms the autonomic, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems so that you feel less stress upon completion of the practice. Movements are designed to build longevity on a cellular level,” Penn explains.

According to Lorraine Maita, a board-certified functional and integrative doctor in New Jersey, “The body sends out hormonal fight-or-flight signals when it’s distressed. In the initial stages, there’s a release of adrenaline, followed by cortisol, keeping your body on high alert. To most people, stress is just worry, and they’re thinking they’re handling it, but stress can be like a viral program running in the background all the time. It's still there whether you're reacting to it or not, whether you're stuffing it under the surface or not. It’s why you go to therapy with mental stress, or why you need someone to talk to for processing it.” 

Maita is a proponent of alternative modalities that help people modulate the stress response. “I recommend HeartMath to my patients, which is self-regulation technology based on more than 32 years of scientific research on the psychophysiology of stress, resilience and the interactions between the heart and brain,” says the author of Vibrance for Life: How to Live Younger and Healthier.

Jaquel Patterson, a naturopathic physician and medical director of Fairfield Family Health, in Connecticut, might determine if her patient is suffering from chronic stress by testing their saliva for cortisol levels in the morning and evening. Noting that her favorite teas for sleep and relaxation are chamomile and passionflower, she explains that passionflower is for someone that can’t fall asleep because there’s a radio playing in their head. “For dealing with stress, I like adaptogens, such as Siberian ginseng, rhodiola rosea, ashwagandha, holy basil and L-theanine. The stress response requires a lot of B vitamins, along with magnesium and vitamin C,” she says.

Citing Hal Elrod’s book The Miracle Morning, Patterson recommends starting every day with a set of stress-relieving rituals Elrod calls “Life S.A.V.E.R.S.” She explains, “S is for silence, like meditation. A is for affirmations. V is for visualization, so you can visualize how your day is going to be. E is for exercise. R is for reading, and S is for scribing, writing things in a journal.”

Pointing out the differences between stress and anxiety, Patterson notes that anxiety is a continual rumination of thoughts, second-guessing and overthinking. Anxiety can cause stress, but stress can occur without anxiety. People with high anxiety sometimes have heart palpitations. Some stress is good for us. Without any stressors, Patterson cautions, we are unmotivated, lethargic and lacking in enthusiasm.

Technological Solutions to Quiet the Anxious Mind

  • Reflect Orb: This handheld biofeedback device can help an individual self-monitor their body’s physiology and learn to control the involuntary body-mind connection. 
  • Meditation apps: Insight Timer, Calm and similar apps offer guided meditations, relaxing music videos and meditation instruction for newbies and experienced practitioners. 
  • YouTube videos: Look for musical compositions with energy frequencies and binaural beats that encourage relaxation, promote positivity and decrease anxiety. 

Linda Sechrist has been a contributing writer to Natural Awakenings publications for almost 20 years. 

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