How Stress Affects the Body
The human body is hardwired to handle stress. However, over time, too much stress takes a toll on the body. When we feel threatened, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, causing the heart rate to increase, the pupils to dilate, and the direction of blood to flow toward the extremities. In addition, digestion can temporarily shut down.
This is also known as the “fight or flight” response and is the reason why we may feel agitated or want to run away from our problems when stressed. Cortisol, sometimes called “the stress hormone,” is also released, causing increases in both blood pressure and inflammation while suppressing the immune system. If our bodies continue to experience high amounts of cortisol, symptoms can evolve into anxiety, depression, fatigue, digestive issues and tension headaches.
Stress is defined as an organism’s total response to environmental demands or pressures. In a medical or biological context, stress is a physical, mental or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be either external (from the environment itself or psychological and social situations) or internal (from illness or a medical procedure).
Chinese Medicine for Stress Relief
In Chinese medical theory, strong emotions like stress interrupt the body’s energy from flowing smoothly. When these strong emotions are present for long periods of time, they create a blockage in the body’s “road” system, creating an energetic “traffic jam.” Acupuncture increases the circulation of blood and oxygenates the tissues throughout the body while cycling out cortisol and releasing natural pain-killers called endorphins. Acupuncture also decreases the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and relaxes the muscles to help the body feel less stressed.
The traditional Chinese medicine approach is to focus on restoring the balance of energy in the body. This takes form in actions such as soothing the liver qi, tonifying the liver blood and spleen qi, clearing the heat in the heart and liver, etc. A combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are generally applied to treat stress, and diet therapy and exercise are suggested as well.
Chinese Herbs for Stress
The most commonly prescribed Chinese herbal formulas for stress are xiao yao wan (also known as “Free and Easy Wanderer”), gan mai da zao tang, chai hu shu gan san, yi guan jian, yue ju wan and gui pi tang. To find the right herbs for you, make an appointment with a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist. The practitioner will take a full medical history and do a pulse and tongue diagnosis to determine the best acupuncture plan and herbal prescription.
Exercise and Diet for Stress
Exercise should be a part of everyone’s stress management plan as it helps the body produce more endorphins—also known as the “runner’s high.” Many types of physical activity can stimulate this response, and each person must find the right type of exercise for him or herself. For some, walking is enough. For others, getting more of a workout to get their blood pumping and break a sweat is ideal.
Taiji, qigong and meditation are forms of mind-body exercise and have been shown to help induce the “relaxation response.” The relaxation response makes the heart beat slower, the muscles relax, the breathing slows and the blood pressure decreases.
As far as dietary therapy goes, most vegetables and fruits that are rich in color can help the body deal with stress. For example, in Chinese nutrition, blueberries, purple cabbage, beets, tomatoes and eggplant are believed to be stress-reducing. A diet high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and vitamins B and E is recommended as these nutrients are easily depleted by stress.
Most rich-colored fruits, apricots, asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, brown rice, dried fruit, figs, salmon and green leafy vegetables are high in vitamin B. Even if you eat a healthy diet, vitamin B complex is a good supplement to consider if you suffer from chronic stress.
Article written by Dr.Yongxin Fan who has over 20 years of clinical experience in treating muscular-skeletal disorders, pain, digestive disorders and psycho-emotional disorders including stress.