By on July 23, 2014

The science of stressing less

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Are you here in Jackson on vacation? With family? I’m guessing you are likely experiencing stress.

Are you a local navigating your valley at the height of the season? If so, I don’t have to guess.

According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, 42 percent of adults report that their stress level has increased during the past five years.

Let’s start with the good news: your stress response evolved as a survival mechanism, often referred to as the fight/flight response your cave-dwelling ancestors developed to protect them from dangers you probably don’t worry about today, like hungry tigers. Today, that ancient response resurfaces when you are picking the kids up from school, running late, or experiencing a mid-summer Albertsons check-out line. Even though these are not dangerous situations, our body responds to them as a perceived stress and interprets them as chronic stress.


Our bodies respond to stress a certain way thanks to our cave-dwelling ancestors. Photo:

Having been trained in Chinese as well as naturopathic medicine, when I see a patient with a swollen tongue, I first enquire about their day-to-day stress level. While most people define their own stress as emotional/psychological, our body has a much broader definition, including hypoglycemia, poor sleep, menopause/andropause, climbing the Grand, excessive work or exercise, bacterial overgrowth and many more conditions.

Your physiological response to stress is complex and fascinating, even if you don’t love the results. First, your amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotional processing) sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then signals the adrenal medulla to secrete adrenaline, which initiates the fight/flight response, decreasing digestion and increasing heart rate, perspiration, pulse and blood pressure. This is actually desirable for dealing with that hungry tiger, but it’s doing you no favors when it happens in response to that guy’s abrupt lane change.

But your body isn’t done. Stress is also mediated by the hypothalamus signaling the pituitary to secrete the hormone ACTH, which acts on the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for blood sugar, decreasing inflammation, lowering immune function and lowering digestive secretions.

Both of these hormones should return to normal but continuing stress events may cause these levels to stay elevated leading to dysfunction, like fatigue, weight gain, anxiety, heart disease, memory impairment, sleep problems, chronic colds and digestive dysfunction. What helped your ancestors could be hurting you today.

Eliminating all stress in your life is beneficial to your physical health, but not so easy to achieve. Six months chilling on a Hawaiian beach or meditating in a Tibetan cave might reset our systems, but most of us will need to make changes at home.

As a naturopathic physician, I always seek to restore normal function. Long periods of excess cortisol and adrenaline can leave our adrenal glands unable to keep up with the pace. However, there are tests available to evaluate cortisol and other hormones directly affecting the adrenal glands. The tests indicate if it is necessary to use replacement therapy, but I always opt for supportive therapies to create better function. A few supplements I use personally are B vitamins, specifically pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) and vitamin C. These are found in whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. A couple of herbs that can be useful are Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), which should be used with caution as it can increase blood pressure. Your doctor should monitor vitamin and herb interactions with medications.

Here are some simple changes to decrease stress that have extremely good results:

1. Keep your blood sugar stable. Eat protein with each meal, avoid refined carbohydrates and sugar and include a healthy snack between larger meals.

2. Learn to meditate. Meditation helps calm the mind and understand what provokes your stress response. You don’t have to go to a Buddhist monastery, as Jackson has several mediation groups that welcome newcomers.

3. Social support. Friends and family help sustain us though times of stress. Helping a friend with his/her problem also reduces your own stress level.

4. Get some rest. Sleep is when we regenerate. This also means enforced recovery time, for those who exercise hard.

5. Exercise. With so many hardcore athletes in JH, it’s easy to forget that light exercise is highly beneficial. That short walk is totally worth it.

6. Choose your words carefully. An interesting new study shows that using phrases like “I’m swamped” and “I’m so busy” actually causes you to feel more stress.

That caveman ancestor did you a big favor by dodging that tiger and preserving your DNA, but it’s time to unload the stress response he gave you. Who knows? You might be that guy patiently smiling on a powder day when the tram line is four cars deep.

Monique Lai, ND, is a naturopathic doctor and natural health expert with a family practice in Jackson Hole.

About Dr. Monique Lai

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