Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How To Fight Back When Stress Attacks

Most people have already noticed that going for a run, having a hard workout, or getting a good massage helps to reduce feelings of stress in their lives. This widespread experience is not just a coincidence, there actually happens to be a good explanation. Understanding the body’s physiological reaction to stress not only improves the chances of fighting it; it should really impresses the essential and absolute need to do so.

Too often, people think of stress as something that lives in only in the head, failing to recognize how the physical body inherently suffers the consequences. To help conceptualize the body’s reflexive reaction to stress, imagine some of the first human species in their daily lives... our reflex patterns are deeply rooted, even though living environments have undergone tremendous change over the centuries.

Lesson 1:
Our historic ancestor is just arising from an afternoon nap and stepping out of the safe, dark cave for some fresh air and a stretch. A cool wind blows, but the thick layer of hair on the skin is protective against it. (These days, goose bumps represent the physical attempt to erect this layer of hair, for which modern clothing and shelter have reduced the need).

The tree leaves rustle, and their casted shadows are enjoyed, dancing playfully upon the earth. But the outer edge of vision senses that one of these shadows is larger, moving slower and coming in for the attack! (Today, this shadow could be an approaching car or bus, the test that is about to be dropped on the desk, or a piece of mail announcing rent is late again.)

The options are to run or put up those dukes and the body needs to be ready for both RIGHT NOW. Here’s how that translates:

1. The calves lock- to protect the achilles tendon from ripping when launching into a sprint.
2. The muscles in the neck and shoulders tighten- to prepare for blows.
3. The digestion ceases- because who has time for that when THEY’RE about to be lunch?!
4. The body pumps out cortisol- an adrenalin-type hormone that boosts the flight or fight response.

Lesson 2:
But today the lucky stars are shining (or are they?)… The head on collision was a near miss, the test is over and the bill has been thoughtlessly added to the growing pile. Somehow danger was averted, the body never ran, never fought, and now is left with the consequences of stress all over it:

1. Excessively tight calf muscles- which attach to the feet and knees and allow for upright posture. Increased calf tension causes extra torque on the neighboring joints and muscles (think chronic plantar fascitis, ankle sprains and unidentifiable knee pain). This also requires redistribution in muscle tonicity to maintain normal posture; now the quads, butt and low back get involved- causing tension or pain on up the chain.
2. Taut and aching neck and shoulders- and the time spent hunched in chairs with fingers typing most certainly perpetuates this problem. Additionally, the muscles force increased pressure on the big veins and arteries of the neck, which supply the brain, inhibiting normal blood flow (and with it- mental function). Chronically tight muscles here can also trap extra blood in the head, creating the pressure of a headache, and perhaps the dreaded migraine.
3. Ceased or slowed digestion- which may lead to the feelings of indigestion, heartburn or constipation. If chronically stressed, the gut may shut down to the level that it fails to harvest proper nutrients from food (assuming they were put there in the first place...perhaps a little finger-pointing), leaving one predisposed to fatigue, illness and obesity. Worse still, this reduced elimination sets up toxicity in the body allowing for chronic disease and improper daily functioning.
4. Excess cortisol in the system- though this is handy in true survival scenarios, and a very important chemical for the body’s operative balance, its excessive presence inhibits the ability to form memories or learn from experiences. No wonder our anxious youngsters don’t seem to be retaining any of the information they are being taught. Long-term abundant cortisol also dampens the strength of the immune system, (so that’s why those kids always seem to be so sick!), the reproductive system and basic growth processes.

Lesson 3:
Now if the attack back in the forest had actually come to blows and the body was given the chance to get that out of its system, the whole story may be different. After sprinting, striking, panting and making the kill, our hero would have cooked up a nutritious organic feast, savored every delicious bite of victory and walked leisurely back to the cave for some quiet time and full night of deep sleep.

Knowing that all too often modern day folks never leave their seats during the daily attacks, we must let knowledge be the weapon against the painful consequences. Here’s what you can do:

1. Workout regularly. A cardiovascular workout like running, cycling, and brisk walking will all help to release the built-up tension in the calves. Adopt a daily (or better yet- hourly) stretch routine. A great idea for the calves is to pick one step in the daily path to stop on for a good stretch with each passing. Find your “stretch step” in your work or home.
2. Help the muscles to relax. By meditating, hot tubs, saunas, rubbing one’s own neck around the collar bone, or getting help with that from a friend or professional, you will reset your muscular and vascular system. This will decrease pain, enable free blood flow, and even allow you to think more clearly.
3. Eat simple foods that are easy to digest. Whole, unprocessed, natural foods may take a little longer to prepare, but you will make up for that in the quality years added to your lifespan. And teach your friends, children and loved ones to do the same, so they’re still kicking as long as you will be! Eat slowly and try not to race onto another activity the moment your belly is stuffed.
4. Decide that you are in control of your life. Breathe deeply, especially as stressful moments feel imminent. You may not pick the moments, but you can choose how you respond to them. Just exercising this control will remove your system from its survival state and reduce the body’s need to release excess chemicals. Take the time to identify, confront, and resolve stress in your life. It is important to communicate your problems, but do not dwell on them; be proactive and positive.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Short and Sweet…Ice or Heat?

Easy Rule #1: In the case of sudden (acute) injury- ICE

The faster you do it, the better off you’ll be. Our bodies are SO good at taking care of themselves. Upon physical insult, an immediate influx of cells to the area carries nutrients and a construction crew of cells. The injured area becomes swollen, maybe hot, often bruised- all manifestations of the increased blood there.

Although we are appreciative of the mobile rebuilding center getting to work, the inflammation that goes along with their efforts can cause more lasting damage around your moving parts (joints). Like gunk in the pipes, this makes free-flowing movement and function hard to recover. Applying ice keeps this process in check, telling the team to “cool off”, as it were.

Ice can be applied with a fancy gel pack, a bag of frozen peas, or even with an ice cube straight on the skin. If using a the gel pack, some cloth layer is necessary, as these are actually colder than plain ice. In every case, it is always important to exercise some caution and not give your skin “freezer burn”. 20 minutes on and 60 minutes off is the rule for an ice pack. If using a cube directly (like an “ice massage”), you can get away with 3-5 minutes until the area feels numb.

*You will never cause harm by properly applying ice when you are not sure what to do*

Easy Rule #2: In the case of longstanding (chronic) muscle tension and discomfort- HEAT

In just the same way that an injury causes an increased blood supply, therefore creating heat…applying external heat inversely draws blood to the area, to bathe the taut tissues with happy cells, allowing them some release. A hot pack, shower, sauna or bath (as we well know) promotes physical and psychological relaxation.

20 minutes is also a good amount of time for the hot pack. This can be an electric pad, a bag or bottle filled with hot water or a satchel of rice from the microwave. If it is electric, make sure it has an auto-turn-off function before taking it to bed with you. And in general, do not place your body on top of the heat, rather it on top of you, to avoid cooking your precious skin.

But don’t be led astray and use heat at the wrong time! Remember this on your way back to the ski chalet on a cold day AFTER you pulled your back or twisted your knee hucking that big cliff…this is NOT the time to hop in the hot tub. I am so sorry, but you can curse my name and thank me later. Adding heat to an area undergoing inflammation digs you into an even deeper hole.

*You can worsen a new injury by using heat too soon*

I hope this is helpful to you. If you are ever unsure which side of the fence you are one- use ICE. Or, shoot me an email and I’ll help sort you out (but use ice until you hear back from me).

Friday, December 7, 2007

Hey Sweetie

Did you know that the average American consumes over 170 pounds of sugar each year? So, picture that 5 pound bag of sugar that you buy, then line up 33 more, and start rationing for the year. One year. Yikes!

Much of that sugar comes from sources that are not even considered sweet at all. The bulk of our sugar intake usually comes from starches in our diet. When you eat things like white bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and cereal, your body breaks down the starch into sucrose. When in excess, sucrose converts to adipose tissue-- yep, that's fat… in all your favorite places.

Sucrose is metabolized by your liver, thyroid, small intestine, and pancreas-- which produces insulin for absorption. The more we consume sugar, the harder these organs have to work to avoid fat build-up. When the body ends up with an abundance of adipose, the tissue actually begins to make its own hormone, called "resistin". And, true to its name, it resists the effects of insulin, forcing the pancreas to make more and more to produce the normal effect. Eventually, the body no longer responds and is considered insulin-resistant...aka Type 2 Diabetic.

Over 21 million Americans (7% of the population) have diabetes. I don't think that most people realize just what a big deal this disease is with its staggering health implications...according to the CDC, "Diabetes is the leading cause of adult blindness, lower-limb amputation, kidney disease and nerve damage. Two-thirds of people with diabetes die from a heart attack or stroke."

Now, please forgive the intensity; I realize that many of you will not abuse your bodies to the extent of diabetes, but this does not necessarily preclude your needed awareness. So aside from some fat build-up and the potential of life-threatening disease, there IS MORE YOU MUST KNOW before you say, “ oh, I’m skinny and fit- we’re good to go”, and keep throwing back the sweets.

Sugar also plays a large role in your mood, immunity and your body’s ability to heal itself. Because thyroid is also involved in sugar metabolism- depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, sudden fatigue and panic attacks are common when your blood sugar is imbalanced. Bacteria thrives on sugar, so naturally fighting off infection is nearly impossible when you’ve got a bird bath for beasties in your body. If you often get sick, have skin or fungus infections, or just don’t seem to feel 100%- I’m talking to you.

So here are practical strategies for starving that sweet tooth of yours:

>Do your best to drop the obvious sugar loaded treats:
*Replace them with fruit (which is also high in sugar- but it is fructose, rather than sucrose, and does not require the same insulin blast).

>Look at your starch intake and consider substitution. First of all, a plate of veggies will always be better than a mound of carbs. But I do live in the same tempting world you do, so I will add the realistic dose:
*When it comes to starches, remember- the whiter the worse. The more you can insert whole grain and sprouted options, the less your insulin needs to spike. You will feel fuller for longer, thus reducing the need to return to the all-you-can-eat spaghetti buffet again and again.
*Seriously, if you shop intentionally, it is not that crazy to eat fresh foods and proteins for all your meals. You know, the salad over the sandwich and the smoothie rather than the cereal.

This message is brought to you with love for my fellow beings and dismay for the misery they are enduring in their ignorance of body chemistry. You have made it this far and are no longer that person- Congratulations! Now get out there and be good to yourself.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Turn Down the Heat

Whenever I meet someone who mentions one area of pain, then another, and another! And before you know it, they've described some "problem" with nearly every joint in their body--- I've got to go deeper and think systemically.

Pain, swelling, redness and heat typify the body's inflammatory process. We see these whenever we injure ourselves, with obvious outward signs. But imagine these occurring with every meal in a low-grade internal way, causing the same reaction, but in our joints...leaving them to feel stiff and achy for much of the day.

Certainly, each individual warrants their own investigation, but diet is a universal element that must be considered as a contributor to this state. Did you know that some of the most seemingly benign and healthy foods can cause an inflammatory response in your body? Like tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini, and potatoes??

And the list goes on and on- I'll give you some of the top inflammatory offenders, but you're not gonna like it:

-citrus fruits

Oh yes, I know- these things are everywhere...but seriously, there are also tons of alternatives on the market thanks to other people learning how their chronic pain lives can be completely controlled by what they consume. Whether you have a diagnosed inflammatory condition (like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, gout, fibromyalgia, MS, hayfever, tendonitis, bursitis, sinusitis) or just feel like you're walking around in a body that is twice your age, the food you eat may be your best strategy to manage pain and improve your body's function.

On the flipside, let me give you a delicious list of nutrients that reduce inflammation:

-Yummy fruits:
kiwi, cherries, ginger, peaches, pineapple, plums, strawberries
-Savory veggies:
avocados, spinach, pumpkin, sweet potato, broccoli, kale, squash, beets, onions
-Alternative grains:
brown rice, buckwheat, oats, lentils
chicken, tuna, salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, tofu, oysters, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds
fish oils, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B, zinc (or just a good quality multi to get all those vitamins)

If you sense that your body's comfort and function could be improved through diet, there are a few ways to experiment with this:

1. Keep a daily journal that details your diet alongside your sense of well-being and see if you can identify connections.
2. Eliminate the top offenders for 3 weeks and see how you feel. This is best done after #1, so you have a recorded baseline.
3. Do a fast to remove all food interactions for a few days, followed by a scheduled re-introduction of the most common offenders, to best identify your body's friends and foes. This tactic is best done with support from a trained nutrition-savvy professional.
4. There are a couple ways to use blood tests to determine your body's response to foods. Ask your chiropractor, naturopath or primary care doc about an ELIZA test.
5. Just start minimizing the bad guys and adding a bunch of the good guys and see how your body likes it. Give this a couple months before anticipating changes.

Diet change, or any change for that matter, is often the hardest thing to ask of someone. It helps to give yourself a timeline and remember that this is by far the safest, cheapest, and most natural approach to being in control of your health.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

There's something fishy going on...

All my life I have been encouraged to take vitamins...

Calcium ("just take 2 tums, it's for your bones"), vitamin C ("so you don't get sick"), A ("for your eyes"), E ("for your skin"), multi-vitamins ("for everything!!!")- and, as I'm sure many of you have experienced, you end up taking 9 pills each day, forgetting what most of them are for and eventually forgetting to take them at all. Then five or six years later the battalion of expired bottles has taken over your cabinet creating their own little shaker band.

I will not argue the value of any of these vitamins, nor will I try to suggest a regimen that is right for everyone- but I'd like to take a moment to salute one (just one right now) that you should really know about.

So let's step back, get a good running start, high step rapidly down the sandy bank and go tumbling into the ocean waves. Oh yes, here it comes...the talk of fish. Specifically their oils. Here's a handful of the benefits (that I swiped from http://ezinearticles.com/?7-Fish-Oil-Benefits-Proven-by-Research&id=415032) of regularly taking fish oils:

1. Less Pain and Inflammation. For anything ending in "itis".
2. Cardiovascular Health. Lowers blood pressure and bad cholesterol (LDL), while increasing good cholesterol (HDL).
3. Protection from Stroke and Heart Attack.
4. Better Brain Function and Higher Intelligence. Pregnant and nursing mothers can have a great impact on the intelligence and happiness of their babies by supplementing with fish oil. For adults, omega 3 improves memory, recall, reasoning and focus.
5. Less Depression and Psychosis.
6. Lower Incidence of Childhood Disorders.
Studies show that children (and adults) with ADD and ADHD experience a greatly improved quality of life. And those with dyslexia, dyspraxia and compulsive disorders have gotten a new lease on life thanks to omega 3 oils.
7. Reduction of Breast, Colon and Prostate Cancer.

There's loads and loads of info out there- don't get bogged down in it...just start taking it! And don't worry, it comes in tasteless capsules, or even strawberry flavored oils for the kids.