Stress is something we all experience. However, the 2022 "Stress in America" poll by the American Psychological Association indicates that since 2020, the average reported stress levels have remained higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Chronically high stress levels come at a cost. It's estimated that 75 to 90% of illness is related to the activation of the stress response. This is an issue that must be addressed. Thankfully, mind-body therapies offer an effective solution to this problem. Let's find out how stress impacts the body and how mind-body therapies can provide relief.
What is Stress?
Stress is the physical and emotional response to difficulty or challenge. There are mild stresses, like worrying about making it to an appointment on time, or severe stresses, like losing a loved one.
When a stressor is experienced, the body responds by activating a branch of the autonomic nervous system, called the sympathetic nervous system, and releasing several hormones, including cortisol, often called the body's stress hormone. This is often referred to as your "fight-or-flight" response.
The release of these hormones and activation of your sympathetic nervous system causes your heart rate to increase, respiratory rate to quicken, blood pressure to elevate, you begin to sweat, and your muscles tense. These changes are designed to help your body respond to the stressor by "fighting" or "fleeing" from it. This response is controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a communication network between the brain and the hormone system.
Occasional acute stress is normal and healthy. The nervous system and hormone responses to this stress help the body survive. It enables you to flee from the tiger or fight off the invader. Some acute stresses are even good, like exercise, which helps the body adapt, becoming stronger and more efficient.
In modern society, however, many people experience chronic stress. This chronic, long-term activation of the "fight-or-flight" response is not normal and poses problems for health and well-being. Chronic stress can increase inflammation, weaken the body's immune system, and cause digestive disorders, headaches, sleep disturbance, anxiety, atherosclerosis, and many other health concerns.
Now that you know the problem, let's discuss a solution: mind-body therapies.
What are Mind-Body Therapies?
If a chronic stress response is the problem, the body's relaxation response is the remedy. Mind-body therapies are designed to activate the body's relaxation response and restore balance to the body.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, mind-body therapies are treatments based on interactions between the mind and body. These treatments are used to reduce tension and stress's impact and promote a sense of physical and mental well-being.
These therapies encompass a wide range of practices that focus on the mind-body connection and the impact of that connection on health and well-being. Mind-body therapies include acupuncture, meditation, mindfulness-based practices, tai chi, yoga, qigong, hypnosis, guided imagery, relaxation therapy, biofeedback, and breathing exercises.
Signs of Stress
When the body's stress response is continually activated, as is the case with chronic stress, it leads to impaired function and breakdown. Several physical, mental-emotional, and behavioral signs and symptoms are associated with chronic stress.
Physical Symptoms Of Chronic Stress Include:
- Body aches and pains
- Chest pain
- Dry mouth
- Rapid heart rate or racing heart
- Sleep difficulty
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension
- Jaw clenching
- Digestive problems
- Weakened immune system
- Change in appetite
- Brain fog, or lack of focus
- Low libido
Mental-Emotional Symptoms Of Chronic Stress Include:
- Anxiety or irritability
- Depression or emotional withdrawal
- Panic attacks
- Changes in emotional responses
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Racing thoughts
Behavioral Symptoms Of Chronic Stress Include:
- Changes in social behavior, such as staying in more often
- Substance abuse
- Procrastination or avoiding responsibilities
- Nervous behaviors such as pacing or nail biting
- Easily angered
- Compulsive behaviors
How Do Mind-Body Techniques Work?
Mind-body therapies work by activating the body's relaxation response. Much like the fight-or-flight response is associated with the sympathetic nervous system, the relaxation response is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system responsible for body functions that are active during times of rest when the body is calm. It is often referred to as the "rest-and-digest" response. The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates activities like digestion and arousal. It lowers heart rate, increases salivation, and constricts pupils. The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that makes up about 75% of the body's parasympathetic system.
The relaxation response activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the "rest-and-digest" response) and inhibits the sympathetic nervous system (the "fight-or-flight" response) via the vagus nerve. Mind-body therapies work by stimulating the vagus nerve, which turns down the body's stress response and turns up the body's relaxation response.
Possible Causes of Stress
We each have different stress triggers, but the 2022 "Stress in America" poll by the American Psychological Association indicates the rising cost of living due to inflation tops the list, with 83% of respondents indicating it was a major source of stress. The poll also indicated that 75% of adults reported violence and crime as significant sources of stress.
Another common source of stress includes work-related stress, such as working long hours, having a heavy workload, concerns about job loss, discrimination or harassment, or job dissatisfaction. Other causes of stress include public speaking, the death of a loved one, divorce, marriage, moving, taking on the role of caregiver, traumatic events, test taking, and losing a job.
When we hear the word stress, we often think of emotional stress, like the examples mentioned above. But stress is also often physical, like that of a musculoskeletal injury or an infection.
Functional Medicine Labs to Test for Root Cause of Stress
When assessing the impact of stress on the body, your functional medicine practitioner may order several functional lab tests.
Hormone testing provides the ability to measure the health of the HPA axis, which is intricately involved in the stress response. The DUTCH Plus™ measures sex and adrenal hormones, their metabolites, and the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR), providing information about the hormones involved in the HPA axis. It also offers an option to order a cortisol sample during the night for those that struggle with sleep issues.
Comprehensive Stool Testing
Stress can impact gastrointestinal health, leading to digestive symptoms. Gut health plays into so many aspects of overall health, making a comprehensive stool test a worthwhile test when it comes to optimizing overall health. These tests provide information about the microbiome, digestion, absorption, inflammation, and immune responses in the gut.
A comprehensive blood workup incorporates CMP, CBC, insulin, and lipid panel to assess immune function, heart health, glucose control, and electrolytes, giving indirect insight into the impact stress may have on the body. Tests like CRP or ESR are also helpful in a blood workup to determine whether stress has caused an increase in inflammation in the body.
Additional Labs to Check
In addition to the functional laboratory tests, your doctor may order other testing to assess stress, such as an electrocardiogram or heart rate variability.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
HRV provides information about the health of the autonomic nervous system, which is made up of the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. This can be measured in a medical setting with an electrocardiogram machine, or your health practitioner may send you home with a wearable monitor that can measure HRV. Outside of the medical setting, many wearable devices are available to monitor HRV. There are devices attached to a band worn around the chest, wrist-worn devices, rings, or devices worn on a fingertip.
Naturally Reduce Stress Through Functional Medicine With These Mind-Body Therapies
Mind-body therapies offer an effective way to reduce stress naturally. Your functional medicine practitioner may recommend specific therapies tailored to your unique health picture to help you manage stress and enhance your well-being. Here are a few commonly used mind-body therapies for reducing stress.
Yoga For Stress Reduction
Yoga is an ancient practice originating in India. Although it began as a spiritual practice, it has evolved into a practice that is used to promote physical and mental health. Modern yoga, as practiced in the United States, often incorporates physical postures, called asanas, breathing exercises, called pranayama, and meditation. Studies show that yoga practices improve both physical and psychological measures of stress. From improving sleep to reducing perceived stress, yoga is a mind-body therapy to consider if stress negatively impacts your health and well-being.
Meditation For Stress Reduction
Meditation is another ancient practice used to calm the mind and promote well-being. Meditation includes various techniques that integrate the mind and body. Some meditation practices involve the mental focus on a particular object, sensation, phrase, or image. Other meditation practices involve mindfulness or non-judgemental awareness of the present moment.
Meditation is an effective technique for reducing stress. A 2017 review showed that meditation reduces blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol. Other studies have found meditation to improve perceived stress, anxiety, depression, and anger. Meditation may be an effective stress reduction technique for those suffering from sleep issues, as it is shown to improve sleep quality. People struggling with IBS may also benefit from meditation as it is shown to be an effective short and long-term treatment.
Breathing Exercises For Stress Reduction
Slow breathing has been utilized in yoga-based practices for a long time to promote health and well-being. Research can now prove why modifying the breathing rate to a slowed pace induces a calm, relaxed state. This study showed how prolonged exhale breathing, which includes inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six seconds, significantly stimulates the parasympathetic ("rest-and-digest") nervous system. On the flip side, rapid breathing, inhaling for one second and exhaling for one second, stimulated the sympathetic ("fight-or-flight") nervous system.
Slow breathing, where the exhale is extended longer than the inhale, induces the relaxation response and effectively disrupts the stress response. The benefit of this mind-body technique is that it's simple, easy to remember, effective, and you can do it anywhere. No one even has to know you're using this technique. This makes it a perfect tool for when you're stressed out in a crowd and need a way to dampen the stress response.
Stress is ever-present and is something many of us struggle with. Remember, short-term stress is normal and healthy, allowing the body to adapt to challenging situations. When stress becomes continuous, and there is chronic activation of the stress response, health and well-being often suffer.
Mind-body therapies offer a solution to this chronic activation of the stress response by activating the body's relaxation response. By activating the body's parasympathetic nervous system, we can inhibit the stress response and experience a sense of relaxation and stress reduction.
A functional medicine approach to addressing stress offers mind-body therapies as a solution. These therapies help manage and reduce stress, supporting the mind-body connection and enhancing well-being. The therapies offered in this article are just a few of the many options available.