Articles and Useful Information

Stress and Anxiety

 

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is part of the peripheral nervous system, and is responsible for controlling visceral functions – including heart rate, respiratory rate, digestion, salivation, perspiration, pupillary dilation, micturition, sexual arousal, breathing and swallowing - which happen (mostly) without our conscious input, but can often also work in conjunction with the somatic nervous system – so with some voluntary control.

 

The sympathetic division of the ANS is responsible for the fight/flight “stress response” and results in:

  • first the release of noradrenaline and adrenaline – promoting enhanced vigilance, alertness and attention – increased heart rate, blood pressure, dilated bronchioles, increased blood glucose, and lowered digestive activity

  • shortly followed (15-30 minutes) by increased blood concentrations of adrenal glucocorticoids (cortisol) for longer-term adaptation and recovery – cortisol promotes gluconeogenesis – increases blood sugar levels, lowers insulin sensitivity, increases lipolysis and beta-oxidation, and amino-acid catabolism (protein breakdown), lowers immune function (and inflammation) and inhibits growth and reproduction.

 

The parasympathetic division slows down reactions and metabolism, and is conducting the “regenerative phase” – “rest and digest”. Ideally we should have a balanced ANS – with the sympathetic branch only activated during short times of increased stimulation, and the parasympathetic branch taking over at all other times.

 

The stress response is a great defence/survival mechanism, but when our bodies are in constant overload of stimulation/arousal – more or less in constant sympathetic activation – we are not given the chance to fully recover from the physiological changes of each perceived danger, and stress chemicals build up, resulting in stress conditions. And indeed in our modern life it becomes easy to persuade the hypothalamus to panic, by simply thinking of an event or situation as being threatening to our wellbeing. We are living a lot more in our heads, and stress results not just from real threatening outward events, but even more from our perception of a “threat”.

 

As the body cycles through prolonged or repeated alarm reactions, receptors in hypothalamus may become desensitised and damaged (it is unknown if the damage is permanent) and this leads to a feed-forward overproduction of stress hormones – the nervous system becomes up-regulated, and a so called “maladaptive stress response” occurs, the “tired and wired”, anxious and panicky phase – always on the alert, everything is seen as a stressor, as the nervous system is highly sensitised and in hyper-alertness (hyper-reactive Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, or GAD – General Anxiety Disorder).

 

After prolonged periods of stress and hyper-alertness, a hypo-reactive HPA may develop - adrenal fatigue, with chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and depressive symptoms.

Lifestyle and General Advice

To restore autonomic balance – we would look at rebalancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS:

  • identifying and (when possible) removing stressors, which can be:

    • external/physical (e.g. physically threatening situations)

    • psychological/emotional (stressful job, deadlines, bereavements etc.)

    • physiological/internal (inflammation, insulin resistance/hypo/hyper-glycaemia, obesity, endocrine disturbances)

  • reprogramming our response to stress (resolving the stress) – by lifestyle changes (time management, sleep hygiene), physical and mental relaxation, meditation, breathing exercises, healthy nutrition, exercise (yoga, tai-chi), physical therapies (bodywork), therapies for the emotions (including aromatherapy and Bach Flower remedies), counselling, NLP, CBT, visualisation and affirmations, EFT etc. I found the Gupta Amygdala Retraining method very effective for several of my clients.

Dietary Advice 

To address stress and anxiety issues, we would look to calm down the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) (balance the autonomic nervous system), and reduce the HPA-axis hyper-activity (reduce internal stressors, and support adrenal health).

 

To (more directly) calm down the sympathetic nervous system – we need to look at increasing GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and reducing glutamate activity: 

  • Reduce (or eliminate) excito-toxins, especially aspartame and MSG (monosodium glutamate) containing foods. Aspartame is added to many “no-sugar” products and especially to “diet” drinks, while MSG (in its all different forms) – present in many savoury pre-prepared foods – e.g. malt extract, malt flavouring, bouillons, stock, flavourings, natural beef or chicken flavouring, seasoning and spices, soy sauces, soybean milk, soy protein, whey protein, textured protein, yeast extracts, anything “hydrolysed”. Ideally – have mainly (best: only) non-processed, natural foods (spiced only with natural herbs, best fresh).

  • Discontinue (or decrease to a low reasonable level) stimulants (such as coffee, tea, colas etc.)

  • Increase L-Theanine – as it has been shown to inhibit glutamate re-uptake, block glutamate receptors, increase GABA concentration, decrease noradrenaline and increase serotonin levels. L-Theanine is mainly found in green tea, but supplemental extracts are widely available. A recent clinical study demonstrated rapid anti-stress effects of theanine at 200 mg twice daily.

  • Magnesium and taurine have also inhibitory effects on the central nervous system, and can help relax – foods rich in magnesium are: almonds (nuts and seeds in general), green vegetables (especially broccoli, spinach), whole grains, cocoa, cod, lima and black beans, figs, kelp, eggs. Taurine is present in animal protein – especially organ meats, eggs, seafood. Magnesium taurate is also available in supplemental form.

  • Lemon balm was also shown to increase GABA in the brain and lower serum cortisol levels. Human studies have shown a powerful anti-anxiety effect (300 mg twice daily of a lemon balm extract resulted in a full remission for anxiety in 70% of participants).

  • Phosphatidyl serine – has also been shown to be a potent inhibitory of the HPA-axis overstimulation, by dampening ACTH and cortisol response, at doses of around 800 mg/day

 

To reduce internal stressors (that include inflammation) and HPA hyperactivity, we can look at:

  • Balancing blood sugar – adrenaline, cortisol and blood glucose levels have an intimate relationship. Hypoglycaemia causes the release of adrenaline, then cortisol, and increases stress. Cortisol mobilises glucose into the bloodstream by gluconeogenesis, decreased insulin sensitivity, amino-acid mobilisation, and protein catabolism. To balance blood sugar:

    • Keep to regular meals, and snacks (if hungry) of low glycaemic index – include good levels of protein, fat and fibre – ideally coming from organic produce (and wild-caught, oily fish: 2-3 times/week) and fresh vegetables and fruit (7-10 servings/day); protein intake provides the amino-acids building blocks, essential for physical and mental health, and should amount to about 0.8g/kg weight.

    • Avoid refined carbohydrates and simple sugars: sweets, highly processed foods, sweet drinks, including fruit juices

    • Essential fatty acids in a good omega-6/omega-3 ratio (ideally no more than 5:1) which also contribute to reduce inflammation and body’s response to stress – oily fish, ground flax seed and flax seed oils (2-3 servings of oily fish/week and 1-2 tablespoons of ground flax and/or flax seed oil). Omega-6 sources include nuts and seeds.

  • Avoiding intake of chemical stressors (and SNS stimulants) such as alcohol, caffeine and/or drugs

  • Protein intake should be balanced and not relying mainly on meat and dairy – which in excess can be acidifying, inflammatory, and via their load of phosphorus, zinc, sulphates and phosphates may over-stimulate sympathetic activity. Good sources of vegetarian protein include: eggs, nuts and seeds, pulses, organic fermented soya (tempeh, natto).

  • Good hydration, as poor hydration is another main stressor – toxins can become trapped and degenerative diseases may start to occur – recommend 1.5-2 litres daily of total fluid – mainly filtered water and herbal teas.

 

To more directly support adrenal health and body’s ability to cope with stressors – essential nutrients such as magnesium, potassium, B vitamins (especially B5), vitamin C and vitamin E can be derived from a diet rich in fresh vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts and seeds, or can be added in supplemental form.

 

Nervine and adaptogenic herbs can also be used in herbal preparations/teas to help relax nervous system and rebalance the body: chamomile, lemon balm, lavender, linden, passionflower, skullcap, valerian, rhodiola, ashwagandha, holy basil. 

 

 

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Xenoestrogens (Foreign Estrogens)

 

A class of xenobiotics (foreign substances to biological systems), xenoestorgens are foreign (synthetic) estrogens. They mimic the estrogens activity within the body (and/or have anti-androgenic activity) and can cause hormonal disruptions, in both males and females.

(Many plants produce estrogen-like substances called phytoestrogens, these are not synthetic, and cannot be classed as xenoestrogens. The majority of phytoestrogens have not been found to be harmful, and can even have protective effects.)

 

Effects

Although many of these environmental estrogens are not as potent as natural estrogens, they are not broken down as easily in the body and tend to accumulate over time in fatty tissues. Also, they appear to synergize with each other.

 

In women:

  • May increase risk of early puberty, breast cancer and other reproductive cancers

  • May increase risk of endometriosis and pre-menstrual tension (PMT)

In men:

  • May cause reproductive abnormalities and infertility

  • Possible increase in risk of prostate and testicular cancers (especially in overweight men)

 

Sources

The more common xenoestrogens are found as organochlorines (weed killers, insecticides, old electrical insulations), plastics (bisphenol-A, nonylphenol, phthalates), synthetic hormones (oral contraceptives, HRT), aromatic hydrocarbons (petroleum products and by-products), parabens (preservatives), sunscreen ingredients (benzophenone-3, homosalate, 4-MBC, octyl-methoxycinnamate, octyl-dimethyl-PABA).

 

How to avoid/protect/minimize effects

 

  • support the liver so it may be able to perform well its detoxifying tasks

  • avoid having too much adipose tissue that can accumulate xenoestrogens, but also avoid very fast weight loss

  • use filtered water (reverse osmosis or similar), both for drinking and bathing

  • whenever possible, buy organic produce, grown without pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizer or hormones

  • avoid non-organic coffee and tea

  • wash fruit and vegetables in water with vinegar if they were not grown organically (or peel)

  • use glass, ceramics or steel to store and cook food (not plastics)

  • avoid drinking water from plastic bottles that sat in the heat/sun (e.g. left in the car)

  • use simple detergents and soaps (or vinegar and baking soda for cleaning surfaces)

  • use natural pest control, not pesticides

  • use condoms without spermicide for birth control, instead of birth control pills

  • use natural progesterone cream (without parabens) instead of HRT

  • use natural cosmetics (including perfume), without parabens, phthalates, petrochemicals, or chemical sunscreens; use physical sunscreens with Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide

  • research the ingredients in your pharmaceuticals (fillers, coatings, stabilizers, binders etc.)

  • be aware of noxious gasses that may come from copiers, printers, carpets, fibreboards, new carpets

  • do not inhale, and protect skin from: electrical oils, lubricants, adhesive paints, lacquers, solvents, oils, paints, fuel, industrial waste, harsh cleaning products etc.

© Cora Weekes

Thank you to the amazing Emily Weekes (my daughter) for helping me make this website.