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The danger of stress and what to do about it

Health Tips brought to you by U.S. HealthWorks Medical Group. Our experienced medical experts provide information here that we hope will broaden your health care knowledge.

Today we talk to Dr. A.K. Misra, medical director for U.S. HealthWorks in South San Francisco, about the dangers of stress and how it can be managed. Dr. Misra is double board certified in Sports Medicine and Internal Medicine.

Q: We hear the term “stress” thrown around a lot. Can you help direct us on how we should think about it in terms of health?

A: Stress means different things to different people, but at its core, it is a physiological response to stimuli (typically unpleasant) that takes on a multitude of forms, ranging from hormonal to psychological to physical changes. Stress affects every aspect of our being, including and not limited to heart rate, blood pressure, neurotransmitters, cognition, the immune system and the respiratory system. While stress is not thought of as a good thing, it is also not always bad either (see this TED talk), as stress acts as an impetus for action when measured in the correct “dose.”

Nonetheless, many people do not know how to deal with their stress. I found this from Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN quite useful.

Q: What are the dangers of stress if it’s left unattended?

A: This is a difficult question to answer, as every individual can react to and handle identical stressors differently. Sadly, a premature death is one of the most common outcomes – either suddenly or over a period of years. These can happen gradually when stress hormones (i.e. cortisol) remain at high levels for extended periods of time, which results in vascular disease most pronounced in the coronary arteries and brain, leading to heart attacks and strokes. In Japan, there is a term known as “karoshi,” which loosely translates into “sudden death by heart attack from the stress of overworking.” I have a colleague who nearly died in this manner (barely survived his heart attack). This video is a good portrayal to grasp this concept.

Q: What are ways to help reduce the effects of stress on ourselves?

A: This is an important question, as most don’t even grasp how much stress has already affected them. Many commercial products exist for stress assessment and one such example used by professional teams I am aware of for their players is Omegawave.

Ultimately, the best ways to curtail stress are as follows:

  1. Exercise – There probably is no more superior intervention than getting an “exercise prescription” by your physician. This article does an outstanding job of explaining.
  1. Diet – As far as diet is concerned, I’ve included recommendations in two of my previous blog posts here and here. In these, I highlight how to consume a low-inflammatory oriented diet, which is rich in plants and vegetables while being low in refined sugars and animal products. Following this type of diet has been shown to help ease the chronic effects of stress. Certain dietary supplements, such as green tea and ashwagandha, a type of herb, have also shown evidence of stress reduction.
  1. Sleep – We as a society are chronically under-rested, and this results in a significant hormone disruption, which has a global negative effect on all the target organs of these hormones (i.e. adrenal cortex, vascular bed). The CDC recommends no less than seven hours of restful, deep (REM) sleep each night. Sleep is like hitting the “reset” button on recovery. We all know how good it feels to wake up after a nice, long restful sleep – it is one of the most restorative feelings we can experience, and for good reason. It recalibrates our hormonal axis and refreshes our brain, among other positive benefits.
  1. Yoga – This ancient Hindu spiritual practice has demonstrated to be quite effective in stress reduction through both its physical and meditative aspects. The positive overall health effects have been, in large measure, responsible for its increased popularity – the United Nations has even declared an official day as “International Yoga Day” and it continues to be popular in the U.S. Here is a clip from Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) speaking as a practitioner of yoga herself.
  1. Avoiding smoking and alcohol – Sadly these are the unhealthiest promoters of stress that exist, apart from illegal drugs. Unfortunately, many people use alcohol and tobacco to deal with their stress, not knowing that doing so acts as a force multiplier with no equal.

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