Lena Jantz has a lot on her plate: She’s dealing with infertility issues, recently lost her job, and is grieving the loss of two grandparents for whom she’d been caregiver. It’s not surprising, then, that this 32-year-old feels overwhelmed with stress and is desperate to find natural ways to ease the pressure.
In addition to hindering her ability to eat and sleep, Jantz says the stress is taking its toll on her body in other ways. She suffers from severe heartburn, a condition she never experienced until the stress began building in her life; her right eye periodically becomes swollen; and she recently developed bursitis, a painful inflammation, in her elbow. “I do think the stress is manifesting itself through these strange things that are happening in my body,” Jantz says. “I also believe the stress is contributing to my inability to get pregnant.”
Jantz has already experimented with numerous natural approaches to stress reduction, including seeing a therapist, writing in a journal daily, doing yoga, and going to an infertility support group. “I’m open to trying anything that could potentially ease my stress levels,” she says.
Q. Lena Jantz: Could stress be the cause of my physical symptoms, such as the heartburn, eye swelling, insomnia, and bursitis?
A. John Dye, ND: Multiple, interacting factors could be causing your symptoms, and every one of them can be aggravated by stress. For instance, stress can contribute to insomnia and sleep loss, which, in turn, can aggravate pain and inflammation due to the related increased production of cytokines, the chemical agents of inflammation. These cytokines can cause pain, swelling, fatigue, and even symptoms of depression.
In addition, the stress hormone cortisol could be contributing to your problems. Cortisol is normally secreted by the adrenal gland in a circadian rhythm, with the highest levels released in the morning and the lowest levels at night. But cortisol is also released in response to physical and emotional stress; therefore, your elevated anxiety could be causing erratic cortisol secretions. And these cortisol surges can cause increased heart rate, agitation, and anxiety, all of which contribute to moodiness, sleeplessness, and fatigue.
Q. I do suffer from occasional depression and mood swings, and based on what you just said it sounds like stress could be fueling these symptoms as well. Do you think stress could also be contributing to my inability to get pregnant?
A. Stress and psychological factors, such as depression and anxiety, are known to disrupt hormone and gland function, which can affect a woman’s ability to get pregnant. Elevated levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, can also increase blood sugar, inhibit insulin production, cause weight gain, decrease muscle mass, accelerate the aging process, and indirectly interfere with normal sex-hormone production.
A couple trying to conceive will also undoubtedly experience feelings of frustration and disappointment if they are unsuccessful in their goal. If the difficulties progress and they are labeled as an “infertile couple,” the added emotions can increase the impact of stress even more. Therefore, any treatment protocol for infertility should include a stress evaluation and plan for stress management.
Q. Are there foods I should be eating or avoiding given my stress levels?
A. Diet undoubtedly plays a role in mood, energy metabolism, and the regulation of stress. Eating excessive amounts of sugar and processed grains, for instance, adds to the body’s physical stress and may contribute to nutritional deficiencies that compromise your health. Excessive amounts of red meat and saturated hydrogenated fats, also known as trans fats, may also create additional inflammation in the body, adding further to your physical stress. Drinking excessive amounts of coffee or cola beverages high in caffeine not only places you at risk for anxiety and insomnia, but your body may miss out on vital nutrients found in more wholesome foods and drinks.
Some foods, however, can help during times of stress. Complex carbohydrates, for example, enhance the uptake of tryptophan from the bloodstream into the brain, where it’s converted into the “feel good” chemical serotonin, which assists in soothing and calming the body. Good sources of complex carbohydrates include whole grains, brown rice, nuts, beans, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Packed with vitamins and minerals, these foods can also help replenish nutrients lost to stress.
Q. Should I take supplements to lower my stress or at least counteract the effects of the stress?
A. Supplements can be very helpful in combating the negative effects of stress. Many of our stress treatments focus on supporting the adrenal glands, which are responsible for much of the body’s initial reaction to stress. Over time, an overactive adrenal gland may even become depleted. This, in turn, can hinder the body’s ability to secrete enough cortisol and other steroids, which perform numerous important jobs including regulating blood pressure and cardiovascular functions. Additionally, stress can cause the adrenal glands to lose their natural circadian rhythm of secretion.
A number of adaptogenic herbs support the adrenal stress response, thus improving the body’s response to and ability to recover from stress. Examples include ginseng (Korean, Siberian, or American ginseng), ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), and rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea). (See “Five Supplements to Reduce Stress” below for recommended doses.) In addition, as your stress levels go up, so does your need for antioxidant vitamins and nutrients, especially vitamins C, B5 (pantothenic acid), B6, and other B vitamins. Supplementing your diet with these vitamins may help relieve some of your related symptoms.
Q. What else can I do?
A. One of the most effective ways to combat stress is to practice therapeutic breathing and relaxation techniques. I have found that when people with high stress practice specific breathing techniques, yoga, and meditation, they experience dramatic decreases in stress, their moods stabilize, they sleep better, and they have more energy. Research shows that these stress-reduction techniques benefit the immune and endocrine systems as well.
In addition, you can learn to achieve a state of deep relaxation on your own with self-hypnosis. This generally involves a process of step-by-step progressive relaxation, including visual imagery, specific affirmations, and suggestions for maintaining the relaxed state in everyday life. A medical hypnotherapist will be able to make the process relevant to your unique stress response and teach you the skills you need to change your old patterns.
Q. Would you recommend I try acupuncture?
A. Acupuncture can be a valuable component of a total stress-management program. The treatments can help your nervous system produce its own calming neurotransmitters and pain-relieving endorphins. There are many ways to get beneficial results, and I suggest you talk to your acupuncturist about the best treatment plan for you.
Q. What do you think about the other things I am doing?
A. You have some very good support already in place. Your journaling activities and support group can make a huge difference as you explore your life stresses and the role you play in perpetuating them. You can expect to experience some overall health benefits simply from the insights and changes in your state of mind that result from these activities.