by guest blogger Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrative medicine pioneer
Stress is a fact of life, but between Labor Day and January 2, it comes in buckets. On the personal front, school starts, followed by Halloween, Thanksgiving, winter holidays, then New Year’s. Then there’s the task of “winterizing” your home. On the professional side, work that gathered dust over the summer suddenly becomes urgent and end-of-year projects loom large. Even worse, with all that needs to get done, there’s the risk of coming down with the annual cold or flu. No wonder it’s called “Holiday Madness.”
There are a couple of ways we can deal with this avalanche of stress. In a perfect world, we would do less, but that doesn’t seem a likely solution. On the other hand, we can view stress as a two-part problem: one part the busy lifestyle that produces exhaustion and anxiety and one part the unhealthy methods we adopt to deal with it, such as binge eating or having one too many drinks. And since it may not be feasible to subtract from our to-do lists, we simply need to find better ways to approach stress.
The Stress Reaction
Chronic stress isn’t difficult to recognize: We feel overwhelmed and anxious; wired and exhausted at the same time, and our brain just doesn’t seem to function as well. Each additional task weighs on us, sometimes needlessly so, turning into the proverbial straw on the camel’s back. We just need some relief.
Stress triggers our fight or flight reflex, which in turn releases hormones, such as cortisol, that give us a boost in dangerous situations. Unfortunately, the same response that motivated us when we needed to move fast to avoid wild animals also comes up in heavy traffic, in meetings, and even in our own thought patterns. But too much cortisol over time causes chronic inflammation, impaired immunity, cardiovascular risks, weight gain, depression, and more—the last things we need in the middle of winter, or any time of year, for that matter.
One very effective method proven to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression is regular meditation. This ancient practice provides a brief mental vacation that allows the brain and body to relax and reset. During meditation, we focus on breathing and calming the mind, which has the physiological effect of reducing cortisol and other stress hormones. The practice increases our well-being and improves our cognitive function. It supports a positive mental and emotional outlook and boosts physical health, even reducing inflammation and enhancing immunity. In the case of chronic stress, it provides the extra emotional stamina and inner calm needed to take on our many challenges.
The most important thing about meditation is doing it without judgment. Most of us are not good at sitting quietly—it goes against our training. But keep at it. The 20 minutes a day you spend quieting your mind and connecting with your breath and your inner self can bring numerous transformative benefits, turning a frazzled schedule into a positive challenge that we can meet with a sense of calm and confidence.
When we get busy, we often give up the very things we need most. Unfortunately, exercise may get abandoned in favor of getting more done, especially when the days are shorter and the weather is so unfriendly. This creates numerous imbalances: metabolic, cardiovascular, immune, the list goes on. It’s also bad for our emotional health. Sometimes, after a harrowing day, the thing we need most is a rigorous workout or a long walk to clear out the stress. It’s also important to remember that cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and strokes, appear to be higher during the winter, perhaps due to the combination of unhealthy diet and lifestyle habits that creep up this time of year, along with all the extra stress.
A healthy diet can control stress by reducing levels of cortisol and other stress hormones in our body and boosting serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps calm the mind. Whole, gluten-free grains like quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat, are particularly helpful, as they can support the brain’s ability to produce serotonin.
I also recommend foods that are rich in vitamin C, which has been found in studies to help lower stress hormones. Broccoli is a particular favorite. Green leafy vegetables are high in magnesium and other important minerals for a healthy nervous system. Omega-3 fatty acids, which have also been studied for their cortisol-lowering effects, can be found in fish and raw nuts and seeds like walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and others.
Sometimes we need a little more relief, but don’t want to take a drug. This is completely understandable—pharmaceuticals can make us feel foggy and not ourselves. However, there are a wide variety of herbs that have a natural calming effect:
• Asian ginseng. One of the most ancient stress reducers is Asian ginseng, which promotes calmness, enhances energy, and can even help with memory.
• Holy basil. Often used in traditional Indian health care, this herb reduces stress and can also calm inflammation while supporting immunity, healthy blood sugar balance, and more.
• Ashwaganda. Also used in traditional Indian medicine, ashwaganda supports stress reduction as well as memory and cognitive function.
• Passionflower. Passionflower controls anxiety by modulating a neurotransmitter called GABA.
• Schizandra. Schizandra reduces anxiety and also supports immunity.
• Lavender. A potent yet gentle sedative, lavender is useful to overcome insomnia as well as anxiety.
• Honokiol. One of my top recommended botanicals, honokiol is extracted from magnolia bark. It’s a powerful antioxidant (a thousand times more potent than vitamin E) that modulates GABA to support healthy mood. It also reduces inflammation, protects the brain, and helps fight cancer.
The most important thing to remember about stress is we have choices. If we do nothing, over time stress can set us up for our most dangerous long term-health problems: heart disease, cancer, dementia, and more. However, if we take a little extra time for ourselves and plan accordingly, with the right support we can control stress, keep ourselves healthy during the holidays, and enjoy the season to the fullest—which is much better than simply crossing things off a list. Now, that’s a reason to celebrate!
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more information about his work, visit dreliaz.org.