When we are stressed, our bodies leap into action, triggering the release of hormones that make our make our hearts beat faster and blood flow quickly to our muscles and brains. This ancient reaction, passed down to us over centuries and centuries and generation after generation, essentially prepares us for action. It allows us to both think and act rapidly in response to danger.
If we can pinpoint its source, understand that it is short-lived and calm down once the moment of fear or danger has passed, then stress can be a useful reaction and part of normal of life. It can help us to think more clearly when we need our wits about us, perhaps in a meeting or a difficult conversation with a work colleague or friend. And it helps us to react quickly if for example, we need to swerve suddenly on a bike or in a car to avoid a collision.
If on-going however, levels of stress hormones can remain above normal leaving our bodies feeling constantly ‘on’. If this happens, then stress has morphed into a state of anxiety. We may experience, for instance, a feeling that our heart is always racing, find that we sweat for no apparent reason. We may have feelings of unease, dread, or an on-going sense of tension, which stays with us for days, weeks or months on end, profoundly affecting both our physical and mental sense of wellness.
Reactions to and symptoms of anxiety can be full of contradictions and one of the most damaging and common is how it can leave us on the one hand, feeling exhausted and yet on the other, unable to sleep soundly. The more sleep deprived we are, the more other symptoms of anxiety, can spin out of control.
Anxiety for instance, already puts a strain on our immune systems, add sleepless nights to the mix, and our immunity suffers still more, making infections more likely and our resistance to illness weaker. Lack of sleep can exacerbate symptoms of low moods, irritability, and poor self-esteem. It can also lead to an increase in hunger hormones, which can see pounds creeping on.
It feels that both stress and anxiety are being spoken of more openly now than ever, allowing people to acknowledge symptoms, seek help in identifying and dealing with their source and finding appropriate ways of healing the toll both have taken on our bodies and minds.
With the recent relaxation of the Covid-19 restrictions to our daily lives, it is especially important to be aware of our own levels of stress and anxiety in our lives and in those of friends and family around us.
While for some ‘freedom’ day, was a cause for celebration, for others, the prospect of mingling again with people in larger groups, being asked to meet more with work colleagues or simply having to face strangers who chose not to wear their masks in shops and on public transport, can and could in the future remain, a trigger stress and on-going anxiety.
Check out our six-point plan for helping us to support our bodies in times of stress and anxiety.
Both the causes and symptoms of stress, which can lead on to anxiety, are unique to us as individuals. Sources of stress may be relationship, work, health or be financially based for example. Symptoms of on-going stress, known as anxiety, can lead for instance, to extreme fatigue, high blood pressure, poor digestion, memory loss, irritable bowel syndrome and insomnia. Seeking help to identify and deal with the source of stress, is an important step in the healing process and so too, is helping our bodies deal with the consequences.
From a nutritional point of view, limiting stimulants such as caffeine found in coffee, black and green tea, cola drinks and dark chocolate can be helpful. Eating regular meals based on a lean source of protein, vegetables and wholegrain carbohydrates and strictly limiting refined and processed foods is a way of optimising vital vitamins and minerals needed for nerve health and to support glands that produce stress hormones.
Medical herbalists meanwhile turn to natural remedies that include extracts of ashwaganda, to help reduce anxiety as well as rhodiola, which contains active compounds believed to combat mental exhaustion that can accompany anxiety. Holy basil is another herbalist's favourite. Also known as tulsi, extracts of Holy basil are prescribed to help reduce blood pressure and balance blood sugars while oats are another popular herbalist 'go-to’ remedy, with their well-known properties of being a calming nerve tonic.
Insomnia and poor sleep patterns are a symptom of anxiety. It is important to remember that we need to sleep to allow our bodies the opportunity to repair damage, bolster our immune cells and restore energy levels. There are a plethora of websites, books and podcasts offering advice on how to have a good nights’ sleep. Changing our behaviours, organising our bedroom differently and sticking with regular routines are among them.
From a nutritional point of view, again, it is sensible to think about the subject of caffeine. It is worth remembering that caffeine can stay in our bodies up to eight hours after drinking. As well as preventing some people from falling asleep, caffeine can also disturb our deep sleep, by causing night-time arousals, which do not wake us, but do leave us feeling less refreshed on waking. The same is true of alcohol, it can help ease us into slumber, but then go on to disturb our deep sleep, and like caffeine, leave us tired on waking. Avoiding both is wise when seeking a restorative night of slumber.
The nutrients magnesium and calcium are also important for helping nerve and muscle function, along with B vitamins, which are crucial for good nerve health. All are important for allowing our bodies to switch off and relax, prior to sleeping.
Herbalists turn to remedies including valerian and passionflower, because their extracts appear to help improve the quality of sleep. German chamomile contains the plant compound apigenin and chrysin, which herbalists believe act on the anxiety centres in our brain, helping in turn to promote a more restorative sleep.
Kava is often used to relieve sleep problems caused by fear and is another tool in the medical herbalists’ box when helping people with anxiety-based sleep problems, along with extracts of oats, passionflower, and skullcap.
If snoring is a problem, which can hinder sleep patterns further and escalate problems associated with anxiety, then, weight loss, if needed can help. So too can treating issues like hay fever, nasal polyps, sinusitis and enlarged adenoids. This can help to restore sleep patterns of both the person snoring and their listening bed partner.
Supporting our immune systems is crucial and especially so in times of anxiety and poor sleep. Most traditional styles of eating such as Mediterranean, Japanese, or Finnish give us the crucial vitamins and minerals we need along with fibre and the right amounts of protein, to help directly nourish cells and organs of our immune systems and promote immunity that stems from our gut.
These diets achieve this because all include plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grain starchy carbohydrates and lean protein, minus a reliance on processed foods. Scientists are recognising more and more that immunity can be influenced too by gut health. Including a good quality probiotic supplement of foods fortified with reliable probiotics may therefore also be helpful.
Medical herbalists recommend combinations of herbs including astragalus, cat’s claw, echinacea, goldenseal, thyme, and elderberry to support immunity. In addition, plantain, St John’s Wort, olive leaf and lemon balm may be prescribed; some for dealing with infections and others to help restore strength in immune cells.
It is natural for our mood to dip if we are constantly in a state of anxiety and perhaps also, dealing with a lack of sleep. Eating regular meals to help avoid blood sugar lows is important. So too, is ensuring these meals are packed with nutrients, not wasting any room on empty calories on foods and drinks that provide no added benefit to how we feel.
Again, basing meals around traditional diet systems like the Mediterranean style of eating, can be helpful, with research revealing that eating fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, and lean protein, while avoiding processed foods can help to both prevent and treat low mood and even, in some people, depression. Experts believe it is a combination of the good blood sugar control and the plethora of vitamins, minerals, active anti-inflammatory plant nutrients and fibre, which is acting together to exert these mood protecting effects. Medical herbalists meanwhile know how effective extracts of St John’s Wort can be in helping to relieve low mood.
Weight gain is a common side-effect of stress and on-going anxiety, not least because our bodies often drive us to turn to refined carbohydrates in biscuits, sweets, and puddings, to give a quick fix of sugar. This rapid sugar rush provides a short-lived sense of wellbeing, which rapidly passes and leaves us storing the extra energy (calories) in fat stores.
It is never easy to prevent and deal with weight gain and never more so than when coping with stress and anxiety. Understanding the reason why we crave sugar but that it is not a long-term solution may help us to create strategies to avoid turning to these foods. Having naturally sweet fruits to hand like dried apricots or mangos may help as can fresh fruits like bananas, mangos, and pineapples, to provide a sweet taste but slow release of natural sugar.
Eating a fibre-rich diet can also help, because wholegrains, vegetables and fruits provide a sense of physical fullness, control blood sugar levels and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in our gut, which stimulate the release of hunger taming hormones.
Energy levels can feel severely lacking when dealing with the daily grind of anxiety. While the same traditional diet-system meal-based advice stands, to try to maintain energy (wholegrains, vegetables, fruits, and lean protein with few processed foods), it is also wise to ask your GP to check levels of iron and vitamin D, as lacking in either can make you feel even more exhausted, and both can be remedied with supplementation they can prescribe.
Medical herbalists have extra help up their sleeves as well, including rhodiola and Holy Basil extracts, traditionally used for boosting stamina as well as Siberian ginseng, which has been used for centuries by traditional healers to help combat fatigue.
Registered Nutritionist AFN
PG Dip Dietetics,
Associateship King's College (AKC)