Each of us is a wholly unique individual. It only makes sense, then, that each person’s health challenges are uniquely tailored to best suit their distinct set of needs. As such, in our view, there is no definitive natural medicine ‘protocol’ for any one condition. However, there are several predictable patterns in many patients suffering from psychological stress. Below find a brief synopsis of our approach.
The three main physiologic systems we find need to be supported in people experiencing psychological stress are the gastrointestinal system, the endocrine system and the nervous system. When multiple systems are affected, it is essential that the patient recognize that re-establishing homeostasis within the body is a process that necessarily takes time, often years, to completely take hold.
The gastrointestinal system:
The cornerstone of every health care program recommended by the practitioners of Blue Willow Health Center is promoting a strong foundation for health by prescribing dietary and lifestyle changes specific to each individual’s biochemistry, biomechanics, emotional and hereditary predispositions. We find that a great many people with multi-system imbalances experience an exacerbation of symptoms when eating common food allergens, namely gluten, dairy and caffeine. Until we discover and address the underlying cause of the food sensitivities, we strongly recommend patients avoid aggravating foods. We emphasize the important link between the nervous system and gastrointestinal system: the enteric nervous system is a collection of over 100 million nerves (more than are found within the spinal cord) that sends and receives impulses, records experiences and respond to emotions. It is a network of neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and a complex circuitry that enables it to act independently, learn and even remember. The enteric nervous system plays a major role in our emotional lives. For example, major neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine and nitric oxide, are found there, as are enkephalins (a member of the endorphins family) and benzodiazepines – the family of psychoactive chemicals that includes such ever popular drugs as valium and xanax. It is our medical opinion that addressing GI health is paramount when treating those with debilitating psychological and/or emotional issues.
Aside from identifying and eliminating food sensitivities, here are some other mainstays of promoting GI health:
- Food hygiene: It is important to sit down to eat regularly timed, well balanced meals, and to chew eat bite thoroughly. We recommend patients NOT eat in front of the television, while reading (or even worse, while driving), so that the body can focus its energies on digesting and assimilating the meal. We advise people to prepare most of their meals at home, preferably purchasing local, organic foods. We also suggest eating 5 cups of brightly colored vegetables a day, with at least one serving of dark green leafy vegetables.
(Although we strongly recommend staying well hydrated (with a baseline water intake of one half the body weight in ounces per day), we do not recommend drinking beverages while eating).
- Apple cider vinegar: Drink 1/2 teaspoon, in water, 10-20 minutes before each meal to stimulate the digestive process, thereby enhancing absorption of nutrients.
- Daily probiotics are recommended to help repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria, a balance all to often disturbed by the widespread misuse of antibiotics and the depletion of minerals in our soils.
- Castor oil packs, nightly, over abdomen will not only stimulate lymphatic flow (which optimizes immune function), stimulate liver function (to enhance detoxification and metabolism of hormones), but also promotes relaxation before bed to assist in the body’s ability to fall into deep, restorative sleep.
The endocrine system:
Cortisol, the so-called ‘fight or flight’ hormone, is excreted by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Bombarded with the daily stress of a modern, fast paced lifestyle, the addition of constant emotional or psychological stress will place an undue burden on the adrenal glands, which are incessantly trying to keep up with the stress by pumping out more cortisol. Sustained, excess cortisol causes a host of medical problems, eventually causing decreased or improper functioning within the entire endocrine system. The number one way to support a challenged endocrine system is to establish a daily routine, thereby allowing the body the opportunity to re-learn how to function in a predictable manner. All life adheres to relatively predictable rhythms…diurnal, lunar, seasonal, annual, etc. Evolutionarily, we are programmed to live in tune with the rhythms of nature. It is only relatively recently that humans have begun to control their environment in such as way that we no longer abide by these natural rhythms. By a regular meal time, sleep and exercise routine, the body will not have compounded stress of not knowing when then next meal is coming, when it will have time to excrete waste products, or if it will be getting adequate and restful sleep. This measured predictability will ensure the body will have an easier time bouncing back from the inevitable vicissitudes of life.
Other recommendations for promoting endocrine balance:
- Sleeping at least 7 hours each night, in total darkness. Sleeping in total darkness is strongly suggested because light — even from a night light — suppresses the function of the pineal gland. The intricacies of the workings of the pineal gland are still undiscovered, yet we it is vitally important in regulating hormonal balance. René Descartes, who dedicated much time to the study of the pineal gland, called it the “seat of the soul”, and believed that it was the point of connection between the intellect and the body. Today, we know that melatonin is produced by the brain’s pineal gland. Melatonin is important in the regulation of the circadian rhythms of several biological functions, and is also a pervasive and powerful antioxidant with a particular role in the protection of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA.
- B vitamins are generally associated with brain and nervous-system function by having a direct effect on important neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, and generally decline under stress as a result of increased cortisol level.
- Magnesium: It is well known that stress increases the body’s need for magnesium. In fact, genetic differences in magnesium utilization may account for differences in body responses to stress.
The nervous system:
Along with regulating the functioning of the entire body, the nervous system effectively monitors stress in the body. If the nervous system senses that a situation is stressful, it causes physiological changes within the body to occur. Some of these physiological changes include increased respiratory rate, accompanied by shallow breathing, increased heart rate, and the release of adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. This is the response of the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight or flight response. All these changes are necessary for the body in sudden stressful situations, but are extremely damaging to the health when experienced chronically. If the sympathetic nervous system is constantly telling the body to be on a state of high alert, the parasympathetic nervous system is unable to direct the body to calm down and relax. It is in the state of relaxation, the parasympathetic state, that we ensure proper oxygenation of the blood and tissues, repair and regenerate damaged tissues and cells, and digest and assimilate nutrients. For optimal health, it is vital that each of us establish a balance between the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. To promote a parasympathetic state, we have each patient focus on at least 108 deep, full breaths a day. Breathing correctly is critical in maintaining the level of oxygen for energy, keeping the correct pH levels in the body, and enough carbon dioxide for bodily functions. The improper balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide created by shallow breathing can create an agitated state, and is known to contribute to anxiety, panic attacks and even phobias.
Other common ways to balance the nervous system:
- Plenty of essential fatty acids, both in the form of freshly ground flax, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds (eaten daily) and of high quality fish oils (EPA, DHA and Cod liver oil). Essential fatty acids play a critical role in the functioning of the central nervous system. Investigations have linked omega-3 fatty acids to a number of neuropsychiatric disorders.
- Routine, B vitamins and magnesium work on this level as well.
Natural medicine is an art form: there are no panacea or magic bullets in this system of wholistic medicine. Each individual has his or her own unique set of symptoms and reactions which will, in turn, dictate the approach the practitioners at Blue Willow Health Center take to creating an individualized treatment plan. Aside from these basic lifestyle recommendations and supplement suggestions, we specialize in gentle and effective supportive therapies geared towards restoring normal physiology. As wholistic practitioners, we recognize that physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of imbalance must be addressed to uncover the underlying cause of the imbalance, and often work in collaboration with trained mental health specialists. At Blue Willow Health Center, our goal is to inspire, motivate and empower each patient to make healthy choices a part of daily life. We spend time cultivating relationships with each patient, teaching them the principles of ideal health, so that together, we restore physiologic homeostasis. This is the path towards optimal health.
© 2013 Karin Taylor Wu, ND