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Stressing a new way of life

Identify how stress affects you and ways to better manage it

By Dr. Earl Eye

When the topic of stress levels comes up in my weekly consultations with executives andbusiness owners interested in a preventative approach to medicine, their eyes get wide and with a half-hearted smile, they sigh. They describe themselves as over-worked and burnt out.

The psychological and physical effects of their hectic professional life are taking its toll and if they continue on this path and don’t make some changes, it will ultimately encroach on their job performance and worse, their health.

Looking to the past

It is a bit odd when you think about it. Your ancestors just a few generations removed walked or rode a horse to work. There were no cell phones, computers, automobiles, or airplanes. They couldn’t have imagined labor-saving developments like washing machines, microwaves, supermarkets, or the Internet.

Yet they still found time for leisure and would no doubt be awestruck by people today who choose to live their lives in a perpetual rush, as if being busy every minute of the day is a sign of accomplishment.

On the way to fiscal nirvana, high performers such as yourself notoriously spend your health to gain wealth. You labor over business strategies to ensure your professional success, leaving your health behind. Eventually, 21st century stress, poor nutrition, reduced exercise, and plummeting hormone levels take their toll. The most costly event in your life—loss of productivity—goes unnoticed.

The shame is so many of you are fixated on succeeding that you forget what a gift good health is, and only after it’s gone do you realize that neglecting it was your fatal mistake. Worse, the stress from this overachieving lifestyle leads to adverse health changes, frequently accelerating your aging and, if not corrected, will lead you to premature death. All your accumulated wealth will do little to help you then, except make your funeral elaborate.

What happens with stress

During periods of stress, the hormone Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands. Although stress isn’t the only reason Cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, it has been termed the “stress hormone” because it’s also secreted in higher levels during the body’s fight or flight response to stress, and is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body.

Under normal circumstances, it has positive effects. Cortisol regulates blood pressure, the release of insulin for sugar maintenance, immune response, glucose metabolism, and inflammation.

While Cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it’s important that the body then activates its relaxation response so functions can return to normal following a stressful event. Unfortunately, in your current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is constantly activated and therefore the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal. This results in a constant, chronic state of stress with higher and more prolonged levels of Cortisol remaining in the body.

Face the consequences

Chronic stress, which causes consistently elevated Cortisol levels, has highly detrimental consequences. Impaired cognitive functioning with brain shrinkage, hypo or hyperthyroidism, hyperglycemia, decreased bone mineral density, muscle loss, elevated blood pressure, decreased immunity, slowed wound healing, and other health consequences may result.

Excess Cortisol is also responsible for increased abdominal fat (adipose tissue). This belly fat is especially concerning because it is more metabolically active than other fat and increases inflammation in the body. It multiplies the odds of strokes, heart attacks, vascular disease, and dementia.

Learn to relax

To keep Cortisol levels healthy and under control, you must activate your body’s relaxation response. You can learn to relax your body with various stress management techniques and make lifestyle changes in order to keep from reacting to stress.

The first step is to understand what’s causing your stress—in most cases it’s obvious. In other cases, investigation may be needed. Keeping a stress journal may help. Get a notebook and write down when something makes you feel stressed. Then write how you reacted and what you did to deal with it. You can also take a written stress test that may help define what is causing your responses if the causes are not clear.

Once identified, the best ways to relieve stress are different for each person, but you can try some of these ideas to see which ones work for you:

• Exercise, exercise, exercise. Regular exercise is just about the best way to manage your stress. Walking is a great way to get started.

• Manage your time better. Make a schedule and stick to it. Think about which things are most important, and make them a priority.

• Take care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep, eat a low glycemic diet, don’t smoke, limit how much alcohol you drink, and balance out your life.

• Learn ways to relax your body. This can include massage, muscle relaxation, yoga, sex, and exercises like tai chi and qi gong.

• Try out new ways of thinking. When you find yourself starting to worry, try to stop the thoughts. Work on letting go of things you cannot change. Learn to say “no.”

• Do something you enjoy. A hobby can help you relax. Volunteer work or work that helps others can be a great stress reliever.

• Find better ways to cope. Analyze how you have been dealing with stress. Be honest about what works and what doesn’t. Identify alternatives that might be more effective.

• Focus on the present. Try meditation—MRI studies shows it nearly doubles your brain activity. Listen to relaxing music. Look for the humor in life—laughter really can be the best medicine.

• Speak up. Not being able to talk about your needs and concerns creates stress and can make negative feelings worse. Assertive communication can help you express how you feel in a thoughtful, tactful way. Laugh, cry, and express anger when you need to with someone you trust.

• Ask for help. People who have a strong network of family and friends manage stress better. Sometimes stress is just too much to handle alone. Talking to a friend or family member may help, but you may also want to speak with a counselor.

The most precious resource

Your most precious resource is the short, unknown time you have left on this little blue planet. It is perishable, irreplaceable, and, unlike money, cannot be saved. There isn’t a magic pill you can take to manage your stress. For most people, it’s an overall change in managing health.

It’s about proper nutrition, adequate exercise, getting the right vitamins and minerals, and optimizing your hormones and metabolics. Americans live, on average, just 28,000 days. So it behooves you to ask, “Am I living well and taking care of myself? What can I do to give me the best chance to beat the odds and stay more youthful and have more time on this planet to enjoy the fruits of my labor?”

Money alone doesn’t make anyone wealthy. True wealth is a life rich in love, friends, wisdom, and interests, and the time and health to enjoy it all.

Dr. Eye

Dr. Earl Eye is an AMA certified age-management specialist at Cenegenics Jacksonville, a practice committed to helping patients maintain health and live well longer. He is an institute physician at Cenegenics’ corporate headquarters and is the CEO and CMO of Cenegenics Jacksonville. Dr. Eye is also board certified in critical care medicine, infectious diseases medicine, pulmonary medicine, and internal medicine. He can be reached at 904-674-0404, contact@cenegenicsjax.com, or through www.cenegenicsjax.com.


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