Our bodies are hardwired to handle stress, but over time, too much stress takes its toll. When we feel threatened, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, causing the heart rate to increase, pupils to dilate and blood to be directed towards the extremities. Digestion can temporarily shut down. Cortisol, sometimes called “the stress hormone,” is released, causing increases in both blood pressure and inflammation, while suppressing the immune system. If our bodies continue to experience high amounts of cortisol, symptoms can evolve into anxiety, depression, fatigue, digestive issues and tension headaches.
In Chinese medical theory, strong emotions like stress interrupt the body’s energy from flowing smoothly. When these strong emotions are present for long periods of time, they create a blockage in the body’s “road” system, creating an energetic traffic jam. The remedy is to focus on restoring the balance of energy in the body using a combination of acupuncture, herbal medicine, diet therapy and exercise.
Acupuncture increases the circulation of blood and oxygenates the tissues throughout the body, cycling out cortisol and releasing natural painkillers called endorphins. It also decreases the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and relaxes tight muscles. The most commonly prescribed Chinese herbal formulas for stress are xiao yao wan (also known as “free and easy wanderer”), gan mai da zao tang, chai hu shu gan san, yi guan jian, yue ju wan, and gui pi tang.
Exercise helps the body produce more endorphins, also known as the “runner’s high”. Many types of physical activity can stimulate this response, and each person must find the right type of exercise for them. For some, walking is enough, but others will want to get more of a workout to start their blood pumping and break a sweat. T’ai chi, qigong and meditation have been shown to help induce the relaxation response, too.
As far as dietary therapy, most vegetables and fruits that are rich in color can help the body deal with stress. In Chinese nutrition, blueberries, purple cabbage, beets, tomatoes and eggplant are believed to be stress reducing. A diet high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and vitamins B and E is recommended, as these nutrients are easily depleted by stress.
Resource: AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine, Austin. AOMA is one of the largest providers of acupuncture and Chinese medicine in Austin. In 2012, their student and professional clinics conducted more than 17,000 patient visits. For more information, visit AOMA.edu/patients.