How we perceive and manage stress is important to our overall health. When stress becomes too great, the damage may be irreversible. So, to maintain and even improve your level of health, start taking action now.
* Exercise. Of all the things we can do to lower stress levels and counteract the allostatic load, exercise, along with a prudent diet, seems to be the most effective. Moderate exercise helps to improve sugar metabolism through the more efficient use of insulin, and helps to end the vicious cycles of stress-eating, overindulgence in alcohol, cigarette-smoking and other unhealthy habits.
* Consider adaptogenic herbs. Adaptogens work on a cellular level to normalise the function of every cell, thereby stimulating the healing process to enhance the body's natural defences and helping the body to function normally. Adaptogens have been found to provide temporary relief from the symptoms of many conditions which are brought on by stress. The major adaptogens include Schisandra berries, Astragalus, ashwaganda (Withania somnifera or Indian ginseng), reishi mushroom, gotu kola, holy basil, Angelica sinensis (dong quai), Echinacea, Rhodiola, royal jelly and, perhaps the most well-known of them all, ginseng (Korean and Siberian). If you are at all unsure of what to take, consult a qualified herbalist.
* Take antistress supplements. Nutrients commonly depleted by stress include the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E as well as the B-complex, and the minerals zinc, selenium, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, sulphur and molybdenum. Along with a wholefood diet and a high-potency multivitamin/mineral supplement, ensure that you get adequate levels of B-complex and vitamin C. The B vitamins protect the brain and nervous system. Vitamin B6 (20-50 mg daily) can alleviate depression, and B12 (1000 mcg daily) is necessary for a healthy nervous system. Vitamin C is a valuable antistress antioxidant - aim for 500 - 1000 mg daily. Of the minerals, consider taking calcium (500-750 mg daily) and magnesium (350-500 mg daily).
* Avoid alcohol. A high intake of alcohol may blunt the body's ability to respond appropriately to stress. People who abuse alcohol have all kinds of health-related problems and often find adapting to stress difficult - a problem related to worn-out adaptive pathways (Alcohol Clin Exp Res, 2000; 24: 110-22).
* Try stress-management techniques. These techniques address the behavioural aspect of 'handling' stress. People with heart disease can lower their risk of subsequent cardiac events by over 70 per cent if they learn how to manage stress (Arch Intern Med, 1997; 157: 2213-23). Similarly, stress management has been shown to improve glucose control in diabetics (Diabetes Care, 2002; 25: 30-4). Stress management can take the form of formal behavioural modification or new/old practices such as yoga and tai chi.
* Quit smoking. Habitual smokers have higher cortisol levels following cigarette-smoking compared with non-smokers. Yet, ironically, smokers can exhibit lower cortisol levels than non-smokers when challenged by psychological stress (Life Sci, 1992; 50: 435-42; Psychoneuroendocrinology, 1994; 19: 313-33).
* Stay optimistic. Two recent studies (J Personality Soc Psychol, 2002; 82: 102-11; Epidemiology, 2001; 11: 345-9) found that optimists live longer and better. Optimists tend to develop better coping skills and a more supportive social network than those with a darker outlook.
* Hug your kids and teach them to cope better than you have. Experts have found that being touched and held during the first few years of childhood may set up positive stress-response patterns that last a lifetime (Science, 1997; 277: 1859-61).