Stress…talk to any given person and you will come to realize nobody is immune from some element in their lives that contributes to their stress level. When we take the time to also understand what is affected in our body as a result of stress, we can open the door towards understanding and a starting place where many health issues set-up their roots.
Every part of our body is interconnected by a communication system of nerve cells, referred to as neurons, their job is to send messages through a combination of electrical impulses and chemical messengers. This system is our nervous system, a set of wires that allows every body function to do their job!
This nervous system of ours is incredibly complex, especially the brain, which contains about 100 billion neurons. In fact, the brain houses 98% of the neurons in our body. This control center is protected by the skull and its importance is demonstrated by the fact that although it makes up only 2% of our body’s weight, the brain uses about 25% of our oxygen supply and as much as 20% of the sugar we take in.
The brain has very high metabolism and it is highly affected by what we eat. Although modern medicine has historically tended to discount the role of nutrition in mental health, studies have begun to show strong links between our nutritional intake and various neurological and psychiatric conditions. Research has also shown that food choices made during pregnancy, lactation ad early childhood may have long term consequences on a child’s mental development. Other research suggests that good nutrition can improve your brain function and reduce your risk of brain disorders.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT!
If you typically follow my blog, you will start to see a pattern… and it’s a pattern that you can CHOOSE to deny, but that denial won’t change the truth of the evidence. I believe that saying “you are what you eat” applies particularly to our brain. A junk food diet short circuits the mental attitude and emotional responses, creating, in effect what I refer to as a “smash” brain! Ever been to a child’s birthday party and witness for yourself the transformation in all the kiddo’s AFTER the cake and icecream? They get lit up with super charged energy then the crash and burn sets in and the temper tantrums, crying/whining phases begin.
When we look at the typical poor diet of the people in our country, it’s no wonder that nervous system issues like stress, depression, anxiety and insomnia affect millions of people. Its also why we are seeing an increase in the amount of folks struggling with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and dementia. We are trying to run our built in computer system on the wrong voltage setting and we are winding up feeling frayed, frazzled and even fried. Simply put… A good mind is a terrible thing to waste, and we need to start caring for our brain and nervous system better. Keep reading and lets go over the HOW part….
YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM
Our nervous system consists of:
- the brain
- spinal column
- peripheral nerves
These 3 parts literally regulate everything that happens in and with our bodies. Whether you realize it is happening conscious or unconsciously trust me it never get a vacation. There really are two parts that play a vital role:
- The conscious or voluntary part of the nervous system is what allows us to perceive information through our senses, analyze and remember information and it’s what allows us to move our skeletal muscles to regulate conscious actions.
- The unconscious or involuntary branch of our nervous system is known as the” autonomic nervous system”. It takes care of what we don’t have to think about, like the heart beating, digesting our food, regulating our body temperature and making sure we breathe.
The autonomic nervous system is further divided into two more branches:
- Sympathetic nervous system: when we are excited, stressed or scared, the sympathetic nervous system tenses our muscles, makes our heart beat faster and moves blood away from our digestive organs to our muscles. It gears us up for action, but shuts down digestion and elimination. This helps explain why stress and anxiety make us tense, stress our heart and raise our blood pressure, give us indigestion and make us constipated.
- Parasympathetic nervous system: is what is in charge when we are relaxing and trying to unwind; it moves blood to the digestive organs, relaxes muscles and aids elimination. There is a reason why people have traditionally made mealtime a time for relaxing and socializing. It aids the digestion process. Our body initiates healing and self-repair in the parasympathetic mode.
Our nerves work by a combination of electrical impulses and chemical messengers referred to as “neurotransmitters”. When a nerve cell gets stimulated, it fires an electrical impulse that moves down the length of the cell. At the far end of this neuron (nerve cell), the electrical impulse causes the nerve to release neurotransmitters into the gap (known as the synapse) between this nerve and the next one. The neurotransmitters cross the synapse to the next nerve cell and either stimulate or inhibit it from firing another electrical impulse.
We know that sleep, mood, appetite and behavior are all influenced by the different types of transmitter chemicals being released in our brain and nerves. Depression, addiction, mania, schizophrenia, Alzhiemer’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease and ADHD are some of the major disorders now known to involve imbalances in neurotransmitters.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT NEUROTRANSMITTERS AND WHAT DO THEY DO?
Serotonin: is most commonly associated with alleviating depression. Serotonin receptors have been found to also control hunger, sleep, pain response, seizure and peristalsis as well as function of the limbic system and brain.
Acetylcholine: is involved in memory and muscle movement, making it a primary neurotransmitter in the voluntary nervous system. Alzheimer’s disease is now believed to be caused by a destruction of the neurotransmitters in the brain that produce acetylcholine.
Epinephrine and Norepinephrine: these are referred to as “catecholamines” along with dopamine. Catecholamines are responsible for the peripheral nervous system which effects (elevated blood pressure and blood sugar, muscular contraction and the release of a thyroid stimulating hormone from the pituitary) as well as central nervous system responses involving respiration and psychomotor activity. They are the primary neurotransmitters in the sympathetic nervous system.
Dopamine: another catecholamine, responsible for sexual arousal and muscular coordination. It is the neurotransmitter that is deficient in those who suffer from Parkinson’s Disease. Again, destruction of the brain cells that produce this neurotransmitter is thought to be responsible. Where there are low levels of glutathione (an intracellular antioxidant) or there is an excess amount of iron, dopamine degrades into free radicals.
GABA: is best known as the inhibitor of presynaptic transmission, or it keeps the brain from being “trigger happy.” When in balance, GABA prevents anxiety and increases mental clarity. Anxiolytic drugs of the benzodiazepine family (valium, Xanax) work off of the soothing effects of GABA receptor response.
There are some other neurotransmitters, like histamine, endorphins, enkephalins, substance P, and nitric acid. I will save discussion of those for a later blog post.
WHAT BASIC CARE SHOULD WE BE INITIATING TO NOURISH AND PROTECT OUR BRAIN AND NERVES?
I want to go overboard to be emphatic “our nervous system is the most nutritionally sensitive system in our body.” Long before we develop actual physical conditions from poor nutrition, we will feel the mental and emotional effects of a lack of good nutrition. What does that look like:
- fuzzy thinking (brain fog)
- mental confusion
- memory loss
DID YOU KNOW? Exposure to heavy metals and other toxins are now being linked to a variety of neurological symptoms, ranging from depression to autism!
I am hoping to bring some understanding as to the biochemical make-up of the brain and nerves so we can better understand how to nourish these the right way. The brain is 70% water, so it is super sensitive to being dehydrated and let me state that 3 out of 5 people I see in my office/practice are clinically dehydrated! So, if you really want to think clearer and protect your gray brain matter, start by drinking half your body weight in ounces every day of clean pure water.
Key Point: many things we drink actually contribute to “dehydration”, Coffee is the biggest culprit, as is alcohol, and carbonated drinks! Drink one cup of Coffee and urinate the equivalent of “three” out!
Moving on… 50-60% of the dry weight of our brain is made up of fat with 35% of that being omega-3 fatty acids. So if you want to keep your brain healthy you need to be a “fat-head” by eating the right kinds of fats. The most abundant omega 3 fatty acid in the brain is DHA, which the brain needs for function and it’s found in fish oil, especially the cold water fish. DHA is available as a single supplement and is also found in a variety of Omega-3 products.
Understand too, if you are on prescription medications for cholesterol, it is depleting the Essential fatty acids in your body too, so be sure to “supplement” these in the diet!
On the flip side, you want to avoid hydrogenated oils like shortenings and margarine and trans-fatty acids from processed and dried foods. These fats do not do the brain good!
The brain also needs a strong supply of amino acids from protein. The neurotransmitters I talked about earlier are built from amino acids. Meals that have adequate protein tend to increase levels of dopamine and norepinephrine which results in more alert mind and better moods. Many get hung up on the protein part and end up over eating the most common form of protein which is from animal meats and neglect getting a balance from :
Foods high in the B-vitamins are essential for lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. B-vitamins are involved in helping the formation of neurotransmitters like dopamine, epinephrine, and serotonin.
WHATS THE REAL SCOOP ON “SUGAR”?
Our brain consumes more blood sugar than any other organ and takes this sugar directly from the bloodstream without the need for insulin. The amount of sugar in your blood directly controls the amount of sugar reaching our brain.
If we have too much sugar the results look like:
If we have too little sugar the results look like:
- mental confusion
- cold nose and limbs
- cravings for sugar
So actually, blood sugar issues are linked to:
- mental confusion
- age-related cognitive decline
- Alzheimer’s disease
Although our brain needs sugar as a key energy source, simple sugars actually contribute to the brain fog and mental decline. Consequently, selecting complex carbohydrates, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains over foods that contain refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, white flour and other process grains is where a major shift for most folks needs to begin.
Be sure to include high quality protein and fats with your meals as these will help stabilize blood sugar levels and keep our brain working better!
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE WAYS WE ARE ACTUALLY “POISONING” OUR MINDS?
We are hearing more and more about “toxins” and where they fit into our daily lives. Some of these toxins can seriously damage the brain, especially the ones that are fat-soluble like petrochemical solvents. Since the nervous system is made up primarily of fats, anything that will dissolve fats and oils such as stain removers, gasoline and other solvents can easily penetrate the skin and they affect our nerves.
The renowned toxicologist Warren Clough was one of the chemists who went into the Nazi chemical plants at the end of WWII and collected their research on chemical weapons. This technology, originally intended to harm and kill enemy combatants, was later used to develop pesticides and herbicides. The primary reason was that pesticides kill insects by disabling their nervous systems. Its not too difficult to connect the dots that the potential effect of pesticides on us humans, who ingest small, but continual dosages of these chemicals in our foods leave a time released damaging effect on our neurological system, of which we are beginning to see surface in the higher numbers of people being diagnosed with neurological diseases.
Many people are exposed to heavy metals on a daily basis. The definition of heavy metals by chemists is actually problematic because there are heavy metals that fall in the category of necessary nutrients like iron, manganese and zinc. Other heavy metals however, like mercury, plutonium and lead, are toxic. There are also metals that are actually physically light, like aluminum, yet are also toxic to our body. Some chemists suggest that the metals that damage the body should be called “toxic metals”. For our purposes, heavy metals are defined not as metals that are heavy, but as metals that have a heavy burden effect on our body.
The toxic effect of heavy metals is a well-known issue because of their health ravaging effects on the workers in factories that manufacture products using these metals. In a list of 38 symptoms associated with exposure to mercury, cadmium, lead, aluminum and arsenic, only 7 of these symptoms were NOT associated with the nervous system.. That means about more than three-fourths of health issues associated with heavy metals directly affect our nervous system.
Here’s a list of some of the substances to avoid IF you want a healthier nervous system:
- pharmaceutical drugs (long term use)
- excessive consumption of alcohol especially from aluminum cans
- chemical solvents (stop cleaning your homes with these heavy hitting cleaners)
- pesticides and herbicides
- excessive consumption of coffee, black tea, and caffeinated sodas if you are going to drink coffee make it “organic”.
- refined sugar and white flour
- hydrogenated oil
- animal fats from commercially raised animals.
SPECIFIC NERVOUS SYSTEM PROBLEMS
The stress response is a normal and healthy response to danger. To describe this, experts often use the example of being chased by a bear. If you were ever to come face to face with a bear, you would want your body to generate as much energy and strength as needed to run away from or fight of the bear. That is why the stress response is also called the “fight or flight” response.
The stress response involves a shift in our nervous system that strongly activates our sympathetic nerves, releasing more epinephrine, and inhibits the parasympathetic nerves. This causes our pupils to dilate, to let more light in for clearer vision. The digestive process stops because this is not the time to be sitting down for lunch! The bladder and rectum contract because there is no time for a pit stop. And the heart rate increases to get lots of oxygen and nutrition to our muscles since the body senses we need to run or fight for our lives!
These responses are supported by our adrenal glands, because the sympathetic nervous system also stimulates the adrenals to release stress hormones, including more epinephrine and cortisol. Our brain is affected by all of this because our higher brain centers where we have our cool/calm and rational thoughts shut down, causing us to react instinctively from lower brain centers. If you have ever swerved without thinking to avoid an accident on the highway, this is what just happened.
WHAT QUALIFIES AS UNHEALTHY DAMAGING STRESS?
Truth be told, most of the “dangers” in our modern lives are not actual physical dangers like encountering lions, tigers and bears, (oh my)… But a stack of unpaid bills can feel like a threat to our survival, but that situation doesn’t allow for an instinctive physical response. Instead, most modern issues require us to calmly and rationally make decisions about how we can solve the problem.
This is where stress transforms into anxiety! When the fight or flight response is triggered by situation where there is no really physical danger, it inhibits our memory and our ability to think clear. Test anxiety is an example of this. When a student comes face to face with their own fright of taking an exam, epinephrine and cortisol levels rise and the student is unable to access old memory. So often we hear students say I knew the answers before I walked into the room, but when I took the test, my mind just went blank!
In addition, unlike swerving to avoid a car accident, these dangers of modern society often last for months and for some people years! The continuous activation of the stress response, over and over again has a cumulative effect, which leads to a feeling of “burn-out”, a state of emotional and nervous exhaustion.
This burned out feeling is common to soldiers who faced constant real stress on the battlefield. It was called shell-shock in World War ( and battle fatigue in World War II. Today, it is called Post-traumatic stress disorder. Whatever you choose to call it, you don’t need to go to war to experience the battle fatigue, or post traumatic stress disorder, you just need to experience poorly managed stress over an extended period of time.
DID YOU KNOW? Caffeine is the #1 enemy to our nervous system!
Public Enemy #1 for our sympathetic nervous system activity and cortisol levels is “caffeine”. This is how it wakes us up and puts us on alert. If we are in parasympathetic mode, caffeine returns us to a state of sympathetic fight or flight chemistry. What is so sneaky about caffeine is that when we are in a relaxed state an we are presented with a potential stressor like an overdue bill, we are less likely to perceive the overdue bill as stressful. But when we are in stress chemistry already, we are more likely to perceive the overdue bill as stressful.
This means that when we are happy, potential problems tend to roll off of us and don’t overwhelm our happiness. But once we are in sympathetic mode, potential problems are taken over the top serious and our stress escalates, putting us into a downward spiral. Knowing that caffeine can cause this it seems more intelligent to forego the caffeine and choose to achieve the same alertness with an adaptogen like Eleuthero and just skip the stress and anxiety altogether!
HOW CAN WE MANAGE OUR STRESS THAT HELPS VS. HURTS?
Studies are all over the place that prove that stress has a negative impact on our body and yet stressful experiences happen to everyone. Truth is STRESS isn’t going anywhere, it’s been here from the beginning of time. What we need are the tools and skills that can help us manage the effects of the stress in our life so we can bounce back!
#1: STOP AND TAKE A DEEP BREATH
The fastest way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to restore calm ad clear thinking is to breathe deeply. Sympathetic breathing is the direct opposite, it is rapid and shallow, so breathing deep activates the relaxing side of the nervous system.
A simple technique: breathe in while counting to four…. and exhale counting to four, and keep repeating this until you “feel” yourself calming down.
#2 INCORPORATE ADAPTOGENS?
There is a class of herbals referred to as adaptogens. they mediate the output of our stress hormones so you feel calm and more relaxed.
#3 USE B-COMPLEX
B-vitamins are particularly important for the nervous system and for energy production. By depleting these vitamins, refined carbs, increase our anxiety and nervousness. To satisfy those carb cravings, look for products made with whole grains and unrefined sugars, and consider taking a good anti- stress vitamin and mineral supplement. ( I will post my suggestions at the end of this post complete with links for you)
#4 PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
Remember when I said that the body produces specific stress hormones and the body starts pumping more blood to the muscles to equip the body to “run”. The body is being primed for action. So doing some sort of physical action will help burn them off. Ever noticed how just taking a walk when you feel stressed helps relax you? So do what ever physical activity you enjoy:
- yoga etc.
#5 PAMPER YOURSELF
According to Dr. Paul Pearsall, author of The Pleasure Prescription” a pleasurable experience does more good for the body than a stressful experience does harm. Pleasure enhances health, energy and emotional well being. It causes muscles to relax and even triggers healing. So rather than waste your time trying to a void stress, plan time for pleasure. Go get a massage, learn a hobby, soak in a hot tub, listen to soft music, diffuse calming essential oils. Surround your self with soothing softer colors and avoid primary colors even the color choice of your clothing makes a difference.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE EFFECTS OF CHRONIC STRESS CYCLES?
DEPRESSION: I think everyone has felt down in the dumps at one time or another. Feeling down, sad, tired or unmotivated because of a temporary los or setback is actually normal. However, some people can hit those lows and just can’t get back up again and they become clinically depressed!
If you are suffering from depression, know that you are not alone. Statistics suggest that about 18.8 million folks suffer from depression, which is just a tad shy of 10% of the adult U.S. population. Adults are not the only ones suffering from depression. It is becoming increasingly more common in our teens and children too.
The modern medical world treats this with drugs called antidepressants. The most commonly used anti-depressant drugs act as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and include:
These SSRIs create a false sense of detachment and the excess serotonin creates an elevation of mood. There is some evidence to suggest that they are linked with violent and antisocial behavior too.
Fortunately, we can increase serotonin levels with nutrition. Serotonin production is directly linked to levels of L-tryptophan, which is an amino acid in the brain. Eating more complex carbs, like whole fruits, veggies, and whole grains help stabilize L-tryptophan levels in the brain. Refined carbs and simple sugars give a quick fix. they life the mood but drop it like a rock shortly there after.
AGE-RELATED MEMORY LOSS
The brain is sensitive to damage from inflammation and free radicals, so another part of feeding the brain is to eat plenty of antioxidant rich fresh fruits and veggies, organically grown where you can. 5-9 servings a day of these health protecting foods daily.
When we can’t get adequate amounts of fruits and veggies, a whole food supplement that features antioxidant rich fruits and botanicals is a convenient substitute. A blend to reach for should contain naturally occurring antioxidants which include polyphenols, flavonoids, xanthones and vitamin C.
I will list choices I recommend at the end of this post.
SOMETHING TO TRY AT HOME…
The eye’s pupil contracts under the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system and enlarges under the sympathetic nervous system. So one can tell whether a person is in sympathetic or parasympathetic mode by looking at the pupils.
Examine the eyes of a friend or loved one to see what nervous system mode they are in.
To make this activity even more fun have friends or family members smell different essential oils to see whether their pupils enlarge or contract. Different essential oils affect the nervous system in different ways.
Oils like lavender, ylang ylang and chamomile typically activate the parasympathetic nervous system, making one’s pupils become smaller. Oils like lemon, rosemary and pine will activate sympathetic nerves making the pupils larger.
All the suggested Essential Oils can be found at: www.harvestedhealth.mynsp.com
RECOMMENDED SUPPLEMENTS TO SUPPORT THE NERVOUS SYSTEM:
Feeds and soothes the nervous system.
Builds the body’s ability to adapt to stress.
Helps calm nerves and supports restful sleep.
How It Works:
Stress-J contains a powerful blend of four calmative herbs known to help support proper nervous system function. It promotes relaxation and well-being.
AdaptaMax provides adaptogenic herbs that help the body combat stress and adapt to stressful situations, including stress on the immune system, fatigue and stress-related aging. Nerve Eight helps support proper nervous system function, reduce cellular stress, promote sleep and provide digestive support. Nutri-Calm provides B-complex vitamins, antioxidants and other essential nutrients that support and calm the nervous system and encourage restful sleep.
Each packet contains 2 Stress-J capsules, 2 AdaptaMax capsules, 1 Nerve Eight capsule and 1 Nutri-Calm tablet.
Take the contents of one packet in the morning with breakfast, and one packet in the evening with a meal. Follow this pattern for 30 days.
Supports the nervous system
A natural formulation designed to maintain a sense of calm and peace of mind
May be used for occasional stress
How It Works:
Nutri-Calm is a unique formulation, containing C and B-Complex vitamins along with natural extracts, designed to maintain a sense of calm and peace of mind.
Provides vitamin C, thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin, B6, folic acid, B12, biotin and pantothenic acid, plus schizandra fruit, choline, inositol, bee pollen, PABA, lemon bioflavonoids, valerian root extract, passionflower flowers extract and hops flowers extract.
May help block the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, helping to prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter.
Supports circulation throughout the body as well as to and within the brain.
Protects capillaries and strengthens the blood–brain barrier.
Helps support and protect proper brain function.
Neutralizes free radicals.
How It Works:
This formula is designed to give the brain protection against free radical damage. It is especially helpful for those who desire extra support for brain health, nerve function and alertness.
Brain-Protex combines protective herbs, antioxidants and phospholipids that favorably impact age-related memory loss, boost mental acuity and curb free radical damage to the brain. Huperzine A is a substance that occurs naturally in Chinese club moss, a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine. It may help prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, which seems to be an indicator of overall memory function. Ginkgo supports cerebral circulation, which may promote proper concentration, memory and alertness. Alpha lipoic acid may also play a role in long-term memory. This formula also contains the powerful antioxidant lycopene.
Soybean lecithin complex (phosphatidylserine, phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanolamine and phosphatidylinositol), ginkgo leaves, lycopene, alpha lipoic acid and Chinese club moss whole plant extract.
Nourishes the nervous system.
May optimize gastric function.
Supports circulatory health.
How It Works:
Chinese Stress Relief TCM Concentrate contains the same combination of 14 herbs found in Chinese Stress Relief but in a highly concentrated blend. These herbs and natural substances are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to support emotional balance and calm a stressed fire constitution. The Chinese call this formula an shen, which can be translated to mean “to pacify the spirit.” These herbs may help to nourish the nervous system and subsequently help improve gastric function and strengthen the urinary system. The key ingredients are oyster shell, haliotis shell and fushen. In Chinese medicine, oyster shell is considered to be calming and is used to relieve anxiety. Haliotis has properties similar to oyster shell. Oyster shell and haliotis are principally made of calcium carbonate, which may support gastric and circulatory health. Fushen is used in Chinese modalities as a stabilizingherb for restlessness and to relieve anger.
Concentrated extract of oyster shell, albizzia bark, polygonatum rhizome, haliotis shell, fushen sclerotium with root, acorus rhizome, curcuma root tuber, ginseng root, jujuba seed, polygala root, coptis rhizome, cinnamon twig, ginger rhizome and licorice root.
Supports healthy brain development and function.
Provides circulatory system support.
How It Works:
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a fatty acid that is absorbed into the fatty perimeter of cells. There it exerts its biochemical properties. DHA is highly concentrated in the brain and retinal neural tissues. It is required for brain development and important in maintaining and protecting the neural tissues.
250 mg docosahexaenoic acid, 50 mg eicosapentaenoic acid and natural lemon oil.
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Promotes brain health
Encourages healthy circulatory function
380 EPA / 190mg DHA per capsule
Supports the cardiovascular system
How It Works:
Omega-3 fatty acids are one of four basic fats that the body derives from foods. While many of the other fats are harmful, omega-3s benefit the body and are especially good for the heart. Super Omega-3 EPA is a source of two fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Super Omega-3 EPA softgels contain approximately 1,000 mg fish oil, with a ratio of 33:16 EPA to DHA (380 mg EPA, 190 mg DHA) per softgel. It also contains lemon to significantly reduce the aftertaste from fish oil and to reduce gas. (Contains fish such as anchovy, sardine and mackerel.)
Eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid.
Dr. Jodi Barnett N.D.
Harvested Health LLC