When I was in college, I was an architecture student. Our studio program was very demanding, and when our final projects were due at the end of each semester, my classmates and I would be working late into the night on drawings or models, with trips to the local diner for coffee and sticky buns. I would get very little sleep, with even a few all-nighters. But the coffee and sugar kept me going, along with the pressure of producing a great project. I'd head back to my parent's house for the semester break, and invariably, I'd end up in bed with a cold or flu. My body needed a rest, and my immune system was worn out from the stress. I was a prime target for any virus or bacteria that came near me.
It's not just these intense bursts of stress that effect us this way. Lower levels of chronic stress can be even worse. Most people have regular sources of stress in their lives. And if you're living with HIV, that's certainly a source of chronic stress.
The Toll of Stress
Stress is any physical, chemical or emotional situation that causes tension or strain and that requires our body or mind to compensate in order to maintain internal balance and harmony. Confronting HIV is a constant physical stress on your immune system. If you are taking medications, that's a constant chemical stress. And for many, the emotional strain of living with HIV may include strained family relationships, trying to keep your HIV status a secret at work, or dealing with feelings of guilt, anger or depression.
All these types of stress can induce the "fight or flight" response. The body recognizes stress as a signal to prepare for action. The adrenal glands secrete the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, and these stress hormones flood the body. Heart rate and blood pressure rise, respiration quickens, oxygen flows to the muscles, and immune cells prepare to rush to the site of an injury. The blood becomes more acidic. Non-essential functions, like digestion, are put off until later. When the stressful situation has calmed down, another set of adjustments returns the body to a normal state. These biochemical effects are useful for emergency situations; however, in everyday life, fighting or fleeing is not usually an option in the face of a stressful situation. So we endure stressful situations, sustaining doses of adrenaline and cortisol over a long period. As life's challenges come one after the other, our bodies have little chance to recover from the physical effects of this increased level of adrenal hormones. Our bodies lose their ability to maintain critical balance and illness and disease is the result. Healing of all kinds requires a state of rest, which may be impossible with chronic stress.
Your already overworked immune system would really appreciate you giving it some help and support instead of the added challenge of a state of stress. Hopefully, this understanding about stress will inspire you to take some action to reduce the stress or at least counter the effects of stress in your life. Reducing stress and its effects can be best accomplished with a multi-disciplinary approach that involves mind, body and spirit.
Meditation usually comes to mind when people think of stress-reducing techniques. There are many studies to prove its effectiveness not only for stress reduction, but for improved immune system function. There are a variety of types of meditation, but they all involve quieting the mind, giving it a break from the usual ceaseless chatter. Many people say they don't have the time or the inclination to sit and meditate, but you can bring mindfulness to your everyday activity and achieve similar stress-reducing results. What do I mean by this? For example, when walking down the street, instead of letting your mind dwell on all the things you need to do, or replaying unpleasant past events or current fears, bring your attention to the movement of your body. Be aware of each step, the feel of your feet against the pavement, the rhythm of your breathing. Notice the sounds around you, but don't actually listen to them. If you can do this, you should notice a very different calmness when you arrive at your destination. Another similar idea is to bring the same kind of attention to preparing a meal. Focus on the action of the knife cutting the onions and carrots, notice your movements through the kitchen, and again, bring your attention to your breath.
If you can take even five minutes to sit and let go of stress, here's a simple technique that works wonders. Sit comfortably in a chair with a straight spine. Close your eyes and start by noticing your breath. Breathing through your nose, notice its rhythm, and that the air going in is cooler and the air going out is warmer. Then progressively start relaxing each part of your body, working from your feet up. Let each part relax, and let all the energy drain out through your feet, to the floor, and into the earth. When you've finished working your way up to your face and head, notice if there's still an area that feels tension or discomfort. Breathe into it and let it go. Then notice your breath again. He has it changed? Come back to your body by gradually wiggling toes, fingers, feeling your clothes against your body, and then slowly opening your eyes. This quick relaxation meditation will let you release a lot of built up stress. You can ask a friend to guide you through it to keep you focused.
Exercise is one of the best ways to manage pressure and stress. Choosing the correct exercise for a particular type of stress is essential. Group sports are an excellent option for relieving emotional tension, as are weight lifting and martial arts training. These activities help bring a person out of their heads and into their bodies. By contrast, someone suffering more from physical stress should not choose activities that apply more force to the body. For these people, yoga or tai-chi would be more appropriate. Cardiovascular exercise on a regular basis is an important way to keep the heart strong, boost your immune system and release built up stress. Stretching exercises will help release tension and allow for physical relaxation to occur. It's important to take into account your own capabilities when starting an exercise program. You don't want to challenge yourself to the point of adding more stress to your system. Be aware of your energy level and the need for recovery from exercise sessions.
There is something you already do every day that can have a profound impact on countering the effects that stress has on your health and wellbeing ... Eating!
Some commonly consumed items really add to the burden that stress places on our bodies. If you reconsider the relationship between stress and adrenaline, what would you think would be the main thing to try to avoid during times of stress? Yes, caffeine. Caffeine is a non-nutritional source of energy. It gives you energy by stimulating the production of adrenaline. And if you're under stress, the adrenaline in your body is already elevated and creating problems for you. Research has shown that people who consume caffeine may experience an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, feel more stressed and produce more stress hormones (adrenaline). The body needs rest for healing to occur, and with adrenaline pumping through on a continual basis, there isn't much opportunity for a restful state. So, you have to ask yourself, how much stress can you afford to intentionally add to the stress sources you can't control?
The next big target in the battle against stress is sugar and refined carbohydrates. These foods cause a fast rise in blood sugar level, initiating insulin production and resulting in a subsequent drop in blood sugar -- usually to a level below what would be balanced. This hypoglycemic state creates low energy, fatigue and mood swings. The solution becomes more sugar, starting the cycle all over again. These ups and downs in energy are very stressful on a body trying to maintain balance.
Animal foods elevate brain levels of dopamine and norepinephrine -- both are hormones associated with higher levels of stress and anxiety. So eating a lot of these foods creates a condition where your body is even less able to handle the effects of stress. This doesn't mean you need to be vegetarian, but during times of particular stress, it would benefit you to cut way back on the amounts of meat you are eating.
Our nutritional needs increase during times of stress, and food is the key to providing the body with extra reinforcement it needs so that our reserves are not completely depleted during stressful periods.
Most of the food in the typical American diet is also acid-forming. As mentioned, stress also creates an acidic condition, and this is an ideal breeding ground for viruses and bacteria. So one important dietary goal is to have more alkalizing foods to help bring the pH into balance. The foods that are the most alkalizing are fruit and vegetables. So you've probably heard how important it is to eat these, but this is a benefit that is rarely discussed.
Dark green, yellow and orange vegetables and fruits are rich in minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals, which boost immune response and protect against disease. They replace the minerals that are depleted from the body by stress. Other alkalizing foods include sea vegetables, miso, tamari, sea salt.
Protein and mineral rich foods are important in dealing with stress. Vegetable proteins from whole grains and beans, sea vegetables, fish, and organic eggs are beneficial choices.
Whole grains also promote the production of the brain neurotransmitter seratonin, which increases your sense of wellbeing. A bowl of oatmeal or other whole grains for breakfast gives you a calm energy to get your day off to a great start. A carbohydrate snack will activate soothing serotonin about 20 minutes after being eaten. This is why people under stress are drawn to sugar. But this creates more problems than solution.
Magnesium is beneficial for relaxing the muscles and is calming to the body-sources are whole grains, beans, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Chocolate happens to be a good magnesium source; however, most chocolate contains many other harmful ingredients. Look for high quality, dark chocolate to satisfy that occasional craving.
Other Helpful Solutions
Just drinking more water can have enormous benefit. Most people are in a constant state of mild dehydration, which is stressful to the whole system. Water helps to neutralize an acidic condition, and it makes everything work better, especially the kidneys, a primary organ responsible for eliminating harmful wastes and toxins from the body.
Herbal teas such as chamomile can be very relaxing. Having a cup after a meal can also help greatly with reducing the craving for dessert.
Chewing food fully makes the food more alkalizing and starts the digestive process, aiding in proper assimilation of nutrients. Eating on the run strains your digestive system and contributes to stress. Conscious chewing forces you to slow down, pay more attention to what you are eating, be in the moment. So, sit down and take time to chew and enjoy a good nourishing meal.
Life will always present stressful situations for you to cope with. Being HIV-positive is a lifelong challenge that can best be faced if you can prepare your body and mind to better handle the stress, recover more effectively, and hopefully prevent the harmful effects. You can make a difference to your health through the choices you make every day.
Gary Rosard is a certified Holistic Health Counselor with offices in Manhattan and South Orange, NJ. He offers nutrition and lifestyle counseling in a supportive, caring way that focuses on the whole person, not just the symptoms. Visit his Website at www.healthworks.cc or call (917) 494-9574 to discuss your health concerns.