Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Stress: what it does and how to cope with it

Most of us have experienced stress at one time or another, and often even found it helpful to meet deadlines, pass exams, or even escape potentially dangerous situations. Under this type of circumstance, stress is short-lived: Our bodies react to pressure by producing the stress-hormones that result in the fight-or-flight response and which shut down some important functions such as digestion to concentrate on giving more power to the extremities and to quick thinking. After the situation is over, everything returns to normal and the proper functioning of the body is restored. 

So stress per se does not necessarily have a negative impact on our health. It is only when it is excessive, relentless, or long-term that it becomes a problem. How much stress each of us can take before succumbing to its negative effects depends on our constitution and the state of our health; this is why some people seem to collapse under the slightest pressure while others thrive on it for long periods before feeling any ill effects.

Many of the health problems long-term stress can cause are due to the elevated levels of Cortisol and Noradrenaline – the two main stress hormones - in the blood stream. Combined, these hormones have the following effects:         
  • Lowered immune response
  • Increased heart rate –the heart muscle works harder
  • Constriction of blood vessels resulting in high blood pressure
  • Dilation of air passages – the lungs work harder
  • Increased metabolic rate
  • Dilation of the pupils
  • Inhibition of bodily functions such as digestion
  • Reduced levels of sex hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone

Needless to say, long-term exposure to the effects of stress hormones can only be detrimental to health. Apart from the direct effects of stress on our bodies we may also develop the well-known symptoms of insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, exhaustion, menstrual abnormalities, headaches, irritability, and mood swings, just to name a few. We may resort to coping mechanisms in a desperate attempt to feel more energetic during the day and to “switch off” in the evening. As a result, we end up drinking endless cups of tea and coffee, eating sugary foods instead of proper meals, smoking, drinking alcohol, and using cannabis, sleeping pills or other legal and illegal drugs. Others may instead exercise furiously so that they will be exhausted enough to sleep well at night. Although this sounds like a healthier way of coping, it needs to be said that hard-core cardiovascular exercise is in itself a source of stress to our bodies and it may not be an ideal choice if you are chronically stressed out.

The effects of stress:
Lowers immune response
Can contribute to irritable Bowel syndrome and other digestive problems
Can adversely affect the menstrual cycle and have a negative impact on libido and fertility in both men and women
Can cause insomnia, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks
Raises blood pressure and may contribute to heart disease


Chinese Medicine: According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), stress blocks the free flow of Qi through our energy channels. The effects of this lack of flow can be felt at physical, mental, and emotional levels resulting in symptoms such as tension and pain in different parts of the body, digestive problems, menstrual abnormalities, over-thinking and insomnia, irritability, anxiety, and depression.

Symptoms such as high blood pressure, irregular periods and low immune response can be the result of diverse underlying factors. Long-term blockage in the flow of Qi can contribute to all of these symptoms as this can result in impaired blood flow, exhaustion of Qi, and accumulation of heat in different parts of the body. 

Acupuncture is particularly good at restoring the flow of Qi as it directly works on the energy channels themselves. There are specific combinations of points capable of inducing a relaxed state on even the most wound up person, thus encouraging the body and mind to rest and restore. Acupuncture not only promotes the release of endorphins and improves blood circulation, but it can also help decrease heart rate, lower blood pressure and relax the muscles.

There are also Chinese herbal formulae that are excellent at dealing with acute stress and with the sequelae of long-term stress. The most important formula is Xiao Yao Wan, also known as the “free and easy wanderer”. This is one of the most commonly used Chinese herbal formulae in the West and it is used for stagnation of Qi manifesting as mood swings, depression, anxiety, IBS and other digestive problems, insomnia, menstrual irregularities, PMS, etc. An experienced Chinese medicine practitioner can also modify the basic formula to deal with specific symptoms not included in its indications.

Self help
As mentioned above, when we are stressed we may have tendencies that can exacerbate the stress itself or contribute to stress-related symptoms. Things that are best avoided include:
  •  Stimulants like caffeine, sugar, tobacco, and drugs: these may give you a short-lived energy boost that leaves you feeling more exhausted once it has worn off. These substances also increase acidity in the body which is detrimental to many bodily functions.
  • Depressants such as alcohol, sleeping pills, tranquilisers, cannabis and other illegal drugs: you may feel that nothing else will help you rest, but artificially knocking yourself out will only make you feel worse the next day. These substances will make you feel more wired when their effect has worn off and will increase the toxicity in your body. The liver is already working harder coping with higher level of stress hormones and may not be able to detoxify the system efficiently enough so you may be creating more problems down the line.
Fresh fruit and veg helps you de-stress
With an under-functioning digestive system, and an accelerated metabolism  we need to make sure we eat enough nutrients that are easy to digest. These are some suggestions:
  • Eat plenty of protein but avoid red meat which is very hard to digest and will sit in your digestive system for days on end. Favour beans and pulses, lean chicken and fish.
  • Avoid additives and preservatives as they can represent chemical stress to your system.
  • Make sure you have plenty (by plenty I mean loads!) of vegetables especially leafy green vegetables, brassicas, and root vegetables, and also plenty of fruit. Fresh fruit and veg are not only easy to digest but provide you with vitamins and anti-oxidants that help detoxify the body and regulate stress hormones.
  • Drink plenty of water and herbal teas. Try Fennel and peppermint after meals to improve digestion; or camomile and passion flower to relax.
Regular exercise can be a stress buster, and can help alleviate tension, irritability, and depression. Walking, swimming or cycling are best as they do not over-tax your system and put you under more stress than you are under.  

It’s all about balance. If you are constantly pushing yourself and never getting enough rest you will become wired and unable to relax. This is why re-teaching your body how to relax is what you actually need to do when stressed. You may not feel like it, but this is the only way to avoid long-term damage from stress. Find a practice that appeals to you: meditation, gentle yoga (not fast-paced ashtanga or bikram!), pilates, tai chi or qi gong; and try to incorporate 5-10 minutes of silence and peace into your everyday life.

Talk to someone
It may be that what is causing your stress is not going anywhere soon. Your boss, your relationship, your sick mother, or that massive debt you have acquired are here to stay and the stress they are causing you is making you sick. Do not keep it to yourself, find someone you can talk to and who can help you put the problem into perspective. If you can’t change the situation you may need to change the way you are looking at it. It may be a long process but it is not impossible, look for help and you will find it!

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