Written by Dr. Robert Kachko. When I mention “the silent killer”, where does your mind go first? Heart disease? Cancer? Stroke? Sure, all of these and many of the other chronic diseases plaguing our modern world take a tremendous toll on the human condition. As a Naturopathic Doctor, I can imagine a world where we can begin to unburden ourselves by altering the paradigm from which we treat our patients. Though it would be hubris to attempt to make that leap in one mere blog post, with April being National Stress Awareness Month, it feels appropriate to address a significant piece of the puzzle: stress, the underlying silent killer. The stressors of life, and more importantly how we handle them, play a role in nearly every common chronic disease. By some estimates, 80% of doctor’s office visits are the result of stress, and there’s often even stress rolled into the doctor-patient experience. I recently was introduced to Oscar Insurance who offers their members a Doctor On Call tool to take the stress out of making an appointment. Each member can speak with a doctor with any health-related questions within an hour. You can check out more information online about their New York health insurance services, and we hope to be able to expand access to health insurance coverage for Naturopathic Doctors in the near future. We’ll talk about ways to reduce that stress in practical and meaningful ways, but let’s first gather a little bit of background on why it matters.
There has never been a more exciting time in human history, as there has never been such a unique opportunity to directly foster the change that we wish upon the world. Advances in biomedical technology are being delivered at an incredible pace, ever-sharpening what it means to be “cutting edge”. Social media allows us to spread the word about literally anything and everything we feel to be important. The dawn of the age of remarkable technology, instant gratification, and in-demand deliverables comes at a price though: our bodies and our minds may soon fail to keep up.
We currently inhabit “stone age bodies” (evolution is slow), but those very bodies inhabit a “computer age world” which is not forgiving to those who are slow to adapt. The biological technology which we employ as organisms, at its core, is no more complex than the binary code of “1 or 0” (in computer-speak), “on or off”, “fight or rest”. You see, evolutionary biologists have come to understand that for the better part of human history, we developed alongside a set of very basic innate principles. Unbeknownst to us, our primary objectives as humans historically could be crudely broken down into 3 easy steps:
- Exert the least amount of energy and take on the lowest feasible amount of life-threatening risk,
- while seeking out the highest quantity and quality of pleasure (food, sex, money, drugs, power),
- all while making as many babies as we can.
In our modern day, most of the stressors we face mimic and propagate a nervous system reaction to life-threatening situations (#1). When face to face with a lion the prudent thing to do is run, and this requires an organized effort (via nerves, hormones, neurotransmitters) on the part of our sympathetic nervous systems to activate the appropriate bodily functions required to begin the act.
What’s amazing, though, is that just THINKING about having to confront a lion as you read this is activating some of those same basic mechanisms in you. To take that a step further, as soon as you imagine yourself running away, regions of your brain corresponding to the muscle groups required for every part of the act are being utilized. We’re hardwired to react to stress, in any form, in essentially the same way: get away from it or prepare to fight it. What happens, then, if our days are filled with a perpetual need to deliver (your angry boss, in the “eyes” of your nervous system, might as well be a hungry lion) and an endless stream of reminders about the current state of the world (have you turned on the news lately?). Thousands of times per day our primitive sympathetic nervous systems activate to prepare our physiology to take on the world, meaning momentary but considerable releases of stress hormones and mind-activating neurotransmitters. In the long run, these add up to cause considerable harm and to make us more susceptible to those very same stressors.
What’s more, we have plenty of scientific research elucidating the impact of stress on health outcomes and the potential for stress-reduction techniques to improve those outcomes. As there are countless useful examples, we’ll consider just one: the aptly named “stress ulcer”. Long-standing stress is associated with increased risk of GI bleeding. In a large study, those who poorly tolerated stress at baseline were more likely to have relapse of ulcer development over the next 9 to 15 years. However, those who tend to recover psychologically after a traumatic life event fair better than those who do not, indicating the benefit of psychotherapy and other cognitive therapies.[i] This effect on relapse rate may be due in part to an influence on health risk producing behaviors, as was demonstrated in a study that assessed H. pylori and non-H. pylori ulcers in 3379 individuals who demonstrated psychosocial stress. One way to reduce the incidence of stress ulcers in susceptible patients is through meditation. There are many styles of meditation and patients should be referred to local resources to find the approach which best fits their needs. In a systematic review of Mindfulness Meditation, improvements were noted at 8 weeks in anxiety, depression, and pain scales.[ii]
So then, what else can we do to improve our reaction to stress? To put it simply in a few short words: unplug, reflect, recharge.
The constant onslaught of information we need to pay attention to in our daily lives maintains the perpetual sympathetic state mentioned above. Setting aside time every day which is free of such distractions means allowing an opportunity to be truly in the moment. The foundational spiritual teachings as maintained by the mystical interpretations of all of the major religions held this understanding at their core. Schedule several “Distraction Holidays” for yourself throughout the day, and stick to them with the knowledge that this effort will save you in the long run. Silence your phone, stop checking email, ignore facebook, whatever. To take that a step further, every once in a while plan days or even weeks where you allow yourself to unplug completely: shut off your phone, disconnect your internet. Allow yourself to be in nature, and to be fully present with yourself.
If this is something you find useful, also consider setting aside more “active” periods throughout the day to disconnect from the world and reconnect with your spirit through meditation. The form of meditation I practice, Transcendental Meditation, calls for two 20 minute periods of meditation daily. There are many approaches and techniques though, and it is important to find the right one for you.
Another trick I find useful for patients is quite literally unplugging: electro-magnetic frequencies (EMFs) in our homes and at work have a strong effect on our physiology. In addition to the direct risks of cell phone radiation which I’ve written about in a past blog, there are many other sources (really, anything which gets plugged into an outlet or emits a frequency). For some who are truly sensitive, turning off the circuit breaker to their bedrooms for a nightly reprieve of EMFs can make a world of difference.
Taking time out every day to reflect upon the previous 24 hours allows us to contextualize and categorize our experiences. Gaining perspective on those experiences allows us to filter the thoughts and relationships in our lives which may be doing more harm than good. It teaches us to become non-reactive and non-attached to the minor “details” of life so many of us often get lost in. Active reflection is the best way of “checking in” with ourselves to make sure that our actions continue to align with our core values. One great way to do so is to journal (this doesn’t have to be fancy, just jot down your thoughts on the day for a few minutes each evening before bed). Daily reflection doesn’t necessarily have to be a solitary task, as setting aside time every day for thoughtful conversation with a loved one may be just as effective.
No matter how much of an effort we make to unplug and reflect, dealing with stress in a sustainable way means “recharging” our bodies every day. This specifically means eating a health promoting diet, getting enough sleep, and making sure to exercise. Another important way to recharge is by filling our lives with people and experiences capable of bringing us joy on a regular basis. Acupuncture and homeopathy are two incredible modalities which allow us to re-align our bodies to better manage life’s main stressors.
As every individual requires their own wellness plan of action, make sure to schedule an appointment with one of our doctors to begin “recharging” your body, mind, and soul.
Photo by: JE Theriot (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jetheriot/6101296095/) via freeforcommercialuse.org
[i] Levenstein S. The very model of a modern etiology: a biopsychosocial view of peptic ulcer. Psychosom Med 2000; 62:176.
[ii] Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EM, et al. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357-68.
Dr. Kachko provides individualized care to a diverse array of patients at InnerSource Health Manhattan. He proudly serves on the Board of Directors of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) and takes an active role in the New York Association of Naturopathic Physicians (NYANP). At the College of Naturopathic Medicine, he was founding President of the expanded local chapter of the Naturopathic Medical Student Association (NMSA) and received the prestigious award for “Outstanding Service to the Profession.” Dr. Kachko is committed to expanding access to Naturopathic Medicine and Acupuncture for all patients.
Robert Kachko ND, LAc graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Doctoral Degree in Naturopathic Medicine and a Masters Degree in Acupuncture from the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine and Acupuncture Institute. He has completed an additional 2 year course of study in Classical Homeopathy at the New England School of Homeopathy. He completed his pre-medical studies with a Bachelor’s Degree with honors at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.