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What is the significance of stress and inflammation and how do they impact the immune system? Stress causes aging because it causes inflammation, and inflammation is often created by chronic stress. Short term stress, or the ‘Fight or Flight’ response, is to be expected as it is a normal part of life.  However, when the stress response becomes chronic, meaning that it lasts for a long time, then it’s really hard on the body. It causes adrenaline to be released over extended periods of time and causes cortisol to remain elevated. Chronic stress suppresses our digestion, overstimulates our adrenal glands and interrupts our sleep patterns. Have you ever felt ‘wired and tired’? This is due to long term stress and the toll it takes on our organs and immune system.

It also keeps our nervous system in an elevated sympathetic mode. When we are stressed our nervous system is in sympathetic mode. When we are faced with a real threat we go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. We are ready to take immediate action. Our attention is heightened, our blood is diverted to our extremities as we literally prepare to fight or run from the threat. But what happens when this sympathetic mode is extended for days, weeks or even months? Have you ever felt perpetually on edge or that you are waiting for the next stressful or bad thing to happen? Anytime recently? A lot of us, including me, have felt extremely uncertain of what’s going to happen next with the Coronavirus pandemic.

From all accounts this virus poses a real threat. That is stressful, as no one wants to get sick and end up in the hospital or worse. Ask anyone that has got the flu during the last 2 years. It’s not fun, as the flu has been really bad recently. However, the Coronavirus seems to be on a whole new level, a threat to us individually and as a nation. On top of this the situation and news seems to morph and change on a daily basis. What we have to deal with today is different than it was yesterday and it will be different again tomorrow. Uncertainty is the new norm and we are having to adapt to changing conditions almost on a daily basis.

Not only can this be crazy making, it can also creates a high level of uncertainty and chronic stress.

So what do you think all this uncertainty and fear is doing to our immune systems, nervous systems and peace of mind? Are we able to maintain our balance and calm during this crisis? Speaking of myself, I have found it extremely difficult. I have been hyper vigilant and yes stressed for a couple of months now. It has decreased my resilience and probably my overall health to some degree. This is the cost of staying in sympathetic mode for a long period of time.

Conversely, when we are balanced and relaxed our nervous systems are in parasympathetic mode. In contrast to ‘fight or flight’ we are more peaceful within ourselves and connected to the world around us. How do you feel watching a sunset, taking a walk in nature or laying on the beach sunbathing? Pretty good I would imagine. This is because you are more in parasympathetic mode. The goal of course is to try to strike a balance between the two. We cannot be in parasympathetic mode all the time. That is just not real. But, we also don’t want to be in sympathetic mode too much either and burn through all our resilience until we get sick.

Inflammation is called The Silent Killer because it is a precursor to every chronic disease known to man. It also stresses out our immune system because it’s our immune functions that are stimulated through the release of cytokines. As mentioned in Part 1, cytokines signal the immune system to heal inflamed tissue by removing microbes and dead or injured tissue. So, while inflammation is part of the healing recovery process, it can also be the cause of chronic breakdown and destruction of tissue by our immune system. The best example of this are autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s, Crohn’s Disease, and Rheumatoid Arthritis, to name just a few.

The harsh reality is that over 50% of the population is affected by some form of chronic disease, whether it’s an autoimmune condition, heart disease, cancer, Lyme disease, Alzheimer’s, etc. And the problem only gets worse every year.

Our immune systems use a lot of energy for healing and if we are sympathetic mode too often, we are using all our energy for fight or flight. Have you ever gotten sick after a big test or when you go on vacation? This is happens when you let down your guard and defenses after a big or prolonged stressful period like demands of work or school.

Everyone knows that high levels of emotions cause stress. The most stressful events in our lives include money problems, relationship problems like divorce, and death of loved ones and family members. These can all be highly emotional events. But the day to day grind and the emotions they produce take their toll as well. Many people are under increased stress in these  times due to the Covid-19 shutdown and shelter in place mandate. By the end of the day, after taking care of our families, work and maintaining our bodies, most of us are left with little reserves, tired and often exhausted.

OK, doc.  I get that chronic stress is bad because it causes systemic inflammation and that constant inflammation is bad because it can cause chronic disease. So what can I do about it. Isn’t it just part of life these days?

The answer is yes and no. While chronic stress is part of our modern lifestyle to be sure, there are things that we can do to mitigate it and reduce the effects it is having on our bodies, minds and our well-being.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Exercise – While there is bad stress, there is also good stress and exercise is near the top of the list. But don’t overdo it.  Too much exercise can also overtax our bodies and cause too much tissue breakdown.  A brisk walk every morning before eating will clear your head, get your heart and blood pumping, and start up your engines again.
  • Add adaptogens to your supplementation.  These are herbs with a long history of helping our systems adapt to stress. Some of the most popular are: Astragalus, Ashwagandha, Ginseng, Eleuthro and Rhodiola.
  • Eat when you’re hungry, especially in the morning. Overeating way too much sugar, carbs and protein is a national pastime and overtaxes our bodies. Eat a diet consisting mostly of vegetables, fruit, and live foods, primarily. Protein is important as well, but not too much! Fat has been demonized and is one of our body’s most important sources of energy. Coconut oil and olive oil are two of the best sources. Find the proper balance of carbs, protein and fat that fits your needs.
  • Sweat a little every day, either through exercise or saunas, including infrared saunas.
  • Expose yourself to cold every day. Sorry to have to put this on the list, as most people hate the cold. However, there are few things that reboot your metabolism and lower inflammation like cold therapies do. Just ask a professional athlete who has to ice after workouts and competition. Cold ice baths are the only way they will be able to get back on the field the next day.  But I’m not asking you to get into ice water. That is just cruel and unusual punishment. What I am asking is that you take a 3 minute cool or cold shower. And thank goodness there is warm water there as well to use! There is also cryotherapy, which is a 3 minute freeze using liquid nitrogen that is released while you are standing a stall. It feels amazing when it’s over because it ‘re-boots’ our system! Then there is always the old standby of jumping into the ocean.
  • A hot bath with magnesium (Epsom) salts and a drop or two of essential oils is tremendously relaxing.  Some favorite essential oils for this purpose are: lavender, frankincense, eucalyptus (strong- mix with other oils like geranium or sandalwood to soften scent). Citrus oils, such as grapefruit, lemon, and bergamot are also helpful.
  • Don’t forget self massage. Foot and hand reflexology are tremendously relaxing!  And you know best where you’e sore and how long to spend on each spot.
  • Gentle yoga stretches are a big asset to staying healthy and flexible. It is not a sport, however. Don’t ever push yourself beyond your body’s limits! Small incremental changes are what you want to be going for.
  • Spend time in meditation or contemplation on a daily basis. It’s important to feel grounded and connected to our Creator and our spiritual support throughout the day. Daily meditation affirms the reality of this support and Love.

Good stress is one of the best ways to recover and heal from bad stress, because it puts us more into a parasympathetic mode than a sympathetic (fight or flight) mode. Take a look at the list above and see what you would be willing to do and what you think might support you.

The last DIY post discussed the ways that supplementing with antioxidants can support you as well. What we eat is another valuable source of antioxidants:

Add more of the following high antioxidant foods to your diet. You may be pleased to know that dark chocolate is at the top of the list. However as a dentist I have to remind you that dark chocolate sweetened with sugar, even organic cane sugar, is still sugar. Sugar raises blood glucose levels, so in order to stay healthy only moderate amounts of sugar should be eaten. Here is a link to a short article on The Truth About Sugar’s Impact On Our Health.

  • Dark Chocolate
  • Pecans
  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Artichokes
  • Goji Berries.
  • Raspberries
  • Kale
  • Red Cabbage
  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Spinach

Stretch, Don’t Stress. Adapting to life in the New World of Covid 19 can be challenging. Our office has had to adapt in a number of ways to serve our patients and meet the current situation.  We double sterilize every surface of the operatory between patients and use two high powered air filtration units that clean the air every 3-5 minutes. We are shortly adding another filtering unit that has an even greater capacity. You can read more about current measures here:  How Dentistry Can Meet the Challenge of the Coronavirus.

Fortunately there were already numerous precautions in place at our office as routine measures. An extremely important one is that we have windows and doors that open, so fresh air is brought in continually. This is rarely seen in San Diego office buildings, which are generally sealed. True story: we tried to practice in four other offices until we were fortunate enough to find our current one, in 2004. Before that we were nomads, searching for a place where there’d be proper ventilation. It actually took us 7 years to find the right place to practice!