We are living in an epidemic of stress. The people who walk into my office on a daily basis - busy successful New Yorkers with full lives and a lot going on -- look to the world like they have it all. But more often than not they are deeply stressed out.
They are not alone. In 2011, nearly 75 million unique prescriptions were written for Xanax and Ativan, two anti-anxiety medications, in the United States, indicating our country has a serious problem with stress.
Furthermore, one in 10 Americans now takes an antidepressant medication -- and among women in their 40s and 50s, that number is one in four.
From, what I see day-to-day, almost every single one of us is stressed on some level from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. And we have been sold a pharmaceutical solution to these problems, but also from what I see day to day, they are rarely the answer.
How stressed are you? Ask yourself these questions and see if the answers surprise you.
Are you "on" all the time? Are you tired on a regular basis? Do you feel like your head is spinning just getting things done? Or that you just don't have enough time, or space, to eat the way you want to, exercise the way you know you should, or actually take the time out to fully relax?
This way of living has become the new normal. From the expectations of our jobs, to the constant addictive call of our smartphones, to the rabbit hole that is social media, we are all affected.
In fact, researchers have identified that there are six factors that contribute to chronic disease and biological stress in the body as a result of today's modern lifestyle:
1. An inflammatory diet high in sugar, salt, fat and refined grains.
2. A sedentary lifestyle.
3. Chronic Vitamin D deficiency from not spending time outside in the sun.
4. The depletion of our microbiome which are the important population of the bacteria that live as a part of us and which have been depleted through things like sanitation and medication.
5. The presence of infinite choices around jobs and social roles beyond what our brains evolved to handle.
6. The constant bombardment with media that exposes us to violence, idealized body types, and superficial social relationships.
The problem is that this new normal is unsustainable, especially when you layer on unique personal stressors - the things life throws our way. A sick family member; an irritating colleague at work; a move; a financial crisis.
Our bodies are not designed to be chronically stressed. Chronic stress leads to hormonal imbalances like elevated cortisol and secondarily, estrogen-dominance, causing us to gain weight, break out, have trouble sleeping, and for women, to often have irregular painful periods.
Chronic stress causes us to feel exhausted and crowded by our lives, leading to anxiety and depression.
Chronic stress can even be a trigger for the onset of serious auto-immune diseases like Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's disease
Stress also drives us to eat more sugar and carbs, the exact foods that give us a dopamine surge that temporarily cuts through the brain fog, for a minute, but leaves us crashing, bloated, and irritable the next. Our stress-driven eating habits have even been proven to increase rates of obesity.
So what do we do about stress, besides rely on expensive, addictive pharmaceuticals that mask the problem more than offer a solution?
First we need to learn healthy stress management tools as children the way we learn to tie our shoes and brush our teeth.
Today people learn stress management by default - by watching their parents' behavior and observing people deal with stress in the media. How many of us have seen a TV show where the main character slumps down at the bar after a tough day to drown their stress in alcohol or a cigarette? Have you ever seen a TV show where someone meditated instead?
Simple breathing exercises have been shown to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and down-regulate the sympathetic nervous system, thereby lowering blood pressure and heart rate, increasing heart rate variability, a sign of cardiovascular health, and resulting in a sense of calm. These exercises work well for managing anxiety, insomnia, and fatigue, they are free, and anyone can learn them.
Second, we need to learn how to use food to lower inflammatory stress in the body. The typical response today is to "reward" our stressed out nervous systems with sugar and fat, also a learned behavior reinforced by the prevalence of nutrient-poor, calorie dense foods around us.
Instead we need to teach people which types of foods to eat to hydrate the body, lower oxidative stress, and give cells more energy.
This style of eating is what we teach at my medical practice, where we advocate for a Plant Based Paleo diet, which is high in greens, lean protein, and healthy fat, and low in sugar, processed carbs, and chemically preserved foods.
Finally, we need to teach people to use movement systematically for stress relief. The body is an excellent tool for channeling stress through movements like yoga, running, and tai chi. We are taught to focus on exercise for weight loss, but the greatest benefit I see it giving to my patients is a reliable, safe way of managing stress.
The effects of stress remain on the fringes of medicine today, despite reams of research as to the toxic effects of chronic stress on the body. But as we get more ambient, real time data from smartphones and wearable devices, I believe we will have an ever more concrete and undeniable perspective on stress.
And, I believe, the number one thing each of us can do for our health today is to honestly assess our own stress levels, and to learn eating, breathing, and movement go-to techniques to try to address stress without medications. This is the modern cure for chronic stress, and it isn't a drug.