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Natural Awakenings Metro Phoenix & Northern Arizona

Reduce Stress, Improve Health and Enjoy the Summer: Learn how to deal with stress year-round, says Dr. Michelle Retz

Jun 28, 2013 07:18PM ● By Michelle Retz, NMD

Summer allows more leisure time to relax, socialize and decompress, but why only set aside stressors for a time, only to pick them up again as the season ends when there is a more sustainable solution? Stress is a factor in up to 60 percent of all illnesses. Physical stress includes trauma, sedentary lifestyle, excessive exercise or physical work and a lack of rest or sleep. Chemical stress includes pesticides, food additives, cigarette smoke, alcohol, heavy metals, air pollution, cosmetics, perfumes, new carpets and paints and tap water chemicals. Electromagnetic stress includes overexposure to sunlight, mobile phones, Wi-Fi, computers and microwaves. Emotional stress can be financial stress, unhealthy relationships, unrealistic workloads/deadlines and being unclear about personal/life goals. Nutritional stress involves overeating, under-eating, poor diet, low-quality foods and dehydration.

The adrenal glands are our “fight-or-flight” organs that help us “run from the bear,” and deal with smaller daily stresses. They secrete hormones to adequately deal with stress. Initially, they increase cortisol production and usually, these levels normalize. However, with continuous stress, the nervous system remains turned “on,” and cortisol levels stay high. Over time, the adrenals become tired and are unable to maintain cortisol levels. Symptoms may appear, including difficulty waking, fatigue, muscular weakness/soreness, altered sleep (wired at night, sleepy during the day), decreased libido, sugar cravings and increased PMS or menopausal symptoms. Eventually, the adrenals become exhausted and only secrete very low cortisol levels. In this stage, exercise increases fatigue. We may be unable to muster up an emotional reaction, and depression or anxiety may result.

During chronic stress, cortisol affects nearly every organ system. It directly shuts down thyroid function, causing increased fatigue, depression, weight gain, constipation, difficult concentration and lower body temperature. In the digestive tract, cortisol decreases the protective mucous lining, which carries a part of our immune system. Without it, inflammation, heartburn, ulcers, food sensitivities, bloating, gas, malabsorption, nutrient deficiencies, dysbiosis and autoimmune diseases can result.

Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory “off switch” for our immune system, preventing excessive short-term inflammation. Over time, it suppresses our natural killer cells that fight viruses, bacteria and cancer. With severe adrenal fatigue, almost no cortisol is made, so the immune system has no off switch and autoimmune diseases can occur. Cortisol raises blood sugar to fuel muscles. Over time, high blood sugars predispose us for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and fatty liver disease. Any sugar not being used is stored as fat. Cortisol uniquely causes weight gain, specifically in the trunk area. Stressed people often crave sugar because they have adapted to higher sugar levels, but eating sugar stresses the adrenals. After a meal, when our sugar falls, the adrenals need to make more cortisol to raise levels again. It is a vicious cycle.

Meditation can reverse and normalize cortisol levels. It lowers blood pressure, restores normal GI function, relieves muscle tension and insomnia, decreases headaches, frees the mind from self-doubt and chatter, reduces anxiety and depression and generates optimism and motivation. Several breathing techniques and education regarding personal boundaries and self-preservation are also beneficial. Laughter truly is the best medicine.

Natural stress reduction requires a holistic approach to address mental/emotional and physical issues, diet and lifestyle imbalances. Exercise counseling and weight management are essential and detoxification may also be necessary. All naturopathic modalities serve to restore health and preserve vitality.

Ultimately, it’s about what you think, what you eat and how you move. We are stressed when we perceive that we don’t have the personal and social resources to meet the demands placed on us. How we react either degrades or protects our health. Summer fun beckons, and how wonderful it would be to heal through this year’s burdens, lighten our load, improve our health and enjoy it fully.

Michelle Retz is a primary care naturopathic physician who focuses on treating chronic digestive disturbances, anxiety, depression, women’s health issues and endocrine disorders, using homeopathy, acupuncture, botanical medicine and nutritional counseling. For more information, call 602-493-2273 or visit

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