Relieving Stress with Alternative Therapies

By Craig Amrine

woman rubbing temples with headache, stressed acupunctureStress shouldnʼt be feared.  The stress-response is a natural process that the body undergoes to help it cope with change.  When we encounter an immediate threat, a series of chemical reactions are triggered by the autonomic nervous system  (ANS) commonly known as the “flight-or-flight” response.

These reactions are designed to be a self-limiting process  involving the hypothalmus, pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.  Grouped together, this system is called the HPA-axis.  The ultimate result is the release of excess amounts of two hormones: Epinephrine (Adrenaline), and glucocorticoids (Cortisol).

Adrenaline is a fast-acting hormone that:

  • increases heart rate
  • dilates the pupils
  • increases breathing volume
  • raises our alertness and clarity of thinking
  • reduces blood to our skin and digestive system
  • increases blood to our skeletal muscles
  • makes us less sensitive to pain

All of these reactions were designed to enable us to fight harder or run faster…thus increasing our chance for survival.


Cortisol acts a bit different.   Cortisol stimulates an increase of glucose (sugar) in the blood to provide a source of extra energy.  Glucose is the main source of energy used by both the brain and muscles.  Instead of getting this sugar from carbohydrates (food), cortisol triggers a breakdown of muscle and fat.  Cortisol also temporarily redirects certain immune cells and processes from the blood out into the surface tissue where they are needed in anticipation of an immediate attack or threat.  This results in lower immune and inflammation functions in the blood and joints. Like adrenaline, these are all designed to increase our chance of survival during an immediate threat.

Our Response to Chronic Stress

Normally, when the threat is removed, our bodies can revert back to their normal and “unstressed” state.  Our adrenaline and cortisol levels lower back to their normal levels.

Our blood pressure lowers, we get hungry again, our immune and inflammation responses come back to normal, and the hyper-alertness will fade and let us sleep easily.

Unfortunately, many of us have jobs or lifestyles that expose us to high-levels of stress on a daily basis and are unable or unwilling to find ways to relieve this stress.  How do our bodies deal with this chronic state?  While excess levels of adrenaline and cortisol are wonderful for coping with an immediate attack, they can cause some serious health problems if left unchecked.

Prolonged release of adrenaline, for example, can lead to:

  • tremors
  • insomnia
  • digestive disorders
  • excess sweating leading to dehydration and neuroendocrine disorders
  • heart palpitations
  • high blood pressure

Since adrenaline breaks down very quickly (half-life @ 2 minutes) however, these health risks are not usually a long-term problem.

Chronic stress is much more likely to lead to prolonged release of high-levels of cortisol. High cortisol levels are now being shown to cause a large number of health problems and has been shown to:

  • depress cartilage and bone formation
  • inhibit inflammation, prevent vasodilation
  • alter digestive function

It is also linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, weight gain, damage to the hippocampus (part of the brain responsible for short-term memory), secondary infections resulting from a suppressed immune system, and an increased rate of miscarriage.

In time, of course, the body can become insensitive to these elevated levels or even reach a state where it exhausts itʼs supply of stress hormones. By this time, the stress response is now completely unregulated and confused.  It is suspected that this condition plays a large part in modern auto-immune diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

How We Lower Stress

Canʼt we simply “think” these treats away? If it were only that simple!  In an ideal world where we have all mastered transcendental meditation, I would suppose that chanting this mantra is all we would need.  Unfortunately, few of us are so skilled.  As a result, many turn to drugs, both recreational drugs and prescription anti-depressants and anti- anxiety medication.   The dangerous side-effects and high-cost are leading many to look elsewhere, however.