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April is National Stress Awareness Month

I am sure that everyone reading this blog has had issues with stress and anxiety at one time or another. Chronic stress can affect longevity through its effects on the body’s systems however there are techniques and supplements that can help . 

Our Stress Response

One the most intricate and important system your body relies upon to deal with stress is the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is the connection between your brain – where the hypothalamus and pituitary gland are found – and adrenal glands.The hypothalamus acts like a command center. It communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system coordinating the stress response. Upon receiving a stress signal, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) which signals the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, a key stress hormone that helps mobilize energy and modulate the stress response. 

Acute vs. Chronic Stress

In short term (acute) settings such as a cold or even running late to work,  stress on our bodies is beneficial because it enacts multiple systems to respond. On a physiologic level, we heighten our focus, drive, and even tap into glucose stores for extra energy. However, if this system is constantly working, we can see negative downstream effects of stress on our bodies including inflammation, lowered immune system, decreased fight or flight response, weight loss or weight gain, heart disease, lowered libido, digestive problems, and even issues with blood sugar regulation. Chronic stress directly impacts longevity.

Let’s take a look at some tips and techniques to lower stress levels.


There are many techniques you can use to optimize your HPA axis and one of the easiest and most effective is breath work.  Breath work involves controlling one’s breath to influence mental, emotional, and physical states. Slow, deep breathing techniques are known to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system leading to a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure, and promoting relaxation. Dr. Andrew Weil taught me 4,7,8 breathing during my Integrative Medicine Fellowship and I think it is one of the most effective techniques. The premise is simple – you breathe in for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds and exhale for 8 total seconds. However, when your HPA axis is in overdrive it is very hard to hold your breath for 7 seconds and even harder to exhale for 8 continuous seconds. Give it a try!

Breath work can be used any time during the day – when you are stuck in rush hour, having a stressful day at work or home, or even getting ready for bedtime.


Adaptogens are natural substances that help the body adapt to stress and to exert a normalizing effect upon bodily processes. Adaptogens are known for their ability to decrease sensitivity to stressors, and thus offer protection against stress. They enhance the body’s resilience to stress, improve the body’s defense against disease by improving cell-mediated immunity, and have a balancing effect on the immune system, the endocrine system, and the neuroendocrine system.

Adaptogens are found in a variety of plants such as Ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea, and Panax ginseng. My favorite adaptogen is Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) which has been used in Ayurvedic medicine since ancient times, with its use traceable back to around 6000 BC. Ashwagandha helps modulates the HPA axis and is beneficial in both acute and chronic stress situations. It is readily available at your local health food store or on line and the typical dose is 500 mg a day. Another similar adaptogenic herb is Rhodiola. Rhodiola, scientifically known as Rhodiola rosea, is a herb that has been traditionally used in various parts of the world, including Russia, Scandinavia, and other European regions, for its medicinal properties. It is often referred to as “golden root” or “arctic root.” The primary benefits and uses of Rhodiola is that it helps the body adapt to and resist physical, chemical, and environmental stress.

Keep an eye out for next week’s blog which will highlight additional herbal approaches for stress and anxiety.

Interested in checking your stress hormone levels? Contact us here.

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