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6 Keys to Reduce the Effects of Stress on the Body According to a Bioengineer Turned Acupuncturist

Updated: 6 days ago


Practices for Stress Relief

Chen Xiaowang practicing Zhan Zhuang with his back facing a large, study tree. [1]


Introduction


Whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a high school student, life is full of internal and external stressors. These stressors trigger a stress response that can affect a wide range of systems in the body, including the nervous system, the endocrine system, the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, the digestive system, the musculoskeletal system, the immune system, and the reproductive system.


From a modern medicine perspective, when the stress response is triggered, key areas of the brain, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus, initiate a stress signaling chain throughout the body, causing a variety of symptoms, such as insomnia, high blood pressure, fatigue, indigestion, constipation, loose stools, insomnia, breathlessness, irritability, reduced immune function, fertility problems, and erectile dysfunction.


From a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) perspective, these same symptoms can be understood in the context of the Five Elements and Internal Organ* theories (for more information on these theories, see our article The Five Elements). Stress causes the Liver (Wood) to enter a state of excess, which causes the Heart (Fire) to enter a state of excess, resulting in insomnia and high blood pressure. The Liver overacts on the Spleen (Earth), which causes it to become deficient, resulting in indigestion and fatigue. The Spleen is unable to nourish the Lungs (Metal), so it also becomes deficient, resulting in breathlessness and a compromised immune system. The Heart overacts on and the Liver insults the Lungs, which further compromises the immune system. The Heart insults the Kidneys (Water), affecting water regulation and reproductive systems, as well as accelerating the process of aging. The Kidneys insult the Spleen, inhibiting water absorption. For patients and clients suffering from such a pattern of symptoms, it is crucial to address the root cause, stress, while also tonifying the deficient Organs and reducing the excess Organs. Simply treating the symptoms individually will lead to nowhere as long as the patterns of imbalance remain.


While, ideally, you would consult an Eastern medicine practitioner to treat these patterns of imbalance and eliminate all of the stressors from your life, not everyone has this luxury. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to give you six keys to reduce the effects of stress on the body that you can apply immediately.


* Note that the Internal Organs in TCM differ from the conventional understanding of internal organs; the Internal Organs each represent a complex of functions and physiological processes. For example, the Kidneys in TCM may include the functions of the kidneys, adrenal glands, and other organs, as well as a multitude of physiological processes that are involved in water regulation, genetics, bone health, etc. In this article, I will differentiate the TCM Internal Organs from conventional organs by capitalizing the TCM Internal Organs.



1. Consume a Balanced Diet


Consuming a balanced diet doesn’t just mean fulfilling your daily minimum nutrient requirements. Your diet should be tailored to your lifestyle and your body’s constitution. Foods that are appropriate for one person may not be so for another. For example, a person who is overweight, lives a sedentary lifestyle, always feels hot, and sweats easily may benefit from consuming more raw plant-based foods as well as less processed energy-rich foods (e.g., refined sugars, bread) and hot-natured foods (e.g., lamb, chili peppers); conversely, a person who is underweight, lives an active lifestyle, always feel cold, and has low energy may benefit from consuming more cooked, warm-natured foods (e.g., lean red meat, ginger) and whole energy-rich foods (e.g., dates, avocados) as well as less raw or cold-natured foods (e.g., fish, mint).


Patterns of imbalance should also be considered when selecting foods to consume or avoid. For example, someone with Liver Qi stagnation (commonly caused by stress) should consume more foods that promote circulation (e.g., cooked leafy greens, alliums) and avoid astringing and congesting foods (e.g., fatty red meat, salt).


While your lifestyle and body constitution will determine the foods that you should and should not eat, some general principles apply to everyone. Regardless of your body’s constitution, you should be eating a wide variety of whole foods in moderation instead of eating excess amounts of a small selection of processed foods. This will help you fulfill your nutrient requirements and achieve a state of balance. Whole foods are more nutrient-dense than processed foods and do not cause drastic changes in energy levels throughout the day. Even more importantly, consuming a wide variety of nutrient-rich whole foods is critical in cultivating and maintaining a diverse gut microbiome, a key component of the "second brain" (for more information on the "second brain," see our article "Harnessing the Second Brain – 3 Ways to Nurture the Mind-Gut Connection and Use It to Cultivate Wellness").


While an in-depth discussion of nutrition and dietary therapy is beyond the scope of this article, the key takeaway here is to consume a balanced whole foods diet in accordance with your lifestyle and your body’s constitution. Doing so will fulfill your nutrient requirements, regulate your energy levels, promote gut health, help you achieve a state of balance, and reduce the effects of stress on your body.



2. Breathe


Although breathing is essential to life, it is not something that we think about regularly. Because breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, it does not come to our attention until our attention is directed to it; however, focusing on the breath is a very powerful tool for reducing the effects of stress on health. But first, we must (re)learn how to breathe properly from the diaphragm.


Diaphragmatic breathing promotes full gas exchange in the lungs. Newborn babies naturally breathe diaphragmatically, but as they grow older, their breathing becomes shallower. By the time they reach adulthood, chest-breathing becomes the norm. While adults tend to breathe from the chest when they are awake, most breathe from the diaphragm when they are asleep. As adults, we must relearn diaphragmatic breathing when we are awake. To do this, draw air in through your nose and down into your abdomen. If your abdomen expands and your shoulders are not raised while you inhale, and you are producing the deep-breathing sound of a person who is asleep, then you are engaging in diaphragmatic breathing.


Once you have mastered this, you can begin to practice mindful breathing. Mindful breathing cultivates awareness of the breath as well as transient thoughts and emotions. During mindful breathing, attention is focused on the breath – its natural rhythm and the sensations felt in the body as the breath ebbs and flows with each exhale and inhale. Visualize “sending the breath” to various parts of the body and exhaling “negative energies.” Focusing on the breath in this way strengthens beneficial neural pathways and enhances gas exchange in the lungs, which also improves energy metabolism.


Inevitably, thoughts and emotions come in and out of attention while practicing any meditative exercise. Observe the stream of consciousness from a detached, almost third-person perspective. In the beginning, you may find yourself distracted by these thoughts; however, through consistent practice, you will develop the ability to choose to pay attention to or ignore them. This grounds and centers the mind, making you more focused and less susceptible to stress and emotional fluctuation as well as their accompanying effects on health (for more information on mindful breathing, see our article “The Rise Approach to Health”).



3. Exercise Regularly


It’s well-known that exercise can reduce stress. Physical activity reduces stress hormones and stimulates production of endorphins. If you are currently living a sedentary lifestyle, exercising regularly can greatly increase your ability to manage stress. Any form of cardiovascular and/or resistance exercise will work, including walking, swimming, hiking, lifting weights, playing sports, etc. Just pick one that you enjoy and stick with it. Consistency is key.


However, exercise does not only refer to cardiovascular and resistance exercise; it also refers to meditative exercises, such as yoga and Zhan Zhuang. Even if you are already highly active, you will benefit from adding such exercises to your routine. While yoga is very popular, it is often practiced purely as a physical form of exercise. Adding the meditative aspect of yoga will greatly enhance its stress-reducing effects. This can be as simple as practicing mindful breathing as you move through the various asanas.


Zhan Zhuang literally translates to “standing like a post.” Its most basic form involves simply standing like a post or a tree, reaching upward, yet firmly rooted to the ground. First, assume a proper stance, called Wu Ji (无极) (Figure 1), in which one visualizes being suspended from a point on the top of the head and being rooted into the ground downward from the knees. Then, move into the first practice position (Figures 2 and 3), in which one visualizes resting on a set of imaginary balloons. Mindful breathing is also incorporated into Zhan Zhuang practice.


While this practice of standing still may appear unproductive, it is actually a powerful and strenuous exercise for cultivating both the mind and body. This seemingly simple task places the mind and body in a minor but constant state of stress. Beginners to the practice will fatigue and lose focus within a few minutes; however, through consistent training and proper guidance, they will eventually develop the ability to physically and mentally relax in this position, as if resting on a La-Z-Boy, and ignore their stream of consciousness. Once they have developed this ability, the mind and body are much better able to endure the stresses of daily life.


Figure 1. Wu Ji stance. [2]


Figure 2. First position. [2]


Figure 3. Visualizing resting on imaginary balloons. [2]



4. Sleep Restfully


Everyone knows the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. The difference between waking up after a good night’s sleep and after a poor night’s sleep is dramatic. Everything from our daytime performance to our physical and mental health are improved with a restful night’s sleep. This can be explained by undisturbed sleep’s regenerative effect on neural pathways, blood vessels, and the immune system.


From a TCM perspective, the Gallbladder, Liver, Lungs, and Heart are the Organs most related to sleep. Stress causes the Liver and Gallbladder to enter a state of excess, which also causes the Heart to enter a state of excess and the Lungs to enter a state of deficiency. These patterns of imbalance can cause insomnia, which further exacerbates these imbalances.


Without proper treatment from a competent Eastern medicine practitioner, it can be very difficult to escape this vicious cycle; however, you can stack the odds in your favor by regulating your lifestyle. Adherence to a healthful diet, exercise routine, and sleep schedule are crucial to getting a restful night’s sleep and reducing the effects of stress on the body.


While lifestyle recommendations will vary from person to person, some general rules apply: avoid strenuous exercise as well as consuming heavy meals and foods high in simple carbohydrates late at night; avoid bright lights and screens at least one hour before going to bed; be asleep by 11PM. Strenuous exercise causes the adrenal glands to release epinephrine; an elevated plasma epinephrine concentration late at night can negatively affect your ability to fall asleep. Metabolism slows significantly at night; as a result, consuming large meals and high-energy foods before bed can cause indigestion, which can negatively affect sleep quality, and weight gain. In the evening, the pineal gland, often called “the third eye,” releases melatonin, the hormone that causes us to feel sleepy, in response to low environmental light levels; exposure to bright lights and screens late at night inhibits melatonin release, causing insomnia.


All of these unhealthy lifestyle habits can disrupt your circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm in TCM is represented by the TCM Body Clock (Figure 4). During the 24 hours of the day, Qi is said to circulate through the various Organ systems in 2-hour intervals, as illustrated in the Body Clock diagram. 11PM-1AM pertains to the Gallbladder; 1AM-3AM pertains to the Liver; 3AM-5AM pertains to the Lungs. Undisturbed sleep during this 6-hour block of time, especially between 11PM and 3AM, is crucial to your body’s ability to rest and recover. It is said that getting 4 hours of sleep from 11PM to 3AM is better than getting 10 hours of sleep at any other time. It is also worth noting that 1PM-3PM pertains to the Small Intestine, the Yang Organ that is associated with the Heart; it can be very beneficial to take a short siesta during this time, as is common practice in China and many other countries around the world.


While escaping the vicious cycle of stress-induced insomnia can be extremely difficult, regulating your lifestyle can help you establish a natural circadian rhythm, which will help you relieve insomnia as well as reduce stress and its effects on the body.


Figure 4. TCM Body Clock. [3]



5. Spend Time in Nature


Spending time in nature helps reduce the effects of stress on the body in many ways. Exposure to naturally green spaces and natural environments have been shown to reduce psychological stress [4].


In TCM, this phenomenon can be explained by the Five Elements color associations; in this philosophy, the color green is associated with the Liver. This means that being surrounded by naturally green spaces is beneficial to the Liver, which is often negatively affected by stress. For the same reason, eating green leafy vegetables is also beneficial to the Liver.


Spending time in natural environments also exposes us to fresh air and sunlight. Fresh air is more oxygenated and less polluted than indoor air; therefore, breathing fresh air enhances gas exchange in the lungs. Exposure to sunlight has many health benefits, including improving sleep and reducing stress; it also stimulates the production of vitamin D, which is an important hormone for supporting bone health and enhancing the immune system.


Because spending time in nature exposes you to naturally green environments, fresh air, and sunlight, it can be extremely beneficial to practice Zhan Zhuang and other meditative exercises in nature. Because Zhan Zhuang draws inspiration from the rooted and upward-reaching qualities of a tree, the ideal setting for practicing Zhan Zhuang is with your back facing a tall, sturdy tree. Simultaneous exposure to the stress-reducing and sleep-improving effects of natural environments while engaging in mindful breathing and meditative exercise makes practicing Zhan Zhuang in nature a powerful method to reduce the effects of stress on the body.



6. Cultivate Your Spirit


Spiritual development means something different to everyone. For us, the spirit is the part of human existence that seeks meaning in life and drives our need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. As such, spiritual development includes any activity that gives life meaning and “fills the soul,” such as practicing religion, building meaningful relationships, and serving the community. This can be as simple as spending more time with friends and family or as involved as starting a community service organization.


While Rise is not a religious or spiritual healing center, we believe that by freeing our patients and clients of physical, mental, and emotional imbalances, we allow them to focus on their spiritual development, whatever that means to them. We also engage in our own spiritual development by striving to be a positive force in our community. To this end, we serve our community at large by promoting healthy lifestyle choices among the general public, educating fellow healthcare providers about acupuncture as an alternative to opioid pain medications, and supporting our homeless community, active military, veterans, and first-responders. We regularly host community service events as well as free seminars and workshops on topics ranging from nutrition to therapeutic meditative exercises; we encourage our patients/clients to participate in these events as doing so will benefit their bodies, minds, and spirits. If you are interested in attending these events, subscribe to our mailing list at the bottom of this page and/or follow us on social media.



The Bottom Line


Although stress is an unavoidable part of life, there are many strategies, including consuming a balanced diet, practicing mindful breathing, exercising regularly, establishing a natural circadian rhythm, spending time in nature, and cultivating your spirit, that can help you improve your overall physical and mental health and reduce the effects of stress on the body.


While all of the methods mentioned in this article will help you reduce stress on your own, it’s important to seek help when you need it. At Rise, we are committed to providing our patients and clients with a holistic and effective approach to healing, as well as the knowledge to proactively prevent illness and injury. We work tirelessly to ensure that our patients and clients receive the care, tools, and knowledge to restore balance to their lives. We take pride in going above and beyond for those who choose us as their healthcare and wellness providers. As a result, we are ideally suited to help you identify and correct any stress-induced patterns of imbalance as well as establish and implement the stress-relieving lifestyle recommendations mentioned in this article. Please contact us to request an appointment.



References


[1] Prath, Scott. Comparing Zhan Zhuang (pole standing) and Standing Qi Gong. Tai Chi Basics. https://taichibasics.com/comparing-zhan-zhuang-standing-meditation-and-qi-gong/.


[2] Lam, Kam Chuen. The Way of Energy. Simon and Schuster, 1991. Print. ISBN 0671736450, 9780671736453.


[3] Vermes, Krystle. All About the Chinese Body Clock. Healthline. 17 March 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health/chinese-body-clock.


[4] Ewert A, Chang Y. Levels of Nature and Stress Response. Behav Sci (Basel). 2018;8(5):49. Published 2018 May 17. doi:10.3390/bs8050049

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