Friday, December 16, 2016

A Shot of Calm...Ashwa-what?!

**First, I have to say I am not a doctor, nor am I giving medical advice.  Always consult with your healthcare providers as necessary.** with that out of the way I can share a favorite little secret of mine with you.  I hope none of you are feeling too stressed out by the pressure of the holiday season as you read this, but the reality is that many unfortunately are.  I want to offer a reminder that the decorating, presents, and baking aren't what it's all about.  We all get caught up in it, but it is time to cut ourselves some slack.  I would encourage you to take a step back and really reflect on why you do all those things and how the holiday can look and feel differently than the ideal you hold yourself to and still be extremely special and meaningful...and probably even more so!

I write this post as a lifelong anxiety-surfer.  There are many other categories that can encompass...fear, worry, nervousness, etc.  Anxiety wears many hats, and it can ebb and flow.  Once I became flattened with a chronic illness anxiety became a constant and giant companion.  It is such a chicken and egg thing.  I remember the anxiety roaring its head soon before I became bedridden, almost as a warning flare that something big was about to hit.  It is pretty well known that bacterial imbalances/infections like Lyme can cause anxiety...and of course anxiety can worsen any symptom, so the goal is always to try to stop the cycle and jump off the hamster wheel.

My intuition always told me that the mind and body are connected in very meaningful and inseparable ways, and now thankfully we have scientific proof to back it up.  So, when I became debilitated by a chronic illness six years ago I took the opportunity to do anything and everything to get better, and that included therapy and other mind-body practices.  I basically decided to become a guinea pig, my own science experiment.  I threw myself into meditation, guided imagery, hypnosis, brain retraining (DNRS, EFT, EMDR), yoga...really you name it.  I became a wellness warrior!  I was all-in!

What I noticed after years of doing these things is that they DO work!  Score!  However, no matter how "good" I was at them there were still times when anxiety and fear would hit me like a ton of bricks, and I couldn't always tie it to some specific mental or emotional stress in my life.  What I realized is that through the millions of things going on in the environment around us (seasonal allergies, the food we eat, etc.) chemistry changes - some people even note they never had anxiety until after a stomach bug, a virus, or food poisoning.  Our guts are our second brains!  If something gets thrown off, so do our neurotransmitters...which impact mood, sleep, hormones, and emotions.  Most of the time we have no idea what is causing it, and we can drive ourselves crazy trying to figure it out, but many times we won't.  So then what?  What do we do with this overwhelming, "out of nowhere" anxiety?

After years of being in a dance with anxiety, and then living with the constant fear of actually becoming handicapped or losing my life from my illness, I wore my worry out.  I now realize that I was full-throttle all the time from the stress/burden the actual infection was placing on my body (and the sensitivities/reactions it caused to so many things), as well as the swirling thoughts about my symptoms and worry that I might never get better...or even get worse.  I did my best to just muscle or white-knuckle my way through stress and anxiety for so long.  A few loved ones kept insisting I try anxiety medication to give myself a break, and in the very beginning I did, but it ended up not working for me and creating undesirable side-effects as drugs commonly do.  Deep inside I knew there was a better way, but I have to admit that I toughed it out for too long.  Why is it so important to get a handle on stress and anxiety?  Because its impact on the body and mind are very real.  Being in fight-or-flight shuts down the body's ability to heal (or parasympathetic/"rest and digest mode"- which is crucial for immune function and healing from chronic illness...or even a common cold), and it speeds up breakdown of the body and the aging process...all you have to do is look at "before" and "after" pictures of past presidents to see proof of that!

I had spent my entire life as a pretty thin person, probably mostly due to genetics and digestive issues (I actually couldn't stop losing weight at my sickest point, which was terrifying), but about a year-and-a-half ago I started to gain weight, and it was very strange...almost overnight I became a pear-shape...and it didn't just look like plain old weight was gushy, like bumpy fluid.  I was baffled.  I was still eating my stellar healthy diet (without exception), and I was doing gentle exercise that I could tolerate, like dance and yoga.  Then I noticed if I exercised more it got worse.  Huh?  This was all new to me and drove me absolutely crazy as I had to buy bigger clothes or live in yoga pants.  I couldn't figure out what was happening.

Then I decided to experiment with "Ashwagandha."  When I was actively treating my Lyme with an herbalist Ashwagandha was part of my adrenal tincture, and more recently my functional medicine doctor mentioned it.  It is an adaptogen, so it will bring you up if you are down and calm you if you are elevated in some way...balance, that's what I instinctively knew I needed.  First I started with 1/8 of a teaspoon (powder) in my morning tea, and then gradually worked my way up to 1/4 tsp. (I respond well to very small doses of everything...a dab will do me - and many things don't agree with me at all, so I am very careful.)

My two trusty sources of Ashwagandha powder - Mountain Rose Herbs & Banyan Botanicals
The first thing I noticed is that I didn't get stressed out about things I would normally get freaked out by.  There was more of a "can handle" feeling.  As time passed I realized that nagging anxiety wasn't there, replaced by a sense of calm.  After a few weeks (3-4) I noticed drainage of that weight.  It isn't a fast thing, but slowly it is leaving without changing anything else about my life or habits.  Ashwagandha is known for supporting the adrenals/kidneys which have a major influence on fluid balance in the body, and adrenal function is tied to cortisol - the stress hormone!  When you have unrelenting stress in your life (the kind a chronic illness, divorce, intense job, loss of a loved one, a sick or special needs child, etc...even just sleep depravation/insomnia cause), then your adrenals take a major hit.

Rather than me getting into all of the science behind it, I will point you to others who I rely on and trust...and who can explain it much better than I can:
- Dr. Josh Axe: "Get Your Cortisol Levels Under Control & Turn Down the Stress"
- Dr. Sara Gottfried: "7 Ways to Rock Cortisol (& Manage Your Stress)"
- Dr. Aviva Romm: "Adaptogens: Herbs for Beating Stress, Fighting Fatigue & Banishing Cravings"
- Banyan Botanicals: "Ashwagandha: Five Awesome Studies You Should Know About"

I am just bringing you the information, so then you can decide what to do with it.  I am not saying you should take any of these things.  I can't speak to the science behind it, the safety, how it will work for you...I am just sharing my story and how it helped me.  That's all I can do.  We are all person's cure can be another person's poison.  However, I would argue that trying this route is much safer than taking a pharmaceutical anti-anxiety medication with its long ingredient list.  Investigate, explore, research, and try things out for a slow and metered manner, and with medical/experienced practitioner supervision as you need to.  And ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS make sure you are using products of the highest quality.  For Ashwagandha I only use Banyan Botanicals and Mountain Rose Herbs (both are organic).  Again, I use the powder form, because it only has one ingredient and it is easy to start with literally a pinch if you want, but you can find liquid tinctures as well.

Anxiety and depression have reached epidemic proportions...especially here in the United States.  The reason why is multifactorial.  Just know that you are not alone, it is nothing to be ashamed of, and there is no reason to just struggle thought life with it in the driver's seat.  The holidays can be a particularly stressful time, but if you find yourself regularly under the constant weight of stress, or with anxiety that hits you and you can't seem to budge it, an adaptogen may give you the relief you need and deserve to settle and refocus.  It can give you the breathing-space to proceed with taking steps that improve your overall mental/emotional health and overall wellbeing, like healing your digestion (a major source of depression & anxiety is a "busted gut")...or it can take the edge off enough so you can really get in there and meditate more deeply and regularly without the constant "mind gremlins" chasing after you.  We all deserve to feel our absolute best, and mainstream medicine isn't always the most helpful in working with us to get there.  That's why it is important for us to be lifelong learners and problem-solvers for ourselves, all while getting proper advice and guidance along the way from practitioners who think holistically.  I hope this post will point you in a direction that will help you improve the quality of your life so you can be fully present for the holidays and make every day one you can enjoy and celebrate!

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