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posted: 2/4/2013 6:00 AM

Why it's so important to reduce your stress level

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Today, we are under more stress than ever. From the time we get up to the time we go to bed, there is little time when we are not under some stress of some nature. Stress is not benign. Chronic stress contributes to all illness. We, as a society, are not good at relieving stress.

If you look up "stress" and "chronic disease" in the medical literature section of the Library of Congress you will find that there are more than 18,000 publications and research articles. It is an important topic. However, if you look up "stress-reduction therapies" there are a little more than 6,000 articles. "Stress-reduction therapies and chronic disease" reveals a paltry 600 publications. It seems that measuring stress is important, but devising ways to reduce it is not a priority.

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Chronic stress is the result of long-term, continuous stress. Long-term stress is quite damaging to the body. No living creature is designed to handle chronic stress without injuring its health. Physical and/or mental stress exacts a heavy toll.

Chronic stress is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, insomnia, bowel issues, stroke, anxiety, depression, lowered immunity and even may increase the risk of certain cancers. Chronic stress hampers mental functioning. People under chronic stress report problems with memory and everyday thinking. Even scores on the ACT are lower in high school students who report chronic stress.

With stress being implicated in 60 percent to 90 percent of all illnesses, the associated medical costs are staggering. Almost half of the working population suffers from stress. In addition, half of all corporate medical costs are the result of stress, averaging more than $7,000 per employee, annually. Studies have shown that reducing stress can save more than 50 percent of these medical expenditures.

Some are better equipped for chronic stress, but no one is immune. Physicians are a prime example. We are stressed in college to get good grades to get into medical school. Medical school, internship, residency, fellowship, long hours, low pay and trying to learn a lifetime of experience in a few years, followed by a lifetime of long hours and the responsibility for the health of others are all very stressful.

After 10 years, most physicians have just as serious medical issues as their patients. Unfortunately, few physicians have a plan for stress reduction for themselves or their patients.

Here are my recommendations:

• Regular, relaxing exercise.

• Take time to eat and enjoy the experience.

• Limit media.

• Regular massages (increases mood-elevating hormones called endorphins).

• Take vitamins and select supplements (stress reduces vitamins levels).

• Have some fun -- really play every day.

• Try something different -- energy healing, like Reiki, is very relaxing.

Regular stress reduction is an absolute necessity and there is no pill or quick cure. It takes daily practice for a lifetime of good health.

Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Health System. His website is www.alt-med.org.

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