The Healthy Side of Stress

January 16, 2014    BY Sandra Anderson

In a recent study comparing organic versus non-organic produce, organic veggies outperformed their conventionally grown peers when it came to vitamins and beneficial micronutrients like antioxidant flavonoids. Why? Apparently stress, like fending off bugs or surviving a dry spell, triggers plants to generate defensive compounds which enrich their nutritional value. Crops grown with fertilizer and pesticides have a cushy life and don’t produce as many of the stress-induced micronutrients. Interestingly, some of these defensive compounds add flavor, so that blemished peach is not only healthier for you, but it may taste better, too.

While chronic stress can damage internal organs and lead to a host of health problems, short bursts of stimulation help the body and brain develop and maintain healthy function.

Scientists have also been exploring the positive side of stress in human health. Research shows that mild stress stimulates cells to repair damaged proteins, fortifies the immune system, keeps bones strong, and may improve memory. While chronic stress can damage internal organs and lead to a host of health problems, short bursts of stimulation help the body and brain develop and maintain healthy function.

Yoga is much touted for its role in restoring balance to the overactive sympathetic nervous system responsible for the stress response. But yoga also stimulates and stresses the body, nervous system, and mind in ways that build strength and fortitude. Asana challenges weak muscles and structural irregularities, gradually increasing resting muscle tone and improving energy. Pranayama and breath training challenge habitual states of being, building inner resiliency and gradually allowing us to tolerate higher states of energy without anxiety, anger, or aggression. Meditation and related self-reflection practices can bring up painful emotions or memories, providing us with an opportunity to master our reactions and, with regular practice, free ourselves from depleting cycles of chronic negativity.

Crops encounter stressors like the potato beetle, fungus, weeds, and the vicissitudes of weather. But for modern humans, stress usually has less to do with our physical circumstances and more to do with how we interpret it. Memory, association, expectation, emotions, and intellectual analysis all contribute to the perception and assessment of stress and danger. When we feel threatened, we respond with the instinctive reflex of the limbic brain—the classic stress response. But, if we interpret the stressor as a challenge instead of a threat, different physiological reactions take place: we experience stimulation without the negative hormonal effects of a full-blown stress response, such as fear and elevated blood pressure. The rational, thoughtful skills of the prefrontal cortex—our unique human brain—allow us to respond creatively rather than reflexively, so emotionally challenging situations don’t derail us.

Yoga practice teaches us to catch ingrained reactions that may no longer be appropriate, and to respond instead in fresh, new ways that free us from dysfunctional patterns and destructive emotions.

Yoga practice teaches us to catch ingrained reactions that may no longer be appropriate, and to respond instead in fresh, new ways that free us from dysfunctional patterns and destructive emotions. Like the organic peach, we marshal our full potentials to create richer, juicier lives for ourselves. Robust, resilient, and brimming with energy, we use the opportunities life brings us to go on healing the past and to grow into the divine radiant beings we wish to be.

Yoga Findings

Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine recently found that subjects who practiced yoga for one hour, three times a week, over a 12-week period, exhibited increased levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid)—our nervous system’s primary inhibitory transmitter. (Low GABA levels have been linked to anxiety and mood disorders.)

A separate study published in the January 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found that participants in an eight-week meditation program showed marked changes in gray matter concentration in areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, self-perception, and emotional regulation.

Sandra Anderson
For over 20 years Sandra Anderson has shared her extensive experience in yoga theory and practice with students from all over the world. A senior faculty member and resident at the Himalayan Institute, her teaching reflects access to the living oral tradition, and the embodied experience of 30 years of dedicated practice. With a background in the natural sciences and interest in classical Sanskrit, along with frequent pilgrimages to India, Sandy has a rare capacity to eloquently convey the... Read more>>