How to Destress During Stressful Times

As a first time author who has worked for a year and a half to get my book published, I feel a combination of  excitement and pure terror now that the book is out and available to the public. On the one hand, I’m excited to be able to share my revelations about health and wellness to as many people on this planet as possible. But at the same  time, I’m scared to death that the book will flop and that  no one would have been helped by my message.    

Still, I’m sure that my stress is nothing compared to the  stress that many of you probably feel when you come see me.  I see many patients coming in these days thinking the  worst case scenario—thinking that their chronic throat pain is a sign of throat cancer, or that their ear pain is the  beginnings of a brain tumor. It’s not surprising during  hard economic times, that the stress and uncertainty about our financial future manifests physically as one type of illness or another. However, there is one intrinsic stressor that I see all the time that many people overlook. And without addressing this one problem first, it’s virtually impossible to eliminate all the other stress in our lives no matter what the circumstance.      

Why Stress?   

As I state in my book, Sleep, Interrupted, all modern  humans are susceptible to various degrees to breathing  stoppages due to our tongues falling back and occluding our  upper airways. This problem is thought to be due to our  unique ability to talk. In humans, the voice box sits below  the tongue, whereas in human infants and other animals, the  voice box sits behind the tongue. You could even say that  the overdevelopment of complex speech and language may be  detrimental to breathing and swallowing. This is evidenced  by the fact that only humans regularly choke on food and  die.   

Up until recently, this airway "problem" was not really a  problem for those who were relatively young and healthy.  Unless you were an obese, middle aged male who snored like  a freight train, sleep breathing problems like obstructive  sleep apnea or OSA, would not have been an issue.   

However, in the last 10 to 20 years a lot has changed. Not  only are we living longer, thanks to advancements in  science, but we’re also getting heavier, less active and  working longer hours thanks to technological innovations  like the internet and the mobile phone. Add to that, our  poor diets and frenetic lifestyles, and what we have is a serious problem for anyone who needs to sleep and breathe. Ironically, during this last century we seemed to have devolved in an effort to evolve.     

That Was Then, This Is Now   

In my book, Sleep Interrupted, I reference a dentist named Weston Price who traveled the world in the first half of  the 1900s and discovered that indigenous, isolated cultures that ate completely off the land (or mountains or the oceans) had wide jaws and perfectly aligned teeth. But once  their children began to eat Western diets,namely more  processed foods with highly refined sugars, their jaws became more narrow and dental crowding became rampant.    

Similarly, another dentist, Dr. Brian Palmer, noticed that  there has been an exponential increase of malocclussions,  or dental crowding and jaw malformation in children over  the last 10-20 years. He proposes that bottle-feeding may  have attributed to this process and that we’re seeing more  and more sleep breathing problems like obstructive sleep  apnea as a result. Dr. David Page, another dentist who specializes in  Functional Jaw Orthopedics, suggests in his book, Your  Jaws, Your Life, that this type of jaw degeneration can have detrimental consequences to our health and longevity. He states that due to our:    "Diet, infant feeding practices…most people today have jaws about 1/4 inch too small to fit all the wisdom teeth into place. Sadly, small jaws and airways can bring about premature death."   

All of these findings support what I continue to see in my  medical practice as well—especially in those patients suffering from chronic ear, nose and throat problems along with unexplained fatigue, anxiety and an assortment of  digestive problems. What I see is a preponderance of jaw narrowing along with airway narrowing. It appears that both of these traits go hand in hand.    

What’s more significant however, is that I’m seeing this in  patients who are young, thin, and relatively healthy—three  physical characteristics that would have precluded them in earlier generations from being diagnosed with a sleep  breathing problem, like OSA. Yet now there seems to be a preponderance of this airway narrowing across all ages and  genders and along with it a host of sleep breathing problems. Many of them profess to feeling sick and tired  all the time no matter how long they sleep. Consequently, they’re more stressed than ever before.     

More Reasons to Stress    When you have any type of airway narrowing you’re bound to  have some major physiological stressors compounding your  health problems.   

Because of your smaller jaw size, airway narrowing is a  given and this means a higher likelihood of airway  obstruction especially as you lay back and go to sleep (and  your muscles become completely relaxed). This means that  you’ll also wake up multiple times during the night as you  cycle from deep sleep to light sleep since your narrow  airways tend to close off or obstruct completely as you  drift off to sleep.    

In OSA patients, these airway obstructions are called  "apneas" or loss of breath and this can happen 35 to a 100  times a night in some extreme cases, and these obstructions  oftentimes last as long as 10 seconds at a time. You can  imagine what kind of toll this would have on your body over  many years. It’s not surprising that a majority of OSA  patients also suffer from diabetes, heart disease, clinical  depression, anxiety, and obesity, not to mention that  they’re at higher risk for strokes and even Alzheimer’s.   

But there are many more patients who are not diagnosed with  OSA that still suffer from these similar effects. These are  the patients I most often see in my practice suffering from  a milder form of OSA called Upper Airway Resistance  Syndrome or UARS.   

Similar to OSA patients, UARS patients also wake up  multiple times while sleeping because they stop breathing.  Although these episodes are brief and not really noticed by  these patients, these breathing cessations can still be  significant happening 5 to 25 times an hour and lasting  anywhere from 1 to 9 seconds each time they stop breathing.   

It’s true that every once in a while, patients suffering  from UARS will obstruct completely and wake up gasping for  air, with their heart beating and in a cold sweat. Yet,  these episodes are dismissed as "panic attacks" and not  really explored for symptoms of a sleep breathing problem.   

Instead, multiple arousals like this eventually leads to a  chronic state of stress and sympathetic nervous system  overactivity (fight or flight response). This is a  physiologic form of stress. Various neurologic, hormonal  and biochemical changes cam occur, leading to certain  predictable events like: high blood pressure, cold hands  and feet, chronic nasal congestion or a runny nose, chronic  gastrointestinal problems, bladder problems, weight gain,  and many others. Typically these patients also exhibit many  of the symptoms and signs of a "routine" ear, nose and  throat problem, like chronic sinusitis, frequent ear  infections, and even nasal allergies.   

In this situation, any kind of external stress, whether  emotional, physical, or psychological can aggravate the  internal vicious cycle. Your entire nervous system is en  garde all the time, with your nervous system becoming  hypersensitive due to all the arousals and poor sleep  quality. Your emotions and all your senses are heightened.  Now place yourself in a stressful environment and you can  just imagine what will happen next.   

Add to this all the constant stimulation and information  overload that only adds to this perceived stress. If you  take it as a fact that we can’t sleep as efficiently as we  used to, then no wonder why so many of us are so on edge  these days. It doesn’t take much insight to figure out that  we need to first address these internal stressors before we  can effectively address the daily stress in our lives.     

Reassess Your Stress Level   

Timothy Ferris, in his New York Times best-seller, The 4  Hour Work-Week, tells this great story (loosely  paraphrased): An extremely successful but stressed-out  American CEO travels on vacation to a remote port village  in Mexico. While walking by the town docks, he notices a  local fisherman who brings in a boatload of fish, almost to  the point of capsizing. He notices that he catches the same  enormous amount of fish day after day. He approaches the  fisherman and offers to systematize the fisherman’s unique  techniques so that he can make multiple times the money in  profits. The fisherman asks what he can do with all the  money. “You and your family can eat anything you want, as  much as you want,” said the CEO. “But I have more than I  need to eat. I give the remaining fish to my neighbors,”  replied the fisherman. The CEO then responded, “then you  can build a larger house.” “Then what?” asked the  fisherman. “Then you can move to America and open up a fish  processing center with 200 employees and make a fortune!”  said the CEO. “Then what?” replied the fisherman. “After  you make all that money you can have the luxury of taking  time off any time you want and have your own private house  on the beach in a remote town and spend as much time as you  want with your family.” said the CEO. With a big smile, the  fisherman said, “But Señor, I’m doing that already.”   

Sometimes, especially during our most stressful moments, we  need to reassess what we’ve lost to gain better perspective  on what we have already. By becoming more aware and taking  action to regain control of our health you’ll gain momentum  to tackle any stress that comes your way. 

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If you suspect that you may have a sleep breathing problem  like OSA or UARS, take the following quiz on line here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “How to Destress During Stressful Times

  1. I would like to know if there are any medical articles available that definitely link sleep apnea to stressful working environments

  2. Stress doesn’t cause sleep apnea, but it can definitely make you feel worse if you have sleep apnea. This condition, by definition, causes a an internal physiologic stress state. Your cortisol levels go up and blood pressure goes up as well. When you add any sort of external stress (psychological, emotional, physical), the internal stress levels go up as well.