Everyone at some point experiences stress. It’s a normal part of life. What many don’t realize is the profound effect it can have on their health, especially when stress becomes excessive and overwhelming.
For those who find their stress levels to be unmanageable, seeing a naturopathic doctor (ND) can be a great way to get a better handle on stress and support the body. Using the therapeutic Order, a main tenet within naturopathic philosophy, here are some of the ways NDs diagnose and treat stress.
What does stress do to us?
Long-term stress can shrink the brain and weaken the blood brain barrier. This protective barrier is meant to keep the toxic, inflammatory chemicals out and all the good nutrients in. This is why people often experience stress alongside other mental health issues like anxiety, brain fog, and depression.
Stress also increases the release of hormones and chemicals that the body produces such as cortisol and interleukin 6, which can lead to long-term sleep issues and inflammation. Over time, stress can weaken different organ systems too, including the immune system, nervous system, cardiovascular system and endocrine system, which help us to manage stress.
Since there are many ways stress can impact the body, a naturopathic physician will take an individualized approach and figure out how a patient is being uniquely affected by stress. During visits, NDs will start by getting to know the patient on an in-depth level. They’ll ask questions about diet and lifestyle, along with a variety of things associated with various organ systems.
These questions might not always seem related to your condition, but they can actually be important to the case and your health as a whole. For example, when screening for cardiovascular health, NDs might ask: Do you have heart palpitations? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you have headaches? NDs put all of these things together to see how stress is affecting you and how they can best combat it.
Following the Therapeutic Order
For stress and any other health issues, naturopathic physicians will follow the Therapeutic Order, a series of steps that help support the overall health of patients.
Step 1: Reestablish the basis of health
The first step is removing obstacles to the cure. NDs try to get to the root cause of the stress and work on how to decrease stressors.
If some stressors cannot be helped, NDs will help find coping strategies. They will coach patients through meditation, deep breathing exercises and look for ways to increase “blissors” or things that bring patients joy.
NDs may also help improve their patient’s diet by recommending foods that are uniquely beneficial to them. This can be non-inflammatory foods, a low FODMAP diet, a low histamine diet, etc. It’s important to note that NDs don’t prescribe the same diet for everybody. It's based on each patient and what they’re experiencing.
Other ways NDs will try to establish the basis of health is by improving sleep hygiene and reducing toxic exposures.
Step 2: Stimulate the Vis (the healing power of nature)
In this step, NDs will work on stimulating the body’s natural ability to heal itself. For example, if you get a little paper cut on your finger, it mends without you having to think about it. NDs try to support that with treatments like homeopathy and hydrotherapy.
Homeopathy is an ultra-diluted medication that helps with mental, emotional and physical ailments. For each patient, a naturopathic doctor will find an individual remedy and then come up with a good dosage. Other methods to stimulate the Vis include various types of hydrotherapy whether it’s peat baths, steam baths or constitutional treatments, which involve alternating applications of hot and cold.
Step 3: Tonify weakened systems
When combatting stress, NDs will perform lab testing to better understand what’s happening in a patient’s body.
Unlike conventional doctors, naturopathic physicians don’t just look at reference ranges, they also look at optimal ranges, which are a smaller subset of values. To treat stress, NDs may look at cortisol levels, thyroid hormone levels, sex hormone levels and other things like cholesterol and heart health. Putting all of this together, they will decide where the damage is being done from stress and what treatments will best support the patient. In most cases, ND will work on supporting the immune system, cardiovascular system, nervous system or endocrine system.
Step 4: Support structural integrity
As part of a patient’s care plan, they may be treated with physical medicine. Adjustments, in particular, work with the nervous system to improve the parasympathetic response, which helps calm the body and fight stress. NDs may also recommend therapeutic exercises, massage, stretching and yoga. At NUHS, naturopathic medicine students are trained to provide this kind of care and refer patients to other practitioners when needed.
Step 5: Prescribe natural therapies
To manage acute symptoms, NDs turn to natural therapies like herbs or high dose vitamins and minerals. Herbs will often come in the form of teas or tinctures, powders, pills, and/or extracts.
Some herbs that are used to manage stress include:
- Licorice—to help regulate cortisol.
- Panax ginseng—to improve mood, mental function and boost immunity
- Vitex Agnus Castus or chaste tree berry—to protect the brain from chronic stress, calm the nervous system and raise the hormone progesterone
- Echinacea—to reduce anxiety, support the immune system that could be depleted from stress
Steps 6 & 7: Use pharmacologic substances/high force, invasive therapies to suppress pathology
These steps involve last resort measures like pharmaceuticals and life-saving surgeries. They’re used when NDs need to suppress symptoms, slow things down, manage end-stage disease or it could be related to palliative care.
Based on these seven steps, NDs will decide where to jump in and the type of treatment to provide. If a patient just started experiencing stress, sometimes NDs only need to go to Step 1 or maybe it's been going on for a while and they may need to work on a number of these steps.
Despite all of the anti-stress advice that is online, it's written to the masses. Naturopathic medicine, on the other hand, is meant to treat each patient individually. This is because everyone perceives and experiences stress differently. You may have a friend who’s stressed or a family member that’s going through the same thing, but they’re all going to be on a completely different treatment plan.
Naturopathic physicians are specifically trained for this kind of individualized care. To learn more about how naturopathic physicians are trained, read our blog about the importance of getting a hands-on naturopathic medicine education.
About the Author
Dr. Melissa Dybala