Holiday Helpers: Immune Strengtheners and Stress Relievers
By Kristin Henningsen, MS, RYT
Adjunct Professor, Kaplan University School of Health Sciences

Once again, the holidays are quickly approaching; while this can be a time of great cheer, it can also be a time of intense stress. Traveling, lack of exercise and sleep, and overindulging on holiday treats all contribute to an increase of stress on both the body and mind. This stress can translate to a weakened immune system and greater susceptibility to illness. In fact, the National Institute of Health states that chronic stress can increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, depression, and other illnesses.1 Stress can also lead to unhealthy behaviors such as overeating, smoking, or abusing drugs or alcohol.

Luckily, there are some easy strategies to boost the immune system and release holiday stress. Using complementary and alternative medicine can decrease anxiety and lower blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption. Consistently using practices that produce relaxation responses could also help ease insomnia, depression, pain, and other conditions.2

Herbs

Herbs can boost the immune system and assist in relaxation. One popular herb that has become more accepted by practitioners of mainstream medicine is Echinacea. Echinacea has been studied extensively and is traditionally used to prevent colds, flu, or other infections.3  Used internally, this herb primarily acts as an immune stimulant and for immune support.4  Echinacea tea or Echinacea tincture (herbal extract) are often available for purchase at your local grocery or specialty store. Both are easy ways to incorporate this powerful health aid into your holiday routine.

Chamomile is another herb that can help ease stress and promote relaxation this holiday season. Most commonly found as a tea, Chamomile is an internal, anti-inflammatory and used to treat insomnia, anxiety, and spasms.5 A very gentle herb, Chamomile has been used in children and adults for many years to help alleviate a variety of health conditions such as sleeplessness, anxiety, and gastrointestinal conditions such as upset stomach, gas, and diarrhea.6

One more gentle herb that can be used to decrease stress is Lavender. Lavender is used for conditions such as anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, and depression. While drinking Lavender as a tea can be very effective for decreasing stress, another way to incorporate this herb into your holiday routine is by using the essential oil. This may be an especially effective way to utilize this herb, as one study shows that inhaling Lavender affects the olfactory nerve in the brain and produces a sedative effect.7 Drop a few drops of the essential oil in a warm bath, use in massage oils, diffusers, or light Lavender aromatherapy candles to help decrease your stress this holiday season.

 Vitamin C Supplements

Vitamin C is one of the more popular supplements on the market today. Long touted for its ability to boost immune function, vitamin C is also critical for collagen metabolism, nerve transmission, and the absorption of other nutrients.8 More recently, researchers have found that vitamin C can also help reduce the physical and psychological effects of stress. One study found that individuals with high levels of vitamin C did not show the anticipated mental and physical signs of stress when subjected to acute psychological challenges. Furthermore, those individuals recovered from stressful situations faster than those with low levels of vitamin C.9

While vitamin C supplements are readily available, you can also get this powerful nutrient from many different foods. Though we often think of the citrus fruits—such as oranges, lemons, and limes—as sources for vitamin C, green leafy vegetables, red peppers, strawberries, and broccoli are also great sources of this vitamin. The below table from the Office of Dietary Supplements depicts common food sources of vitamin C.10

Food

Milligrams (mg) per serving

Percent (%) DV*

Red pepper, raw, ½ cup

95

158

Orange juice, ¾ cup

93

155

Kiwifruit, 1 medium

71

118

Orange, 1 medium

70

117

Grapefruit juice, ¾ cup

70

117

Green pepper, raw, ½ cup

60

100

Broccoli, cooked, ½ cup

51

85

Strawberries, fresh, ½ cup

49

82

Brussels sprouts, cooked, ½ cup

48

80

Grapefruit, ½ medium

39

65

Broccoli, raw, ½ cup

39

65

Tomato juice, ¾ cup

33

55

Cantaloupe, ½ cup

29

48

Cabbage, cooked, ½ cup

28

47

Cauliflower, raw, ½ cup

23

38

Potato, baked, 1 medium

20

33

Tomato, raw, 1 medium

16

27

Breakfast cereal fortified with 25% of the DV for vitamin C, 1 serving

15

25

Spinach, cooked, ½ cup

9

15

Green peas, cooked, ½ cup

8

13

*DV = Daily Value. DVs were developed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help consumers compare the nutrient contents of products within the context of a total diet. The DV for vitamin C is 60 mg for adults and children aged 4 and older. The FDA requires all food labels to list the percent DV for vitamin C. Foods providing 20% or more of the DV are considered to be high sources of a nutrient.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Database Web site, http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/ [12], lists the nutrient content of many foods and provides a comprehensive list of foods containing vitamin C: http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/Data/SR21/nutrlist/sr21w401.pdf.

Yoga

Often the best way to ease stress is to do less. However, this is easier said than done, especially during the busy holiday season. Restorative yoga postures can help you find ways to deal with the stress, offering a solid technique to slow down and catch your breath. In addition to helping you deal with stress, recent studies have shown that regular yoga practice can help you recover from stress faster.11  Other studies show that yoga appears to improve subjective measures of fatigue, pain, and sleep in both healthy and unhealthy populations.12

Whether you have a consistent practice or are new to the discipline, the following techniques presented by yoga instructor Judith Hanson Lasater can be done to restore and rejuvenate your spirit.13

1. Basic Relaxation Pose

What you need:
A comfortable surface, five folded blankets or two large couch cushions, four small pillows or blankets, an eye bag or face cloth, and a light blanket for warmth.

Setup:
Lie on a yoga mat or carpet. Stack your blankets or couch cushions on the floor, and place your lower legs on them so your shins are roughly parallel to the floor and the backs of your knees are supported. Place a small pillow behind you to support the tops of your shoulders, neck, and head. If you wish, cover your eyes and body.

What to do:
Settle into your props and imagine you are sinking into the floor. Feel the tension in your body begin to release, especially in your lower back. Take 5 to 10 long, slow, conscious breaths and then stop counting and become a silent observer of your breathing. Finally, simply lie there, deeply supported, deeply rested. To come out of this position, bend one knee, roll to your side and slowly sit up, pushing with your arms to help you get up.

2. Deepest Relaxation Pose

What you need:
A soft surface (such as a bed or couch), two small pillows or folded towels, a large pillow or a rolled blanket, an eye bag or face cloth, and a light blanket for warmth.

Setup:
Lie down on your soft surface. Place a small pillow or folded towel under your head so it supports your neck all the way to the tops of your shoulders. Place a larger pillow or a rolled blanket under your knees and a smaller one under your ankles. You may want to cover up with a light blanket. Cover your eyes if you would like as well.

What to do:
Breathe with long, slow inhalations and exhalations for a few minutes, then gradually return to a more natural rhythm. Move your attention to your feet and begin to mentally ascend your body, relaxing bones, muscles, and organs. When you get to your head, pay special attention to your jaw, scalp, and the muscles around your eyes. Cultivate an attitude of gentle detachment from sounds, sensations, and thoughts. To come out of the pose, bend your knees one at a time as you exhale and roll gently to your side. Pause there a minute or so before slowly sitting up using your hands and arms for support. This can be a good pose to do at night.

3. Legs Up the Wall Pose

What you need:
An empty wall, a small pillow or folded towel, and an eye bag or face cloth.

Setup:
Sit on a carpet or mat with your left shoulder toward the wall and your hips positioned 10 to 12 inches away. Roll onto your back as you simultaneously swing your legs up the wall. Keep your legs straight and your hips slightly away from the wall. You can place a small pillow or folded towel under your head. Let your arms relax comfortably at your sides. Cover your eyes if you like.

What to do:
Consciously breathe taking long, slow breaths for one minute or two, then relax control of your breath and allow your own natural rhythm to resume. Draw your attention inward to the sensations of spontaneous breath, the heaviness of your body on the floor, and the support of the wall as you relax completely. Rest here for up to 10 minutes.

When you are ready to come out of the pose, exhale as you bend your knees and roll to one side. Sit up slowly using your arms for support, and wait one minute or so before resuming normal activities.

Contraindications:
Not recommended during menstruation or pregnancy, or if you suffer from a hiatal hernia, elevated pressure in the eyes (glaucoma), or heart problems.

Meditation

Combining the previous yoga postures with meditation techniques is another effective way to reduce stress. In fact, even when used alone, basic meditation is a very simple way to help decrease stress and initiate relaxation. In addition, some studies show that the practice can boost the immune system, improve circulation, lower cholesterol, ease chronic pain, ease insomnia, counter anxiety, relieve gastrointestinal distress, and actually extend your lifespan.14 Start with 1-minute meditations, and then gradually increase meditation time. Or, simply call on the following techniques whenever stress or anxiety arises.

One way to begin is by sitting in a relaxed position and closing your eyes.15 Then, repeat a word or sound as you breathe. It is quite natural for your thoughts to stray; however, simply shift your attention back to the word or sound you are focusing on. Other techniques may include closing your eyes and simply listening to the sounds around you, or repeating a mantra to focus your attention.16 With each method, let your breath guide you. You can utilize these techniques anywhere, anytime. Whether it is sitting in holiday traffic or standing in line at a store, decreasing your stress levels will make the holiday season much more enjoyable.


References

1. National Institutes of Health, www.nih.gov. Accessed December 2010.
2. A. Bowling, “Unconventional Therapies for Stress and Anxiety,” Momentum (19403410) 2, no. 3 (2009): 48-51. Retrieved from Health Source–Consumer Edition database.
3. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, http://nccam.nih.gov. Accessed December 2010.
4. L. Skidmore-Roth, Mosby’s Handbook of Herbs and Natural Supplements (St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier, 2006).
5. Ibid.
6. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
7. G. Buchbauer, et al., “Aromatherapy: Evidence for Sedative Effects of the Essential Oil of Lavender After Inhalation,” Z Naturforsch, 46, no. 11-12 (1991):1067-1072.
8. M. Murray, Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1996).
9. “Vitamin C: Stress Buster,” Psychology Today.com, http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200304/vitamin-c-stress-buster. Accessed December 2010.
10. Vitamin C Fact Sheet, Office of Dietary Supplements, http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets. Accessed December 2010.
11. JK Kiecolt-Glaser et al., “Stress, inflammation, and yoga practice,” Psychosomatic Medicine 72, no. 2 (2010):113–121.
12. A. Ross and S. Thomas, “The Health Benefits of Yoga and Exercise: A Review of Comparison Studies,” Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine 16, no. 1 (2010): 3-12. doi:10.1089/acm.2009.0044.
13. J. Lasater, “Time to Chill,” Natural Health 41, no. 1 (2010): 36-40. Retrieved from Health Source–Consumer Edition database. Used with permission from Judith Hanson Lasater.
14. F. Lefkowitz, “Meditation Made Easy,” Natural Health 40, no. 7 (2010): 68-72. Retrieved from Health Source–Consumer Edition database.
15. A. Bowling, “Unconventional Therapies for Stress and Anxiety,” Momentum (19403410) 2, no. 3 (2009): 48-51. Retrieved from Health Source–Consumer Edition database.
16. F. Lefkowitz.


C:\Documents and Settings\labinder\Local Settings\Temporary Internet Files\Content.Outlook\ZKT84ECI\dyer_prof_2009.jpgKristin Henningsen, MS, RYT

Kristin Henningsen is an adjunct professor with Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences and teaches courses such as Vitamins, Herbs, and Nutritional Supplements and Contemporary Diet and Nutrition.  Ms. Henningsen has deep roots in the fields of ethnobotany and herbal medicine.  After receiving both her Bachelor of Science in Botany and Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Anthropology, Ms. Henningsen went on to complete her Master of Science in Biology at Northern Arizona University where she studied the medicinal plants of the area, focusing on their traditional uses by the 13 Native American tribes in the region.  She has also worked as a research assistant with the nonprofit organization the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association, completing a field guide to the native plants of Arizona amongst other projects.

Ms. Henningsen has extended this work into the field of complementary and alternative medicine.  She is a certified and practicing consulting herbalist, and is the proprietor of an herbal health and healing company. She has been researching, using, and teaching about medicinal plants for more than 10 years.  Ms. Henningsen is also a certified yoga instructor and utilizes yoga therapy as an alternative healing technique.

Kaplan Higher Education Corporation is a division of Kaplan, Inc., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company.

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