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How do stress reducers work?

How do stress reducers work?

If your stress level is high, chances are you have turned to stress reducers like acupuncture, yoga or  massage. What makes these techniques work?

Acupuncture

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"Acupuncture works by accessing the pathways that move energy, or "Qi", through our body," says Hunter Thompson, licensed acupuncturist at Integrative Family Medicine, in Columbia, Maryland.  "When there is illness or stress, energy is not flowing correctly, creating a buildup. Acupuncture can open this blockage, and direct the Qi to flow as it should."

This ancient form of Chinese medicine is performed by stimulating the body at specific points along Qi's pathway, either by applying pressure, or by inserting thin, sterile, metallic needles.

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And, you needn't be worried about needles: It's less painful than getting a shot, Thompson says.

"The needles are solid filiform needles, the width of two human hairs. When patients report they feel something, it's often when the needle makes contact with the Qi, and they're feeling the energy moving."

Clients tell Thompson they feel more relaxed after their session, and better able to handle tension in their day-to-day lives. Most have a series of sessions, to help the body maintain the corrected flow of energy.

Scientific evidence points out physiological changes that support acupuncture as a stress reducer. In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Endocrinology, researchers from Georgetown University conducted a series of tests on rats to study how electronic acupuncture affects levels of proteins and hormones secreted by biologic pathways involved in stress response. They concluded that acupuncture can significantly reduce the stress hormone response. While many studies have documented acupuncture's role in stress relief, this is the first to examine the body's molecular response.

Massage

At Massuage Associates LLC, in Rockville, Maryland, owner Lee Anne Blank treats  clients dealing with a variety of issues, ranging from cancer treatment, to chronic pain, to sports injuries. Yet universal is their applause for the tension-relieving benefits of their massage.

"The feeling of a human touch, such as the long, slow strokes on the back, can bring on relaxation," says Blank. "Stress hormones and cortisol levels are reduced, the blood pressure drops, the heart rate slows."

The rhythmic rubbing and kneading of muscles during a massage may seem like magic, melting your troubles away.  But science has proven that physiological changes are taking place, contributing to an improved emotional state.

In a 2005 study published by the International Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Miami School of Medicine and Duke University Medical School concluded that massage therapy significantly alters the biochemistry of humans, both immediately after a session, and over the course of treatments.

Their findings show that the hormone Cortisol reliably decreases following relaxing therapies, such as massage. Released in response to normal, daily events, Cortisol production increases in times of stress.  Too much, and the body's health and immune functions can react negatively.

The researchers also found that two chemicals associated with feeling good - Serotonin and Dopamine - increased following massage therapy. Serotonin is linked to maintaining mood balance, while Dopamine works with the brain's reward pleasure and reward responses.

Yoga

Yoga is an ancient, Eastern form of healing with roots tracing back 5000 years.  By harnessing the power of both mind and body, Yoga helps participants achieve a state of tranquility.  The physical poses – called Asana - release tension from muscles, while the accompanying deep breathing not only improves blood flow, but invokes the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system responsible for restoring calm in the body.

"Stress manifests itself as tension on the body," says Kim Manfredi, founder of Baltimore's Charm City Yoga. When stress builds, she explains, people tend to hold that tension in different parts of their body: shoulders, hips, back, neck, or other areas.

"As you do the poses associated with yoga, you become aware of an area that's physically manifesting stress, then you can stretch it, and relax the muscles," she says.

But key to lasting success is using this mental awareness in your daily life.

"Outside of class, if you're in a meeting and become stressed, you'll notice the same areas of your body reacting, holding tension, and you can apply calming techniques you've learned," says Manfredi.

Many studies confirm the anxiety-reducing benefits of all forms of yoga.

In a study published by the Medical Science Monitor, the effects of Hatha yoga were measured against perceived stress. A group of self-referred, emotionally distressed female subjects attended two Iyengar Hatha yoga classes per week, for three months. The women's stress levels were assessed at the start and end of the thee month period.  Cortisol levels were measured before and after the yoga class. The study concluded that the yoga participants showed significant improvements in perceived stress.

Recent findings link yoga with increased brain volume. Research released in 2013 by Chantal Villemure and Catherine Bushnell of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, examined the MRIs of regular yoga followers. Results showed more brain cells in certain areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, a region critical to relieving stress.

As science learns more about the workings of the brain and the human body, natural healing methods such as these are gaining popularity.

— By Debbie Swanson, Tribune Brand Publishing

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