HEALTHCARE PRACTITIONERS’ ROLE IN KEEPING STRESS AT BAY

Kent L Bradley, Chief Health and Nutrition Officer, Herbalife Nutrition

The article focuses on stress-related illness, nutrition to combat stress and more importantly recommendations for healthcare practitioners to provide a more holistic service for their patients to deal with stress.

With the ongoing pandemic, it is increasing common for people to experience heightened stress-related ailments because of various economic and social disruptions. The Asia Pacific population faces similar challenges like the rest of the world. Workplace stress is on the rise. A survey with more than 2,700 business leaders across APAC revealed that most respondents agreed their mental health, or that of their colleagues, had been negatively impacted. Fortunately there are more studies now available to better understand the mental health challenges and gaps in the support system of the respective countries.

Multiple behavioral studies have demonstrated that stressful events and depression can trigger inflammation. Stress-related ailments and issues include headaches, heart problems, high blood pressure, skin conditions, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, anxiety, and depression.

In certain instances, the signs of stress may not be too visible or recognisable. These less obvious stress symptoms can range from excessive hair loss, memory loss, facial twitch, weakened immune system, chronic pain, and gastro issues. Ignoring high levels of anxiety can lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack or even stroke. So, the consequences of stress are complex and impact our overall health.

In parallel, the pandemic has also spotlighted healthcare practitioners (HCPs) as one of the most credible sources of health and wellness information and advice.

HCPs can play a key role when it comes to stress-related illness and prevention by showing empathy to their situation, taking the time to understand their patients’ needs, and educating them on ways to manage their stress level by emphasizing overall good health through balanced nutrition, regular exercise, sleep, and connection with others.

Staying connected

One of the insights that 2020 taught us was how much we crave connection as social beings. The isolation from the pandemic has led to higher rates of depression. Studies have shown that social connection ‘can lower anxiety and depression, help us regulate our emotions, lead to higher self-esteem and empathy, and improve our immune systems’. As a health professional, I have found that many people benefit from eating healthy and losing weight when they are part of a community, all working, collaborating, and supporting one another. While many of these groups are unable to meet in person, they have blossomed online, and the camaraderie has been shown to help healthy weight loss and meet nutritional goals.

Fuel with good nutrition

We often overlook the additional benefits of eating a well-balanced diet. A diet the provides good nutrition means getting the necessary micronutrients, phytonutrient, and bioactive intakes, along with the macronutrients, to help one’s body function at its best. The advantages of eating healthy are manifold including maintaining the body’s systems to reducing food sources of heart-threatening bad cholesterol and improving emotional wellbeing.

In a research conducted on the healthy food traditions of Asia, it was shown that lack of nutrition causes health issues across the region. Healthcare professionals can encourage the consumption of food that are readily available with nutritious benefits. For example, banana is one such fruit that is widely consumed in this region, and is a source of vitamins, minerals, pectin and dietary fiber. The fruit is also high in potassium content which is a vital mineral for keeping blood pressure low. Another popular food would be nuts like cashew, peanuts, almonds, and soy nuts. Nuts are full of nutrients like healthy fatty acids and b vitamins that provide health benefits like lowering stress levels, supporting the immune system, reducing the risk for heart disease, improving blood sugar levels, and aiding in weight control.

Additionally, it has been shown that prolonged stress increases the metabolic needs of the body and causes many other changes. The increased metabolism leads to a rise in the use and excretion of many nutrients. Although stress alters nutrient needs, if a person has an existing nutrient deficiency, stress can make that deficiency even worse.

Counselling patients on stress management

Eating heathy is a must and so is having a balanced lifestyle. To minimize stress, one should look at all aspects to improve overall wellness. The HCP’s role here is constantly evolving to improve their patients’ overall wellbeing.

When speaking to or counselling patients on stress, it is important to identify what triggers their stress. Studies show that there are internal stressor factors such as underlying illness or a framing of life events that lead to excessive worry and external stressor factors such as pain, abusive relations and deteriorating working conditions. HCPs will have to identify the root cause of their patient’s stress to consult them appropriately with the right stress management.

Moreover, consultation with patients is shifting to online mediums with the rise of telehealth. HCPs can be more observant to look out for signs of stress in terms of the patient’s body language, tone of voice, overall behaviour as well as any other visible triggers. Certain symptoms of stress such as anxiety that causes trembling and rapid breathing can be recognised over video call. By observing patients in their own home, HCPs may be able to obtain valuable information on the patient's living conditions and other social determinants of health that can help with diagnosis. Virtual visits allow HCPs to easily consult with their patients while providing patients access to mental health services. Of course, you should also simply ask…are you experiencing stress in your life?

Recommendations for healthcare practitioners

Healthcare practitioners can regularly incorporate the following in their consultation sessions:

  1. Display patient educational materials with content on mental wellness and managing stress
  2. Be more open to talk about mental health by enquiring on how their patients feel
  3. Educate patients on the signs to look out for when stressed or facing anxiety attacks
  4. Creating a check list for patients on how to self-detect for any tell-tale signs and especially for less obvious stress signs
  5. Share nutrition tips with an emphasis on consuming less salt, less oil, more greens, and fruits. HCPs can remind their patients of the nutritional benefits in food consumed daily and that are easily available
  6. Share simple techniques to manage stress like focusing on breath, doing a daily body scan and self-affirmation meditation
  7. Inform and encourage patients to download apps that assist to navigate stress-inducing scenarios such as Headspace and Calm
  8. Recommend to patients that to achieve overall wellbeing, set a daily routine that includes nutrition, exercise, sleep and mental breaks
  9. Encourage patients to invite humour into their lives as one of the stress management methods. Although finding humour in a stressful situation is not easy, laughing has been proven to reduce stress hormone levels
  10. Suggest to patients to stay connected with their family and friends and express their feelings and emotions
  11. Share with patients that there is no ‘quick fix’ for stress. It may require several rounds of consultations and/or virtual visits to adequately control the symptoms of stress. Encourage patients to keep you updated on their progress and to check in regularly

The role of HCPs has evolved significantly when it comes to educating patients on preventive health measures. As HCPs provide more holistic consultation services and equip their patients with proper nutrition, lifestyle information and stress management methods, they will enable their patients to lead healthier lives.

--Issue 52--

Author Bio

Kent L Bradley

Kent Bradley has worked in leadership roles in healthcare sector, strategizing health related policies and business decisions. He has also acted as strategic advisor for multiple health-tech companies. A retired army Colonel, he has a Master’s Degree in Public Health from University of Minnesota and his medical degree from Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, Maryland.

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