Many of the complaints that my patients come to see me for are often precipitated by stress. It is amazing what stress and anxiety can do to one’s health. From a GI perspective it can cause severe stomach pains leading to gastritis, ulcers, and gastroesophageal reflux, to name a few. I have to often be a detective with my patients, especially the teenagers, to find what the cause of their pain is. Many times it is brought on by too much stress either academically or with extracurricular activities. Sometimes their schedules are so busy that this continued rigorous agenda will of course lead to physical manifestations of true disease processes.
I often work hand in hand with my colleagues in Allergy/Immunology. We share patients and come up with a management plan based on both of our findings. Living and working in the NYC Tri State area the incidence of asthma and other allergen induced diseases is extremely high. We recommend to our patients to take the common precautions of air purifiers, mattress covers, pillow covers, and no curtains or stuffed animals in their bedrooms that can attract dust and trigger their symptoms. However until recently I had never thought about the impact of the type of plants they have in and around their homes and how its is affecting their conditions. I recently had the pleasure of reading the work of Thomas Leo Ogren in his new book “The Allergy Fighting Garden”. This book made me aware of some of the problems occurring with the types of trees and plants we may be putting around our homes that can be worsening our children’s asthma and allergies. Thomas is my Guest Blogger of the day and has graciously shared with my readers a wonderful piece of work about Stress and Allergies. I hope you all enjoy it.
Forget about Perfection
Stress and Allergies
© Thomas Leo Ogren
Wisdom from the Vet
When I was in college I took a class in veterinary science that was given by the head veterinarian of the university, Dr. Dale Smith. Our university, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was known for its school of Agriculture and had a reputation as being a “hands on” college. As a result we had large herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, pigs, horses, foul and so forth. Our vet believed in a holistic approach to animal health.
Dr. Smith had been the university vet for almost thirty years, and his own father had been a vet before him. The first day he told our class, “The most important thing of all for you to be concerned with in animal health is reducing stress. Virtually all the diseases of livestock you will encounter are caused by stress. “
He further explained that most genetic diseases had long ago been eliminated with livestock through selective breeding. What you saw instead were animals that were sick because the farmer or rancher wasn’t taking care of them properly. They were left outside with no shade in the heat, left with no protection to get out of the wind, stuck in an over-crowded corral, fed a diet too low in nutrients, something that would cause stress.
“The stress causes a breakdown,” said the vet, “and then disease of some kind shows up. It could be pneumonia, cancer, allergies, any number of things, but stress always sets the stage for this disease.”
I have long wondered how it was that a veterinarian understood this so clearly and our own doctors didn’t seem to pay much attention to it at all. We are animals after all. Stress must affect us just as it does all the other species of animals. I think most of us who have lived with allergies understand that stress can aggravate the allergies. We’ll never be able to eliminate all stress from our lives. But we can learn ways to reduce it, and we can learn ways to deal with it. Whenever possible it is healthy to try to see some of this stress as a challenge. If we live active lives, we can expect plenty of stress, and that’s all right as long as we don’t let it get the best of us.
In Allergy-Free Gardening, later in Safe Sex in the Garden, and most recently in The Allergy Fighting Garden, I explored how plant sex influences human wellness. If we have female rather than male plants, we won’t be inhaling all that male pollen and we won’t suffer from it. Allergy-friendly yards and gardens are stress busters.
In addition to decreasing the number of allergens, pollen grains, molds, and fungal spores, there are other things we can do to reduce stress in our lives, in our gardens.
Are allergies just a head-trip?
There is a reoccurring problem with stress and allergies. The problem is one of perception. It is well known that stress aggravates allergies. If you did a computer search using the terms “stress, illness, disease,” you might well be amazed at the hundreds of thousands of entries you’d find. For example, on the website healthdoc.com there’s an article, “Stress, the number one cause of disease and Illness.”
Even if the role of stress and illness is not as generally well understood, as it ought to be, it is certainly well documented. Stress contributes to heart disease in certain individuals. Stress also contributes to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other cardiac risk factors, and many other negative things as well.
Someone with allergies who is under stress will almost certainly experience worse allergies. The problem here is that too many people mix up cause and effect. Allergies are caused by an allergic response to allergens, to perfectly real substances, pollens, molds, dust, dander, allergic plant saps and so forth.
All too often ignorant people will imply that someone has allergies simply because they don’t know how to deal with stress. The implication is that you have allergies (or asthma) because you don’t really have your head screwed on straight. This isn’t true at all, and actually it is rather insulting. The next step in this illogical progression is that you deserve to have allergies since you’re bringing it on yourself. The people making these assumptions are, of course, people who don’t have allergies themselves. They don’t know how lucky they are, nor do they realize how arrogant their views are. Having persistent allergies can become pretty depressing and frustrating and critics are often insensitive to this as well.
Yes, allergies can be aggravated by stress, but then too, so can any other illness be complicated by stress. Allergies are completely for real. A few examples of this: Years ago when I gave my students different flowers to sniff, we quickly found out that a third of the class reacted strongly to bottlebrush pollen. Later, in blind tests with different types of pollen, the same students all again reacted strongly to the bottlebrush pollen. Another example: I have seen people who were very allergic to shrimp. I have seen what happened to them when they ate some food that they’d been told did not have shrimp in it, but that actually did. They immediately became very ill.
When an allergist skin tests someone, often this is done on their back. They can’t see the pricks nor do they know which allergen is being tested with each prick of the skin. Their skin will then react with a welt to the ones they are allergic to. If they are re-tested soon afterwards, the results will be the same. Allergic responses are totally for real and this simple fact needs to be respected.
Back to stress. Here are some things we can do to reduce stress in our gardens.
Forget about perfection
We don’t need perfect gardens, not at all. Our gardens do not need to conform to some ideal. We should have gardens that please us, and that is what’s really important. Think of your garden as your place to feel relaxed, to kick back in, to unwind. Good gardens can be great stress reducers.
Also, forget about perfection for yourself. None of us is really perfect; we’ve all got our flaws. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always try to improve ourselves, of course we should. But we need to learn to cut ourselves some slack, to give ourselves a break now and then. We need to forget about perfection and enjoy who we are and what we already have.
My father used to like to say, “The best is the enemy of the good.” There is great value in this concept. Trying to be perfect, expecting ourselves to be perfect, assuming other people actually are perfect (when of course, they are not)…all of this is counterproductive and it adds to stress. Accept yourself, love yourself, enjoy being you.
When you first set up your gardens think about how they will be used. Borrow liberally from good feng shui concepts of energy and harmony. Consider first the function and design gardens that are a pleasure to be in. If you can possibly afford it, get professional advice from a landscape designer or a landscape architect. These people are experts on how to create comfortable, attractive, stress-free gardens. Their advice might in the long run, turn out to be quite a bargain. With some things you do get what you pay for. With a good designer you get a quality design, one that will long keep you pleased.
While you’re thinking about how your landscape might look, buy some of the magazines on landscape design and look them over. See what attracts you. There are many excellent books on landscape design and these too can help you set up a relaxing, enjoyable garden. I recommend you go down to the bookstore, take some time, and look over all the books on garden design. Even if your yards are already landscaped, these books and magazines are still valuable, because you can always make changes. You can always try to improve your garden.
Wild birds in a garden make it more fun and it is stress reducing just to watch them. All bird feeders add to your pleasure. I especially love those long, porous mesh bags that you can fill with Niger thistle seed. You hang these over a high branch, and the goldfinches will go crazy for it. Quickly the little goldfinches become almost tame. Just watching them feed is relaxing. The larger, more aggressive sparrows tire quickly of trying to feed from these mesh bags, and this conserves the niger seed, which as bird seed goes, is a bit pricey.
Humming bird feeders are great additions to a garden and who doesn’t like to watch humming birds? If you can’t appreciate humming birds, almost certainly your life has far too much stress in it right now. Hang up a hummingbird feeder, relax, and enjoy the show.
A birdbath can be handsome in the garden, and the birds will enjoy it too. Watching robins splash in a birdbath is good karma. Be sure to keep the water clean. A dirty birdbath can spread diseases among the birds, so hosing it out daily is a great idea.
I especially like those bamboo wind chimes but actually, almost any wind chimes add a nice, mellow touch in the garden. I will admit though that there are a few chimes that are pitched too high for my taste. The most important thing is that the chimes sound pleasant to you. Hang your chimes in a spot free of obstructions, where they will catch the breeze. When the wind blows, the chimes sing to you.
Little ponds, tiny waterfalls, water fountains, all of these are proven stress reducers. Certain sounds irritate the human psyche, car alarms blasting in the night, dogs barking on and on. But other sounds soothe the soul like the sound of splashing water or water tumbling over stones. Placed in the right spot in a garden all these wet additions can do much for the ambiance of the landscape. Fish in a pond can add quite a bit too. More than one new parent has discovered the calming effect that watching fish swim in an aquarium has on their babies. A few goldfish in a pond is attractive too. A little pond also expands the kinds of plants you can grow in your garden. With a pond you can have water lilies.
Today there are many water fountains available and some are not too expensive either. Considering their value for reducing stress, they seem like a bargain.
This needn’t be anything fancy, but every garden ought to have a nice spot or two to sit and relax. A few garden chairs can make a big difference. A little table is good too. Lounge chairs are by design stress-busters. When I was young we had something called a chaise lounge that rocked and was just plain fun to sit in. More stress reduction. If you have an overhanging branch that looks perfect for it, hang a swing from it. Swinging reduces stress too. There has been considerable research into the importance of rocking babies back and forth. Any mother understands how well this works. Perhaps swinging works the same way?
A comfortable garden bench is a worthy addition to any landscape. Place it where two lovers, young or old, can sit and enjoy the view and each other.
Read a book
Seriously, sit in an easy chair in your comfortable garden and read a book. Turn off the TV and go outside. Commune with Nature. Read a book on how to reduce stress in your life if you think it might help. Read something on how to maintain a positive, cheery attitude. I find these always give me a boost. But just sitting in the garden and reading a good book is stress reducing. The natural light is good for your eyes and good for all of you. Read a novel if you like. Do sit out in your garden and read. The results are all positive.
Why not use some fruit trees in the landscape? There is something so basic, so fundamentally satisfying to go outside on a warm summer morning and pick a ripe apricot, peach, apple, or plum. Actually, just watching the fruit develop on the tree is satisfying too. If you’re inclined and you turn some of that fruit into jams, jellies, pies, or preserves, that’s also fantastic. And fruit trees can be perfectly ornamental in the landscape. Few trees look half as good to me as a fruit laden apricot tree.
If you have the space consider some kind of a vegetable garden too. There is something about growing tomatoes and string beans that is good for the soul. You certainly don’t need a large spot for growing vegetables although it would be great if you had the room. Working in a vegetable garden is relaxing, something very basic. If you have a spot that gets good sunlight most of the day, consider having some sort of a vegetable garden. Even if it is just a little area where you can grow a few tomato plants each year, the pleasure and stress reduction from this can be incredible.
A compost pile doesn’t need to be big or fancy or complicated. You can build a simple wooden box with no bottom and throw all your old banana peels, apple cores, carrot tops, grass clippings, leaves and so on into it. Get some red worms and add them to the compost. They’ll multiply like mad and turn all the garbage into wonderful compost. Now and then you can remove some of the finished compost and use it in you garden. Composting is easy, fun, is earth-friendly, and it makes you feel good.
It doesn’t need to be elaborate but if you still enjoy a hamburger or steak or grilled piece of chicken, why not have some kind of a barbecue? Even if you’re vegetarian, you can still cook outside on a grill. Bell peppers, chilies, and corn taste great right off a grill. Anyhow, you can get creative. Sometimes this provides a good excuse to sit out in the yard while the food cooks. A barbecue can turn an ordinary meal into a little outdoor adventure.
I like to have some large pots of flowers that I move around. When they are looking great, I move them up front where everyone can see them. When they are looking ratty, I stick them off on the side of the house to recuperate. I use enough moveable pots with enough different kinds of flowers planted in them, so that I can almost always have something colorful to brighten up any day.
Lawns are a lot of trouble, supposedly, but really, they are great places for kids to play on. Far too many people get hung up on having a “perfect lawn” and with this attitude a lawn can quickly become a big chore. A perfect lawn ought to be a lawn that you like. If it has three different kinds of grasses in it and a dandelion or two—and that doesn’t bother you, then that’s a great lawn. Lawns don’t need to be huge; in fact excessively large lawns are not worth the effort. But a small nice piece of lawn is a people-friendly addition to a garden. Use lawn grasses that are low-pollen or pollen-free.
Another note here about lawns: have yourself a small bit of nice lawn if possible. If for no other reason, a lawn is a fine place to do Yoga. For anyone who has yet to try yoga, I highly recommend it. It will make you more limber, stronger, improve your balance, and yoga (and the yoga meditation) is an excellent stress buster. Do it on your lawn.
If you like to sunbathe in the nude or just feel like walking out back in your underwear in the morning, you ought to be able to do it without some neighbor looking at you. Front yards can be wide open perhaps, but a back yard needs to provide some privacy. Screens of shrubs or trees can provide this as can a simple 6-foot tall cedar board fence. Having privacy in your garden makes it feel like more of a retreat, a spot to get away from the troubles of the world, somewhere to step right out of the rat race.