Paul Huljich, author of Stress Pandemic: 9 Natural Steps to Break the Cycle of Stress & Thrive, is a walking example of how strengthening the body and mind with optimal nutrition better equips you for dealing with stress.
For the past 16 years New York-based New Zealander, 61, has been stress-free, off medication, and is now a sought after expert speaker on the topic.
Before that, however, the successful co-founder of multi million dollar Best Corporation, a pioneering organic foods company of which he was chairman and joint CEO, experienced a complete mental breakdown.
It was the result of a number of stress-related conditions, including anxiety and depression, which gradually developed over time, and ultimately ended with him being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Huljich believes if someone had thrown him a book like Stress Pandemic before his personal crash he could have prevented his breakdown, losing everything and being branded forever with the stigma of mental illness.
“Because I was searching. I was listening to all the doctors but they couldn’t save me,” Huljich says.
He was told that there was no cure for his condition and that he would be dependent on medication for the rest of his life, and that he would inevitably relapse.
“I said, ‘well, I have come to this famous clinic, the most renowned around the world, [The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota], and you’re saying I’ve got a life sentence. I’m in a chemical straight jacket for the rest of my life. I’m a broken man, and you’re telling me I’m a time bomb. And further more you’re giving me medication for my pain but I’m never going to be cured. If I came to you with a broken leg that wouldn’t be good if you just treated the pain. I want that leg healed,” Huljich says. “So I asked ‘where would you send me if I were your son or brother?’”
He was directed to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas and it was here where he began to understand that stress is affecting everyone to such a great degree. Many of the patients were leading doctors, business people and professionals as well as homemakers.
“Stress is a pandemic, it’s effecting everyone of all ages. It’s predicted that by the year 2020 depression will be the second largest cause of death and disability in the world. And it’s affecting every culture, all races and all denominations,” he says.
“Stress Pandemic is all about you taking back control and understanding more about the unique characteristics of stress which 99 per cent of the whole world population doesn’t understand, and that’s why they are at the mercy of stress because stress controls a lot of our lives.
“It stops us getting promotions, stops us being healthy, stops us having joy all the time. It affects us in so many ways. So what I have been doing is helping people to break that cycle and it’s all about trying to do things more naturally.”
Knowing the symptoms to look out for helps. Indictors of early to high levels of stress include sleeping difficulties; worry; teeth grinding; limited patience; high irritability; abiding feelings of sadness; anxiety, or depression; absence of contentment or joy; lack of energy; and difficulties with concentration.
If left unchecked, serious mind conditions like bipolar disorder (in Huljich’s case) can develop. These conditions, he explains, are observable from a physiological standpoint in the imbalance of the brain’s neurochemistry.
The six most important neurochemicals linked to personality, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and moods are serotonin, epinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, norepinephrine, and melatonin. Stress disrupts neural circuits and can eventually cause serious imbalance in these neurochemicals. These imbalances are closely associated with the presence of mind conditions.
Additionally, our neurochemistry can become increasingly imbalanced and potentially toxic as a result of factors related to lifestyle, such as poor diet and insufficient sleep or exercise.
Looking back Huljich’s symptoms of stress included insomnia, teeth grinding, and a little bit of worry that led to addictions with food and alcohol to be able to cope later on with mild depression and anxiety.
“I just went up this ladder, and I went up the top,” he says.
“Stress in moderation isn’t always bad; it may be helpful in motivating us to perform under pressure. Yet, when we are operating in emergency mode for a prolonged period, our mind and body pay the price.
“Moreover, what is often overlooked is the possibility of living a life free of the negative effects of stress. It is possible to live a life of fulfillment and contentment, despite the increasingly stressful world we live in.”
Today his motivation is to raise awareness of the consequences of stress and “give people hope”.
“They are not alone. They are worth it, and as Winston Churchill would say, ‘never, never give up’,” he says.
He took this attitude when faced with a life sentence on medication, and it got him thinking.
“If you are on medication and your symptoms are not going away, you have to ask yourself why are they not going away? And if they are not, what are you doing about it?” he says. “I’d take any drug if it would cure me of course. But when I found it was never going to cure me I thought I need to be more pro-active. I need to research everything.”
Because he had been repeatedly told he had a neurochemical imbalance he researched specific foods that supported production of the six main neurotransmitters: serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, cortisol, endorphins and melatonin.
“Diet is critical to correcting and maintaining the chemical balance in the brain. The key to understanding the connection between how the food we eat affects our moods lies in our brain and body chemistry,” Huljich says. “Our brain communicates by passing chemicals called neurochemicals from one nerve cell to the next. These neurochemicals are created in the brain and body and are stimulated and formed by the food we eat.”
The importance of good-mood foods is evident in what Huljich calls the “second brain” in the gut (small intestine).
“That’s where 95 per cent of your serotonin receptors are, emphasising nutrition’s crucial role in our psychological well-being. So if you eat more good-mood foods and you understand that concept of second brain, it helps fortify you. It helps you take back control,” says Huljich.
With the support of his team of doctors and family he did just that and came off his medication by following the steps outlined in his book and has achieved drug-free wellness ever since.
Part of this was cutting out the CRAP (caffeine, refined sugar, alcohol and processed foods) and eating more good-mood foods. Fresh fruit and vegetables (organic where possible), whole grains and unprocessed legumes, raw nuts and seeds, juiced vegetables, active manuka honey, decaffeinated green tea and omega-3 essential fatty acids (found in seafood and green vegetables) as well as plenty of water.
“What we eat has a profound effect on our wellness, influencing everything from brain chemistry to sleep. Good mood foods” help those neurochemicals and help keep stress hormone cortisol under control,” he says.
Stress Pandemic: 9 Natural Steps to Break the Cycle of Stress & Thrive will be released in Australia and New Zealand in October 2014.