Corporate health: Bust the Corporate STRESS!

Dr Alok Sharma, Director of NeuroGen Brain & Spine Institute, Professor & Head of Department of Neurosurgery, LTMG Hospital & LTM Medical College, and Consultant Neurosurgeon, Fortis Hospital, India, and a leading light in stem cell therapy, says increasingly many of modern-day neurological ailments can be traced to stress, particularly so in the corporate world. While the heart used to bear most of the brunt in the days gone by, the brain is increasingly under stress now, but some preplanning, lifestyle changes, de-stressing practices and smart life-choices can help us alleviate the effects of stress

Dr Alok Sharma is the Director of NeuroGen Brain & Spine Institute, Professor & Head of Department of Neurosurgery, LTMG Hospital & LTM Medical College & Consultant Neurosurgeon Fortis Hospital, India. He completed MS and M.Ch from Seth G.S. Medical College and KEM Hospital, Mumbai and was trained at the Karolinska Hospital, Sweden & University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, USA. He has authored 12 books, edited two books, contributed chapters in eight books, has published 112 scientific publications and made over 150 scientific presentations nationally and internationally. He is Founding President of the ‘Stem Cell Society of India’ and Vice President of ‘International Association of Neurorestoratology’. He is Founder of ‘The Indian Journal of Stem Cell Therapy’ and on the editorial board of four journals. He has been conferred with numerous awards and honours during his career. His other areas of special interest are Neuroendoscopy, Psychosurgery, Spinal fixations & Revascularization for cerebral ischemia.

He spoke to Corporate Citizen on neurological disorders and stresses in the corporate world and ways of dealing with them.

What are the causes of common neurological problems in the corporate world? Is stress the major cause?

There’s a lot of stress in the corporate world today. Since stress levels are high, people suffer from these disorders. There is competition, there are deadlines, targets, and this puts a severe strain on all the systems. For example, these people sleep less, work late nights. Lack of sleep has a direct negative effect on the nervous system. Their diets are not proper; they consume junk food which too has a negative effect on the heart as well as the brain. Then there’s lack of exercise because of which there’s lack of circulation of blood. Earlier, the heart used to take the brunt. But now cardiac care is very good so many of these people survive cardiac problems. But the next system to be hit is the brain or the nervous system. Both cardiac and brain problems occur because there’s less blood supply. Additionally, there’s hypertension. They also land up having diabetes very early, which again, is a contributing factor. So it’s basically a combination of all these factors. What a corporate lifestyle does is, put pressure on all the systems for which the brain and heart take the brunt.

If we could divide the problems—they are minor problems. One of the most common things amongst these people is tension headaches which they get when the stress is high and seek relief with drugs. But drugs have their own side effects. People who have pain killers over a long period end up having kidney failures. Many people have migraine which also is related to stress. Migraines are headaches for which the factors are biological—the reasons are in the body itself, whereas tension headache is only because of tension, there’s no other problem in the brain. Tension headache is a lifestyle disease. Migraine is a separate disease by itself.

There are two things:

  1. there’s a disease and
  2. there’s a predisposition to the disease. Stress becomes a trigger. You may be predisposed to migraine, but if you live a normal, healthy life you may not have it. But stress triggers what you are predisposed to.
At what age do people get these problems?

Twenty-five years ago, we got patients who were in their late 40s or 50s , suffering from a brain stroke. Today we see people having brain strokes even in their 20s and 30s. Stress is causing the onset of these dreaded diseases at a much early stage. Tension headaches and migraines are minor things. Major problems are brain strokes.

We see youngsters popping in pills for the slightest reason. How does that harm in the long run?

The reason for this is electronic devices. All youngsters are either on their mobiles, iPods or computers or watching television. This results in their sleeping late. Their sleeping patterns are disrupted. Most young people sleep at 1 am or 2 am and they wake up with headaches. Then they just pop in pills. Then you have a vicious circle.

"In a good life, you won’t need a doctor. It has been documented that if you follow the basic health principles—seven hours of sleep which is free of cost, exercise, simple homemade food, drinking two litres of water everyday, 30 minutes of walking, supplements which will cost just a few hundred rupees a month, green tea, thrice a day —neutralizes the effects of stress"

How do we counter these problems in the corporate sector? There’s stress and competition. How does one save oneself?

There’s a distinction between stress and distress. A little amount of stress is good. It pushes you to achieve and accomplish and makes things happen, whereas distress has a negative effect. It’s very important to know when stress becomes distress, stress cannot be eliminated. What we suggest is to have alternative de-stressing systems. It is important how you start your day. Start your day with a 30-minute cardio workout—a walk, a jog or a swim or a session on the treadmill which gets the circulation going. Another half an hour of yoga is also good. It reduces the stress chemicals in the body. Drink lots of water. That is a very important thing that people miss out on: water. It hydrates the body and makes you less prone to the sequences of stress. Always have a healthy, full breakfast. Having a healthy breakfast helps you to manage through the rest of the day. Another recommendation is to have a short break every two to three hours for just a couple of minutes to stretch or drink water. The Chinese have a nice system of having green tea at small intervals. That not only results in continued hydration, but also has an antioxidant effect, so they drink a lot but never put on weight. Their stress levels are slightly low. These breaks of stretching, having water or even tea or a healthy snack after a few hours keep you going, as opposed to running late, missing out on your breakfast, then lunch. Or you can take a break just sitting at your table by taking a two-minute respite. One can do a bit of pranayam, or deep breathing. Just a couple of deep breaths oxygenates your system, the water hydrates you, and you are ready to go.

Another thing that helps is to make a complete schedule the previous day, before sleeping. How that helps is that in your sleep you prepare yourself for what you have to do. You can structure your day better. The problem happens when you’re rushing from one place to the other, but if you are structured well, it saves you a lot of stress.

People in the Western countries work to time. They too are under pressure but they take their weekends off. They keep their weekends private, and they are not to be disturbed during their time.

How do we achieve that here? In the corporate world where one reaches home at midnigt and has to report early?

There’s a lot to learn from the Westerners. We have to ask ourselves, if we had a choice to do this or organise ourselves and avoid a heart attack or a brain stroke, isn’t that a better choice? It’s the choices we all make. Which of the following is difficult? To make a ‘to do’ list the night before? Trying to get seven hours of sleep? That’s not impossible. One of the reasons why people don’t sleep is that because they come home late, then they are on their mobile phones. When you come home, you have to disengage from everything electronic. Because it’s these electronic devices that keep you busy for another two hours or so. Yes, it’s difficult but not impossible. We’ve lived our lives without electronics.

The problem is that people in our country do not give importance to their health. They have to realise that their office can run without them. Even if you drop dead, the office will still continue, the family will also continue. Nothing stops - people will be sad for some time but they will continue. But your body has only you to take care of it. There are small things that turn serious. For example, there’s stress, which leads to diabetes and then you’re on insulin. It affects your kidneys, and you reach the transplant stage. It’s just that no one just reaches the transplant level directly. It just starts with elevated sugar levels. Now at that time a 30-minute of cardio workout, diet control, a good treatment can prevent it. The focus needs to be giving it importance. Your health and body are important. It’s got nobody else but you and if you neglect it all these things will happen. I’d like to reiterate that it’s about focus and giving importance and prioritising. I tell people, chuck your job. What is more important, your health or your job? If you were to have a stroke, your company won’t even look at you. The corporate world is ruthless. If you were disabled, they won’t even bother with you. It has happened, I have had these conversations and these people have come back with strokes, cancer and stuff like that.

"When you come home, you have to disengage from everything electronic. Because it’s these electronic devices that keep you busy for another two hours or so. We’ve lived our lives without electronics"

What is the difference between accidental brain problems and stress-related ones?

The underlying cause for all problems is stress. For example, if you haven’t slept the night before and are rushing to office, and you haven’t eaten well, your concentration level will be low and when you’re driving you’re likely to doze off and it’s likely you’ll have an accident. So it’s not stress but lack of organising yourself, lack of food, sleep… all these factors contribute to these accidents which you may have been able to prevent.

What’s the percentage of people who have these neurological problems? Is it more prevalent among younger people or the older ones?

It’s still more among older people. But we are increasingly seeing it among youngsters. Another thing that I suggest to a lot of people is to go for nature therapy. That’s basically detoxifying your body. There are multiple centres where you can go and spend a couple of days or a week or so. There’s detoxification, yoga, ayurvedic massages, various hydrotherapies which help you to de-stress and at the same time get rid of the toxins in the body. We also tell people to look at their genetic background—for example, if your father has had diabetes or a heart attack or your mother has, you’re likely to get it. Talk to your physician. You need to do preventive things rather than wait for things to happen to start taking precautions.

We see that even young boys and girls have electrolyte imbalances. Why?

Stress. Stress creates something called free radicals in the body. These free radicals are the cause of all our diseases and illnesses. These are very concentrated toxins, not substances, and stress releases a lot of these. They cause heart attacks, cancers and various other diseases. There are some supplements which are called antioxidants. The free radicals are the bad stuff and the antioxidants are the good stuff. Therefore, if you have a stressful life, take these supplements so that the body’s strength is able to combat it. In the ideal world one should not have stress, but we know that stress exists. So, what you try to do is organise your lifestyle in such a way that the negative effects of the stress are less on the body.

Does neglecting these factors at a young age lead to dementia in the elderly? What’s the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Dementia is a generic term when you have degeneration in the brain and you start losing memory, and other executive functions also slow down. Dementia there are of two types. One is Alzheimer’s and the other is vascular dementia. Alzheimer’s is more prevalent in America, not so much in India. The reason is that we have turmeric in our food which protects us against Alzheimer’s. In India, we have a lot of vascular dementia. This is because of lot of ghee and oil in our foods, leading to blood vessels and arteries becoming thicker and lined. So there’s less blood supply to the brain. Lower blood supply to the brain leads to shrinking of the brain. This results in the patients losing recent memory. They have difficulty in walking and sometimes they have incontinence of urine. Slowly, the sharpness of mind goes down and over a period of time, it totally shuts down. There are some medications and treatments, and if you start giving them early just as you see the dementia setting in, they help.

How is Parkinson’s different than Alzheimer’s? Is it also a neurological disorder?

Parkinson’s has nothing to do with stress and it’s not a common disease in the corporate world. It is a rare disease. It is the lack of dopamine in the brain that leads to Parkinson’s and it is not hereditary. Dementia also is not hereditary.

What is your philosophy of life?

I live life in the today. So for me, today is important. I don’t look at yesterday. I consider it dead, like you can’t put life into a dead body; I don’t bother about what happened yesterday. Also, I don’t worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow. I live life one day at a time.

I start the day with positivity. I do a bit of cardio, yoga and focus on today. Secondly, I’ve got very clear aims in my life. What I want five, 10 and 25 years from now, I have them written. I believe in prevention and I do a complete medical check-up twice a year. You need to be smart. Like the famous saying that the timeto repair the roof is when the sun is shining. When the rain comes, it’s a patchy job. I also like Kabir’s doha: “Dukh main sumiran sab karein, such main karey na koye, jo such main sumiran karey, toh dukh kahey ko hoye”. Everyone prays when they are sad but if you pray when everything is good then you’ll never be sad. It’s the same for health also, if you take prevention there will be less disease.

What is the secret of leading a good life?

In a good life, you won’t need a doctor. It has been documented that if you follow the basic health principles—seven hours of sleep which is free of cost, exercise, simple homemade food, drinking two litres of water everyday, 30 minutes of walking, supplements which will cost just a few hundred rupees a month, green tea, thrice a day—neutralizes the effects of stress.

By Vandana Patnaik