How to weather the storm after losing a loved one—without putting yourself at risk
It used to be that people only thought of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as something that impacted war veterans and survivors of catastrophic events or violent crimes.
But the truth is, PTSD can affect anyone. And that’s especially true of people who have lost a loved one.
Studies of recent widows have shown that as many as 10 percent meet the criteria for PTSD in as little as two months after losing a spouse to chronic illness.1 And among those who lose their spouses suddenly to “unnatural” causes, like accidents, as many as 36 percent may ultimately suffer PTSD.
Most notably, in nearly 50 percent of all of these cases, the PTSD symptoms are chronic—symptoms such as nightmares and insomnia, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, avoidance of traumatic memory triggers, jumpiness and anxiety, and a depressed or detached mood.
But believe it or not, even an experience as common as going to the doctor can put you at risk of PTSD.
In fact, one of the biggest causes of PTSD I see in my practice comes from people having a bad medical experience—whether they were mistreated by another doctor, received a frightening diagnosis, or had a bad outcome from a particular procedure. Even just feeling ignored by medical professionals can cause trauma.
Needless to say, no matter what the cause, PTSD poses a serious threat to your mental health. But unfortunately, the dangers aren’t only psychological.
New research shows that the burden of this kind of trauma can weigh just as heavily on your body as it can on your mind. And it’s your heart that bears the brunt of this load.
Grief and trauma—a “heartbreaking” combo
Swedish researchers recently compared the cardiovascular outcomes of bereavement or trauma of more than 136,000 patients who were clinically diagnosed with stress disorders, to unaffected siblings and age-matched members of the general population. And the difference was striking…
For one thing, people with PTSD suffered a 64 percent higher risk of heart disease than their unaffected siblings.2 (A comparison to the general population yielded similar results.) And the link was even stronger for cases of early onset heart disease. (That is, before the age of 50.)
In the first year following a traumatic event, risk of heart failure was the strongest, followed closely by a heightened risk of blood clots.
Of course, this study didn’t consider the nature of the triggering traumatic event. But another recent study of grieving spouses did. And the news wasn’t much better.
This research compared recent widows with self-reported sleep disruptions (such as insomnia) to a control group with similar sleep disruptions. And get this: The link between these sleep disorders and levels of inflammation were up to three times higher among the grieving spouses.3
But this wasn’t a completely new discovery. The team had already established that widows and widowers suffer higher levels of inflammation in the six months following the loss of a spouse.
Not only that, but they also experienced a 41 percent higher risk of death—more than half of which is attributable to heart disease.
But this research confirms that it’s not just grief that kills. It’s a combination of the sleep disruption and accompanying inflammation that deliver a fatal blow.
Chronic stress is the common thread
As shocking as these findings are, they make a lot of sense when you consider the toll that emotionally traumatic events take on your body. And more specifically, the one-two punch of chronic stress and adrenal fatigue.
Let me explain: Your adrenal glands release two key hormones—adrenaline and cortisol—to put you on alert in the face of danger—whether it’s a physical threat, illness or injury, family crisis, or just rush-hour traffic. This is called the “fight-or-flight response.”
When your adrenal glands are working properly, they stop releasing these hormones shortly after the perceived danger has passed. But if you’re under too much stress for too long, that’s when things start to go haywire.
This is when adrenal exhaustion— a result of chronic stress—can set in. It can overwhelm your body’s ability to produce adrenaline and cortisol.
Your cortisol levels stay high. Your body stops “listening” properly. And eventually, your adrenal glands “burn out” and stop producing enough stress hormones, even when you need them.
Hypervigilance (sensory sensitivity) and panic (uncontrollable fear or anxiety) are central features of PTSD—so adrenal burnout is almost guaranteed in patients suffering from post-traumatic stress. And it also plays a key role in the sleeplessness that often plagues these patients.
In fact, in my clinical experience, adrenal gland exhaustion is the single most common culprit behind insomnia.
How “fatigue” can steal your sleep
As I’ve explained before, one of the telltale signs of adrenal burnout is trouble sleeping, or waking up in the middle of the night. Why? Because cortisol plays an important role in managing your body’s restorative sleep cycles.
When you’re healthy, cortisol levels peak around 8 a.m. So you hop out of bed ready to start the day, without even having to reach for the snooze button on your alarm. On the other hand, cortisol levels should be at their lowest between midnight and 4 a.m.—when most people are sound asleep.
In other words, if your cortisol levels are high when they shouldn’t be, you’ll be too wide awake to sleep.
In addition, cortisol plays a role in blood sugar regulation. And if it dips too low, it could take your glucose levels with it. This floods your body with adrenaline, which wakes you up in a wired, desperate search for emergency fuel—usually in the form of carbs or sugar—right around 3 a.m.
It’s a dangerous domino effect in your body. And one of the first dominoes to fall is your heart health. But there are ways to address sleep concerns while also getting the rest of your body in balance. In fact, the list of natural sleep aids is quite long. (See the sidebar to the right for my top picks.)
Staying healthy when tragedy strikes
Obviously, you have no control over when or where tragic life events may strike. But you do have control over how you respond—whether it’s going to therapy every week, taking up daily meditation, or reaching out to your friends, family, or community for social support.
It should be clear by now that proper treatment isn’t just helpful—it’s life-saving. But grief and trauma also don’t heal overnight.
So it’s critical to give your body the tools it needs to help you weather the storm.
And diet is the most critical component when it comes to staying healthy during periods of intense stress. Of course, when you’re dealing with trauma and/or loss, the last thing you need are dozens of “do’s and don’ts” to keep track of. So the best thing you can do is keep it simple.
With that in mind, these two basic rules of thumb are all you really need to focus on:
- Cut out all sugars and grains
- Opt for organic, nutrient-rich produce and grass-fed and finished protein whenever possible
There are also a number of supplements that can help you manage the stress you face in the midst of the grieving process.
In particular, adaptogens are great tools to have on hand during times of stress. Adaptogens are exactly what they sound like—natural extracts that help your body adapt to difficult circumstances. Here are a few of my top picks:
- Rhodiola rosea. This herb can help guard your body against stress. I recommend 30 mg, three times per day.
- Schizandra chinensis. This herb works a lot like Rhodiola and helps to stabilize your adrenal gland. I recommend 60 mg, three times per day.
- Ashwagandha extract. This adaptogen guards against stress, and enhances immunity. I recommend 150 mg, three times per day.
- Eleutherococcus sinensis root extract. This is also known as Siberian Ginseng. I recommend 150 mg, three times per day.
- Panax ginseng. This is a classic adaptogen. I recommend 50 mg, three times per day.
Most of these extracts are readily available in health food stores and from online retailers.
Just bear in mind that it can take six months or longer before you really start to see a difference.
And obviously, these herbs can’t cure the heartache you face when you lose a loved one, or the stress you face following a traumatic experience. But they can help keep your body strong and protected on your path toward healing.
Getting the rest you need to heal—physically and emotionally
Here are just a few of my favorite nutritional supplements that I regularly prescribe to my sleepless patients. They can help you get the rest you need in order to heal—both emotionally and physically:
5-HTP. This natural supplement can induce drowsiness at bedtime. But it also works on neurotransmitter levels by raising serotonin and other key chemicals in your brain. This will help regulate your body’s sleep/wake cycle, as well as support your adrenal glands.
Safe and effective doses range anywhere from 100 mg to 5,000 mg at bedtime, though most people don’t need more than 1,000 mg. It’s a big range for sure, but start with the smallest dose and work your way up, 100 mg at a time, until you notice a difference in how quickly and easily you’re able to drift off to sleep.
SAM-e. This amazing amino acid helps regulate neurotransmitters, which are just as important as your hormones in your pursuit of deep, restorative sleep and adrenal health. Sam-e can help regulate your body’s biological rhythms. And it’s been shown to lower blood pressure by easing stress and boosting mood, which is an added bonus to your heart and your blood pressure. I recommend 400 mg every morning.
Melatonin. This is a supplement I’m sure you’ve heard of before. And I can’t overstate its importance. Your body generates this hormone not only to help you sleep, but also to support your immune system. And not surprisingly, melatonin production drops with age.
Melatonin and cortisol also fight each other for dominance. And if cortisol levels are elevated at night, it can interfere with melatonin’s activity. That’s why I recommend 3 mg at bedtime to start. But if needed, you can slowly work your way up to a maximum of 21 mg.
These are just a few of the herbal supplements available to you to help combat sleep disruptions. But there are additional options (along with dietary and lifestyle recommendations) that can help restore your sleep. That’s why I created my Perfect Sleep Protocol, an easy, drug-free plan to cure your insomnia and enjoy perfect sleep—for life. Readers can enroll in this innovative online learning tool by clicking here, or by calling 1-866-747-9421 and asking for order code GOV3V603.
- Zisook S, et al. “PTSD following bereavement.” Ann Clin Psychiatry. 1998 Dec;10(4):157-63.
- Song H, et al. “Stress related disorders and risk of cardiovascular disease: population based, sibling controlled cohort study.” BMJ. 2019 Apr 10;365:l1255.
- Chirinos DA, et al. “Bereavement, Self-Reported Sleep Disturbances, and Inflammation: Results From Project HEART.” Psychosom Med. 2019 Jan;81(1):67-73.