What exactly is stress? Is it a thought, a reaction or something physical? The answer is all of these and more besides. While many think of stress as being all in the mind, the reality is that ongoing stressful thinking can be as harmful to your body as smoking, drinking too much or eating a junk-food diet.
As well as reducing your enjoyment of life, ongoing stress is bad news for your health. Our in-built stress response is key to our survival. Without out it we’d have become some predator’s lunch thousands of year ago.
But in modern life we experience the same ‘fight or flight response many times each day. Workplace politics, traffic jams, disagreements at home, money worries, having too much to do and too little time to do it all. All of these problems activate the same stress response – the release of adrenalin.
The cascade of stress
Just one stressful thought can trigger a whole load of physical reactions. And while this complex cascade is designed to increase your survival chances in the short term, if you keep triggering this response over the long term you’ll move from feeling wired to feeling tired, and eventually you’ll become exhausted.
As well as generating unpleasant emotional sensations, the cascade of hormones and chemicals triggered by stress, over time, accelerate ageing, encourage inflammation and degeneration, and increase the risk of heart disease.
Let’s look at what actually happens to you when you experience an event that you perceive to be stressful:
Your thought is registered in the cerebral cortex of your brain and carried to the hypothalamus, the brain’s ‘master gland’, which can then stimulate a reaction throughout the body. The hypothalamus activates your autonomic nervous system(ANS), which controls essential bodily functions such as breathing and heartbeat.
Your ANS has two strands – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympatheticnervous system (PNS). When you register stress, it’s the SNS that springs into action, preparing your body for ‘fight or flight’ – because even if there is no physical danger, you still react to a stressful event as if there is.
The SNS alerts your adrenal glands to pump out the hormonesadrenalin and noradrenalin. These, along with other chemicals released into your blood, trigger an increase in heart rate, boost blood flow to your arms and legs, dilate your pupils toenhance peripheral vision, increase perspiration, stimulatemental activity and concentration, release calcium from your bones to aid blood clotting, and release sugar stores into your bloodstream – all to make you physically ready to deal with the‘danger’ you are facing as if it were literally life-threatening.
The SNS also shuts down non-essential bodily functionsand so reduces digestive activity, immune action, repair and regeneration.
At the same time, the hypothalamus stimulates the pituitarygland (another component of your brain that controls hormones)to release adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) into your bloodstream. This stimulates your adrenal glands to release another hormone – cortisol – which is longer-lasting thanadrenalin. In the short term, cortisol reduces allergic reactions and inflammation while also suppressing immune activity. (Inthe long term, this leaves you more susceptible to infection.)
ACTH stimulates your adrenal glands to release another hormone– aldosterone – which increases blood volume; hence,your blood pressure increases.
Your pituitary gland also releases thyroid-stimulating hormone(TSH) to stimulate your thyroid gland to produce yetanother hormone, thyroxine. This increases your metabolicrate, raises the level of sugar in your blood to provide fuel, increases heart and respiration rates, sends your blood pressure up, and increases intestinal motility movement (this can trigger diarrhoea, a common side-effect when you experiencea particularly stressful event).
As you can see, just one stressful thought can trigger a whole loadof physical reactions. And while this complex cascade is designed to increase your survival chances in the short term, if you keep triggering this response over the long term, you’ll move from feeling wired to feeling tired, and eventually you’ll become exhausted.
The stress response puts you into overdrive to deal with a short-term emergency, but remaining in overdrive is very draining. That’s why your body starts to malfunction and you become continually tired and/or more prone to infection. You may find you overreact to stressful situations, feel depressed and find life less enjoyable. Reduced ability to focus and failing memory are also common.
So how can you manage it?
There are a few ways to help manage stress and anxiety, so let’s take a look at them:
1 Eat a low GL diet and supplement chromium
The state of anxiety is associated with raised levels of the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. When your blood sugar dips (often a rebound from blood sugar highs) this promotes the release of adrenal hormones, as do stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine. So, the first step towards reducing anxiety is to balance your blood sugar by eating a low GL diet containing slow-releasing carbohydrates eaten with protein and avoid or, at least considerably reduce, your use of both stimulants and alcohol (see below). This alone has a major effect in reducing anxiety.
The mineral chromium helps to even out blood sugar by making you more sensitive to insulin – that’s the hormone that keeps blood sugar level even. It is particularly effective in those with symptoms of depression associated with sugar cravings, feeling tired and oversensitive. If that sounds like you try supplementing 200mcg of chromium twice a day, with breakfast and lunch. it works even better if combined with cinnamon. Look for supplements with Cinnulin®, a potentised extract of cinnamon, plus chromium.
2 Quit stimulants and reduce alcohol
The reason we use stimulants is to increase adrenal hormones and the feel of energy and motivation. But the more you have the more you need until you can’t function without them, feeling ‘flat’. It takes a few days to recover your natural energy through eating a low GL diet and taking the right supplements.
The last thing you want if you are prone to anxiety and feeling stressed is lots of caffeine. So, step one for reducing anxiety is to become caffeine-free. There’s the most caffeine in strong coffee and high caffeine energy drinks. There’s also some in tea, which is more calming due to the presence of an amino acid called theanine. So tea is better than coffee but still you need to limit your intake to two weak cups a day.
Nicotine is another stimulant and therefore quitting smoking is key for reducing levels of anxiety, even though you may have become addicted precisely because a cigarette helps you calm down. If you feel tired when quitting stimulants supplement a combination of tyrosine with adaptogenic herbs such as the three ginsengs (Siberian, American and Korean).
3 Supplement GABA and Taurine
GABA (gamma-amino-butyric acid) is the main inhibitory or calming neurotransmitter. It not only switches off stress hormones, it also affects serotonin, thereby affecting your mood. For these reasons, having enough GABA in your brain is associated with being relaxed and happy, while having too little is associated with anxiety, tension, depression and insomnia. GABA is not only a neurotransmitter, it’s also an amino acid. This means it’s a nutrient and, by supplementing it, you can help to promote normal healthy levels of GABA in the brain.
There is one problem, however. In the EU, GABA has been classified a medicine, meaning it is no longer available over the counter in the UK. You can buy GABA supplements on the Internet from countries such as the US, though. GABA is made from taurine and glutamine to look for formulas containing these if you live in the UK.
If you can get hold of GABA, supplement 500 to 1,000mg, once or twice a day as a highly effective natural relaxant. But note that while it is not addictive, that doesn’t mean there are no side-effects in large amounts. Up to 2g a day has no reported downside; however, if you go up to 10g a day, this can induce nausea or even vomiting, and a rise in blood pressure. So use GABA wisely, especially if you already have high blood pressure, starting with no more than 1g a day, and do not exceed 3g a day. If you take it in the evening it also helps you get to sleep.
Taurine is another relaxing amino acid, similar in structure and effect to GABA. Many people think taurine is a stimulant because it is used in so-called ‘energy drinks’, but it is not. It helps you relax and unwind from high levels of adrenalin, much like GABA.
Taurine is highly concentrated in animal foods such as fish, eggs and meat. Vegetarians are therefore more likely to be at risk of deficiency. Try 500 to 1,000mg of taurine, twice daily. There are no known cautions or adverse effects at reasonable doses.
4 Tryptophan and 5-HTP – depleted by stress
Stress and anxiety also deplete serotonin, made from a form of the amino acid tryptophan called 5-HTP. From serotonin we make melatonin, which is needed for good sleep. You can supplement 5-HTP which can help to improve both mood and sleep, especially the ability to sleep through the night. 5-HTP is ten times more potent than tryptophan. You need 500 to 2,000mg of trpytophan, therfore 50 to 200mg of 5-HTP for a therapeutic effect.
5 Try relying herbs – Valerian, Hops and Passionflower
Valerian is an excellent anti-anxiety herb (Valeriana officinalis). As a natural relaxant it is useful for several disorders such as restlessness, nervousness, insomnia and hysteria, and it has also been used as a sedative for ‘nervous’ stomach. Valerian acts on the brain’s GABA receptors, enhancing their activity and thus offering a similar tranquillising action as the Valium-type drugs but without the same side-effects. As a relaxant you need 50 to 100mg twice a day, and twice this amount 45 minutes before retiring for a good night’s sleep.
Since valerian potentiates sedative drugs, including muscle relaxants and antihistamines, don’t take it if you are on prescribed medication without your doctor’s consent. Valerian can also interact with alcohol, as well as certain psychotropic drugs and narcotics.
Hops (Humulus lupulus) are an ancient remedy for a good night’s sleep and probably included in beer for that reason. Hops help to calm nerves by acting directly on the central nervous system, rather than affecting GABA receptors. You need about 200mg per day, but the effect is much less than kava or valerian and most effective when taken in combination with these and other herbs such as passion flower.
Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) was a favourite of the Aztecs, who used it to make relaxing drinks. It has a mild sedative effect and promotes sleep much like hops, with no known side-effects at normal doses. Passion flower can also be helpful for hyperactive kids. You need around 100 to 200mg a day. Combinations of these herbs are particularly effective for relieving anxiety and can really help break the pattern of reacting stressfully to life’s challenges.
These two, hops and passionflower, are better if you don’t want to be zonked out.
6 Increase Magnesium
Magnesium is another important nutrient that helps you relax. It’s also commonly deficient and depleted by chronic stress, as is vitamin C. Magnesium not only relaxes your mind, it relaxes your muscles. Symptoms of deficiency therefore include muscle aches, cramps and spasms, as well as anxiety and insomnia. Low levels are commonly found in anxious people and supplementation can often help. You need about 500mg of magnesium a day. Seeds and nuts are rich in it, as are vegetables and fruit, but especially dark green leafy vegetables such as kale or spinach.
I recommend eating these magnesium-rich foods every day and supplementing an additional 300mg. But, if you are especially anxious, and can’t sleep, supplement 300mg in the evening.
7 Stress reduction techniques
Some people need a little extra help to learn how to switch out of the adrenalin state. There are breathing and meditation techniques for this, as well as psychotherapeutic avenues to explore in dealing with the perceived stresses and causes for anxiety, and many of them can be extremely helpful. I have been particularly impressed by Heart Math techniques and also the effects of ‘vital energy’ exercises such as yoga, T’ai chi and also Psychocalisthenics.
8 In terms of supplements here’s what I recommend:
2 x High potency multivitamin with B vitamins, zinc 10mg and magnesium 100mg
2 x Vitamin C 1000mg
2 x Essential omegas providing both omega 3 and 6 fats
2 x a relaxing combination formula providing containing GABA precursors (glutamine, taurine), 5-HTP, magnesium, hops and passion flower
OPTIONAL ALTERNATIVE to a combined relaxing formula: 2 x Valerian 50-100mg
OPTIONAL 2 x Chromium with Cinnulin® 200mcg
Cautions: Don’t exceed 3,000mg of GABA and consult your doctor before taking GABA or Valerian if you are on tranquillising medication or sleeping pills. Also, do not combine with alcohol.
You can dig deeper in The Stress Cure. How to Resolve Stress, Build Resilience and Boost Your Energy.
Hormonal fluctuations raise stress levels, and that in turn will affect your hormone balance. Anxiety and stress are both helped by progesterone, so check you are not also prone to oestrogen dominance which will deplete your available progesterone.