Why is the topic of stress so important? Well, who isn’t stressed these days? We are overscheduled, overworked, and overstimulated, we lack time in nature, we lack connection with people around us, and we are so used to being this way that we call this stressed-out state normal. According to the Whitehall II study (1), which followed the lifestyle and mortality of a large number of civil servants in the UK, stress is the number one predictor of total mortality. This study looked at mortality due to several causes. Tobacco use was the biggest predictor of death in those who died of cardiovascular disease, but the largest factor in total mortality was stress. What this means is, you could do everything else right – your diet and exercise can be spot on, you don’t smoke or consume alcohol or eat red meat – but between you and your friend who does all of the bad things and none of the good, you will still die first if you are stressed out all the time and she isn’t.
Something the Whitehall II study took into account was Cortisol Slope. Cortisol Slope is the rate at which cortisol fluctuates during the day. Cortisol is supposed to peak in the morning as you get out of bed and be at its lowest point in the evening when melatonin takes over to help you sleep. This governs your circadian rhythm, the sleep-wake cycle. When we are stressed out all the time, cortisol doesn’t dip like it’s supposed to. We are ready for bed and our cortisol is through the roof. We start to think about all the things we need to do, all of our worries come back to haunt us, and lists start going through our minds. Melatonin can’t get us to sleep if high levels of cortisol are present. So this keeps going until we finally do fall into a fitful sleep but then wake up at 2 am worried about something else. Then we’re stressed because we can’t sleep, and we can’t sleep because we’re stressed…sound familiar? Keep reading.
What causes stress? Or, a better question may be, what constitutes stress? Normally we think of stress as things happening in daily life: traffic, money, relationships, health, etc. Those are stressors, for sure, but the body perceives stress as anything that changes its balance. So, more subtle stress could be sunlight at the wrong times of day, dysbiosis (or disturbances in the body’s microbiome), digestive issues like leaky gut, dehydration, nutritional deficiency, toxins, stimulants (that extra cup of coffee, yo!), and many other factors that lie beneath the surface. These things all have the ability to affect cortisol levels, which in turn can cause us to crave sugar and junk food, which puts us even further off balance.
So, how do we relieve stress? Many people turn to alcohol, anti-anxiety medication, or even illegal drugs. I believe that stress can be alleviated through diet, mindset, gratitude, and self-care. Of course, you have to find your own combination of these four ingredients and do some work on your own. I have suggestions as to how to do this, and tons of information to draw from, but my way isn’t the only way. Here are Four Simple Solutions to Quell Stress and Anxiety from my own personal experience. I, too, once took Prozac. Note the past tense.
It shouldn’t be news that diet affects stress. What you eat affects everything. But did you know that simple shifts in how you eat during the day can help you sleep better, stress less, and give you more energy? A few paragraphs ago we touched on the Cortisol Slope. This is the level of cortisol measurable in your body throughout the day. Cortisol should start high in the morning and slowly diminish as evening approaches when melatonin takes over to give you a restful night’s sleep. Unfortunately, most people’s cortisol slope is all out of whack. Ever had trouble getting to sleep because your brain has a thousand tabs open and is toggling between all of them? Several factors affect this slope, but for now, let’s focus on diet. Our protein, fat, carbohydrate ratio affects cortisol. According to Dr. Alan Christensen, you can intentionally increase cortisol by decreasing your carbohydrate intake in the morning and decrease cortisol in the afternoon by increasing carbohydrates at dinner (2). It’s the exact opposite program that we intuitively adopt. I know I have tried to eat carbohydrates earlier in the day so I would have time to burn them off before bedtime. Turns out, that’s bad logic. It takes hours for the body to process carbohydrates into something useable. So, even if you have the “burn carbs early in the day” belief, it makes more sense to eat the carbs at night. Think about marathon runners who consume a pasta dinner the night before the race so they have energy stored to run the race in the morning. breakfast low in carbohydrates and higher in protein and fat.
Several factors affect this slope, but for now, let’s focus on diet. Our protein, fat, carbohydrate ratio affects cortisol. According to Dr. Alan Christensen, you can intentionally increase cortisol by decreasing your carbohydrate intake in the morning and decrease cortisol in the afternoon by increasing carbohydrates at dinner (2). It’s the exact opposite program that we intuitively adopt. I know I have tried to eat carbohydrates earlier in the day so I would have time to burn them off before bedtime. Turns out, that’s bad logic. It takes hours for the body to process carbohydrates into something useable. So, even if you have the “burn carbs early in the day” belief, it makes more sense to eat the carbs at night. Think about marathon runners who consume a pasta dinner the night before the race so they have energy stored to burn during the race in the morning.
Short version: have a breakfast low in carbohydrates and higher in protein and fat. Your breakfast choice will set you up for lower stress (and fat burning!) for the whole day. Have a veggie omelet or scrambled eggs with avocado. Need something quick? Make hard-boiled eggs ahead of time. Vegan options? Research quality plant-based protein powders (easy on the soy) and make a smoothie with lots of greens. Then, have moderate amounts of healthy carbohydrates for lunch (whole grains like quinoa or brown rice, sprouted grains, resistant starch like underripe plantains, etc.), and higher amounts of quality carbs for dinner. Essentially, as long as you are choosing quality foods and keep your portion control in check, you wouldn’t have to change what you eat at all, just change what time of day you eat it. Easy, right?
It’s interesting to note that blood sugar directly influences anxiety. A study conducted by Dr. Alan Christensen (2) continually tested blood glucose while subjects went about their day. If a panic attack or wave of anxiety occurred, the subject could push a button to mark that moment in time. Dr. Christensen found that invariably when a person was experiencing anxiety their blood sugar was spiking. Now think about insulin resistance and remember that insulin’s job is to push sugar into cells, but it can’t when cortisol is taking energy from cells. Do you see the death spiral that puts us in? Eating foods lower on the glycemic scale will be beneficial in reducing your stress. Just remember not to stress too much about what you’re eating.
Another big reason to pay attention to your stress levels, as if death wasn’t a big enough reason is insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when body tissues (muscles, liver) stop listening to insulin. Insulin’s main job is to get sugar into the cells where it can be used for energy. If the body stops listening to insulin, sugar doesn’t make it into the cells, so more insulin is produced, and on and on. Why would the body stop listening to insulin? Among other factors, stress is a biggie. Increased stress causes elevated levels of cortisol which wants to take energy from cells. Cortisol ranks higher in the hormone pecking order, so the cells start listening to cortisol rather than insulin. Insulin floating around in the bloodstream with nothing to do increases fat storage. It takes the sugar that the cells don’t want and stores the energy as fat. If your body is in fat-storage mode, it can’t be in fat-burning mode. Eventually, your body will lose the ability to burn your body fat, and solely use the excess sugar you are taking in every day for fuel. Thus, you start to crave junk food. At this point, your body is pretty sure it needs the junk food to survive, and then you are essentially addicted to sugar and processed carbohydrates. Meanwhile, your cells are lacking energy, so you feel lethargic and have brain fog. You are hungry all the time even though you have plenty of fat to burn. No wonder it is so hard to lose those extra pounds!
Mindset also plays a big roll in stress-relief, as it does with everything. What you focus on becomes your reality. If you increase the amount of time per day that you think positive thoughts, practice gratitude, or intentionally appreciate your situation you manifest more positivity. If you focus on negativity, you invite more negativity. You create your own reality. Read more about this concept in Find Your Truth. When talking to people who are dealing with truly difficult, life-altering situations such as a debilitating illness or end-stage cancer, do they talk about being stressed? No, they talk about how grateful they are for getting out of bed this morning, or the feel of the grass beneath their feet. They’re just happy to be alive. What if we were grateful for the little things in life before needing the critical illness to wake us up? What if we went about our days being thankful for the opportunity to do our jobs, deal with our kids’ tantrums, fix the leaky sink, navigate traffic…insert stressful daily chore here. Thankful because we “get” to do these things, not because we “have” to. “I get to make my family a healthy dinner tonight.” “I am thankful for this leaky sink because it means I have indoor plumbing.” In this way, we invite abundance towards us. When we see the good in everything, everything is good! Watch Dr. Libby Weaver’s interview in the Sleep & Stress Event on FMTV for an anecdote on this subject. Remember that your attitude changes those around you. Without even meaning to, you can start a ripple effect that reaches outside yourself to your family and friends and beyond, possibly creating a more positive neighborhood, then a more positive world.
Gratitude can also help with stress. Every morning before I get out of bed I practice gratitude meditation. I think of three things I am grateful for, reframe something I find challenging into something I am grateful for, and express gratitude for something on my vision board that I haven’t accomplished yet as if it is already a reality. I revisit these many times during the day whenever I need a boost. According to Dr. Libby Weaver, stress cannot exist in the same space as gratitude (3). The nervous system cannot focus on two things at once. If this is true, then we can choose the way we feel and therefore create our own reality. Here’s what I do: when I feel myself starting to get anxious, I consciously stop, take a deep breath in and out, reframe my situation into something positive that I can be grateful for (sometimes this is very difficult), take another breath in with positivity and out releasing tension and negativity or anything not serving me, and one more breath to lower my heart rate and send calming messages to the rest of my body. This whole process takes the amount of time it takes to take three deep breaths. You can do it anywhere. Read more about gratitude here: Meditation. Be sure to check back often because this page changes frequently. Listen to James Colquhoun’s interview with Dr. Libby Weaver and participate in a guided meditation on gratitude here.
Self-care might be the biggest factor involved in holistically relieving stress. Ultimately, self-care encompasses all of the things we’ve already talked about. How we feed ourselves, the thoughts we think, and the time we take to sit quietly with ourselves is all self-care. Also involved in self-care are exercise, regular massages, and an energizing morning ritual that sets us up for a good day. Simply taking a deep breath is a fantastic way to de-stress quickly and you can do that anywhere. Dr. Andrew Weil has a signature breathing exercise called his 4-7-8 breath where you breathe in deeply for four counts, hold the breath for 7 counts, then breathe out for 8 counts. All of these things can help us regulate our stress level.
Sleep is another thing we can do for ourselves to improve our stress level. Think about it: How do you feel when you haven’t had a good night’s sleep? How do you feel if you do sleep well? Many of us find it hard to get to sleep, or stay asleep, or get the recommended amount of sleep. When talking about stress-related illness and mortality statistics, quality of sleep becomes super important. Cortisol levels are directly affected by sleep. To put it bluntly, we would die if we didn’t sleep. So what can we do to improve our sleep? Jon Gabriel has some fantastic insight on this subject in his interview with James Colquhoun during the 10-Day Sleep & Stress Program on FMTV. You can also participate in a guided visualization to help you fall asleep and sleep soundly throughout the night. Experts such as David Asprey, Dr. Joseph Mercola, and Robb Wolf all have similar recommendations for quality sleep. They suggest quitting electronics a couple of hours before bed or using special blue-light blocking glasses, removing distractions from your bedroom, using an eye-mask to block out stray light (get the one I use here), eliminating sound, reducing alcohol consumption, and not eating late at night. It also helps to wind down and create a comfortable environment before bed. Many people find Yoga Nidra helpful. Find excellent Yoga Nidra classes at your local yoga studio, or on YogaGlo or FMTV. Try reading an old-fashioned book made of paper. For this, you will need a bedside light. Dr. Joseph Mercola suggests turning your bedroom into a “red-light district”, literally (4). Use a red light bulb in your bedside lamp to read at night. The theory is that in our long history as humans, electricity has been available only very recently. Before electricity was widely available we lit our world with the orange light of flame from candles or campfires. So, red or orange light can trick our brains into thinking it’s bedtime and help us wind down. Dr. Alan Christensen suggests lowering the temperature in your house before bedtime. You can also try a warm bath or herbal teas. Experiment to find your own best sleep-inducing ritual and share it with me in the comments or on my Facebook page.
Scents can also be helpful. I use essential oils in my house regularly to promote energy, relaxation, mind power, or joy. Dr. Eric Z gives advice on essential oils to use for sleep and stress relief during the 10-Day Sleep and Stress Program here.
I think we can all agree that stress relief is important for our health. In fact, stress is so important that it affects our mortality. We can do everything else exactly right, but if we have too much stress we can still be in poor health or even die early. We have seen examples of this. Ways we can better our stress level include, simple changes in our diet, improved positive mindset, practicing gratitude and meditation, and self-care practices including prioritizing proper sleep. So much important information on stress and how to combat stress has been hinted at today. As I mentioned at the beginning, and noted throughout this post, most of this information is gleaned from The 10-Day Sleep & Stress Event on FMTV. Please visit their site and sign up for the 10-day free trial to experience these interviews for yourself. You can do that here.
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(1) Marmot, Micheal and Brunner, Eric. International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 34, Issue 2, 1 April 2005, Pages 251–256, https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/34/2/251/746997/Cohort-Profile-The-Whitehall-II-study#13133922
(2) Dr. Alan Christensen. Interview by James Colquhoun. Chronic Stress & Adrenal Fatigue. Day 9: 10-Day Sleep & Stress Program. https://www.fmtv.com/join-today
(3) Dr. Libby Weaver. Interview by James Colquhoun. Women, Hormones, & Stress. Day 2: 10-Day Sleep & Stress Program. https://www.fmtv.com/join-today
(4) “Combat Cancer, Boost Brain Power, and Increase Your Energy with Dr. Joseph Mercola.” The Melissa Ambrosini Show. https://melissaambrosini.com/podcast/combat-cancer-boost-brain-power-and-increase-your-energy-with-dr-joseph-mercola/
The 10 Day Sleep & Stress Guided Program. Food Matters TV. Get a 10-day free trial at www.fmtv.com