“Oh, I’m so stressed out.”
Heard those words recently? Or maybe said them yourself? I’m not surprised. Stress has become a buzzword synonymous with anything mildly annoying in your life. It’s almost a badge of honor these days. When you’re “stressed” you’re in good company, sharing marquis space with type A personalities, movers and shakers, masters of the universe, doing-it-all moms, and other busy and productive types.
But stress is a lot more than a mild annoyance. It’s a true life-shortener.
Technically, stress is any physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes mental tension or bodily harm. But it’s also probably the single most potent enemy of longevity and health on the planet. It produces hormonal reactions in the body that can shrink parts of the brain, damage your vascular system, and increase blood sugar levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. Stress can exacerbate conditions such as skin problems, herpes, asthma and allergies, and make recovery from just about any illness much more difficult.
If you’re like many folks who don’t spend a lot of time reading biochemistry textbooks, you can be forgiven for buying into the common myth that “stress is all in your mind.” It’s not. The complicated stress response does begin in the brain, often out of conscious awareness, but it doesn’t stay there. The stress response is a complicated, multi-dimensional set of biochemical and hormonal responses and signals that affect virtually the whole body. You can measure blood (and saliva) levels of specific stress hormones—they have a concrete reality—it’s not “all in your head”! And their effect over time can shorten your life if you don’t know how to manage them. It’s not a coincidence that the longest lived and healthiest people on the planet either live relatively stress-free existences or have in place a number of useful ways of dealing with stress so it doesn’t shorten their lives.
The stress response actually plays an important role in our survival. Mother Nature gave us some built-in mechanisms to respond to threats that were designed to save our lives in an emergency. The problem with these mechanisms is not the mechanisms themselves, but the fact that we are no longer following the manual that says “use as directed.”
Let me explain.
Cortisol: Good and Bad
Assume for a moment that you are a calm, happy caveman, resting peacefully on the African Serengeti. All of a sudden, an enraged wildebeest comes charging at you. What do you do?
Well, obviously, you run like heck. The adrenals send out powerful hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, known as the “fight or flight” hormones, precisely because that is what they prepare your body to do. If they weren’t onboard, you’d continue to lounge lazily on your way to becoming a tasty dinner for the wildebeest.
This is how nature intended it. The stress hormones are like a first gear for the body, turbo-charging the engine to prepare for emergency. You’re instantly alert, primed for action. Your blood pressure has gone up and your heart is racing, all good things if you’re about to run for your life.
But nature meant for the stress response to be used in emergencies. It’s like a gas pedal to be used only when there’s an important threat to survival.
Nature did not mean for that pedal to be pressed to the metal all day long.
Though cortisol is always described as a stress hormone, it’s actually more of an “anti-stress” hormone (which is why your doctor will give you a shot of cortisone, a cortisol mimic, when you have a lot of inflammation). After adrenaline has moved out of the way, cortisol hangs around trying to put out some of the fires and quench some of the damage that happens as a result of all the hormonal and metabolic changes your body goes through in a state of emergency.
The effects of cortisol are beneficial for the short term, but long term, they’re an aging nightmare. And when you’re in a continual state of stress, cortisol is always elevated, not a good thing from a longevity point of view.
For example, high levels of cortisol shrink an important portion of the brain called the hippocampus, which is essential to memory and thinking.
In addition, high levels of cortisol also increase insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease. Stress hormones lower immunity (which is why marathoners, who put their body through enormous physical stress during an event, for instance, get sick so often the week after competing). And cortisol breaks down muscle and causes your body to gain weight—and not just any old weight gain, but weight gain around the middle. Abdominal weight greatly increases the risk of a whole host of life-shorteners such as heart disease. The bottom line: continuous, relentless stress shortens your life
The Stress-Sleep Connection
You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure out that stress can interfere with sleep. And not sleeping enough is a stressor—a powerful one.
Undersleeping, like all things stressful, causes a major release of the stress hormones (our old friends cortisol and adrenaline), shrinking your brain and expanding your belly. (It’s no surprise that research shows a connection between obesity and undersleeping.)
So if you don’t sleep well, you’re setting yourself up for a high stress day. And if less-than-restful sleep is a regular part of your daily existence, you can pretty much assume that your “stress hormone pedal” is pressed to the metal most of the time, leading to all the many associated problems
What to do?
Well, the first order of business is to have a good stress-management program in place. The gold standard of stress reduction techniques is meditation. Deep breathing can help, as can a routine that includes natural de-stressors like taking a warm bath, going for a walk, spending time outdoors, petting animals, or spending time with friends.
In addition, certain nutritional supplements can help:
Serotonin is the brain chemical associated with feeling relaxed and content. (Antidepressants like Prozac work by increasing serotonin.) The body makes serotonin from an amino acid called tryptophan, which then converts to 5-HTP (5-hydroxy-tryptophan), which then becomes serotonin. Thus, 5-HTP is a great natural supplement for increasing serotonin. Many report that it makes sleep easier and more restful, calms the mind, and may even indirectly help with weight loss. Start with 50 mg, and work up to 300 mg a day
Ever wonder why tea drinkers don’t get the same jitters as coffee drinkers? One reason is L-theanine, an amino acid with a relaxing effect, and one that’s found in green tea. Theanine is helpful in improving mood and increasing a sense of relaxation. Try a 200 mg capsule a couple of times a day.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland and is available as a supplement. Its most famous use is for the prevention of jet lag, but what it really does is help regulate sleep by helping to set the brain’s internal clock. A good deal of research shows that melatonin is useful for insomnia. Typical doses are .3 mg to 3 mg before bed.
GABA is an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and slows down brain activity. While there’s some dispute about whether supplemental GABA can get through the blood-brain barrier, many health practitioners use it successfully to combat anxiety. (It may work particularly well in combination with Inositol.) Take according to label instructions.
Inositol is “nature’s sleeping pill.” Taken before bedtime, it can significantly improve sleep quality. People who take it report a general relaxed feeling, akin to having a few calming “bedtime” teas. I recommend getting it in the powdered form and taking a big heaping tablespoon in a glass of water right before bed.
Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb, which means it can both dial down anxiety and stress and boost energy, adapting to your body’s needs. According to the Physicians Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, rhodiola may be helpful in relieving mental and physical fatigue and improving endurance and general well-being. Most users find that it improves their mood, energy level, and mental clarity. Take it early in the day. Recommended dose is between 50-200 mg a day. Note: Rhodiola is not recommended for people with bipolar disorder.
Vitamin D benefits SAD
The irritability and anxiety that often comes with stress is also linked to depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a kind of depression that tends to hit at the same time each year, usually in the fall continuing into the winter months. The general belief is that it’s related to your body’s reaction to the lack of sunlight.
Since sunlight is our main “natural” source of vitamin D, it’s been hypothesized that low levels of vitamin D may contribute to SAD (and therefore to the many symptoms that go with it like fatigue, weight gain, irritability, and anxiety).
Australian researchers found that 800 IUs of cholecalciferol (vitamin D) did enhance mood in late winter months, and other research has shown that depressed subjects had lower levels of vitamin D in their bloodstream than non-depressed control subjects. Another study found that improvement in blood levels of vitamin D was significantly associated with improvement in depression scale scores.
Most health practitioners, myself included, believe that most people need to supplement with at least 2,000 IUs daily.