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 is spot on, you don’t smoke or consume alcohol–but if you’re constantly stressed out, you will die before someone who does all of the bad things.
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.
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. 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.
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). In other words, eat protein and fat in the morning, carbs in the evening. It’s the exact opposite program than we have been told. 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.
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. Then, have moderate amounts of healthy carbohydrates for lunch (lots of veggies), and higher amounts of quality carbs for dinner (sprouted grains, resistant starch like underripe plantains, etc.). 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.
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 is, of course, an adopted mindset. However, it is so important I believe it deserves its own section. Every morning before I get out of bed I practice gratitude meditation. I express gratitude for three things: something I am grateful for, something I find challenging, and something that I haven’t accomplished yet. I revisit these many times during the day whenever I need a boost.
Gratitude builds resilience. Think of a person who is negative about everything and how long that person would last on a trek up Mt. Everest. Now think of a person who is grateful for the opportunity, and the next step, and the next one. Which person will last longer?
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). This helps me release tension and negativity or anything not serving me. 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 giving ourselves a break is an excellent example of self-care. Let things be as they are, not how we expect them to be; give up on perfection; create space in the day; do something nice or fun just because. All of these things are excellent examples of how to de-stress.
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. How we treat ourselves matters! We’re worth a little extra here and there. Follow my Instagram for self-care tips.
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 suggest quitting electronics a couple of hours before bed or using special blue-light blocking glasses, turning your bedroom into a “red-light district” (meaning using only orange-colored lights), lowering the temperature in your house before bedtime, 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, diffusing essential oils and not eating late at night among other tricks to help you sleep.
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References and additional resources:
(2) Dr. Alan Christensen. Interview by James Colquhoun. Chronic Stress & Adrenal Fatigue. Day 9: 10-Day Sleep & Stress Program. https://www.fmtv.com/
(3) Dr. Libby Weaver. Interview by James Colquhoun. Women, Hormones, & Stress. Day 2: 10-Day Sleep & Stress Program. https://www.fmtv.com/
The 10 Day Sleep & Stress Guided Program. Food Matters TV. Get a 10-day free trial at www.fmtv.com