I think it goes without saying that every single human on Earth experiences stress, that is, some sort of emotional or physical challenge that stimulates the body to respond; hence, a stress response.
There’s the common analogy of man running from the saber tooth tiger used to describe a physical stressor. However, most Americans experience debilitating emotional stressors whether it’s having an argument with your significant other or say, running a red light. Or how about students who feel overwhelmed from studying multiple exams and fear failure? These situations often induce a stress response because the body perceives them as a threat and has an immediate priority to motivate you to remove yourself from that threat. The increase in “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system activity produces a cascade of physiological conditions like increased heart rate, dilation of the lungs, secretion of adrenaline and inhibition of digestion. This all occurs to help you escape the danger, the trouble, and the anxiety.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being confronted with a stressor. It happens to us everyday, but when the body is consistently and inappropriately prompted to respond to a stressor, problems can and often do arise. Sometimes it’s warranted, but many times everyday experiences trigger an unnecessary stress response where anxiety and similar sensations of apprehensiveness and worry manifest. These feelings are in response to a perceived threat and are hallmarks of an over-active sympathetic nervous system.
There Are Different Ways In Which One Suffers From Anxiety
One prevalent type of anxiety disorder is an overall general anxiety and concern about life; fiancés, job security, health, etc. Panic disorders are another common type that entails a precipitous sense of imminent danger or disaster but it lasts for a short duration. Obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) are ubiquitous among Americans that causes people to partake in an action to prevent risk of future anxiety or grief. Eating disorders can actually fall into this category due to the aspect of controlling food to avert distress over potential weight gain, for example (1). These are some of the types of anxiety disorders types, but not an inclusive list.
Symptoms of Stress
Irrespective of the cause, there is an array of symptoms that result from this heightened sympathetic nervous system activity such as sleep disturbances, lack of concentration, high blood pressure and fatigue that if present for too long, can cause major turmoil on your metabolism and biochemistry. That includes predisposition to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cardiac ischemia and neurological disorders like depression.
During a stress response, cortisol is secreted from the adrenal glands after being signaled by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, known as the HPA axis. Chronic elevations of cortisol pose a major problem. Research shows that chronic cortisol levels damage neurons in the brain and down-regulate the receptors that accept serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates your mood and happiness. Hence, how depression is correlated with stress and anxiety. Cortisol in excess can also be a cause for hypothyroidism by depressing thyroid receptor sensitivity, interfering with TSH signaling from the pituitary and conversion to T3 thyroid hormone.
Drugs like benzodiazepines, antidepressants, beta-blockers and pregabalin remain to be the main line of treatment for anxiety and depression. The issue though is that they only provide temporary relief by emulating the activity of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA. Of course, they do not address the primary cause – over activity of the sympathetic nervous system and cortisol induced neurotransmitter metabolic imbalances.
Cortisol is notorious for disrupting hormone levels.
What Really Happens
Pregnenolone is a steroid hormone that can be converted into two sides. One side is to produce progesterone and then cortisol. The other side is to pregnenolone into DHEA and then your sex hormones like estrone, estradiol, testosterone, etc. When the body is incessantly under threat, cortisol production takes precedence, leaving very little pregnenolone to be utilized for sex hormone production. This is why high stress can cause missed pre-menopausal menstrual cycles and the process of menopause difficult. In menopause, the transition from the ovaries to the adrenals to manufacture estrogen becomes challenged because the adrenals are focused on cortisol secretion. Another alarming result of too much cortisol is elevated blood sugar, which signals insulin and thus, weight gain and even diabetes. You can easily see how many impaired biochemical pathways and imbalances can occur from stress. And there are likely many more. Checking your DHEA levels might be a good place to look if you experience symptoms associated with a chronic stress response.
Another unfortunate calamity from chronic stress is a depressed immune system, namely, T-regulatory cells and destruction of gut bacteria like lactobacillus and bifidobacterium creating dysbiosis, both of which can cause a “leaky gut” or increased intestinal permeability. In short, this creates an incredible disservice to your body by inviting chronic inflammation and a laundry list of potential disease risks that would require a separate article just to explain.
So, in other words, anxiety, mood disorders are associated with profound changes in your gut microbome. With the escalating amount of research coming out in the scientific literature about how gut bacteria communicates with the rest of the body and is related to many diseases, this is a prominent concern for health.
Controlling Stress Levels
It’s evident that controlling your stress response and inappropriate cortisol release activity should be the main focus for managing stress. There are however, a number of lifestyle interventions, nutrients, herbs and neutraceuticals that can help during the process by correcting hormone and neurotransmitter balance, reducing anxiety and cortisol.
Probably the most obvious proven methods to reduce anxiety and stress are by engaging in exercise, yoga, meditation, Tai Chi and massage. However, what may not be so obvious is that too litte exercise or too much can also be a source of stress. This is why the “workout harder and longer” model is purely flawed and is a way to impair your metabolism and plateau quicker.
So, what’s the alternative?
That means doing things that are relaxing. Participating in the activities mentioned above (i.e. massage, walking, yoga, etc.). Taking a break from physical exertion for a few days is sometimes necessary it you are constantly beating yourself up at the gym. After all, lifting weight is stress to the body.
The same concept can be applied to eating. Eating too few calories and eating well above your caloric needs is another burden on the body. Sometimes we need to just consume the amount of calories the body needs to function. In other words, no calorie surplus or deficit. Making dietary changes that include an abundance of omega-3 fats, fruits and vegetables and avoidance of sugar and excessive carbohydrates will help endogenous and exogenous stressors; that is, stress made internally and externally. Magnesium is lacking in a majority of Americans’ diets and is associated with anxiety in studies. It has a relaxing property that might warrant supplementation. Magnesium threonate, taurate and glycinate are good chelated forms. Tyrosine and tryptophan are amino acids found in protein rich foods that serve as building blocks for neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, respectively, where supplementation has been shown to elevate levels.
There are a number of botanical herbs that exhibit anti-anxiety and relaxing properties including lemon balm, rhodiola, L-theanine, NAC, St. John’s wort, valerian root and ashwaghanda (2). GABA is a critical neurotransmitter that assists in organizing frantic neural activity in a stress response. GABA supplementation in studies demonstrate its ability to alleviative stress related symptoms and mood issues. Ginseng acts as a powerful neutraceutical that improves GABA activity as well and reduces mental fatigue.
With regard to fruits and vegetables, there are numerous amounts of different chemical compounds called phenols in blue and purple colored foods that have magnificent health benefits. One of which is their ability to modulate mood by binding with GABA receptor sites. Additionally, vitamin D deficiency, as prevalent as it is these days, is greatly correlated with depression. Checking your vitamin D status is another excellent starting point aside from DHEA. Levels above 50 ng/ml would be ideal. Lastly, dong quai is a Chinese herb that displays some anti-anxiety characteristics that has been indicated to be as effective as the popular drug Diazepam.
Stress is huge issue for all of us and it’s an independent risk factor for metabolic disarray and overall well-being. Being aware of your sensitivity to emotional and physical triggers is the first step to addressing stress. Avoiding unnecessary stress responses that promote high cortisol release is your key to controlling stress. Try adopting some of these lifestyle actions and nutrient interventions to help mediate the process. We could all use a bit less stress in our lives.
Life Extension. Anxiety. http://www.lef.org/Protocols/Emotional-Health/Anxiety/Page-01. Accessed March 1, 2015.
Life Extension. Anxiety. http://www.lef.org/Protocols/Emotional-Health/Anxiety/Page-02. Accessed March 1, 2015.
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