Stress is hormetic.
If you don’t have any stress, you’ll die.
If you have too much stress, you’ll die.
Life is not stress-free, so it’s a good idea to just increase your tolerance to it. Most people call it “reducing stress” but if you’re reducing stress you are probably reducing your livelihood too. Stress is a necessary evil.
Besides going on an expensive meditation retreat to re-evaluate your life and what you think is stressful psychologically, or smoking dope and binge-drinking on the weekends to the point of ennui, there are a few ways to increase your stress tolerance on a physiological level.
Understanding cortisol and stress
Cortisol is called the “stress hormone.” That is, amounts of it are released in response to stress. Not just the stress of “OHMIGOD MY BOSS IS GONNA KILL ME IF I DON’T HAVE THESE TPS REPORTS DONE BY FRIDAY” but also the stress of certain lifestyle habits:
- Poor, irregular sleep
- Excessive fasting/calorie restriction
- Excessive high-intensity exercise
- Excessive alcohol and stimulant intake
- Being constantly argumentative and angry (online or offline)
- Diet that causes auto-immune attack on the adrenal glands and/or thyroid (unlikely but possible)
Cortisol is not necessarily bad and is a necessary part of bodily signaling mechanisms tied to metabolism, but chronically-elevated levels of it due to internal and external stress factors are tied to:
- Central obesity: fat stored around the waist and abdomen and among the organs
- Lowered sex hormones (testosterone in men, which is a big deal)
- Lack of motivation
- Reduced immunity and energy levels
- Burnout: Eventual decrease in the ability of the body to produce cortisol
- Weird blood sugar metabolism (resulting in hypoglycemia) and insulin sensitivity
So, that’s that. A rudimentary understanding of cortisol. Cortisol regulates a couple of things such as your blood sugar levels, and by consequence, your energy levels. It spikes upon waking, and starts to rise if your blood glucose goes down. If you’re not fat, your lifeline is your blood glucose, and you become sensitive to these cortisol levels if this is the case.
Now how do we reduce its negative effects on a physiological level?
- Get a good night’s sleep (try eating honey before bed, it’s worked for a lot of people according to Seth Roberts.)
- Keep your cortisol at a gently declining rate through the day by eating small, regular snacks and meals to maintain your blood glucose levels
- Avoid sugar and processed junk
- Ditch heavy caffeine and alcohol sources. Switch to green tea.
- Take some supplements for cortisol reduction/balancing and stress tolerance
Supplements for stress tolerance
What, you thought I wasn’t going to mention any supplements in this post at all? I’m Pill Scout, peddler of tinctures, potions and pills.
Self-deprecating humor aside, there are some very effective herbal supplements that reduce the negative effects of stress on the body and mind and speed the recovery of your body.
Vitamin C is probably one of the biggest ones. People seem to be chronically deficient in this vital nutrient. Get a couple of grams in your system every day. If you can stomach cruciferous veggies like brussels sprouts, kale and broccoli, you can cook, steam, roast or juice some of these for their vitamin C content. Otherwise stick to a bioavailable supplement form of vitamin C such as Ester-C.
Ashwagandha is an herb known in Ayurvedic medicine for its stress-reducing (and potentially aphrodesiac) properties. Examine.com has given Ashwagandha an “A” rating in regard to research on its anxiety-reducing effects, meaning this substance is super effective at what it does based on the mountains of scientific evidence for this criterion.
Holy basil (Tulsi)
Another Ayurvedic herbal adaptogen of South Asia, tulsi, better known as holy basil, is known as an all-around stress reducer, and touted as a testosterone-booster in men. It’s available in capsules and tea bags.
This one just keeps popping up everywhere. If you aren’t getting omega-3 fatty acids in your diet already, you aren’t living life to the fullest. It turns out that Omega-3 has a stress-diminishing effect while increased levels of omega-6 (as found in the Standard American Diet) are associated with increased stress. If you eat too many omega-6 as it is, consider getting some simple fish oil capsules, or splurge on these cod liver oil capsules.
An herb which finds its home in the more temperate climates of the Northern hemisphere, rhodiola is used to reduce fatigue. While the effects on stress are not as pronounced as other herbs, it’s a good complement to a de-stressing supplement regimen. Available in capsule form.
Schisandra chinensis berries have been used in folk medicine in Asia for ages. Preliminary research has shown that they likely have adaptogenic and stress-reducing properties in regard to stress caused by exertion. Available in capsule form.
Eleuthero, the “Siberian ginseng,” is another herb worth mentioning for its adaptogenic properties. Seems to have a particularly beneficial effect on the immune system as well as in reducing stress, and is available in capsules.
While not as well-researched as everything else, based on what little evidence is available, the Peruvian-native plant maca is classed as an adaptogen with potential aphrodisiac qualities. It’s available in capsules as well as in a bulk powder form.
If I had to pick 3 to get rid of my stress, I’d go for ashwagandha, rhodiola and schisandra first and cycle them through the week. The others are good but if I’m on a tight budget I can forgo them. If I were extra focused on weightlifting I might consider the eleuthero too. Anxiety? Go for the vitamins, theanine and the holy basil.
Just remember, take it easy, take it low, take it slow if you’ve been burned out by stress. It takes a long time to recover once you’ve passed the breaking point.