Stress Reduction to Enhance Productivity & Longevity
Stress is the #1 thing that I’ve found to completely sabotage anyone’s pursuit of better performance, recovery, or physique, but today you are going to discover what stress does to your mind-body connection and how you can optimize your nutrition, supplementation, and exercise to make your nervous system bulletproof.
In my own experience as a coach, I have personally witnessed this same scenario time and time again. The busy, CEO-type athletes who want to achieve it all and have success in work, in life, and in sports tend to struggle under the consequences of constant stress far more significantly than the relatively less busy man or woman who has opted to work a normal 9-to-5 job and save the rest of their time for training – or even set aside their career temporarily to train.
The overachievers simply tend to get sick more, get injured more, and have subpar results in their workouts, their racing, and their events. This may not seem “fair”, but it’s simply the reality of everybody having a finite biological stress coping mechanism.
But how do we combat all of this chronic stress in order to enhance productivity and longevity?
What Causes Stress?
To put it simply, stress is a non-specific response by your body to any demand for change—essentially, a disturbance of homeostasis or your internal equilibrium.
While stress often carries a negative connotation, it is a far-reaching phenomenon that can actually be both beneficial and detrimental to your health.
Good stress is called “hormetic” stress, which is a low dose of a chemical agent or environmental factor that results in an adaptive beneficial effect on your body, (but this same agent or factor at higher doses would pose detrimental effects to you). The term “hormesis” was first used in the 1940s to describe the stimulatory effect (“hormesis” is derived from hormáein, an ancient Greek word meaning “to excite,” or “to set in motion”) that red-cedar heartwood extract had on a cultured fungus, whose growth was inhibited by high concentrations of the same extract.
It’s only when these stressors are experienced too much, for too long, and exceed personal and social resources available that they become harmful. Because the modern world is rampant with stress coming at you from every possible angle—physical stress from lack of sleep, chronic infections, and injury; chemical stress from drugs, alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine; environmental stress from air pollution, cleaning chemicals, poor water quality, EMFs, and pesticides; mental stress from anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, loneliness, and fear; nutritional stress from vitamin and mineral deficiencies, blood sugar swings, gut dysfunction, and food intolerances; and spiritual stress from troubled relationships, financial, and career pressures—being stressed to a detrimental degree is seemingly unavoidable.
Cortisol, Stress, and the HPA Axis
The main hormone associated with stress is cortisol, a crucial hormone normally released in a specific rhythm throughout the day. Nearly every bodily cell has cortisol receptors. Cortisol and the functions of the HPA axis help control energy levels, blood sugar levels, the sleep/wake cycle, metabolism, inflammation, memory, and blood pressure.
When you experience more than a few minutes of stress, increased cortisol is released to activate the fight, flight, or freeze response and prime your body to deal with the perceived danger.
Cortisol released in times of stress increases your heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose, respiration, and muscle tension, while also temporarily shutting down the body’s hormonal systems that are not needed in times of crisis like those that regulate growth, reproduction, metabolism, and immunity. So how does this all work?
The Mind/Body Connection
A healthy mind-body connection means that you can learn to use your thoughts and feelings to positively influence your body’s physical response. For example, if right now you were to stop reading and recall a time when you were happy, grateful or calm, your body and mind will automatically tend to relax. Go ahead, try it. Just think back to a wedding, a birth, a kiss, a snuggle, a hug, throwing up your arms as you cross the finish line of a race, or any other awesome event in your life, and you’ll feel your body respond.
Similarly, if you recall an upsetting or frightening experience, you may feel your heart beating faster, you may begin to sweat, and your hands may become cold and clammy. You can try this too. Close your eyes and imagine a time in your life when you were frightened, stressed, scared, under pressure, or overwhelmed.
Supplements for Stress Reduction
Cortisol reduces inflammation in the body, so when chronic inflammation from poor diet and stress keeps cortisol levels high, glucocorticoid receptor resistance (GCR) occurs, resulting in your body’s failure to downregulate its inflammatory response.
Chronic inflammation and the resulting stress and high cortisol are at the root of most modern diseases. Therefore, whole foods, anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense diet is best for stress management. If you have known food sensitivities or suspect that you do, figuring this out and then avoiding those foods will play a huge part in reducing inflammation. Check out the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol to learn more about how to do this.
A number of supplements have been proven to reduce cortisol. Always start with changing your diet, but supplements are great in a pinch or when you can’t access some of the foods that reduce cortisol. Here are my top picks:
Adaptogenic Herbs – Adaptogenic herbs are unique healing plants that help you respond to any stressor by normalizing physiological function. The herbs proven to lower cortisol are:
- Ashwagandha – 125-600 mg per day.
- Schizandra – 500 mg to 2 grams of schizandra extract daily or 1.5-6 grams of crude schizandra daily.
- Rhodiola – 288-680 mg of extract per day.
- Holy Basil – 300-2,000 mg per day for supplements made of extract.
- Lemon balm – 300-600 mg per day.
- Cordyceps – 1-g per day.
- Licorice root – 1-4 g powdered root daily three times daily. (This doesn’t necessarily lower cortisol, but it optimizes HPA axis function.)
Phosphatidylserine – A fat found in high concentrations in the brain and nervous system, phosphatidylserine helps you cope with both physical and mental stress by keeping cortisol levels down. In addition to lowering cortisol, it’s also been proven to treat cognitive decline and dementia. Take 100 mg, three times per day.
L-Theanine – Found in green, black and white tea, L-theanine is a stellar supplement for reducing cortisol and improving cognitive function. Take 100-200 mg per day. Can be taken in the morning with caffeine for improved focus and mood or before bedtime to improve relaxation and sleep.
Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) – When cortisol is high, protein is broken down into amino acids that are then turned into glucose, so if you don’t have an adequate intake of EAAs, then you risk losing muscle during times of stress. And since EAAs are necessary for producing neurotransmitters that affect cortisol levels, balanced intake from a properly formulated supplement is optimal. Take 5-10g per day.
GABA – This study found that 100 mg of GABA reduced stress during mental tasks. Low levels of GABA in those with PTSD has been linked to poor sleep quality. GABA is found naturally in fermented milk products, sprouts of brown rice, barley, and beans or can be taken as a supplement.
L-Ornithine – Supplementation of 400 mg/day of L-ornithine resulted in a significant decrease of serum cortisol levelsand the cortisol/DHEA-S ratio, as well as decreased anger and improved sleep quality.
Kion Lean – The ingredients in Kion Lean blunt the glycemic response which results in less cortisol produced. Take 2 capsules per day before or after your largest or highest carbohydrate meal of the day.
Foods for Stress Reduction
Omega-3-rich Foods – Studies have shown that lower levels of omega-3s are related to cortisol dysregulation and inflammation. Keep in mind that animal foods have superior omega-3s. Foods that are high in omega-3s are:
B Vitamin-rich Foods – B vitamins are used to produce the hormonal cascade of the HPA axis that includes cortisol. Studies show that intake of B vitamins, especially B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folate), and B12 (cobalamin/cyanocobalamin) has positive effects on mood and stress. The most important B vitamins that are involved in the HPA axis cascade are B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), and B6 (pyridoxine). B vitamin-rich foods that reduce cortisol include:
- Leafy greens such as spinach, collard greens, turnip greens, and romaine lettuce contain high amounts of B9.
- Liver and other organ meats are jam-packed with B vitamins. (Ancestral Supplements and PaleoValley carry organ meat capsules if you can’t get into eating the meat. Also, check out my article here for more on how to source the healthiest organ meats.)
- Pasture-raised beef.
- Oysters, clams, and mussels contain huge amounts of B12 as well as B1, B2, B3, and B9.
- Legumes like edamame, lentils, chickpeas, and black beans contain high amounts of folate (B9).
- Chicken and turkey have high amounts of B3 and B6 as well as B2, B5, and B12.
- Yogurt is high in B2 and B12.
- Nutritional and brewer’s yeast contain very high amounts of B1, B2, B3, B6, B9, and B12.
Vitamin C-rich Foods – Vitamin C is rapidly used in the production of cortisol and therefore necessary for proper HPA axis function. Vitamin C deficiency is related to high levels of cortisol, and vitamin C reduces cortisol. Foods high in vitamin C include:
- Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and grapefruit
- Brussels sprouts
- Bell peppers
- Black currant
Probiotics and Prebiotics – Probiotics and prebiotics both have been shown to reduce cortisol. This is due to the intimate connection between the gut and adrenal function. Note: If you have SIBO, exercise caution with prebiotic and probiotic foods. Read more about why in this article. Probiotic-rich foods that reduce cortisol to include in your diet are:
Prebiotic-rich foods include:
- Chicory root
- Bananas, especially green
Olive Oil – Studies in rats show that oleuropein in olive oil boosts testosterone and metabolism and lowers cortisol. Make sure you get real olive oil from a trusted source though. Check out my podcast “What Olive Oil Should Taste Like, The Scary Truth About Olive Oil, Can You Cook With Extra Virgin Olive Oil & Much More!” for more on how to source the absolute best olive oil.
That’s an exhausting list, I know. In no way am I suggesting that you need to run out to your grocery store and buy and consume each and every one of these foods to lower cortisol. Simply incorporate as many of these as you can into your diet, stay away from the foods I mentioned earlier (sugar, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, inflammatory fats, alcohol, and caffeine), and you’ll be on your way to cutting off the never-ending cycle of cortisol production in your body.
Believe it or not, something you’re doing right now (probably without even thinking about it) is a proven stress reliever: breathing.
And it turns out that deep breathing is not only relaxing but it’s been scientifically proven to positively affect your heart, brain, digestion, immune system – and possibly even your genes (13, 4). In the book Relaxation Revolution: The Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing, author Herbert (Benson) discusses how breathing can literally change the expression of genes, and that by using your breath, you can alter the basic activity of your cells with your brain.
This isn’t really new information. In India, breathing is called pranayama (which literally means “control of the life force”) and yoga practitioners have been using pranayama as a tool for influencing the mind-body connection for thousands of years. This is because breathing can have an immediate effect on your physiology by altering the pH of your blood and by changing your blood pressure.
Even more importantly, breathing can be used as a method to train your body’s reaction to stressful situations and to dampen the production of stress hormones. This makes sense since rapid, shallow breathing is controlled by your fight-and-flight sympathetic nervous system, but slow, deep breathing stimulates the opposing parasympathetic reaction.
Here are 6 ways to train yourself to breathe properly:
1. Blow up balloons. When you practice blowing up a balloon, it encourages you to contract your diaphragm and core muscles. You can enhance this effect by getting into a crunch or sit-up position on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground, then blowing up a balloon by inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. At the same time, try to maintain pressure against the ground with your low back.
2. Purse your lips. Practice breathing through pursed lips by creating as small a hole as possible in your mouth to breathe through. As you do pursed-lipped breathing, this helps to keep you from breathing too fast. Take 2-4 seconds to breathe in through your nose, then take 4-8 seconds to breathe out very slowly through pursed lips, and practice this 1-2 times per day for about 3-5 minutes. Imagine you’re blowing through a straw, or trying to blow at a candle just hard enough for the candle to flicker, but not get extinguished.
3. Do planking exercises while deep breathing. Planking exercises like the front plank and side plank are fantastic for strengthening your core, and can also be used to teach you how to breathe properly. Simply get into a front or side plank position and take 8-12 deep breaths from your belly button. Try to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
4. Contract your abs as you breathe. A simple activity that can teach you how to use your abdominal (core) muscles to breathe better is to wrap your hand around your waistline, and then try to push your hands slightly away and out to the side as you breathe out. You should feel that your abdominal muscles are moving your hands as you breathe.
5. Upper chest resistance. Lie on your back, place a hand on your upper chest, apply slight downward pressure to the hard bone in the middle of your chest (your sternum), and try to maintain that pressure while you inhale and exhale. This will force you to “bypass” your chest while breathing, and instead breathe from deep within your belly.
6. Limit shoulder movement. Begin by sitting in a chair with your arms and elbows supported by the arms of the chair. As you inhale through your nose, push down onto the arms of the chair, and as you exhale through pursed lips, release that pressure on the arms of the chair. The purpose of this exercise is to keep you from elevating your shoulders while breathing (which can cause upper chest breathing).
Once you’ve learned proper breathing technique, things begin to get really interesting, because you’ll have a newfound power that not only vastly improves your training efficiency and focus, but also controls how much cortisol your body releases during a workout by “putting the brakes” on your sympathetic nervous system while you’re exercising.
Think about the last time you took a series of deep, relaxing breaths. Or perhaps the last time you practiced yoga, took a refreshing nature walk, or simply stopped your hectic workday for a brief moment of reflection. How did you feel afterward? Restored? Relaxed? Refreshed?
Next, contrast that sensation with how you felt during your last workout. Perhaps your mouth was gaping wide open as your panted from your chest while charging down a trail or pounding the pavement. Or maybe you were grunting and groaning forcefully as you struggled against a weight machine or barbell, or grimacing unpleasantly through a cardio, kickboxing, or spinning session.
But what if you could create that same relaxing sensation of release that you feel in the first set of restorative activities when you’re performing that second set of stressful activities? What if exercise – even extreme exercise – did not send a catabolic hormone-packed message to your body that you are running from a lion or fighting in a battle, but instead provided you with a relaxing release that left you feeling completely restored afterward?
This completely defies the paradigm of the way most of us perceive what we should feel during or after a tough workout, but with a simple series of steps, you can actually transform extreme exercise into a relaxing release. You’re about to discover exactly how to make that transformation, with the following five-step formula.
1. Begin With Yoga
You must prepare your body correctly for extreme exercises, such as a hard bike ride, weight training session, run, or competitive event. Sure, we’ve all heard that you must limber up, warm up, or perform dynamic stretches, but none of those activities prime your body for focused relaxation, or allow for an actual reduction in cortisol or activation of deep, diaphragmatic breathing patterns (3).
So you must precede extreme exercise with a brief series of basic salutations. It doesn’t take much – just 5 minutes will suffice. If you don’t know how to do basic sun salutations, simply watch this Howcast. You must especially focus on deep nasal breathing from your belly during this session.
Your body is now primed for relaxation during your workout.
2. Continue Deep Nasal Breathing
Hopefully, you were already practicing deep nasal breathing from your belly while you were doing the pre-exercise yoga.
If you’re like most people who have gotten used to going into “fight-and-flight” mode during extreme exercise, the natural reaction for you as soon as you start your workout is to begin oxygenating through your mouth while engaged in shallow chest breathing.
Resist that temptation.
Instead, continue the deep nasal breathing from the belly, which will naturally relax your body and limit high amounts of stress perception and cortisol release. If you simply can’t get enough oxygen, slow down until you get to the point where you can do your nasal breathing, then gradually speed up again to your harder intensity. As you back off and re-approach the higher intensities, you get better and better at deep nasal breathing. The more you practice this technique, the more natural it will become.
If you really struggle with nasal ventilation and find yourself annoyingly congested, or continually short of breath no matter what you do, then try using a Breathe Right strip on your nose.
3. Rhythmic Breathing
Whether you’re lifting weights, running, or cycling rhythmic breathing is just as important as nasal breathing for keeping your body in a relaxed state no matter how hard you’re exercising.
Learning rhythmic breathing is initially difficult, but becomes second nature within just a few days of practice. In a nutshell, when you’re running or cycling, you’re trying to inhale more than you exhale, and when you’re lifting weights your inhalation and exhalation are equal. And you are never, ever letting your breath become out of control or non-rhythmic.
If you’re running or cycling, simply take one deep nasal breath in for three-foot strikes or pedal strokes, and one relaxed nasal breath out on the subsequent two-foot strikes or pedal strokes. As you increase the intensity and go faster, you can continue this breath pattern but speed things up by taking one deep breath in for two-foot strikes or pedal strokes and one deep breath out on the subsequent one-foot strike or pedal stroke.
If you’re lifting weights, release one deep nasal breath as you exert yourself and push or pull the weight, then one deep nasal breath in as you return the weight to its starting position.
Those are the basics of rhythmic breathing, and when combined with nasal breathing, this pattern allows for an intense feeling of relaxation and oxygenation after you finish your workout, no matter how hard or heavy it is.
If you work around computers, phones, wi-fi routers, or any other “connected” scenario, you’ve no doubt experienced the brain fog, eye strain, muscle tightness, and internal stress that can be created by constant exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF). The effect of EMF on your nerves, cells, heart, and brain is proven and substantial – which you’ll learn about later in this book.
But your body remains exposed to that same electrical stress when you remain plugged in during your workouts, whether that be by carrying your smartphone during a secluded nature trail run or venturing into a gym jam-packed with TV and personal entertainment systems.
While there are some practical limitations to unplugging (e.g. you need to carry your phone for emergencies, or your only weight training equipment is at a fancy health club with lots of electricity), you should try to go out of the way to ensure your toughest workout sessions occur in as unplugged a state as possible.
No matter how much yoga you perform before an extreme exercise session, or how much nasal and rhythmic breathing you perform during that session, you simply won’t get the full removal of stress or the complete avoidance of a fight-and-flight reaction unless you remove yourself from electrical pollution during your workout.
5. Finish With Dedication
This last step sounds airy-fairy and inconsequential, but it’s crucial. Avoid finishing extreme exercise by jumping straight into the shower, flopping onto the couch, or checking e-mails on your computer. Instead, just as you would with yoga or a meditation session, finish with dedication and relaxation.
To do this correctly, you should gradually slow down towards the end of the workout while continuing your focus on breathing’/. Then, when your breath is completely controlled and your heart is no longer pounding, simply stop.
After you’ve stopped, close your eyes and dedicate the workout. You can dedicate it to yourself, to a loved one, to a teammate or workout buddy, or to whatever feels most important to you at the moment. Visualize that object of dedication in front of you, and acknowledge it respectfully. Take several deep nasal breaths in, fill your lungs, oxygenate your body, and finish with a full release of breath as you remove stress from your entire muscular and cardiovascular system.
Yes, modern human beings are bombarded with all kinds of stressors almost 24/7, but you can fight back by supporting your natural response to stress, enabling your body to reach and function at its optimal potential.
Practicing breathwork; taking steps to get deep, restful sleep every night; removing toxic body care products; and laughing, singing, and listening to uplifting music are all great ways to destress and lower cortisol…
…but incorporating supplements and foods that reduce cortisol into your diet can be the final nail in the cortisol coffin that will allow your body to function, and respond to stress, as it was meant to. Be sure to check out some of the following resources for more stress-reducing tips, because combating chronic stress isn’t as simple as avoiding coffee and popping a few pills!
Also remember that just because you’re adding all these stress-fighting weapons to your arsenal, you can’t necessarily use your newfound techniques as an excuse to simply pile more exercise or lifestyle stress on your body.
As you implement breathing, meditation, tai chi, yoga, coherence, a hobby, and sleep into your daily routine, you’re going to find yourself far more capable of handling the stress that life is throwing at you, and more capable of recovering from the stress that you are throwing at your own body.
This week’s call info
Tuesday, March 21st at 10:30 am CST
Speaker: Coach Kyle K
Zoom Link: https://us06web.zoom.us/j/4636180446