It’s likely that you’ve heard about the detrimental effects of the stress hormone cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels and chronic stress can affect every physiological system in your body. It can make you tired, anxious and irritable; lead to weight gain, bone loss, high blood pressure, insomnia and digestive issues; and contribute to diabetes and heart disease risk.
Cortisol is also known as the aging hormone. When cortisol gets too high, it puts you into a “fight-or-flight” mode, which stimulates your sympathetic nervous system and adrenal glands. Your body isn't meant to be in this emergency stress mode constantly but, unfortunately, this is how many people spend the majority of their days. Chronic stress will ultimately burn out your adrenal glands, stress your digestive tract, cause you to gain weight around your tummy and age you more rapidly.
Getting a handle on your stress levels is essential to looking and feeling healthy, as well as aging gracefully. Luckily, there are a handful of herbal remedies, lifestyle hacks and functional techniques for balancing cortisol and alleviating stress and anxiety naturally.
Magnesium is a mineral that is essential for good health and vitality. It is considered the ‘anti-stress’ nutrient as it helps to calm and support the nervous system making it beneficial for people with anxiety and trouble sleeping. Magnesium deficiencies are associated with fatigue, weakness, twitching and muscle cramps, and a predisposition to anxiety and insomnia. Magnesium occurs abundantly in whole foods and the best dietary sources include: legumes, seeds (flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds), nuts (cashews, peanuts, almonds), whole grains (oats, millet, quinoa), avocados, sea vegetables, and green leafy vegetables such as spinach. Since up to 70% of the population is deficient in magnesium, I suggest supplementation. The recommended dosage is 300-400 mg of elemental magnesium daily.
2. B Vitamins
B vitamins are important nutrients for helping maintain emotional and mental health. B vitamins are needed for proper nervous system function and for the production of energy from food. They are also considered ‘anti-stress’ nutrients as B vitamins help to combat stress and relieve anxiety. Deficiencies in B vitamins can cause mood changes, depression, insomnia, anxiety and fatigue. The best food sources of B vitamins are dark leafy greens, lentils, bell peppers, grass-fed beef, wild caught fish, eggs, almonds, walnuts, sardines, oats, and sea vegetables. Depending on your needs, you may consider taking methylated B Complex supplement daily.
Chamomile has wonderful calming and anti-inflammatory properties and is often used in the treatment of insomnia and nervous complaints. Chamomile has a mild sedative action helping to promote a sense of calmness, which eases anxiety, along with inducing restful sleep. It is also useful for treating digestive problems associated with anxiety including nervous dyspepsia, IBS, diarrhea, constipation and nausea. My favorite way of to have chamomile is as a tea, made with 1-2 tsp of the dried herb steeped in boiling water for 10 minutes. Drink in the evening after dinner.
Ashwagandha is a popular Ayuverdic herb and a highly effective adaptogen. It is used to improve the body’s resistance to stress along with strengthening the immune system. Ashwagandha supports adrenal health and calms the nervous system, making it beneficial for alleviating anxiety in people who feel stressed, strung-out, and exhausted. It also helps promote better quality sleep. Take 500 mg two times daily.
5. Holy Basil
Holy Basil, also called tulsi, is known in India as the “elixir of anti-aging.” Preliminary studies suggest that holy basil may be effective in helping fight fatigue and stress; boosting the immune system; and regulating blood sugar, blood pressure and hormone levels. Holy basil can be taken as a tea to reduce stress and support your adrenals. I love the brand Organic India. All of their tulsi-based teas are delicious! My personal favorite is caffeine-free Red Chai Masala -- perfect for that 3pm slump!
6. Reduce Caffeine
Caffeine kicks on your fight or flight response, stimulating the production of stress hormones, namely cortisol, which gives you a temporary boost in energy levels, but can also contribute to anxiety, irritability, weakened immunity and insomnia. If you love your coffee, stick to just one. Given that caffeine can stay in your system for 8 or more hours, don’t drink coffee or caffeine-containing teas after 2pm so that it won’t disturb your sleep. For coffee alternatives, try matcha or green tea if you need a little boost. I love Teecino and DandyBlend for their roasty, coffee-like flavors without the caffeine.
7. Keep blood sugar balanced
There is a direct link between your mood and blood sugar levels. If your blood sugar levels fluctuate during the day so too will your mood and energy levels, and this can be a big contributing factor to anxiety and depression. Eating a diet high in sugary and processed carbohydrate foods will cause sudden peaks and dips in the amount of glucose in your blood stream, which can result in irritability, fluctuating mood, anxiety, tiredness, and poor concentration. The best way to keep blood sugar levels stable is by limiting sugary foods, and eating natural, unprocessed foods rich in fiber including whole grains (brown rice, whole oats and quinoa), fresh fruits, vegetables and legumes. Eating protein and fat at every meal is an excellent way to stabilize blood sugar levels and curb sugar cravings. Healthy protein rich foods include nuts, seeds, chicken, fish, red meat, legumes and eggs. Healthy fats include avocado, coconut oil, olive oil, ghee, nuts and nut butters and olives.
8. Eliminate Food Sensitivities
Food sensitivities or intolerances have been getting a lot of hype in the last few years. There is some merit to this, as foods that cause an inappropriate immune response can end up hurting your body in many ways, from hormonal imbalances to anxiety, weight gain, and lack of concentration. Anxiety often coincides with feelings of fatigue because the offending foods are consistently in your diet, aggravating your system. The most common food sensitivities to watch out for are dairy, gluten, soy, eggs, corn, cane sugar and chocolate. There are many others, and essentially anyone can be sensitive to any food if you have leaky gut. Try removing these common triggers from your diet for a period of two to six weeks, and slowly reintroduce them one-by-one to see the effect. If one of the foods is contributing to anxiety, it will become obvious when it’s reintroduced.
9. Incorporate Stress Management Techniques
Stress happens for all sorts of reasons and manifests in the body in many ways. One of those common manifestations is anxiety and other mood problems. The key aim when dealing with anxiety is to reduce our stress in any way possible, as often as you can. This means incorporating some form of self-care into your daily routine every single day. Those times when we are super stressed and think we don’t have time for self-care are exactly the times when it’s most needed. Here’re a few ideas to get started:
- yoga -- try Yoga Sesh (free yoga downloads on iTunes)
- meditation -- try the Headspace app or the OMG. I can Meditate! app
- deep breathing exercises like 4-7-8 breath or alternate nostril breathing
- putting your legs up the wall (pictured above)
- gratitude journaling
- spending time in nature, i.e. going for a hike in the woods, or at least a walk in the park!
- reading a "fluff" novel
- taking a hot bath with Epsom Salts and lavender essential oil
10. Try Yoga Therapy
Yoga Therapy is a wonderful modality for managing stress and reducing anxiety. If you've never heard of it before, Yoga Therapy is an ancient system of health care that adapts and applies Yoga techniques and practices to help people manage health conditions, reduce symptoms, restore balance, increase vitality and improve attitude. It is different from mainstream Western Yoga where the focus is on perfecting physical postures. Yoga Therapy is a functional approach. In other words, it focused on the effect a particular combination of techniques and practices being used by the Yoga Therapist have on the student and whether they address their needs.
I had the pleasure of having a session with Laurie Marks, a Yoga Therapist here in Denver. As a trained yogi myself, I am pretty comfortable with the physical postures but was interested in exploring more of the emotional and spiritual experience of yoga that is so therapeutic. Specifically, my goals were to learn techniques to mitigate the effects of prolonged sitting, practices for stress management and incorporating meditation into my daily life. Through a comprehensive intake form and an initial chat, Laurie learned what was most important to me and tailored our session to my individual needs. The session was lovely — with a nurturing approach, Laurie encouraged me to pause and tune into my body so that I could feel the different effects the practice had on my body and mind. She explained that with regular practice over time, students become aware of both movement and thought patterns that are not serving them. Therein lies the opportunity to make changes that improve one's well being. She sent me home with a posture series to practice during breaks at work and a guided somatic meditation for calming my busy mind. I loved that I got my own customized treatment plan for alleviating stress in a way that suited my lifestyle.
If you're interested in learning more about Yoga Therapy, visit Laurie's website - Rocky Mountain Yoga. Not Denver based? No worries! Laurie also offers Skype-based Yoga Therapy through Yoga Made to Order. If you're interested in checking it out, let Laurie know that you were referred by me and you'll receive $25 off your initial consult.