It's everywhere. Stress!
The pandemic didn't help much, and now inflation is spiraling. Out of the frying pan…
Our basic system for coping with stress is severely stretched and just beyond the edges, you have anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Or worse.
In fact, the two most common triggers for drug relapse are:
- BDNF levels
Wait what? The first is a no-brainer but the second one is just a bunch of letters.
Don't worry, we're going to cover that because it's critical for long term stress smack-down action.
In fact, there's a slew of tricks to keep stress under wraps, and we'll cover them here:
- Tip# 1 - magnesium glycinate - your mineral stress buffer
- Tip# 2 - CBD isolate- supporting the system that brings stress back to normal
- Tip# 3 - Glycine - the backup brake pedal for your nervous system
- Tip# 4 - Stress response is better served cold - cold exposure (your most hated friend)
- Tip# 5 - Steroidal hormones - forget reproduction…this is about stress survival
- Tip# 6 - Akkermansia - the gut strikes again with stress
- Tip# 7 - Breathing your way back (or forward); 4-6-8 and more
- Tip# 8 - B vitamins - ditch the Flintstones and support your resilience machinery
- Tip# 9 - Vagus nerve support - the "wanderer" needs love too
- Tip#10 - Omega 3's - your brain runs on fat. Till it doesn't!
Let's get started! So many goodies here.
A quick intro to the monster that is stress
First, understand that stress is just a signal from the brain:
- Stop doing something (gambling with kid's college money for example)
- Start doing something real fast (hello…can you finish that stress article??)
It keeps us moving forward and out of harm's way. The problem is chronic or acute (very intense) stress.
Our natural systems can be outgunned and anxiety is the actual correct response.
Something is not right here…CHANGE!
Let's introduce both sides of the field so we can look at actual tools based on research.
On the bad guy side:
- Corticotrophin releasing factor - hormone starts the whole stress train running
- Cortisol - our primary stress hormone; you KNOW how this feels
- Glutamate - brain's "gas" pedal; rev up…things need to change
- Histamine - excitatory player also moves everything into high alert
- Adrenaline - Okay…jump out of the way of the bus.
Now..in a normal situation, these players should all calm down and come back to baseline.
You can't STAY at defcon1 forever without burning out the circuitry.
Who's actually in charge of the pushback?
- GABA - the brain's "brake" pedal offsets glutamate, cortisol, and histamine. Good luck with that.
- Serotonin - longer term stress response buffer; manages our "limit" on what we can handle
- Anandamide - "bliss" molecule kicks in as needed to rally the calm troops
- Acetylcholine - our "calm and focus" player that opposes adrenaline
That's the stressful playing field (for the most part with stragglers and weird short-stops here and there).
A few key notes before we begin.
The standard meds to hit these players give us a clue (and a warning):
- Benzos - spike GABA levels till tolerance and addiction kicks in
- SSRIs (antidepressants) - spike serotonin levels till tolerance kicks in
- Antihistamines - slam histamine (think Benadryl, Tylenol PM, etc.) but with side effects and longer term dementia risk
So…you see we're on the right track although we need come at it from a different angle.
As for the good-guy side, there are lots of supposed supplements to boost GABA (l-theanine, GABA, gabapentin, etc.) and serotonin (5htp, SAMe, etc.) but there's the same issue.
Tolerance is THE enemy. Basically, anything that hits a pathway too hard will cause your brain to push back and actually REDUCE natural levels.
It's really the kryptonite to most meds/supplements when it comes to stress.
Sure…alcohol or cannabis might temporarily feel good when stressed…but you're going to pay!
We need tools that DON'T build tolerance or cause a rebound in the very players we're trying to support.
Hello, Top 10 List!
Let's get started before we absolutely lose our #*%^.
Tip# 1 - magnesium glycinate - your mineral stress buffer
I can't say enough about mag. In fact, we have a massive review of mag and stress, sleep, and pain here.
Mag is our natural calming agent in the body and brain, and it's significantly handicapped these days.
We use to get our mag from the soil-to-the-food conveyor belt (essentially soil bacteria and fungi) but good luck finding that with Arby's new menu.
Many people are deficient, and that's bad news since mag is our natural stress response buffer:
This overlap in the results suggests that stress could increase magnesium loss, causing a deficiency; and in turn, magnesium deficiency could enhance the body’s susceptibility to stress, resulting in a magnesium and stress vicious circle
So get this…mag keeps glutamate (gas pedal) at bay and supports GABA and serotonin function but when we're stressed, our body dumps it out via urine!
Viscous cycle indeed.
Magnesium glycinate or threonate passes the blood/brain barrier best. Most others don't (we learned the hard way from migraines).
We take 3 x 100mg daily or as needed (great in the middle of the night).
Mag is a natural laxative so you'll know when you have too much.
It's really our metallic shield against stress in the nervous system!
Next up…the balancing actor.
Tip# 2 - CBD isolate- supporting the system that brings stress back to normal
We actually have a system that is tasked with righting the ship after stressful situations.
It's called the endocannabinoid system where CBD and THC work.
The issue with THC is that it hits too hard and for too long (imitating anandamide) which causes the body to "exhaust" these feel good pathways after stress or even reduce them longer term.
Wrong direction. A stress "hangover."
CBD isolate on the other hand supports this system…when low! When exhausted.
Technically it's called an allosteric positive modulator but if you're not up on your Klingon…it's a feedback mechanism to support when running too low.
Since this system is tied into every other system, you see widespread effects:
- CBD calms corticotrophin-releasing factor (the giddyup to stress response)
- CBD calms cortisol (stress hormone)
- CBD supports GABA
- CBD supports serotonin BUT without the tolerance piece
Just one (of 100's studies) example with serotonin, our master stress response manager:
Even at low doses, CBD acts as an agonist at serotoninergic 5-HT1A receptors and blocks stress-induced changes in 5-HT1A receptor gene expression, which reduces anxiety associated with the stress response
Look Ma! No tolerance! And no serotonin syndrome.
See why we geek out?
Hold under the tongue for up to 60 seconds to speed/boost availability. Generally, 100mg-300mg daily or as needed matches the research. We use this one.
Next up, GABA's ugly cousin. Unless you're into calm and sleep.
Tip# 3 - Glycine - the backup brake pedal for your nervous system
Big review on glycine here but let's hit the highlights.
Glycine is an amino acid…a simple protein with big effects on the brain and nervous system.
Where GABA operates in the brain, glycine shares duties with the brain stem and the rest of the nervous system.
This speaks directly to the "bodily" sensations of stress driven by adrenaline. Things you can't control like a heartbeat or blood pressure, etc. Signals that go from body to brain and cause…alarm!
Glycine's role there:
When an individual experiences anxiety or panic, NE is released and creates feelings of anxiety and panic. Glycine antagonizes the release of NE, thus mitigating anxiety and panic and feelings of over-arousal.
Ah-ha! NE is norepinephrine (precursor to adrenaline). This is huge for panic. Anxiety.
"Over arousal" sound familiar?
We need to short-circuit this adrenaline feedback loop, and glycine is a key tool.
Great before sleep but also during times of intense stress (you feel frazzled).
3-5K glycine matches research, and we use this one here.
Now…you're going to hate us for the next one.
Tip# 4 - Stress response is better served cold - cold exposure (your most hated friend)
We just wrapped a massive review on rescuing dopamine in which we were just mesmerized by the effects of cold exposure.
There's almost no tool like it!
When you expose yourself to cold (safely - see Huberman labs), there's a fascinating hack that goes on with stress response.
When exposed to cold, your body releases adrenaline (expected…it's COLD!)....but not…cortisol!
It's a GOOD kind of stress. Called eustress...not distress. More importantly, you're literally buying future calm and pleasure by enduring the pain and cold.
Don't get mad at us…we didn't wire this evolutionary yin-yang into life.
But we'll use it!
This is ancient hardware we're hacking into!
Cold exposure appears to trigger a stress-induced pain-relieving response in the homeostatic brain network, already primed by breath retention. Activation of the periaqueductal gray suggests a decrease in pain perception and therefore anxiety.
You're slowly building your stress response with a GOOD flavor of stress. One our body has been programmed to deal with for…millions of years.
10 minutes in 60 degree water (a cold bath) can elicit most of the benefits. Take into account your health and work with a doctor/naturopath.
Check out our dopamine rescue if you need some motivation to deal with the cold.
You'll never look back once you incorporate this activity and stress will slowly fade into the ether.
Compared to fear of freezing, that exam or meeting is nothing to our basic programming!
We're going to do a massive review of cold exposure and mental health shortly.
One weird quirk of cold exposure is a pretty big increase in steroidal hormones. A bonus.
Let's go there now.
Tip# 5 - Steroidal hormones - forget reproduction…this is about stress survival
Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are absolute monsters in your stress response system.
Too bad progesterone and testosterone are dropping around 1% from age 20 and Estrogen goes off a cliff late 40s.
We learned this the hard way (our brutal perimenopause story).
We have big reviews but the key takeaways:
- Progesterone supports GABA (calming player) and calms inflammation
- Estrogen supports serotonin (stress response manager)
- Testosterone supports serotonin via estrogen conversion in the male brain by aromatase
Goodness… the here and now (GABA) stress buffer as well as our long term manager (serotonin).
Check out the reviews…that's just the start of it since every cell in your body has receptors for all three.
Keep in mind that we're swimming in environmental hormone disrupters (plastics, cosmetics, food additives, omega 6 - seed oils, etc.)
Testosterone levels have dropped significantly across ALL age bands from 20 years ago. Estrogen is walloping progesterone when it should exist in balance.
Get your levels checked. The cold exposure trick above is one of a few ways to really support these key players.
Let's turn to the gut (where steroidal hormones also work).
Tip# 6 - Akkermansia - the gut strikes again with stress
The wild west of health is in the gut. Probiotics and fungi….most of which we know very little about.
A few stars are emerging though that we can take advantage of to support our gut which in turn, tells our brain how to feel!
Don't believe us??
These results demonstrate that colon-delivered SCFAs modulate hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis reactivity to psychosocial stress, thereby supporting their hypothesized role in microbiota-gut-brain communication.
Translation: by messing with gut fats and bacteria, researchers can change the brain's response to social stress.
What??? That's just the tip of the iceberg. They can transfer fecal bacteria from anxious mice to non-anxious mice…and make them anxious. Or display Parkinson's. Or Depression. On and on and on. And vice versa!
Akkermania M is one such player (of many to come) we can look at now.
In fact, a study looked at supporting akkermansia for Chinese students under intense stress from the notorious college exams:
results indicated that the consumption of PSP increased the abundance of Streptococcus and Akkermansia that was lowered by the anxiety state in the intestinal microbiota of students.
Reduced anxiety and depression from the stress-induced situation.
Or in mice:
In socially defeated animals, we found significant reductions in the overall diversity and relative abundances of numerous bacterial genera, including Akkermansia spp., that positively correlated with behavioral metrics of both anxiety and depression.
How do we boost akkermansia? A few ways:
- Pendulum has an akkermansia supplement
- Berberine directly drives akkermansia levels
Let's now go north to the lungs.
Tip# 7 - Breathing your way back (or forward); 4-6-8 and more
Wim Hof of cold exposure fame also spends quite a bit of time on breathing.
How we breathe is a powerful signal to the brain in times of stress….the communication is bi-directional.
The brain is looking for signs of distress in the body (heart racing, vasodilation, faster breathing, etc.) resulting from stress.
You can 'trick" this flow of information by directly focusing on the breath.
There are many "practices" but we'll focus on a well-tread one and explain why the out-breath length is so important for stress.
4-6-8 is simple and effective:
- Breath in for 4 seconds; expand the stomach (diaphragm)
- Hold for 6 seconds
- Breath out fully for 8 seconds (really try to empty the lungs)
The focus should be on really expanding the diaphragm (just below your breastplate…think stomach) and breathing OUT as long as possible.
First, the diaphragm (expand stomach):
There was a significant interaction effect of group and time in the diaphragmatic breathing condition on cortisol levels, whereby the BIG had a significantly lower cortisol level after training, while the CG showed no significant change in cortisol levels.
The diaphragm breathing group saw cortisol (primary stress hormone) drop…significantly! You're mechanically pushing on the vagus nerve, our seat of "Rest and Digest".
Then the out breathe:
It happens due to respiratory vagus nerve stimulation: during inhalation, the sympathetic nervous system facilitates a brief acceleration of heart rate; during exhalation, the vagus nerve secretes a transmitter substance (acetylcholine, or ACh) causing deceleration within beat-to-beat intervals via the parasympathetic nervous system.
This is ancient machinery we can hack.
Breathing in…harder and faster is a trigger for fight or flight. In fact, in times of stress, hyperventilation or even holding breaths (or very shallow breathing) can take over…automatically.
You can't SIGH when stressed! Or can you? If you force this action (long outbreath), you're tricking the brain into thinking everything's chill.
We'll talk about where this happens below (vagus nerve) but just know that our breathing is both a result and driver (when we force it) of the stress response.
Let's turn to some unsung heroes.
Tip# 8 - B vitamins - ditch the Flintstones and support your resilience machinery
Vitamin B's seem so passe in light of everything we've talked about above.
This couldn't be further from the truth!
In fact, B vitamins are key players that exhaust stress.
Regarding individual facets of mood, B vitamin supplementation benefited stress (n = 958, SMD = 0.23, 95% CI = 0.02, 0.45, p = 0.03).
A 23% reduction in stress across a list of studies.
A range of studies dive deeper into the effects:
in a sample of 300 otherwise-healthy adults Schlebusch et al.  reported that ratings of subjective stress were significantly improved following four weeks supplementation with a vitamin B complex.
Now combine this with MTRR and MTHFR, genes that govern B12 and folate function for which, many people have variants which result in reduced function.
Folic acid actually competes with folate for these people! Methyl versions of B vitamins are very important here.
That's just a few people right?
Just around 40% of the population. Goodness.
B vitamins are critical to a range of processes but front and center is managing cortisol levels.
and (wait for it)...GABA!
According to a December 2016 review in the journal European Food Research and Technology, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 help to bolster the activity of the GABAergic system.
We did a whole review on Vitamin B's and mental health.
Choline happens to be a B vitamin and it's critically tied to our next section.
Let's turn to the very fascinating Vagus Nerve!
Tip# 9 - Vagus nerve support - the "wanderer" needs love too
Right below your breastplate (hint hint from the expanded breathing and diaphragm above), you have a powerful hub between your gut brain and brain.
It's called the Wanderer since it branches out across your torso and organs.
Our focus is on it's primary chemical product…acetylcholine.
The "calm and focused" neurotransmitter!
Sounds like something we want to know?
You know when your heart races, pulse quickens, sweaty palms, eyes dilate, etc.??
The vagus nerve directly ties into the heart and lungs to manage these responses whether we like it or not.
But…we can affect the vagus nerve and support acetylcholine (besides nicotine which mimics its shape chemically).
Check out the full review but here are some key tips:
- Deep breathing (again!!)
- Expand diaphragm
- Tapping the breastplate
- Singing, humming, chanting (hello all major religions!!!)
- Those are all physical stimuli for this nerve but it gets strange from there!
Gratitude. Saying "thank you". Appreciation.
Hello, Gratitude practices. Hello, mindful meditation.
Support this nerve and watch your stress response improve not only in a jam…but long term.
Let's turn to fat.
Tip#10 - Omega 3's - your brain runs on fat. Till it doesn't!
We did a massive review on the great Fats con game.
How our healthy omega 3's have slowly been switched out for very cheap, factory fat (seed oils) and all that comes with that.
We could go into brain inflammation, oxidative stress, steroidal hormone reduction, and much more but let's zoom out to 40,000 feet!
Four months of omega-3 supplementation led to a profile of stress resilience – lower overall levels of cortisol and inflammation during stress, and higher levels of telomerase and anti-inflammatory activity during recovery. This has direct relevance to aging biology and psychiatry.
Goodness. Can we just drop the mic now?
Newer studies are getting even more sophisticated!
We'll walk through this one:
omega-3 supplementation altered telomerase (p=0.05) and IL-10 (p=0.05) stress reactivity; both supplementation groups were protected from the placebo group’s 24% and 26% post-stress declines in the geometric means of telomerase and IL-10, respectively.
Basically, stress will actually age you. Reduce telomere lengths, the shoe-lace-like binding of your genes which signal aging.
Cortisol and even a key inflammatory agent called IL6 all get ramped up.
Omega 3's blunted these effects following stress!
And during the time of the stressor:
Omega-3 also reduced overall cortisol (p=0.03) and IL-6 (p=0.03) throughout the stressor; the 2.5 g/d group had 19% and 33% lower overall cortisol levels and IL-6 geometric mean levels, respectively, compared to the placebo group.
People…Omega 3's are a key stress response buffer.
High quality fish oil screened for contaminants is available…now! We use this one.
Okay…that's a wrap but before heading off, we have deep dives into related topics: