By Laine Bergeson
Our bodies are built to handle short-term stresses. Chronic stress? Not so much.
When we experience too much stress for too long “the body releases [the stress hormone] cortisol but is unable to lower the levels back to normal in a short time frame,” says Nick Bitz, ND and Chief Scientific Officer for Youtheory®. “This leads to excessively high levels of cortisol over an extended period which can wreak havoc on virtually every part of the body, including the mind and emotions.”
Chronically elevated cortisol is associated with a long list of health problems, from high blood pressure and heart problems to diabetes, depression, skin conditions like acne, and weight gain.
We have little control over the stressors that weave their way into our lives. We have more control over how we respond to stressful events, and that’s a good thing because “stress is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you,” explains Dr. Bitz. By improving the body’s ability to cope with stress, we can help buffer against the corrosive effects of chronically elevated cortisol.
Here are seven small but powerful ways to improve your ability to cope with stress:
#1 Get familiar with your individual triggers
Some life events are universally stressful (and hard to prevent or avoid), like a sick family member or a job loss. But small stressors in our everyday environment add to our total stress load and contribute to chronically-elevated cortisol. So identifying small, controllable things in your environment that you can fix or eliminate helps lower your total stress load.
Say, for example, the doorknob on your bedroom door is broken and every time you open it you end up in an epic wrestling match with the door — and you have an outsized stress response. Fix the doorknob and you spare yourself that jolt of cortisol every time you go to the bedroom.
Remember, too, that different people find different things stressful. That flickering lightbulb may drive you batty, but your spouse may barely notice. Don’t discount a stressor because you’re the only one who seems bugged by it. If it drives you up a wall, it’s worth addressing.
#2 Keep blood sugar stable
The body interprets blood sugar crashes as a form of stress, so keeping blood sugar stable is a powerful way to protect against stress. Focus on eating whole foods rich in healthy fats, high-quality protein, and complex carbs. Avoid blood sugar bombs like sugary foods and beverages, and foods high in simple, refined carbs. But everyone has a unique carb tolerance. Some people can eat a few simple carbs and not notice much of a blood sugar swing. Others walk by a cookie and their blood sugar surges and tanks. Experiment to find the combination of macronutrients that works for you.
#3 Take an adaptogen
Adaptogens are plant compounds that help support and protect the body’s stress response system. “Ashwagandha is my first choice for stress,” says Dr. Bitz, who has taken this adaptogen daily for years. “Ashwagandha works by regulating key systems in the body — most importantly the endocrine, nervous, and immune systems — to enhance a state of nonspecific resistance against stressors. In other words, it acts like a shield between the body and the stressor.”
One of our personal favorites, Youtheory® Ashwagandha, contains 1,000mg per serving, which is what Dr. Bitz recommends as a daily maintenance dose. He advises ramping up to 2,000mg per day during times of high stress. “The key is to find a dose that works best for you and to stick with it for an extended period of time, ideally six weeks or more,” says Dr. Bitz. “The deeper, more profound benefits of ashwagandha will come out over time.”
Getting enough restorative, high quality sleep is essential for keeping cortisol levels in check and being able to face new stressors each day. Like exercise, it is also a secret weapon in keeping blood sugar steady.
You surely already know the list of tips for getting better sleep (no screens before bed, make sure your bedroom is dark and not too warm, cut back on caffeine in the afternoon, etc.) but the real secret to getting more and better sleep is to decide once and for all that you will treat sleep like the vital component of good health that it is — and prioritize getting more of it.
#5 Give yourself permission to do nothing at all (and when you are active, don’t multitask)
As a society, we’ve come to value doing over being. Many of us feel antsy or guilty when we rest, or we become even more stressed because we’re afraid we’re missing something important at work or out in the world.
But in order to perform our best and to work with more ease — and less stress — we must make time for rest. Ditto with making a commitment to single-tasking. Research has found that multitasking not only doesn’t work, it adds to our overall stress.
Exercise helps lower adrenaline and flush cortisol from the body. Some types of movement, like weight training, also help support feelings of confidence, competence, and self-reliance, which help with stress resilience. Regular exercise also helps keep blood sugar stable. What’s the best type of movement practice for you? The one you will do! Find an exercise practice or type of movement you love and make it part of your daily life.
#7 Take self-care seriously
Self-care isn’t a frivolity or luxury. Self-care practices and restorative activities like yoga and meditation are well-researched ways to safeguard against the effects of chronic stress. But the key is to find the self-care practice that works for you. Meditation is great, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Same with yoga and other stress management “usual suspects.”
Make it a goal to find what works for you: Acupuncture? Energy work? Singing in a community choir? Connecting over board games with your family or your neighbors? Getting a facial? Doing a few minutes of 4-7-8 breathing? Taking a short walk in the woods? Making more (or fewer!) social engagements? There’s a world of ways to practice self-care. Have fun exploring!