We may not have the same stressors as our ancient ancestors—substitute a rampaging economy in place of a rampaging woolly mammoth—but our bodies don’t know that, says integrative medicine practitioner Charles A. Moss, MD. When stressed, we still go into fight-or-flight mode, complete with sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and rapid breathing. The response starts with a shot of adrenaline, followed by high levels of the hormone cortisol, which helps us perform by moving blood from the digestive tract to the muscles and raising blood sugar levels to increase energy.
Once a short-term stressor is removed, cortisol production shuts down, says Moss, author of Power of the Five Elements (North Atlantic, 2010). The problem is, many modern stressors—job worries, for instance—tend to linger, leading to chronically elevated levels of cortisol. Research has linked excess cortisol to blood sugar–related diseases such as obesity and diabetes, along with lowered immunity, depression, allergies, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s. The good news is that we can reset our cortisol levels by adopting a handful of simple, healthier habits. Start by going to bed a half-hour earlier and remembering to take your daily multivitamin. Beginning to feel more balanced already? Then try these seven surprising but proven techniques to keep your life on track and maintain your energy when the going gets tense.
Enjoy a caffeine kick, in moderation
Jitters and caffeine seem to go hand in hand, but a moderate amount of this natural pick-me-up can actually counteract the effects of anxiety by sharpening mental focus and reducing fatigue, says nutritional biochemist Shawn Talbott, PhD. Of course, too much caffeine can make you tense and irritable. “The tipping point tends to be about 200 to 300 mg a day, as noted in studies of caffeine use in stressed subjects,” says Talbott, author of Vigor (GLH, 2010). Do this: Limit yourself to two cups of coffee a day. And try alternating lattes with cups of green tea. L-theanine , an amino acid found in green tea, has a “nonsedating, calming effect that ‘overrides’ the stimulation of the caffeine in the tea,” Talbott says.
Skip refined carbs
When you’re stressed, junk foods and sweets can offer emotional comfort. But they do just the opposite physiologically: Refined carbohydrates in these foods seem to keep cortisol levels high, says Rashmi Gulati, MD, medical director of Patients Medical, a holistic wellness center in New York City. How? Simple carbs such as sugar and white flour break down into glucose, which the body uses for energy. But if glucose levels are too high, the body perceives a state of stress and produces more cortisol, Gulati says. Do this: Don’t avoid all carbs—which research shows actually can support mood by stimulating the production of serotonin, the brain’s “feel-good” chemical. But do choose complex carbs such as whole-grain oats or whole fruits such as apples, which contain enough fiber to slow digestion and reduce impact on blood sugar. Gulati recommends eating low-starch vegetables such as artichokes, green beans, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, and salad greens—along with some protein and healthy fats. “Balancing your meals will even out your mood and blood sugar levels and lessen your anxiety,” she says.
Soak up magnesium
Spike your bathwater with Epsom salts. Research shows the skin can absorb these natural magnesium sulfate crystals, boosting your body’s levels of this key mineral. Magnesium helps regulate serotonin; in fact, magnesium deficiency has been linked to anxiety, hyperexcitability, apprehension, nervousness, and insomnia, says Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, author of The Complete Natural Guide to Women’s Health (Robert Rose, 2005). Do this: Add two cups of Epsom salts to your bathwater and soak for at least 12 minutes, up to three times a week. Alternatively, take 250 mg of magnesium daily as a supplement, Dean says, or nosh on magnesium-rich foods such as nuts, halibut, spinach, and whole-grain cereal.
Rest rather than sleep
Your night-owl schedule might not be as much a factor on your stress levels as how you spend your time when you’re awake, says Matthew Edlund, MD, author of The Power of Rest (HarperOne, 2010). “Rest is the process where the body rebuilds, resets, and renews itself,” he explains. “But unlike sleep, rest can be an active process where we consciously direct that rebuilding.” People who are rest-deprived end up with overloaded emotions, minds, and nervous systems, and feel sluggish and tired no matter how much they sleep. “We’ve forgotten what it feels like to be truly refreshed,” Edlund says. “Fortunately, there are all these little, simple things we can do throughout the day to rest that fit into even the busiest schedules.”
Focus your attention on one muscle, releasing any tension. Then do the same with another muscle. “You can actually feel your blood pressure and heart rate go down as you relax each muscle,” Edlund says.
Consciously connect with something outside your everyday physical or mental environment. “Look around wherever you are and imagine, ‘What was this place like ten years ago, a hundred years ago, a billion years ago?’ It gives you a little sense of wonder and helps you relax,” he says.
Socialize with friends who put you at ease. This can be as easy as walking to lunch with a colleague and talking about work.
Clear your senses. Start by closing your eyes and putting your index fingers in your ears deep enough to stop the noise; then quickly pull out your fingers, Edlund says. Open your eyes and look around you. First, look just in terms of color; a second time, look at forms; and a third time, focus on sounds. “Spend five to ten seconds on each one of these. It gives you a perceptual reset of your visual and auditory systems when you feel like you’re losing it and allows you to come back to yourself,” he says.
Take a technology holiday
In our multitasking culture, you may find yourself becoming addicted to getting things done and subsequently taking on more than you’re physically able to do. “People lose touch with how to relax and put the BlackBerry aside and just enjoy the moment,” Gulati says. Do this: To reverse the cycle, swap your to-do list once a week for a list of things you’re either not going to do at all, that you can delegate, or that you can do another day. Spend the time you saved doing something you find relaxing—guilt-free. A great way to start, says Gulati: Take a “technology holiday” at least one day per week.
Step down your exercise
Sure, a good workout reduces your emotional stress by boosting your endorphins, but keep in mind that exercise is also a physical stress on your body. A half-hour walk is actually better for your cortisol levels than an hour-long step class, Gulati says. Likewise, it may not be a good idea to start a new exercise class or learn a new workout routine when you’re feeling anxious. “For instance, yoga is good for stress, but if you’ve never done it before it could actually add to your stress because you may be worried you don’t know how to do it,” says Pete McCall, MA, exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. Do this: For optimum stress reduction, aim for 20 to 30 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity exercise daily. “Focus on exercises like biking, walking, or hiking, where you don’t have to do a lot of heavy thinking,” says McCall.
Sing a happy tune
Or any tune—studies show that not only does singing decrease cortisol levels, but belting out a ballad is a more effective stress reliever than just listening to one. Why? Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted to Stress (Jossey-Bass, 2008), theorizes that singing makes us feel better on a variety of levels. “We’re creatures of rhythm, so anything that introduces rhythm to our lives calms us down. We have comforting memories associated with songs, and singing distracts you and breaks you out of your worry loop,” she says. Do this: Turn up your favorite tunes and sing along in your car or while cleaning the house. With any luck, the traffic—and maybe even the mess—will soon feel less like a big problem and more like just another little bump in your daily road.