Our society has a rampant problem. This problem is destroying our physical bodies, our ability to produce great work, our mental health, our relationships with others, our sleeping habits. The problem is stress — chronic, uncontrolled stress. In such unprecedented times, when jobs are insecure, our health is at risk, our children are at home from school, and food supplies are limited — stress is unavoidable. This actually is a stressful time, but we know that reacting negatively to the stress will not change our situation. Our external environment will remain constant, but what is in our control is how we react to it.
After seeing continuous glucose data from hundreds of people, one of the biggest issues is how truly impactful stress is on our bodies. Chronic stress can have just as much of an impact on our glucose levels as a triple cheeseburger and fries.
The Science of Stress
Whether we are being chased by a lion or under extra pressure at work, all stressors cause the same reaction in the body. When a threat or risk is sensed, the body releases cortisol and adrenaline to cope. These hormones, while important for fueling our “fight or flight” response, also trigger glucose production in the liver to prepare the body to face the stressor at hand. This, coupled with a simultaneous reduction in insulin sensitivity, often results in chronically elevated glucose.
On a fundamental level, it is important to recognize that having this stress response is a completely normal and vital survival trait in all humans. Nothing is more important in our evolution than being able to quickly assess our environment, identify if it is stressful or not, and respond appropriately and quickly. In today’s modern society, when daily stressors can easily become chronic and uncontrollable, the response can quickly become problematic. This is often coupled with subjective changes such as drops in energy, food cravings, and unstable mood levels. It can be a vicious cycle that’s hard to break.
Realizing this is an issue, especially now more than ever, our team of dietitians sat down with a stress therapist and expert in cortisol regulation to dig deeper into this broad issue and how we can biohack our way through it.
Stress: We Have a Choice
We can default to our standard, built-in stress response or we can biohack it to work in our favor. Like most things, the act of rewiring an appropriate response takes consistent training to build strength and control. Our stress response involves two major systems: the nervous system and the respiratory system. Think about training these systems daily, just like you train your legs at the gym. We’re constantly bombarded by micro-stressors that weaken them, from processed foods and sedentary behaviors to constant texts and emails. If we do not train these systems, they will atrophy and fail.
Whether you are aware of it or not, our body is constantly assessing our situation for risks. In normal circumstances, our reptilian brain kicks in and can overreact. Risks in our current environment are quite different than during ancient times and might appear as a crying child, a dirty sink, a full email inbox, or an overdue bill. If we let our reptilian brain dictate how we respond, we can get anxious and lose the ability to prioritize decisions, ruining any chance of productive or creative work.
This system is a feedback loop that we can hack instead. We must be able to tell our systems that the risk is not threatening and respond differently in order to calm that feedback loop and avoid the derailing consequences.
Three Steps to Biohack the Stress Response
- Practice reframing your thoughts.
The first step is to think of your emotions like data points. It is simply data coming in and data coming out, not always facts but always telling us something. We have two systems to respond to this data. The first is our fight or flight response, immediate and fast. The second system is slower to act. Unfortunately, we default to this first system most of the time, but we can re-learn how to utilize the second system. Envision your thoughts as if they’re rolling by on a news ticker; you watch them pass by, but don’t act on them.
By reframing your thoughts this way, you’re able to tap into the second, slower response system. You will always still feel these emotions, but the difference is being able to recognize and assess them without judgment.
2. Identify, visualize, and relax your trigger points.
Visualizing psychological stress as physical parts of the body helps us connect to the physical tension and relax it instead. Start by closing your eyes and picturing the front of your body. We have a vagus nerve that runs down the front side of our body. When we suddenly have our “risk” meter going off, we feel it throughout that vagus nerve and physical stress results in the face, chest, and belly. Our face tightens, our chest aches, and our stomach literally hurts.
These physical symptoms of stress set off a cascade of internal reactions — from cortisol and adrenaline to glucose production. As soon as you feel these physical symptoms, make a point to take a second to relax these three areas, bringing attention to each one. Picture your belly, relax it. Picture your chest, relax it. Picture your face, and relax your eyes, throat, ears, and jaw. With time and repetition, this can become muscle memory and your stress response will improve.
3. Train your diaphragm every day (stressed or not).
Our diaphragm is our body’s oxygen pump system, and it is arguably the most important muscle in our whole body. Our body gets energy from food and oxygen, and we need to breathe to nourish our bodies just as much as we need to consume food. Why do we do bicep curls and deadlifts but we do nothing to strengthen our diaphragm? A strong diaphragm requires less energy and effort, helping us slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure when it is well-trained.
Strengthen your diaphragm muscle with diaphragmatic, or belly breathing. You can practice with these simple steps:
- Put one hand on your diaphragm, just below your ribs. Place your other hand on your chest.
- Breathe in through your nose like you are smelling a flower, and then breathe out slow and heavy like you are blowing out candles.
- During the breath out, you should feel your hand that is over your diaphragm push out. The hand on the chest should remain still. As our stress expert says, “Get comfortable with letting your belly hang out!”
- Repeat at least 3 times with slow breaths each time.
Once you’ve mastered this, you might consider incorporating breathing techniques like the 4–7–8 or rolling breathing methods. Long, deep exhales stimulate the parasympathetic system which signals to the body that we are calm. The more you practice, the stronger your diaphragm will become and the better your stress response will be.
Putting It All Together
It doesn’t take a silent retreat or a 30-minute meditation session every single day to biohack your stress response, but it does take practice. We can calm our feedback loop and train our body to respond appropriately to stressors in the moment, and we can see nearly every aspect of our lives improve. Without energy spent responding to the excessive risks in our environment, we’re able to work more productively, engage better in social situations, and tap into our creative mind. And of course, stress management helps us support our health through better glucose control.