By Randi Mann, WHNP-BC, NCMP, APNP
The pandemic has brought us six solid months of stress, anxiety, and fear of the unknown. This Fall things are ramping up again, with increased COVID infection rates and back to school worries. Hundreds of studies have been published on the negative health effects of the pandemic worldwide, and what tops the list? Skyrocketing levels of stress and anxiety.
Whether you’re stressed about contracting COVID-19 or dealing with the many “pivots” brought on by recurring lockdowns and decreased socialization, such high-stress levels are simply not sustainable. Now is the time to work on demystifying stress and anxiety so that you can disarm it and reclaim your inner peace this fall.
Stress and anxiety have deep roots in the body, involving your brain, gut, hormones, and nervous system. Let’s see what science has to say about it:
Fight or Flight Mode, aka the HPA Axis
When a stressor hits, your body goes into emergency mode by activating the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) Axis. The adrenal glands receive the ‘danger’ message from the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in the brain, triggering them to produce adrenaline which then spurs your entire body into action to either fight or flee from the situation.
The problem? A system that was designed to be used for just a few minutes at a time also has the ability to be active most of the time. This means that chronic stress forces your adrenals to work overtime. Becoming stuck in “fight or flight mode” due to constant stress leads to overwhelm and, inevitably, exhaustion.
Your Microbiome Affects Your Stress Levels
Your microbiome is made up of the diverse community of microbes that reside in your gut. What many people ignore when discussing the microbiome is the fact that it is not only involved in digestion – in fact, gut bacteria are also strongly linked to your brain.
A 2019 study looking at the effects of a Mediterranean diet high in fresh fruit, vegetables, healthy fats, polyphenols (i.e. dark chocolate and berries), and fermented foods (i.e. kimchi or sauerkraut) helped participants to be more stress-resilient. Researchers noted the role of the microbiota in producing serotonin (the ‘feel-good hormone).
Another 2019 study showed that both probiotics and prebiotics increase our ability to handle stress by supporting gut microbes, and can actually reverse some of the negative effects of stress.
Many studies have shown that stress changes our microbiome, which further reduces our ability to handle stress. A 2017 study concluded that even short-term stress exposure (especially in early life) reduces microbiome diversity and increases anxiety.
The Blood Sugar Rollercoaster
Finding comfort in carbs? A 2020 study showed that high consumption of processed carbs can increase anxiety and irritability by taking you on a blood sugar rollercoaster. Your body considers low blood sugar an emergency, which puts you back into fight or flight mode.
Inflammation, Anxiety, and Leaky Gut
The strong links between the gut-brain axis and inflammation are well established. One 2017 study showed that microbiome imbalance can promote chronic inflammation, which then makes us more responsive to stress and increases anxiety. The study notes the important role of Leaky Gut Syndrome, in which stress caused by microbial imbalance causes holes in the mucus lining of the GI tract, allowing bacteria to escape into the body. Our body’s immune response to these “invaders” is linked to systemic inflammation.
How to Balance, Manage and Reduce Anxiety
You can’t control what life throws at you, but you can control how you respond to it. Here are our top tips to help you cope with anxiety both in the moment, and build long term stress resilience.
1 – Breathing Exercises
Do you experience panic attacks? Deep breathing can help reduce panic and overwhelm in the moment and help you cope in the long term. Try these two exercises, backed by scientific research.
Deep Breathing for Vagal Nerve Tone
The vagus nerve is the main line of communication between your gut and your brain. Certain breathing exercises can improve vagal nerve tone to get you out of fight or flight and into ‘rest and digest’ mode.
A 2018 study reported decreased stress and anxiety and an increased sense of well-being after doing breathing exercises. Effective techniques include slow breathing, longer exhales than inhales, and breathing from the diaphragm. Learn how in this short video!
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This ancient practice has been used in yoga for centuries. Recent research suggests that this technique can bring the mind and body to a state of balanced calm, and reduce both stress and anxiety.
2 – Smartphone Apps
Is constant social media scrolling making you more anxious? How can you harness the power of technology to reduce feelings of overwhelm and anxiety? These 3 apps use evidence-based scientific research.
MindshiftTM uses evidence-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques to help you manage feelings of stress, anxiety, worry, and panic. When a stressor hits, try features like Coping Cards and the Chill Zone to ground yourself and cope in the moment. Features like the Thought Journal, Goal Setting, and Expanding Your Comfort Zone will help shift your mindset to make a positive change that lasts.
Have you tried to meditate without success? Headspace features hundreds of guided meditation sessions for beginners. Choose a topic (like anxiety or sleep) and the app will suggest the best sessions for you. From bite-sized mini meditations to more in-depth sessions, the app will help train your mind so you can gain solid benefits from your meditation practice.
Muse goes one step further by pairing a brain-sensing headband with an app to give you real-time feedback on your brain activity during meditation and sleep. Mind wandering during meditation? Stormy weather sounds will cue you to refocus. Peaceful weather sounds confirm you’re in the calm zone.
3 – Nutritional & Herbal Supplements
This amino acid found in green tea is well known for its ability to reduce stress and anxiety. By interacting with both dopamine and GABA receptors in the brain, it brings a sense of calm and well-being. If green tea isn’t for you, supplementing with L-Theanine means you get all the stress-busting benefits with none of the jittery caffeine drawbacks. A 2019 study of stressed, healthy adults showed that just one month of supplementation with -Theanine significantly reduced anxiety and stress, and improved cognitive function.
This herb has been used for 3,000 years in Indian Ayurvedic Medicine as a whole-body tonic. Classed as an adaptogen, Ashwagandha supports your adrenal glands and HPA axis to help you stay calm and resilient in the face of stress. A 2019 study of healthy, anxious adults showed that ashwagandha supplementation significantly reduced anxiety and improved mood.
Are you ready to face whatever this Fall has in store for you, anxiety-free? Let’s meet to discuss and assess your current stress and anxiety levels. Together, we can come up with a solid treatment plan including supplements, diet, and lifestyle strategies to dial back anxiety and increase your stress resilience. Isn’t it time you focussed on yourself? Call us today to get started!
Adan RAH, van der Beek EM, Buitelaar JK, et al. Nutritional psychiatry: Towards improving mental health by what you eat. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2019;29(12):1321-1332. doi: 10.1016/j.euroneuro.2019.10.011
Alternate Nostril Breathing. Lotus Flower Yoga. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMdTmYMEG-c Accessed on September 18, 2020.
Anxiety Canada. MindshiftTM CBT App. https://www.anxietycanada.com/resources/mindshift-cbt/?_ga=2.127928524.1122230185.1600531245-1709723190.1600531245. Accessed on September 18, 2020.
Anxiety Canada. How to Tolerate Uncertainty. https://www.anxietycanada.com/sites/default/files/ToleratingUncertainty.pdf. Accessed on September 18, 2020.
Bharwani A, Mian MF, Foster JA, Surette MG, Bienenstock J, Forsythe P. Structural & functional consequences of chronic psychosocial stress on the microbiome & host. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2016; 63:217-227. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2015.10.001
Burokas A, Arboleya S, Moloney RD, et al. Targeting the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: Prebiotics Have Anxiolytic and Antidepressant-like Effects and Reverse the Impact of Chronic Stress in Mice. Biol Psychiatry. 2017;82(7):472-487. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.12.031
Firth J, Gangwisch JE, Borisini A, Wootton RE, Mayer EA. Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing?. BMJ. 2020;369:m2382. Published 2020 Jun 29. doi:10.1136/bmj.m2382
Foster JA, Rinaman L, Cryan JF. Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome. Neurobiol Stress. 2017; 7:124-136. Published 2017 Mar 19. doi: 10.1016/j.ynstr.2017.03.001
Gerritsen RJS, Band GPH. Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018; 12:397. Published 2018 Oct 9. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397
Headspace. https://www.headspace.com/science/meditation-research. Accessed September 18, 2020.
Hidese S, Ogawa S, Ota M, et al. Effects of L-Theanine Administration on Stress-Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Nutrients. 2019;11(10):2362. Published 2019 Oct 3. doi:10.3390/nu11102362
Kamath A, Urval RP, Shenoy AK. Effect of Alternate Nostril Breathing Exercise on Experimentally Induced Anxiety in Healthy Volunteers Using the Simulated Public Speaking Model: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Study. Biomed Res Int. 2017; 2017:2450670. doi:10.1155/2017/2450670
Lopresti AL, Smith SJ, Malvi H, Kodgule R. An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019;98(37): e17186. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000017186
Muse. https://www.mendeley.com/profiles/muse-research-team/publications/#. Accessed September 18, 2020.
Pratte MA, Nanavati KB, Young V, Morley CP. An alternative treatment for anxiety: a systematic review of human trial results reported for the Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). J Altern Complement Med. 2014;20(12):901-908. doi:10.1089/acm.2014.0177
Telles S, Gupta RK, Yadav A, Pathak S, Balkrishna A. Hemisphere specific EEG related to alternate nostril yoga breathing. BMC Res Notes. 2017;10(1):306. Published 2017 Jul 24. doi:10.1186/s13104-017-2625-6
Thomaz F S Bastiaanssen, Caitlin S M Cowan, Marcus J Claesson, Timothy G Dinan, John F Cryan, Making Sense of … the Microbiome in Psychiatry, International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, Volume 22, Issue 1, January 2019, Pages 37–52, https://doi.org/10.1093/ijnp/pyy067
Vagus Nerve: Breathing for Relaxation. Tune Up Fitness. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkJDrfL90rU Accessed on September 18, 2020.
White DJ, de Klerk S, Woods W, Gondalia S, Noonan C, Scholey AB. Anti-Stress, Behavioural and Magnetoencephalography Effects of an L-Theanine-Based Nutrient Drink: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial. Nutrients. 2016;8(1):53. doi:10.3390/nu8010053
Yoto A, Motoki M, Murao S, Yokogoshi H. Effects of L-theanine or caffeine intake on changes in blood pressure under physical and psychological stresses. J Physiol Anthropol. 2012;31(1):28. doi:10.1186/1880-6805-31-28
Randi Mann, WHNP-BC, NCMP, APNP, is a woman’s hormone expert and the owner of Wise Woman Wellness LLC, an innovative wellness and hormone care center at 1480 Swan Road, De Pere. Mann is the author of the eBook: A Guide to Gluten and Going Gluten Free. She is a board certified Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner and NAMS Certified Menopause Practitioner, one of a handful in Wisconsin and less than 1600 worldwide to achieve this distinction. She combines the best of conventional, functional and integrative medicine to help women with female, thyroid and adrenal hormone issues to live healthier, more abundant, joy-filled lives using a blend of compassion, cutting edge science, practical guidance and humor. Contact her at 920-339-5252 or via the Internet at www.wisewomanwellness.com. Join the introductory virtual seminar, “End Hormone Havoc – Crazy Hormones Cause Fatigue, Weight Gain and Brain Fog and How to Fix Them!”, offered monthly, to learn about specialized thyroid, adrenal and female hormone testing and customized, bioidentical hormone treatments to achieve lifelong optimal hormone balance, increased vitality and longevity.