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Managing Stress: Biohacking Your Cortisol Response in Three Steps

Monica McCafferty, MS, CNS

Published in Biohacking

8 min read

May 1, 2020
a donut diagram showing stress, cortisol and glucose dependencies
a donut diagram showing stress, cortisol and glucose dependencies

Our society has a rampant problem. It is destroying our physical bodies, our ability to produce great work, our mental health, our relationships, and our sleep. The problem is chronic, uncontrolled stress. Especially now, when jobs are insecure, our children are home from school, food supplies are limited, and our health is at risk— stress is unavoidable. This is a stressful time, however, while the external environment may not change any time soon, 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 similar reactions in the body. When a threat is detected, 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 quickly.

In today’s modern society, when daily stressors can easily become chronic and uncontrollable, this type of response can become problematic. This is often coupled with subjective changes such as drops in energy, food cravings, and unstable mood levels. It can turn into a vicious cycle that is hard to break.

Stress: We Have a Choice

We can either follow our standard, built-in stress response or we can biohack it to work in our favor. Like most things, the act of rewiring a biological response takes training and patience. 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 are 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 become weak.

Whether you are aware of it or not, our body is constantly assessing our environment for risks. Unfortunately, our reptilian can sometimes overreact. Risks in our current environment are quite different than those we faced during ancestral times. They might come in the form of 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 rewire. We must be able to tell ourselves that the risk is not threatening and respond appropriately in order to calm that feedback loop and avoid the derailing consequences.

Three Steps to Biohack the Stress Response

  1. 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. We have two systems to respond to this data. The first is what is called System 1, fast, instinctive and emotional. The second is what we call System 2, slow, deliberate, and logical. Unfortunately, we default to System 1, but we can re-learn to utilize System 2 more often. Envision your thoughts as if they’re rolling by on a news ticker; you watch them pass by, but don’t act on them.
  2. Identify, visualize, and relax your trigger points.
    Visualizing psychological stress as a physical part of the body helps us connect to the tension and relax it. 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 can manifest 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 minute 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 receives 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 to move, 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:

  1. Put one hand on your diaphragm, just below your ribs. Place your other hand on your chest.
  2. Breathe in through your nose like you are smelling a flower, and then breathe out slow and heavy like you are blowing out candles.
  3. 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!”
  4. 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.

Things we are paying attention to this week:

  • This week, we learned a lot about relationship changes in the midst of a pandemic. We most loved hearing Dr. Dave Rabin discuss the benefits of touch with ways how to cope without it during social distancing times, as well as Esther Perel’s practical tips on the Tim Ferriss Show.
  • Still have COVID-19 questions? This Q&A with expert Rhonda Patrick should take care of them (and so much more).
  • We loved Rachel Gregory’s take on shifting goals and incorporating carbohydrate refeeds on the MetFlex and Chill podcast.
  • Limiting intense exercise with the thought that it might be impairing your immune system? Think again! Experts conclude that vigorous exercise doesn’t need to be avoided and that regular physical activity can actually help the immune system.

Micronutrient spotlight: Vitamin B3 / Niacin

  • Niacin, like all the B vitamins, is involved in energy metabolism. Whenever our body needs energy to build or break down substances, it requires niacin in its enzymatic forms (NAD and NADP). Niacin is especially valuable for the brain, gut, and skin. It also helps us repair DNA and lengthen telomeres, allowing us to live longer and age better.
  • Cool fact: The essential amino acid tryptophan (famously found in Thanksgiving turkey) can be converted into NAD inside the body. We can make niacin from other proteins as well, but we require riboflavin, iron, and vitamin B6 to do it.
  • RDA: Adult women need 14 mg daily and men should aim for 16 mg daily.
  • Deficiency: Severe niacin deficiency, or Pellagra, is characterized by “the three Ds”: dermatitis, dementia, and diarrhea. If left untreated, it can result in death. More moderate causes of deficiency include alcohol abuse, digestive disorders and chronic stress.
  • Toxicity Warning: High doses of niacin can lead to a niacin “flush” characterized by redness, heat, and itching in the skin and face. While niacin supplements often promoted for longevity and cholesterol reduction show promising results in animal studies, human studies are lacking. Plus, they can be dangerous. Avoid high doses of niacin and always discuss supplementing with niacin with your PCP. If taking a B-complex or a multivitamin, look for niacin in the form of niacinamide/nicotinamide.
  • Sources: Just 3 oz of chicken, tuna, salmon, or turkey provide 8-10 mg niacin. Other great whole food sources include peanuts, beef, beans, sprouted lentils and grains, nutritional yeast and strong-brewed coffee. To make sure you’re getting enough, aim to eat adequate protein every day and boost your intake from other sources regularly.
  • Recipe Idea: Tuna Avocado Salad - Combine 1 can of tuna, 1 whole sliced avocado, 1 tablespoon of diced red onion, and 2 sprigs chopped fresh dill. Drizzle with olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with sliced cucumbers, radish, endive spears or carrots.
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Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Reviewed by: Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Kara Collier is the co-founder and VP of Health at Nutrisense, one of America’s fastest-growing wellness-tech startups, where she leads the health team. She is a Forbes 30 under 30 recipient, frequent podcast guest & conference speaker.

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