Coming up on this episode of “The Doctor’s Farmacy.”
Dr. Mark Hyman:
One of the things we don’t realize is that stress is also controlled by what we eat. Our diet plays an enormous role in our stress response.
Everybody, it’s Doctor Mark Hyman. Welcome to “The Doctor’s Farmacy,” a place for conversations that matter. Today’s podcast is a little bit different. It’s a health bite, a little chunk of information that will help provide you with small steps that you can take daily that can lead to significant changes in your health over time. Let’s talk today about something that is affecting all of us: chronic stress. Now, this is something we never had to deal with historically as a species, but now we do because of all the changes that have happened in our world and the crazy work schedules and family obligations and political crises and climate crises and war and economic crises. You name it. We’re pretty much inundated with lots of stress. We have to learn how to take care of ourselves within that context.
The problem is chronic stress is deadly. It kills us. It literally kills us from heart disease, cancer, dementia. I mean, just literally, being stressed and having high stress levels chronically will shrink the memory center of your brain called the hippocampus. It also makes you gain weight. It causes you to be diabetic. It causes a whole host of other things including depression and infertility and sexual dysfunction. I mean, you name it. Stress is a killer.
We now understand how stress impacts our biology in a real, practical way. It is, in fact, the biggest thing that’s driving so many of the dysfunctions we see around chronic illness. It either makes worse or causes most of the things we see every day in medical practice. How? Well, stress jacks up your cortisol levels, which then causes your muscles to waste away, your blood pressure to go up, your blood sugar to go up. Increases belly fat, causes your memory to go down. You see this phenomenon of weight gain, insulin resistance, and diabetes, ultimately, even type three diabetes, which we now refer to as dementia. When you also are stressed, you produce adrenaline. Adrenaline also makes you feel hyper, anxious, irritable, gets your heart rate up, your blood pressure up, causes your blood to clot more likely, damage to your brain’s memory center, and just causes a lot of bad problems.
If you’re thinking about your daily life, when you are going about your day, if you start off the wrong way, you’re going to be in trouble. One of the things we don’t realize is that stress is also controlled by what we eat. Our diet plays an enormous role in our stress response. When we eat certain foods, it literally jacks up adrenaline and cortisol. What foods are those? Sugar and starch. Basically, anything that turns to sugar in your body is seen as a biological stress. Even if you think you’re happy and relaxed while you’re eating it, the consequences in your body are just like those of when you’re attacked by a mugger or you’re being chased by a tiger. The real physiologic responses that happen in relation to our daily lives are no different depending on what the stress is. Whether you’re running from a tiger or being upset with your spouse or you imagine somebody’s mad at you and they’re really not, the stress response is the same.
In fact, stress is defined as the real or imagined threat to your body or your ego. It could be a real threat to your body, like a tiger chasing you, or it could be an imagined threat to your ego. Maybe you think your boss is mad at you and is going to fire you, but actually doesn’t think that at all and wants to give you a raise. You have the thought. The thought creates a stress response. Our thoughts create our biology. We have to learn how to manage our minds in order to manage our biology.
Let’s talk a little bit about diet again because what we found from the studies is that when you eat food, it’s not all the same. Food is information. It’s not just calories. The information in processed food, in starch and sugar, increased our stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. I remember one study they looked at overweight kids, I think teenage boys. They gave them three different breakfasts. An omelet, steel cut oats, and regular oats. What was interesting is that they were all identical in calories. The calories were the same. What they did was they said to these kids, “Why don’t you go and sit in this room and hang out, read, play games, whatever you want to do? But when you’re hungry, just hit this button, and we’ll bring you food.”
What they found out was when the kids had the oatmeal, they ate 81% more food than the omelet, even though it was the same calories over the course of the day. With the steel cut oats, it was still 51% more food. But what was interesting was that they also had a catheter in their blood vessels and they drew their blood every little bit. They found that when the kids ate the oatmeal, it was like a stress response in the body there. Not only their insulin and blood sugar went up, but their adrenaline and their cortisol went up. When we eat refined foods, they are hugely damaging.
Just in the same way, you can eat foods that actually help reduce your cortisol level. You can actually balance your insulin levels. You can actually reduce adrenaline by eating foods that help you calm your nervous system, which are whole, real foods, good, healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, high quality protein, regeneratively raised animal foods, eggs, chicken, fish, regeneratively raised meats. Even whole beans and whole grains can be very calming and helpful, although if you eat too much starch and you insulin resistant, it can still be a problem. Then, of course, all the plant foods, vegetables, they just are super full of phytochemicals, antiinflammatory compounds, stress-reducing compounds. They’re really powerful. When you shift your diet, you’re literally going to change your stress response and change your biology.
What can you do other than looking at your mindset, because a lot of the stress we respond to is the creation of our mind? Gabor Maté, who has written a lot about trauma, which is real trauma, he says, “Trauma’s not what happens to you. It’s the meaning you make from what happens to you.” Two people can experience the same event and have very different responses, and it can be registered very different in their biology. So it’s important to understand that you have to get your mind straight. That’s not as easy as it sounds because we are conditioned to believe our thoughts. My friend Daniel Amen says, “We should stop the ants in our head, the Automatic Negative Thoughts.” Easier said than done, but it’s an important practice. Start witnessing and looking at your mind.
Some of the practices that I’m going to share with you now are very effective in helping us reset our minds as well as our bodies. The first is deal with the root causes of stress. There can be physical stresses like a disease. I mean, I had mercury poisoning, Lyme disease, mold toxicity. These create a stress in the body, so you have to deal with whatever true physical stresses there are and get rid of them. Gluten, nutritional deficiencies, all the things that are really driving so much disease, we see this in functional medicine. It really is looking at the whole scope of what creates balance or imbalance in the body, and dealing with that.
But once you’ve done that and there are no objective external stresses, how do you start to reset? Well, you have to learn to actively relax. It’s something we don’t get taught. We know we have to sleep and eat and exercise, but most of us don’t understand that we have to actively relax. It’s not just sitting on a couch watching TV. It’s actually helping your body get into what we call a parasympathetic state. This is not as easy as it sounds. You can do it through meditation. You can do it through breath work. You can do it through massage. You can do it through prayer, through chanting, through yoga, through various things that help your body reset your nervous system from an overactive, stressed, sympathetic response to what we call the relaxation response.
Meditation is a very powerful tool. It’s available to all of us. It’s free. You can learn how to do it online. There’s courses and programs. You can read a book about it. It’s not that hard to do. It’s basically just sitting and watching your thoughts and not getting caught up in them, but letting them pass, using your breath as an anchor or a mantra. There’s a lot of different techniques out there. Exercise also is a powerful stress reducer. Think about it. When you’re running from a tiger, you’re producing huge amounts of stress hormones. Then you run and burn them off. That’s what happens. There’s a book called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert Sapolsky, who studied baboons and the stress response, actually, and the hierarchy of baboon societies. I highly recommend his book, “A Primate’s Memoir,” which describes his research. But he wrote another book called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” which is based … Oh, no. I think that was written by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Sorry. No, I can’t remember. Anyway, one of those guys.
The book basically said, “The zebra’s out there eating his grass and hanging out. There’s all the other zebras. The lion comes and starts chasing them. They all run like crazy, highly stressed. Then the lion catches one of them, and then the lion eats the zebra he caught. Then the other zebras just go back to eating the grass, even though the lion’s still standing there.” They discharge the stress. We don’t. We continue to accumulate the stress. So exercise is a great way to reduce depression, anxiety, improve mood, reduce stress response in the body. That’s why you often feel relaxed and calm after exercising.
Other techniques are really good. Breath work techniques. Saunas. Cold plunges. A lot of things that now are being used to help with longevity and biohacking also help to reduce the stress response. My favorite is a hot steam and a cold dip. That really just cuts all the stress for me. A hot bath with Epsom salt. Very easy to do. There’s also some supplements you can take. We use a lot of nutrients when we’re stressed. Vitamin C, the B complex vitamins, vitamin B-5, zinc, and magnesium. Magnesium is so important. It’s the relaxation mineral. I highly recommend that people take magnesium regularly to calm their nervous system.
Herbs can be very helpful. Adaptogenic herbs can help you manage stress. The astronauts were using it. The Russian astronauts often took these compounds like rhodiola, Siberian ginseng, cordyceps, ginseng, ashwagandha. These are what we call adaptogenic herbs that help modulate the stress response. Also, adaptogenic mushrooms, chaga and reishi and many, many others are very effective for helping modulate the nervous system.
Now, look at your mind. Find a way to look at your beliefs, your attitudes, how you respond. Think about the choices you have. I think Victor Frankel, who was an Auschwitz survivor, said, “Between stimulus and response, there’s a pause. In that pause lies a choice. In that choice lies your freedom.” I think all of us have just collapsed that stimulus response, or we’re just reactive instead of slowing down and looking at our beliefs or thoughts. He, in the concentration camp, chose not to be angry or mad at his Nazi captors.
I remember when I was a young medical student. I went to Nepal and met with a Tibetan doctor who’d been in a Chinese gulag for 22 years. I said to him, “What was the hardest part about being a prisoner in this Chinese gulag?” He said, “Well, there were a few times when I thought I would lose my compassion for my Chinese jailers.” I thought, “Wow.” This guy was in jail for 22 years in a gulag, and that was his biggest stress, was thinking that he could lose his compassion for his Chinese jailers. That just shows you the power of the mind to relate to your environment in quite a different way.
I think the other thing is sleep. All of us are lacking sleep. Sleep is a huge important medicine for all of us. Lack of sleep creates a whole host of diseases, but also increases our reactivity, our stress response, cortisol levels, makes us hungrier, increases ghrelin, the hunger hormone. It decreases PYY, the appetite suppressing hormone. Sleep is a big medicine when it comes to helping reduce stress.
That was a lot of stuff, but it’s really important to understand that if you don’t get a handle on your relationship to stress and how it affects you and choose your response differently, it will have significant adverse consequences on your health. There are really simple, practical things you can do every day to help regulate your stress response and to have a happier, healthier, more fulfilled life. That’s it for today’s Health Bite. Be sure you share this podcast with your friends and family on social media. How you learned to deal with your own stress, we’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment. We’ll see you next time on “The Doctor’s Farmacy.”
Hi, everyone. I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. Just a reminder that this podcast is for educational purposes only. This podcast is not a substitute for professional care by a doctor or other qualified medical professional. This podcast is provided on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services. If you’re looking for help in your journey, seek out a qualified medical practitioner. If you’re looking for a functional medicine practitioner, you can visit ifm.org and search their Find a Practitioner Database. It’s important that you have someone in your corner who’s trained, who’s a licensed healthcare practitioner, and can help you make changes, especially when it comes to your health.