Stress is a natural response. More specifically, stress is a survival response. It teaches us how to recognize, and overcome, various threats to our lives.
The problem is, many of us don’t realize when we’re in a stress or survival state. Nowadays, we’re so conditioned to push through our daily stressors that we forget how to cycle in and out this stress response—which can have serious consequences on our health.
In this third installment in a series of free webinars, Vault’s Dr. Spar and EVRYMAN’s co-founder Owen Marcus discuss the physiological impact of stress accumulation, and some of the most efficient strategies for stress management.
The Effects of Fight-or-Flight Mode
During fight-or-flight mode, most of our body’s resources get redirected toward survival. Small changes take place. These include dilated pupils, increased heart rate, and increased blood flow to the muscles (which can be especially useful when running away from a threat). Other functions—like libido, immunity, and nourishing the gut—get left by the wayside. Though this can help save our lives during acute moments of stress, it can have toxic effects on the body when experienced chronically.
In fact, cortisol, or the stress hormone, has been found to have toxic effects on three key areas: testosterone, the brain, and aging.
Stress and Testosterone
Let’s be real: if your life is really in danger, sex is the last thing on your mind. Your body knows that the main priority is survival, so it diverts its resources from your reproductive system by halting testosterone production.
Again, this can be helpful in acute scenarios, even in today’s modern world. For example, if you’re stressed about an upcoming work deadline, this response can help prevent you from getting distracted by sex. But if you experience chronic stress, it can negatively impact testosterone production, resulting in a significant decline in libido.
Stress and the Brain
Cortisol has been proven to kill brain cells over time. Though scientists are still unsure about why this happens from an evolutionary standpoint, data and research are clear: stress is toxic to the brain.
Stress and Aging
It’s no surprise that fight-or-flight mode can be extremely taxing on the body. In addition to the many physical changes it triggers, it also increases inflammation, which can accelerate aging of the cells. Inflammation also makes you more prone to all sorts of illnesses of aging, since many of them are related to inflammation.
Supplements That Can Help
Avoiding stress is impossible—especially these days. Though we can’t avoid stress completely, we can build resilience in our response to stress.
One way to build resilience to stress is through the use of supplements. Adaptogens, like ashwagandha and holy basil, have been shown to be particularly helpful in coaching the body not to have a brisk cortisol response when you’re stressed out.
If you often feel stressed at night, another supplement that can help is called L-theanine. L-theanine is a natural amino acid that boosts GABA, the relaxing neurotransmitter.
Magnesium is also a great go-to supplement, since many guys are naturally low in magnesium, which can also help with muscle recovery after a workout. Taking 400 milligrams at night (magnesium can make you sleepy, so nighttime use is optimal), can help with stress management.
Finally, both THC and CBD have been shown to help with stress. That being said, some people can have a negative response to THC. If it’s your first time—or if you’re unsure of how your body responds to THC—start with a very small dose of just CBD, which has a lot of antianxiety benefits without any of the psychoactive properties of THC.
Why Sleep Matters
Sleep is a huge recharger. Research shows that 95% of men need somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night. When it comes to stress management—and overall health—ensuring that you get a mix of REM and deep sleep is very important. Measuring the quality of your sleep with a wearable like the Oura Ring can help, otherwise, simply keeping tabs on your overall sleep and improving your sleep hygiene can help reduce stress and its effects on the body.
Using Connection to Downregulate Stress
There is also a natural, simple, and instinctive way to downregulate stress: connection. Research shows that looking someone in the eyes can trigger our body and brain to relax. When our prefrontal cortex knows that the person in front of us isn’t a threat, we can enter the parasympathetic or relaxation response. In many ways, our prefrontal cortex is the main distinction between us and the animal world when it comes to stress—it gives us the ability to respond rather than react.
Connecting with the Body
Connecting with our bodies can also help, because the more we connect with our bodies, the more we connect with our emotions—which ultimately reduces stress.
This can take many forms, including meditation, physical activity, sex or masturbation, or breathwork. It’s important to note that although sex and masturbation can decrease stress, they can also exacerbate it when overused or not balanced with another stress management technique. Also, physical activity can be great for stress, but you need to tune everything else out. That means turning off any podcasts or news shows that you like to listen to and just using music—or even better, nothing at all—when working out.
If you want to see how effective your workout or connection method is at reducing stress, measure your heart rate variability, or HRV, before and after the activity. HRV is the most scientifically proven measure of stress (without doing blood work). Your heart rate is meant to vary with each inhale and exhale, but high levels of cortisol override that process, making HRV go down. In other words, decreased variability means you’re more stressed.
We know how hard it can be to overcome chronic stress. But the good news is that studies show that faking it until you make it can help—even for just five or ten minutes a day. Find something that you can do consistently and keep at it. Even if you don’t experience a benefit right away, evidence shows that your stress levels—and overall health—can improve.