Dr. Will Cole is our featured functional health expert in the Total Reset, a free 14-day program that combines daily yoga classes, simple plant-based breakfast recipes, and nutritional supplements into one total reset. You can learn from him in-person at Wanderlust Palmaïa (December 7-10, 2023).
When people talk about the two fates that happen to all people, they’re usually talking about death and taxes. But I’d like to suggest two other things that affect every single human: stress and inflammation. This topic is so important to our health, that I have a whole chapter devoted to stress and emotions in my book, Gut Feelings.
Throughout the Total Reset, we talk a lot about nutrition, detoxification and movement as foundational elements to health. But our emotions, and the stress that we experience on a daily basis, can have negative impacts on our health that are just as damaging as toxins or a poor diet.
Chronic Stress is the Ultimate Junk Food
Stress has been researched extensively, and chronic stress is one of the biggest drivers for chronic disease. According the the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is directly linked to six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.
Our body has adapted to respond to stressors as an evolutionary coping skill. Our ancestors relied on our stress response for survival. Stress came from threats to life and safety, like when we would have been chased by a predator. If a lion or bear started to charge us, what would our body do? It would initiate a stress response in order to either fight the animal, run from the animal (flee) or freeze at an attempt to play dead in the hopes the animal will lose interest and go away.
In order to do this, our body would start increasing the production of cortisol, one of our stress hormones. It would increase the production of adrenaline, and it would help to increase our heart rate so that we could pump more blood to our legs and run away. And this is exactly how we want our bodies to respond to a life or death stressor. It’s a good thing, right?
It is, but current day stressors just don’t look like they used to. We don’t have to go hunt for food and we are rarely, if ever, faced with a bear who could charge and kill us. We have grocery stores that have a constant supply of food. Most of us have housing to protect us from the elements. And we have cell phones to dial 9-1-1 if we are in immediate danger.
Today, instead of facing acute stressors that come and go in seconds, we now face many chronic low-grade stressors that hang around for hours, days, weeks and even years.
And here’s the key point: our bodies are still wired to respond as it would if a bear were charging us—by flooding our system with cortisol and adrenaline. This is true whether we are stuck in traffic and late to work, or our babysitter cancels at the last minute, or we don’t get along with our boss with whom we have to work with every day. These low grade, chronic stressors are not an acute threat to our survival, but they are a threat to our long-term health in a very significant way.
Adapting to Modern Stressors
Over time, humans have adapted to stress with something called conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA), a type of gene expression that’s associated with inflammation and low immunity. If you were being chased by a predator, CTRA would have allowed for some helpful short-term benefits, such as faster response time, increased healing ability, and quicker physical recovery. All these things increased the likelihood of survival.
But in ancient times, these stressors were short-lived. Our ancestors would run away and in seconds or minutes later be safe (or dead) but regardless, it would be over. The stressful event would end and the body would recuperate.
Now, with our modern mental and emotional stressors rarely turned off, our body constantly thinks it’s being chased by a tiger. As a result, long-term activation of our brain’s CTRA is contributing to chronic inflammation and increasing the risk of health problems.
Inflammation Isn’t Always Bad
Just like acute stress is essential for our survival, so is acute inflammation. Acute inflammation is when you stub your toe and it gets red and inflamed. This is caused by the dilation of the blood cells in the area. Your body is increasing circulation to the damaged tissue to deliver nutrients and immune cells to it, in order to heal.
But when stress becomes chronic, inflammation also becomes chronic. And this is when essential processes in the body start to work against our health.
Chronic inflammation can disrupt how our immune system functions and can lead to autoimmune diseases or even cancer. Chronic inflammation can also affect the lining of our arteries and lead to cardiovascular disease. Chronic inflammation is at the root of virtually all of the diseases of aging: diabetes, dementia, arthritis and more.
You have probably heard the saying: it’s not the stress, it’s our body’s response to stress that matters. Meaning, we can’t avoid all of the traffic, or the backlog of emails. The stressors are always going to be there, but the manner in which we respond to them can change.
Adaptogens for Stress Support
Becoming more resilient to life’s stressors is both an art and a science. In this Total Reset you are practicing the art of mindfulness and slowing down. Yoga and other forms of intentional movement, as well as meditation, are all great ways to increase your physical and mental resilience.
There are also herbs called adaptogens. These are a family of herbs that have been used for thousands of years to help people handle stress. At its core, an adaptogen helps the body restore balance.
This means that they act as regulators in the body. Ashwagandha is one of these adaptogens that helps our body deal with stress. Its use dates back to 6000 BC in India. The name ashwagandha is from the Sanskrit language meaning “smell of the horse,” because it was believed to give the consumer the power—not the smell!—of a horse.
Taking ashwagandha has been shown to reduce anxiety by up to 44%. It can help regulate your body’s stress hormone, cortisol, which can make you feel more calm. Research shows significant reduction in cortisol levels and reductions in self-reported stress and anxiety symptoms in those taking ashwagandha.
Chronic stress can also alter blood sugar levels which can contribute to the development of diabetes or metabolic disorders. Ashwagandha has been shown to help manage symptoms of diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity as well as lowering blood glucose levels.
Since ashwagandha is an adaptogen, it helps to regulate. This means that even though it can help calm the nervous system it does not make people sleepy so it can be taken day or night. On the contrary, those who struggle with chronic fatigue can take ashwagandha to help with energy levels by balancing the stress response and helping the body recover from burnout.
Ashwagandha is versatile; it can be steeped in water and made into a tea. It can also be taken in tincture form or in capsule form. As a tincture you can put 3.5 mL (which is about 3.5 dropperfuls) into a glass of water, juice or into a smoothie once or twice daily.
Another adaptogen that is a great herb for regulating stress is called holy basil. This is one of my favorite adaptogens. Studies have shown that people who take this Ayurvedic herb regularly feel less anxious, stressed, and depressed (4). Holy basil can be consumed in the form of a tea or in a tincture and is widely available at most health food stores.
Adaptogens are great tools to help us modulate our stress response, and therefore, our inflammatory response. One of the things I love about them is that you can add adaptogenic herbs and adaptogenic mushrooms to your food so they are a part of your daily ritual.
And we don’t want to forget that the biggest thing we can do for our stress levels is to build daily rituals that help to support us and build resilience. That’s what the Total Reset is all about. So make sure you take the time to tune in daily to flow through your yoga practice before you flow through the rest of your day.
Dr. Will Cole is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam, having started one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems.
He is the host of the popular The Art of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting, and the brand new Gut Feelings.