This is a guest post by my colleague Dr. Frank Bodnar.
Dr. Frank Bodnar is a licensed chiropractor in the state of Wisconsin and Brand Manager at OMPI. He holds a Doctor of Chiropractic from Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition, magna cum laude, from the University of Bridgeport in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He has a certification in Sports Nutrition (CISSN) from the International Society of Sports Nutrition and holds a CrossFit Level 1 Certificate (CF-L1). He is a member of the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) and International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN). Currently Dr. Bodnar offers lifestyle, functional medicine education, and plans through The Nutrient Fix (@thenutrientfix). He resides in the Chicago area with his wife and two children.
Learn more about Dr. Frank Bodnar at www.thenutrientfix.com.
It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine situation has created widespread, palpable stress. Many times, anxiety follows that elevated stress. What exactly is stress? Is there anything you can do about it?
Stress is a response by our body to adapt to a wide range of threats to our life and health. Our body does everything in its power to maintain homeostasis or balance. Stress threatens homeostasis and triggers a biological “adaptive stress response.” 
Good and Bad Stress
Believe it or not, there is both good and bad stress. Good stress (eustress) helps us survive and thrive, while bad stress (distress) is often exaggerated and continues well beyond the actual stressor; bad stress can also cause detrimental adaptations. In addition, internal stressors such as thoughts, behaviors, anxiety and depression can all cause a perceived stress by our brains and bodies. Plus, major life events such as job or income loss, urgent deadlines, exams, marriage, children, moving and relationships can result in a stress response.
The body’s stress response system starts in the brain, and triggers a pathway called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis — also called the HPA axis. The HPA axis triggers neurotransmitters and hormones which give us immediate energy to survive a perceived or real threat. Our body reacts the same to both. In a normal situation, we overcome the stressor and then recover and rest. But when the HPA axis is triggered too often, it becomes overactive and burns out.
The Stages of Stress
Prolonged stress triggers the HPA axis. It consists of three stages: (1) alarm, (2) resistance and (3) exhaustion.
(1) Alarm: The initial alarm phase is short-lived. It is the body’s normal fight-or-flight response to danger, when adrenaline is released and cortisol levels go up. This is what we feel when our heart races and breathing quickens.
(2) Resistance: The resistance phase involves our body protecting itself against extended stress exposure. This continues long after the initial fight-or-flight response. Hormones released by the adrenals such as cortisol and DHEA help support the “resistance” reaction.
(3) Exhaustion: The exhaustion phase follows extended periods of stress. Those periods not only burden the system by creating an imbalance in cortisol and DHEA, but can result in mental and physical fatigue, nervous tension, irritability, anxiety, depression and poor memory. These are all hallmarks of the exhaustion phase.
During high-pressure exams, presentations, business travel, and major life events our bodies may receive excessive signals and start producing too much cortisol and adrenaline – leading to a chronic stress response. When we constantly elevate these hormones, we begin to feel that we’re stressed and anxious even during normal times. Most people describe this as feeling tired or fatigued yet they still can’t fall asleep. People also feel excessively anxious over everyday normal activities and find themselves falling asleep but then waking up at 3am. You’re “tired yet wired.” These are signs that your body’s cortisol pattern is not normal.
Nutrition and Stress
Ensuring you’re consuming nutrient dense foods is one of the best ways to keep your system from becoming overactive or burning out. Nutrition should always start with food. There are circumstances, however, where a more therapeutic dose of a nutrient may be needed.
There are 4 key nutrients that can quickly help you regain a calm, focused and clear-thinking approach. These will help decrease stress and anxiety which can affect your physical and mental performance, mood and sleep. As always, make sure you consult with a certified nutrition specialist before taking any new supplements.
- L-theanine is an amino acid found abundantly in green tea. Green tea naturally contains caffeine and can be a stimulant, but L-theanine provides a calm balancing effect. When isolated, it has been shown to quickly improve stress perception and resilience. L-theanine increases serotonin and dopamine production in the brain; both play key roles in reducing anxiety and increases alpha brain wave activity which improves our sense of relaxation. Studies show L-theanine helps with anxiety.
- Phosphatidylserine (PS) is found in white beans, egg yolk, and animal liver. PS is also made in the body naturally. As supplement and food source, PS can cross the blood-brain barrier. It plays key roles in cognition, nerve health, and cortisol management. PS has been studied for its effect on ADHD, Alzheimer’s, stress and fatigue. PS decreases the natural stress response after exercise. It also decreases the body’s stress response in general [5-7] and balances the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. The balancing effect of PS has been used to treat anxiety, depression and improve sleep quality. [5-8]
- Bacopa monierri is an herb that grows primarily in tropical Asian regions. It has been used in many cultures for thousands of years to decrease stress and anxiety. Bacopa has even been researched in cell and animal studies for its benefits on certain types of cancer. Human studies confirm Bacopa boosts brain function in a variety of ways. Bacopa decreases anxiety and stress  while increasing learning, memory and attention. Bacopa contains compounds called bacosides which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects; studies have even shown bacosides can boost immune function. Bacopa provides the ideal combination of stress-reducer with immune-booster you’ll need to bounce back quickly from stress and reduce your odds of getting sick.
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a potent adaptogen. Ashwagandha root has been used for thousands of years. It has been studied extensively and shown to reduce cortisol, boost the immune system, lower blood sugar, reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep quality, increase male virility and assist thyroid function.  Ashwagandha contains withaferins, compounds that have been shown to produce anti-inflammatory effects in animals and humans. A study published in the Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association showed chronically stressed adults who supplemented with ashwagandha had significant reductions in cortisol – up to 30% better than those in the control group.
- Constantine Tsigos, Ioannis Kyrou, Kassi, E., & Chrousos, G. P. (2016, March 10). Stress, Endocrine Physiology and Pathophysiology. Nih.Gov; MDText.com, Inc. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK278995/
- Williams, J., Everett, J., D’Cunha, N., Sergi, D., Georgousopoulou, E., & Keegan, R. et al. (2019). The Effects of Green Tea Amino Acid L-Theanine Consumption on the Ability to Manage Stress and Anxiety Levels: a Systematic Review. Plant Foods For Human Nutrition, Nov. 22.
- Lake, J. (2017). L-Theanine Reduces Symptoms of Anxiety.
- Glade, M. J., & Smith, K. (2015). Phosphatidylserine and the human brain. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 31(6), 781–786.
- Starks, M. A., Starks, S. L., Kingsley, M., Purpura, M., & Jäger, R. (2008). The effects of phosphatidylserine on endocrine response to moderate intensity exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 5, 11.
- Monteleone, P., Beinat, L., Tanzillo, C., Maj, M., & Kemali, D. (1990). Effects of phosphatidylserine on the neuroendocrine response to physical stress in humans. Neuroendocrinology, 52(3), 243–248.
- Monteleone, P., Maj, M., Beinat, L., Natale, M., & Kemali, D. (1992). Blunting by chronic phosphatidylserine administration of the stress-induced activation of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis in healthy men. European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 42(4), 385–388.
- Benton, D., Donohoe, R. T., Sillance, B., & Nabb, S. (2001). The influence of phosphatidylserine supplementation on mood and heart rate when faced with an acute stressor. Nutritional Neuroscience, 4(3), 169–178.
- Kumar, N., Abichandani, L., Thawani, V., Gharpure, K., Naidu, M., & Venkat Ramana, G. (2016). Efficacy of Standardized Extract of Bacopa monnieri(Bacognize®) on Cognitive Functions of Medical Students: A Six-Week, Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial. Evidence-Based Complementary And Alternative Medicine, 2016, 1-8.
- Kongkeaw, C., Dilokthornsakul, P., Thanarangsarit, P., Limpeanchob, N., & Norman Scholfield, C. (2014). Meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials on cognitive effects of Bacopa monnieri extract. Journal Of Ethnopharmacology, 151(1), 528-535.
- Abdul Manap, A., Vijayabalan, S., Madhavan, P., Chia, Y., Arya, A., & Wong, E. et al. (2019). Bacopa monnieri, a Neuroprotective Lead in Alzheimer Disease: A Review on Its Properties, Mechanisms of Action, and Preclinical and Clinical Studies. Drug Target Insights, 13, 117739281986641.
- Bharti, V., Malik, J., & Gupta, R. (2016). Ashwagandha. Nutraceuticals, 717-733.
- Dubey, S., Yoon, H., Cohen, M., Nagarkatti, P., Nagarkatti, M., & Karan, D. (2018). Withaferin A Associated Differential Regulation of Inflammatory Cytokines. Frontiers In Immunology, 9.
- B. Auddy, J. Hazra, A. Mitra, B. Abedon, S. Ghosal, and S. L. City, “A standardized Withania somnifera extract significantly reduces stress-related parameters in chronically stressed humans,” Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association, vol. 11, pp. 51–57, 2008.