Beating Stress and Stimulants

Stress starts in the mind – but it doesn’t stay there. Every time you react to a stressful event, you set off a cascade of activity that fundamentally changes your body chemistry triggering the release of adrenal hormones which get you ready to ‘fight or take flight’. The average adrenalin rush of a commuter stuck in a traffic jam provides enough fuel to keep them running for a mile. That’s how much glucose is released, mainly by breaking down glucose stores called glycogen held in muscles and the liver. All this is happening as a result of a stressful thought. The other way to get an adrenalin release is to have a blood sugar dip, usually as a result of the body over-reacting to high sugar foods, or consuming some caffeine or nicotine.

Where, you might wonder, does all this extra energy and increased alertness come from? The answer is by diverting energy from the body’s normal repair and maintenance jobs such as digesting, cleansing and rejuvenating. So, every moment you spend in a state of stress, essential physical maintenance jobs are being neglected and the ageing process of your body therefore speeds up. It’s stressful even thinking about it. But the effects of prolonged stress are even more insidious than that. Like a car driven too fast, the body goes out of balance and parts start to wear out.

As a consequence your overall energy level drops, you lose concentration, get confused, suffer from bouts of ‘brain fog’, fall asleep after meals, get irritable, freak out, can’t sleep, can’t wake up, sweat too much, get headaches, tight muscles… sound familiar?

A quick remedy for energy deficiency

In an attempt to regain control, most people turn to stimulants. Legal stimulants include coffee (containing theobromine, theophylline, caffeine), tea (containing caffeine) and energy drinks such as cola (containing caffeine), chocolate (containing theophylline), as well as psychological ‘stimulants’ including demanding jobs, dangerous pastimes, horror movies, thrillers, emotional traumas – something to put you on the edge. Alcohol and cigarettes act as both stimulants and sedatives. Illegal stimulants include amphetamines and ‘uppers’, cocaine, crack and crime. Naturally it becomes increasingly difficult to relax with a regular intake of stimulants, so many people learn to balance their use with relaxants such as alcohol, sleeping pills, tranquillisers, cannabis and so on. After a while, it’s only the adrenalin and cortisol that keeps us going. If you quit the stimulants or take some time off, you collapse into a heap – depressed and exhausted. This means that you’ve become addicted to stress and/or stimulants.

Are you addicted to stimulants?

Imagine a day with NO coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, cigarettes or alcohol. If you think ‘no way!’ there is a very real possibility that you have some level of addiction to stimulants. This can range from a mild addiction that you can live with quite happily to a major addiction that is running your life. However, whatever the level of addiction, the net consequence is less energy not more.

One client, Bobbie, serves as a case in point. She was already eating a healthy diet and took a sensible daily programme of vitamin and mineral supplements. She had only two problems: a lack of energy in the morning and occasional headaches – and one vice: three cups of coffee a day. After some persuasion, she agreed to stop coffee for one month. To her surprise, up went her energy level and the headaches stopped.

In making an assessment of your current relationship to stimulants, it is very helpful to get real about what you do and how you feel towards stimulants. So fill in the Stimulant Inventory below for three days. Note down how much and when you consume coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar or something sweet, cigarettes or alcohol. Also, consider what your relationship is to these substances. Do you, for example, ever buy sweets and hide the wrappers so other people won’t know? Do you swoon at the dessert menu in restaurants and always take a mint or two on the way out? How much do you think about and look forward to that cup of coffee in the morning or in a break? How important is that drink after work for you? How secret are you about the amount you smoke? Have you become a coffee connoisseur, side-stepping the issue of addiction by focusing on your hobby of sampling yet another caffeinated offering? This kind of relationship to stimulants, often cloaked in the attitude that these are just the normal pleasures of life, is indicative of an underlying chemical imbalance that depletes your energy and peace of mind.

Stimulant Inventory A unit equals Day 1 Day 2 Day 3
Tea 1 cup
Coffee (espresso) ½ shot
Coffee (filter or instant) 1 cup
Green tea 2 cups
Cola or caffeinated drinks 1 cup
Caffeine pills (eg No-Doz, Pro Plus, Excedrin, Dexatrim) 1 pill
Chocolate (milk) 200g
Chocolate (dark) 70g
Added sugar 1 teaspoon
Hidden sugar (ie sugar listed in ingredients) 1 teaspoon/5gm

Half pint of beer, lager or cider (4%) = 1 unit
One 25ml spirit measure = 1 unit
Small 125ml glass of wine (12.5%) = 1.5 units
Large 250ml glass of wine (12.5%) = 3 units

Beer, lager or cider
Cigarettes 1 cigarette

The next step is reducing your intake, which is discussed a little later but first, let’s look in more detail at why stimulants are bad news.

You don’t need stimulants

Stimulants are energy’s greatest enemy. Even though stimulants can create energy in the short-term, the long-term effect is always bad. The same is true for stress. So an important step in the Stress Cure Programme from our book The Stress Cure is to cut out, or cut down on stimulants. This includes coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar and refined foods, cigarettes, energy drinks and alcohol.

Once you are able to quit your intake of these stimulants for one month, you’ll be in a better position to see how they really work. The more damage stimulants are doing to you, the greater the withdrawal effect. The first step is to eat a low-GL diet and increase your intake of energy-boosting nutrients, for example by taking one of my optimum nutrition packs, two strips a day. If you do this you can minimise withdrawal symptoms, which usually last no more than two to four days.

Reducing stimulants without suffering

Of course, to cut out all stimulants completely is not only just about impossible for many people, it’s also extremely stressful! But with a staged approach – and the right nutritional support – it can be done. The first step is to find out which stimulants are most important for you. First of all, look at your habits, which you can identify from the three-day diary suggestion earlier. Which of these, if any, do you have in one form or another several times a day? Which do you use as a pick-me-up, perhaps to get you out of bed in the morning or when your energy is flagging during the day? Which would you find the hardest to stop completely for one month? When was the last time you went for one month without each of these stimulants?

Although you may intend to stop them for ever, in reality, it is a lot easier to take one step at a time. So start by picking one stimulant (other than cigarettes) you use frequently. Could you realistically cut it out for one month only? If not, what could you reduce your intake to? If you consume a lot, a staged reduction is more realistic, for example reducing by one third, then two thirds and finally completely over the course of several weeks. Write this down and stick to it. Set yourself similar targets for no more than three stimulants. Sometimes they overlap. For example, if you use coffee, sugar and chocolate, but can’t stand coffee without sugar, then cutting out sugar automatically means no chocolate and no coffee.

Finally, a note about alcohol. Do you know how many units you drink each week? Many of our clients are surprised when we add them up. The perception that a glass of wine, for example, equals one unit is no longer the case. This is because over the past few years, the alcohol content in wine has been creeping up, due in part to using riper grapes to satisfy more ‘international’ flavour requirements and switching to modern strains of yeast which are more effective at turning sugar into alcohol. The one glass equals one unit calculation was based on drinking wine at 8% alcohol volume, which you’d be hard pushed to find these days. Many wines now contain 14%. The standard calculation often used today is based on 12.5%, making a small (125ml) glass 1.5 units and large (240ml) glass 3 units. Many beers and lagers also contain more alcohol these days, with a pint of strong beer (5.2%) containing 3 units. Government guidelines suggest women should not regularly consume any more than 2-3 units a day, and men 3-4 units per day. In practice, this means one large glass of 12.5% wine maximum for women and one and a third glasses for men. A bottle of wine with 14% alcohol content (typically Shiraz, Cabinet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay) contains almost 11 units.

When it comes to reducing your intake of all stimulants, here are some tips to help you get started.

SUGAR is an acquired taste. Although we are born with a liking for sweet things, research has shown that only those who are fed sweets and sweet foods like high levels of sweetness. So as you gradually cut down the level of sweetness in all the food you eat, you will soon get accustomed to this. That means having less sugar in hot drinks, less in food, even less dried fruit, and drinking more diluted fruit juice. Also watch what’s in the food you’re buying – some cereals, for example, can contain more sugar than a packet of biscuits, and diet foods often load in the sugar as they reduce the fat to provide flavour. If you’re following a low-GL approach to eating you’ll avoid this trap.

When you want something sweet, have fresh (but not dried) fruit. Sweeten sugar-free cereals and desserts with fruit, and if you’re really desperate, have a sugar-free, low-carb protein bar (see the excellent range at or try a Meridian peanut or almond bar from Holland & Barrett). Be aware, however, that many standard sugar-free products containing ‘natural’ sweeteners such as honey, dates and concentrated fruit juices can still give you a sugar high. For a true sugar-free alternative, try coconut (supermarkets often sell it ready-prepared for instant snacking) or a sugar-free nut butter on an oat cake – these can both satisfy a sugar craving. Also, don’t be tempted to substitute sugar with sugar substitutes. These may not raise your blood sugar levels, but neither do they allow you to change your habits. It takes about a month to acquire the preference for less sweet foods. Let your taste buds be the judge of how sweet a food is – but do check the labels for all those disguised forms of sugar.

COFFEE is strongly addictive. It takes, on average, four days to break the habit. During this time, you may experience headaches and grogginess. These are a strong reminder of how bad coffee really is for you. Decaffeinated coffee is half as bad, or good, depending on which way you look at it, but drinking it doesn’t help you break the addiction to drinking coffee. You are better to switch to a different kind of drink. The most popular coffee alternatives are Caro, Barleycup, Yannoh and Symington’s Dandelion coffee. When you have been off coffee for a month, you may decide the occasional cup would be nice. Have this as a treat, perhaps when you eat out, but not as a pick-me-up.

TEA is not as bad for you as coffee, unless you’re the sort of person that likes your tea well stewed. Start by decreasing the strength of your tea, perhaps using a smaller cup or teapot. Tea has such a strong flavour that you can literally dip in a tea bag for seconds and still have a strong tasting drink. Try Moringa tea, which is caffeine free, high in nutrients and gives you a natural energy boost. Remember that green tea also contains caffeine, but can be useful to bridge the gap to caffeine-free teas, as it contains a substance called theanine which can help you to feel calmer and more alert. There are also hundreds of varieties of caffeine-free herbal teas to enjoy. You are bound to find one you like, but for starters, Pukka, Yogi or Clipper have some good flavours. Red Bush (or Rooibosch) tea is caffeine free and has a taste closer to ‘normal’ tea that you can serve with milk.

CHOCOLATE contains both sugar and the stimulants caffeine and theobromine. Start by having chocolate-free snacks, like Siesta Carob bars (the mint flavour in particular is quite like mint chocolate, and carob is naturally sweet, so there is no added sugar), or one of the GoLower bars (from Then avoid even these, keeping them strictly for emergencies, eating fresh fruit or coconut instead if you feel you need something sweet.

ALCOHOL is an easy habit to acquire because of its key role in social interaction. Start by limiting when you have alcohol. For example, don’t drink at lunch-time. You’ll certainly work better in the afternoon. Then limit what you drink. For example, stick to wine, avoiding beer or spirits. Next, limit how much you drink by setting yourself a weekly target – for example, seven glasses of wine a week. This allows you to have quite a few at that party on Saturday night and compensate by having little throughout the proceeding week. Then, cut it out completely for at least two weeks, and preferably four. If you find this hard to do, take a close look at your drinking habits, and, if necessary, seek professional help. Once you’ve got your energy back on track, and have built greater resilience to stress, you can then reintroduce alcohol as a social enjoyment rather than a crutch to compensate for low energy and high stress.

SMOKING can be one of the hardest habits to kick. The average smoker is not only addicted to nicotine, but is also addicted to smoking when tired, when hungry, when upset, on waking, after a meal, with a drink and so on. Improved nutrition decreases craving for cigarettes, so it’s best to leave kicking this stimulant until you’ve been following the Stress Cure Programme set out in the book for at least a month then follow the guidelines for quitting smoking in the book.

Summary: break your addictions

In summary, here are some practical steps to take to break addiction to stress and stimulants:

  • Identify which stimulants you are addicted to.
  • Find which substitutes you like the most and avoid or considerably reduce your intake of these until they are no longer a daily requirement.
  • Identify alternatives you can enjoy instead, so you have something ready to fill the gap.
  • Support yourself by eating a low-GL diet and supplementing key energy nutrients
  • Notice your patterns of stressful behaviour and replace these with a more positive way of responding (read The Stress Cure for more guidance on this).

Finally, if you are struggling with other addictions including illicit and medical drugs, my book How to Quit Without Feeling S**t addresses the easiest way out of addiction to almost every addictive substance.