Wired and tired: Are you hooked on stress?

Three in four people in Britain frequently feel stressed, with declining energy levels, and two in three experience frequent anxiety and tension, according to our 100% Health survey of 51,000 people [1].

Chronic stress has dire long-term health consequences, increasing risk for heart disease by five times [2] and doubling the risk for obesity, dementia and diabetes. [3] In fact, chronic stress is as bad for you as smoking, according a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. [4]

The very same ‘fight or flight’ mechanism designed to promote our ancestor’s survival – while they were hunting and being hunted by predators – is today triggered by non-stop digital communications. “Something like 40% of people wake up, and the first thing they do is check their email. For another 40%, it’s the last thing they do at night.” says Prof Cary Cooper is concerned that we are spending too much time in ‘work’ mode.

While modern stresses are rarely so extreme, they are far more frequent and relentless. Feeling overwhelmed at work, money or relationship worries, being stuck in traffic, for example – all these cause us to release the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol, and to keep releasing them hour after hour. The net consequence is that the body stops repair and rejuvenation, channelling all available energy into the apparent ‘emergency’ mode of modern living.

Twenty-first-century living literally puts us almost constantly on high alert. The average person checks their phones every ten minutes and answers work-related emails on holiday. One in five young adults even admits to checking their emails during sex! Being constantly on the go is draining, with one in five Brits now needing to take time off work due to the ill effects of stress. [5]

Diet also contributes to our stress levels because a sugary snack causes a rebound blood sugar and energy dip, which triggers adrenal hormone release. Sugar consumption has gone up from nearly zero for our ancestors to over 91 grams a week (that’s 22 teaspoons). Caffeine consumption, which causes the release of adrenalin, has increased to an average of around 300mg a day, which equates to six cups of tea or three cups of coffee. Many consume double this.

While sugar and caffeine give us energy in the short term, in the longer term they lead to constant adrenal overload. As a consequence, an increasing number of people are suffering from chronic anxiety, panic attacks, low mood, insomnia and stress-related weight gain.

It’s a vicious cycle because over-production of adrenal hormones leads to adrenalin resistance whereby a person craves more stress to get the same lift. That’s why so many people become hooked on adrenal stimulation, whether it is triggered by sweet foods, caffeine or constant mental activity. As a consequence we end up adrenally overloaded, literally addicted to stress and feeling wired and tired most of the time.

Test Your Stress

  • Do you check your phone or laptop for messages every few minutes?
  • Do you ‘need’ a coffee, tea or cigarette to get going in the morning?
  • Do you feel guilty when relaxing or find it hard to relax or switch off?
  • Do you get impatient or angry if people or things hold you up?
  • Are you competitive with a constant need for achievement?
  • Do challenging situations trigger anxiety or panic?
  • Do you often do two or three tasks simultaneously?
  • Do you avoid exercise because you feel too tired?
  • Do you have difficulty getting to sleep, or staying asleep?
  • Do you have afternoon energy dips or wake up feeling tired?

Switching off stress requires both mind and body

If you answer yes to five or more questions, that’s a fair indication you’re highly stressed, and the higher your score, the greater the negative impact of stress on your life.

You have to address both your body and mindset. This means acombination of diet, supplements and a five-minute daily ‘HeartMath’ exercise, which switches off the stress response and builds resilience.The HeartMath system includes a remarkably effective yet simple technique that trains you to have a new calm and level-headed ‘default’ setting, rather than getting stressed and upset whenever something goes wrong. (See my report on HeartMath.)

I teach Heartmath’s Quick Coherence technique in all my workshops. Within two minutes you can switch off an adrenal stress reaction. However, the release of cortisol, the long acting stress hormone, takes something like an hour to calm down. It’s really neat because there’s an App, called Inner Balance, that allows you to monitor your state of ‘coherence’ using a simple device that clips on your earlobe and measures what’s called your heart rate variability (HRV) which is the best measure of your stress state.

Another key piece of the jigsaw is understanding what your stress triggers are and either changing them or reframing how you react. Many successful people have learnt how to face life positively, without letting stress take control. Famously, Winston Churchill said: “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” But pessimism isn’t in your genes. Optimism is a mindset you can train yourself into, which this book shows you how to do.

Diet is also vital, as blood sugar dips trigger stress hormones. That means not skipping breakfast, snacking when tired, and eating a combination of protein and slow-releasing carbs such as wholegrain toast with eggs, or nuts with fruit rather than sugary cereals or biscuits. Quitting sugar and caffeine really helps. If you are a sugar/carb junkie and find it hard to quit try supplementing a combination of chromium with Cinnulin, a concentrated extract on cinnamon.

Supplements can also help to replenish key resilience nutrients. For example, in studies those supplementing vitamin C and B vitamins have twice the energy and greater physical and mental stamina, concentration and alertness than those taking a placebo. [6] According to a study at Alabama University, those with a vitamin C intake above 400mg have half the level of ‘fatigability. [7] While research in the military has found that supplementing tyrosine, an amino acid needed for healthy adrenal function, improves performance under stressful conditions. [8]

The best way to build your stress resilience is an ‘am’ and ‘pm’ strategy. During the day you want to support your adrenal system naturally so you have the energy to deal with life. This will also help give you natural energy if, for example, you decide to quit or reduce reliance on sugar and stimulants such as coffee.

Stress relief in a bottle

Supplements containing L-theanine and the amino acid GABA, or its precursors can help to make you feel more relaxed and less ‘edgy’. [9] And adaptogenic herbs such as Siberian Ginseng, Rhodiola rosea, Ashwaganda and Schisandra have been found to alleviate fatigue and other symptoms of stress. [10] The three most reputable adaptogens are the Ginseng family, Reishi mushroom (also known as Lingzhi in China) and Rhodiola. In Asia, especially China and Japan, Resihi has been revered for 5,000 years. Chinese reishi mushroom (Ganodermum lucidum) is often used to modify or enhance the effects of other stress-fighting herbs. It also helps lower insulin levels. [11]

Do beware energy tablets that contain caffeine or guarana, a natural form of caffeine. Like stimulants, these will provide a short-term fix that leave you more tired and imbalanced in the long run. Licorice is often touted as a tonic for stress, but can raise cortisol levels, which is not ideal if you are already overproducing cortisol, as it can fast-track you to stress burnt out. Siberian ginseng is probably OK under any circumstances. While it can raise cortisol it seems to work as an ‘adaptogen’, helping you to adapt by stabilising the stress response and also reducing fatigue. [12]

The fastest way to rebalancing your stress hormones is to:

  • Avoid adrenal stimulants, eat a low-GL diet, and take nutritional supplements to support energy production, your balance blood sugar balance and provide adrenal support.
  • Do the right kind of exercise, get enough sleep and change your lifestyle to reduce your stress level.

Below, are the nutrients and recommended levels to help you find a suitable formula. The amount you need depends very much on the quality and potency of the extract so pick reputable brands. The ideal time to take these nutrients is early in the day, for example before breakfast. Please note, amino acids such as tyrosine, compete with absorption with other amino acids in food, and are hence best absorbed away from other foods, for example, 15 or more minutes before a meal. This would be a perfect combo to take in the morning, before breakfast. For a good combination formula you’d be taking two capsules in the morning (and two in the afternoon if you are really burnt out).

Nutrient Level
Tyrosine 500-1000mg
Ginseng (Korean, Siberian, American, or a combination 200-300mg
Reishi mushrooms 50-100mg
or Rhodiola 100-200mg
Vitamin B5 50-100mg
Vitamin B3 25-50mg
Vitamin B6 15-30mg
Folic acid 50-200mcg
Vitamin B12 5010mcg

Calm in a capsule

If you feel frazzled and find it hard to wind down, supplementing some amino acids that help to support the production of GABA, your primary calming neurotransmitter which turns off adrenalin, can help to shift you from stressed to rest, without making you sleepy. This can be especially useful to help you unwind and relax at the end of the day, or at any time you are feeling particularly stressed. You can also use nutrients such as magnesium – often referred to as nature’s tranquilliser – or herbs such as hops, valerian or passion flower as agents to help you calm down. But note, valerian can also make you feel sleepy, so don’t take this during the day if you need to be alert. Tryptophan or 5-HTP are useful too if you feel down and want a mood lift. The ideal time to take these nutrients is towards the end of the day, eg after supper or an hour before bed if you find it hard to go to sleep or stay asleep for 7 hours.

Nutrient Level
Taurine* 250-750mg
Glutamine* 250-750mg
5-HTP 50-200mg
Magnesium 100-300mg**
Theanine 50-100mg
Hops extract 50-200mg
valerian 50-100mg***
Passion Flower 100-200mg

* If GABA is allowed in your country, supplement 500 to 1500mg of GABA instead of taurine plus glutamine.

** You are looking for a total of 300mg of magnesium, including what is in your multivitamin & mineral formula.

*** Valerian is often only available on its own. More than this, eg 300mg, acts as a sedative and is good if you use to switch off and go to sleep, but not if you want to function, eg drive a car.

Note, if you find a formula that combines many of these, go for the lower end of the dosage spectrum, as used together, many of these nutrients are more effective. And do not supplement 5-HTP if you are also taking an anti-depressant without first consulting your GP or a nutritional therapist.

To find out more about how to increase your natural energy, sleep well and build stress resilience read The Stress Cure which includes a range of practical advice and techniques to help you thrive, rather than merely survive, in the 21st century.

Visit HOLFORDirect.com – the home of GL friendly foods, supplements, tests and books.


  1. P.Holford et al, The 100% Health Survey, p.11-12, www.patrickholford.com
  2. N. Vogelzangs et al, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2010
  3. M. Kivmaki et al, British Medical Journal, 2009 ; also see L Johansson et al, Brain, 2010; also see AK Eriksson et al, Diabetic Medicine, 2008; C Aboa-Eboule et al, Journal of the American Medical Association, 2007
  4. C Aboa-Eboule et al, Journal of the American Medical Association, 2007
  5. Mind, 2013
  6. D Kennedy et al, Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 2011
  7. E Cheraskin et al, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 1976
  8. JB Deijen et al, Brain Research Bulletin, 1999; also see CR Mahoney et al, Physiology and Behaviour, 2007
  9. K Unno et al, Pharmacol Biochem Behav, 2013
  10. A Panossian and G Wikman, Curr Clin Pharmacol, 2009; SK Kulkarni and A Dhir, Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry, 2008; L Huang et al, Pharmazie, 2011; A Panossian and G Wikman, J Ethnopharmaco, 2008; A Panossian et al, Phytomedicin, 2010
  11. TT Chu, B Tomlinson et al, British Journal of Nutrition, 2012
  12. M Davydov and A D Krikorian, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 2000