What you consume can have an effect on your stress hormone level, for better or worse. Obvious examples are caffeine and nicotine. Even in moderate doses, either of these can double the amount of adrenaline in your bloodstream.
The stress of something like an exam produces increased cortisol levels (cortisol is a primary stress hormone). Combined with coffee, however, the cortisol levels rise even more.
Coffee all by itself raises your cortisol level, increases your feelings of stress and anxiety, raises your blood pressure — and all this even if you are otherwise relaxed, and even for people who drink it regularly. It also makes hypertension medications less effective.
In a study, a fairly big dose of caffeine was found to mimic the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Withdrawal from caffeine does too.
You may be more sensitive to caffeine than other people. Studies have found that people with panic disorder (one of the five anxiety disorders) react more strongly to the same amount of caffeine than "normal" people. They experienced more fear, heart palpitations, nervousness, restlessness, etc. Caffeine can increase these kinds of symptoms in anybody. But for some people, it is more dramatic.
You may not have panic attacks, but just the fact that you are reading this indicates that your system might be more sensitive and react more strongly to caffeine than the average person. In one experiment, five out of six people were cured of their panic attacks by doing nothing more than giving up coffee. Caffeine apparently blocks the action of a brain chemical called adenosine, a naturally-occurring sedative.
In one study, people with panic disorder could reliably produce panic attacks with only four or five cups of coffee. Coffee can produce panic attacks in even normal people, but with higher amounts of coffee.
In another study, people were tested for anxiety, depression, and caffeine consumption. There was a direct correlation between the level of anxiety and caffeine consumption — but only in those with panic disorder.
In another study, panic disorder patients and normal people were given equal doses of caffeine (ten milligrams per kilogram of body weight). Then they were all tested for anxiety symptoms: fear, nausea, nervousness, pounding heart, tremors, and restlessness. The caffeine had caused a significantly greater intensity of these symptoms in the people with panic disorder than in the normal people.
Given all this, and given the fact that you'd like to reduce your stress, I suggest an experiment. Quit ingesting caffeine for two weeks. It takes about three days for withdrawal symptoms to completely subside (headaches, feelings of lethargy, etc.). After that, pay close attention to the general feeling-tone of your day-to-day experience. Your sense of relative ease, comfort, annoyance, distress, alarm, contentment, etc.
Then start drinking coffee again. The first day it'll feel great (as long as nothing too stressful happens). The next day and the next, pay attention to the general feeling-tone of your experience. If you're like me, you'll notice a more general feeling of alarm. And you'll notice circumstances feel more distressing. Then ask yourself what coffee does for you. You get a great feeling of relief in the morning with your first cup. After going all night without caffeine, your body is in the beginning of withdrawal, so it feels good to get a dose again. That's always the moment coffee advertisers display — that first cup in the morning. Also the general feeling of sharpness and alertness is a plus. But weigh the pluses against the minuses and I think coffee comes out on the short end of the stir stick.
I know there are studies showing sugar doesn't produce hyperactivity in children, but it does something to us all. Eating refined sugar — table sugar and corn syrup in particular — raises your blood sugar level (glucose) very quickly.
In one study, some people had panic attacks merely from an infusion of glucose (blood sugar). In another study, people were given 100 milligrams of glucose as a drink. In anxiety-prone people the lactate level in their blood was considerably higher than in the other participants, and it stayed higher for five hours! (Lactate all by itself can produce feelings of anxiety. Lactate is the byproduct of burning blood sugar.)
In several studies of people with anxiety problems, the simple injection of glucose into the blood stream caused symptoms of anxiety. It does not have that affect on most people. There could be a relationship to lactate, which is a byproduct of burning glucose and produces feelings of anxiety. If lactate produces anxiety, and if lactate is produced by burning glucose, then it makes sense that a rise in blood sugar would tend to produce anxiety.
Around the world, people consume far more carbohydrates than our bodies evolved to deal with. Why? Because it's cheap, it's filling, and it tastes great. But it has side-effects. Especially for people who are prone to stress or anxiety.
Even though alcohol is relaxing, it stimulates your body to produce stress hormones. A nasty self-feeding loop can form because of this. What do I mean? One thing that causes people to want to drink is the presence of stress hormones — the feeling of anxiety or tension. Alcohol relieves that feeling. It is relaxing. But the following day, the after-effect of alcohol is a higher level of stress hormones. And if the method you use to relieve that feeling is to drink alcohol, an unending cycle has been created. You're caught in a trap.
Alcohol inhibits the body's ability to make glucose from lactate. Lactate normally flows around in the blood stream and when it reaches the liver, it is resynthesized into glucose. Alcohol slows down your liver's ability to do this, which means that lactate levels rise in the blood, causing more anxiety and feelings of stress.
Lactate has a sister compound called pyruvate. When one goes up, the other generally goes down. Your anxiety level has to do with the ratio of one to the other. Higher lactate equals more anxiety. Higher pyruvate equals more ease.
The lactate to pyruvate ratio can be increased with any of these substances: sugar, caffeine, and alcohol.
So when you know someone who has a cup of coffee in the morning with sugar in it, and then has a few drinks in the evening and complains of anxiety or stress, you might want to enlighten them: These things are probably worsening their feelings of anxiety. Circumstances can cause stress, of course, but your own body's reaction to the circumstances can cause more stress and anxiety than you need to put up with.
OR THE BETTER
Scientists give rats a lot of stress and then see what they can do to reduce stress hormones. Something that successfully lowers stress hormones is vitamin C.
Researcher P. Samuel Campbell and his colleagues found that 200 mg of vitamin C per day reduced the level of stress hormones in the rats' blood. That's a pretty big dose for a little critter. It is the equivalent of several grams of vitamin C per day for you or me, which is actually in the range of what the famous chemist, Linus Pauling recommended. It is also in the range of what chimpanzees — our closest genetic relatives — get in their daily diet in the wild.
Other things that indicated a generally lower stress level for the rats taking the vitamin C were: 1) their adrenal glands didn't enlarge as much as they normally do when rats are constantly stressed, 2) they didn't lose as much weight as the stressed but unmegadosed rats, and 3) their spleens and thymus glands didn't shrink as much.
I'm not a biochemist or a doctor. You can do your own research and draw your own conclusions. I'm noting it here because it is relevant to our topic (reducing stress and anxiety) and can give you an avenue to pursue you might otherwise not have thought about.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.