Stress comes at us from all directions. It can be hard to find balance in the stimulating, fast-paced, modern world most people live in. But aside from “obvious” stressors, science suggests we might be adding to our stress levels unknowingly through more nuanced dietary and lifestyle factors. Read on to learn some surprising ways you might be setting off your stress response.
Disclaimer: This post focuses on the neuroscience of the stress response, particularly in relation to cortisol. It is solely informational. Talk to your healthcare provider if you feel like you’re under too much stress or if your cortisol labs are abnormal.
What is Stress?
Stress Isn’t Always Bad
First of all, don’t worry about everything that may activate the stress pathway. It’s natural and healthy for this pathway to be activated moderately. That said, it’s certainly not supposed to be activated constantly and excessively.
What we generally think of as stress includes both psychological or social stress. Psychological/social stress is a broad term. It could be, for example, worry about income. It could be job- or relationship-related stress, and it could be so much more [1, 2].
Stress comes in innumerable forms. It can be internal or external. It can be positive stress or negative stress. It can be physical or emotional. It can be due to our own decisions, or totally out of our control. No matter how it comes packaged, stress has a huge impact on us: body, mind, and spirit.
According to one hypothesis, the problem comes when the stress response is activated too little, too much, or when it doesn’t have a good rhythm. In other words, HPA “dysregulation” is viewed as bad .
Studies suggest that anxiety, which is tightly linked with chronic stress, can be self-perpetuating. Scientists hypothesize that chronic stress increases CRH receptors in the brain (paraventricular nucleus), which makes people even more susceptible to the harmful effects of stress .
For a more detailed outlook on these mechanisms, read our post on why stress is bad.
Note that the HPA axis (and CRH) is not the only system that participates in the stress response. Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is a different arm of the stress response. As an example, beta 2-adrenoreceptor blockers like propranolol block beta receptors in the heart that belong to the SNS .
Sympathetic, fight-or-flight activity can also be counteracted by parasympathetic, rest-and-digest activity. This is part of the cholinergic pathway in the body.
Lastly, the stress response can involve many other possible factors – including brain chemistry, environment, health status, and genetics – that may vary from one person to another.
Everyone is affected differently by stress. Research suggests that some conditions/syndromes can also affect the way we respond to stress.
For example, autistic children release higher amounts of cortisol in response to psychological stress and it takes longer for their cortisol to return to normal – according to one small study .
In another study, people with IBS released more ACTH in response to CRH compared to people without IBS .
A Note About Factors that May Raise the Stress Response
Remember that it’s natural and healthy for the stress response to be activated moderately and for a short time. Issues usually arise when activation becomes chronic .
If your goal is to improve extreme stress-related issues – including those of panic disorders or anxiety – it’s important to talk to your doctor, especially if stress is significantly impacting your daily life.
Major mental changes, such as excessive sadness, panic, persistent low mood, euphoria, or anxiety, are all reasons to see a doctor.
Your doctor should diagnose and treat any underlying conditions causing your symptoms.
Additionally, changes in brain and body chemistry are not something that people can change on their own with the approaches listed in this article. Instead, the factors to avoid listed here are meant to reduce daily stress and support overall mental health and well-being.
You may try avoiding the factors listed below if you and your doctor determine that this could be an appropriate approach for reducing your stress response.
Avoiding these triggers should never be done in place of what your doctor recommends or prescribes.
Lastly, clinical evidence is lacking to support avoiding many of the factors listed below as a means of stress reduction.
Lifestyle Choices that May Raise the Stress Response
Exhaustion and Body Posture
- Intense prolonged exercise – Increases cortisol in healthy males 
- Strenuous Breathing – Raises IL-6 and IL-1 in healthy volunteers 
- Long commutes – Increased cortisol (humans) 
- Low Power Postures – Body positions that make you appear less confident/dominant (e.g. slumped shoulders) increased cortisol, according to small human studies 
- Excess Alcohol consumption – Ongoing consumption of alcohol raises cortisol levels in the body 
- Smoking – Even just 2 cigarettes 
- Marijuana/Pot/THC – Dose dependently raises cortisol in human studies 
- Opioid withdrawal – Withdrawal from chronic morphine-induced the HPA axis in rat studies 
- Reduced Sleep – A loss of sleep for just one night leads to higher cortisol levels the next evening [16, 17]
- Poor quality sleep – Poor quality sleep activates the HPA axis (stress response) 
- Staying up late – Cortisol goes up when we are awake during normal sleep times 
- Circadian Rhythm Disruptions – An airline cabin crew who had chronic circadian disruptions had higher salivary cortisol . See how to keep to a Circadian Rhythm.
- Caffeine – increases cortisol (humans) 
- Nicotine – increases Acetylcholine, which increases ADH, ACTH, Cortisol (humans) 
- Yohimbine – increases cortisol (humans) 
- Heavy metals – cadmium and possibly others (humans) 
- Mercury in fish (humans) 
- PAH (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) 
Other Environmental Influences
Scientists are exploring if these environmental factors can also heighten the stress response:
- Noise – Induces an HPA axis response (rats) 
- Excess sun/UVB exposure (locally, on the skin) – Induces skin cells to produce and release CRH through the PKA pathway 
- Cold  or Hot  temperatures (humans). Chronic cold increases CRH receptors, caused by dopamine (rats) 
- EMFs – Seem to raise stress levels (rats) 
- High altitudes – Lower oxygen (potentially causing hypoxia), increasing the stress response (rat, cellular, humans) 
Large-scale human data are lacking.
Dietary Factors that May Raise the Stress Response
- Protein restriction/Leucine deprivation – Increases CRH and stimulates the stress response in mice 
- Excess sodium – Increases cortisol 
- Excess omega-6 – May raise inflammation, setting off the stress response 
- Severe calorie restriction – Increases cortisol 
- Fasting  – Modern Ramadan practices in Saudi Arabia are associated with excess evening cortisol (and increased insulin resistance). Other kinds of fasting might decrease CRH and cortisol (based on experiments in rats) .
- Body fat/Obesity – Fat tissue produces cortisol from cortisone 
- Zinc inadequacy – Caused increased susceptibility to stress in rat studies 
- Magnesium inadequacy – Increases cortisol and HPA response in human and animal studies [41, 42]
- Vitamin A inadequacy – Increases cortisol and induces the HPA axis in rat studies [43, 44]
- Potassium loading – Increases ACTH and cortisol in humans 
Other Experimental Factors that May Raise the Stress Response
Many of these factors are experimental and proper human data are lacking.
Inflammation & Health Issues
- Inflammation – Prostaglandins , Eicosanoids , IL-1b, TNF, IL-6 and Histamine 
- Arachidonic Acid  – from excess omega-6 
- Pain – Raises cortisol in human studies 
- Increased gut permeability, possibly by increasing inflammation and cortisol 
- Hypoglycemia/Low blood sugar, insulin resistance, and hypothalamic issues 
- Bacterial, Viral, or other infections [53, 54]
- Physical trauma/Injuries/Surgery 
- ROS/Oxidative Stress – Increases cortisol in (cellular models) 
Hormonal Factors & Pathways
Scientists are investigating whether the following hormones, peptide, and neurotransmitters can activate the stress response pathway:
- Pregnenolone – Converts to cortisol and stimulates the HPA axis (rats) 
- DHEA – Induces CRH and Vasopressin synthesis and release, enhancing ACTH and activating the HPA axis (rats) 
- Leptin – Activates stress response (mice) 
- Ghrelin – Activates HPA axis 
- High thyroid hormones – Activates HPA axis (rat) 
- Vasopressin – Releases CRH (rats)  and ACTH (humans and animals) 
- CCK – Increases CRH, ACTH, and cortisol (humans) [63, 64]
- VIP – Raises CRH 
- Angiotensin II/ACE – Stimulates the HPA axis (humans) [66, 67]
- Platelet Activating Factor – Activates the HPA axis by increasing CRH 
- Orexins – Increase CRH and ACTH (humans and animals) 
- Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) – Stimulates the HPA axis (rats) 
- BDNF – Stimulates the HPA axis (rats) 
- Dopamine (D1/D2) – Increases CRH in cells  – Contradictory (mice) 
- Serotonin (specifically 5-HT2CRs) – Serotonin increased CRH and its neuronal activity and CRH (and corticosterone release) (rats) [71, 72]
- Noradrenaline – Increases CRH (rats) 
- Glutamate – Activates the HPA axis (rats) 
These pathways have not been properly investigated in humans.
Internal Psychological Chatter?
Psychologists suggest that some attitudinal factors may increase the stress response, but they don’t have scientific references.
The exact approach will vary on the psychologist’s training. For example, a CBT therapist, a Gestalt psychologist, a Freudian psychoanalyst, and a Jungian psychotherapist would probably not agree on all the ideas listed below.
So here’s a list of various things different psychologists might tell you to watch out for if your nervous system is overactive.
If you want to change your attitude and behavior, consider seeing a psychotherapist that matches your goals and personality.
- Trying too hard to control an outcome
Forced Self Improvement
- Forcefully trying to change yourself
- Trying to overexert your will power
- Trying to increase your motivation when you’re too tired
- Making yourself do something you don’t want to
- Making too many goals that you can’t achieve
Outlook on Life
- Having strong attachments(to an idea, object, person, etc.)
- Thinking too much about the past or future
- Taking life too seriously
- Humiliation or embarrassment
Again, these feelings are completely normal from time to time, depending on the circumstances. They are usually an issue only if they start dominating your life, making you lose a sense of control.