Whether it’s financial woes, health issues, or just loneliness and busy traffic, people are under more low-level, chronic stress than at any other time in history. Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress and the CDC estimates that up to 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
Americans are so stressed out that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared stress a hazard of the workplace that costs American industry more than $300 billion annually.
Everywhere we turn in modern society, there are people and things that keep us feeling insecure and on alert. And consequently, more people are facing health issues that are caused or exacerbated by stress. Stress can play a part in problems like headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression, and anxiety.
When our adrenal glands put out more and more adrenaline and cortisol in response to our busy lives and perceived stress, and we don’t take ample time to rest, heal and recover fully, our bodies and minds become accustomed to living in a constant state of fight-or flight and start to malfunction.
We can easily start to lose grip on reality and succumb to the stress-chemical cocktail that is coursing through our veins. In our hypervigilant state, our perceptions and reactions become chemically distorted, and the world can begin to look very scary.
For many of us, this means we encounter anxiety, or even panic attacks, for the first time in our lives.
There is nothing more disconcerting than feeling a heavy sense of impending doom—trembling, heart racing, light-headed, overwhelmed, scared—even though your eyes and your logic tell you there is absolutely nothing to fear.
That anxiety you feel, that panic that is starting to take you over? It’s chemical. It’s not real; it’s not reflective of true circumstances going on right in front of you in the present moment.
If it was, you’d call it fear, not anxiety.
But it sure feels real. After all, your body is having a very real fight-or-flight reaction. You wouldn’t be trembling, sweaty-palmed and freaked out for no real reason, would you?
Well the reason you are anxious is real, but it’s not why you think. The reason for your anxiety and panic is simply that you have a stress response system that has run amok.
Stopping Anxiety in Its Tracks: 4 7 8 Breathing
In addition to making lifestyle changes to alleviate stress over the long-term, in the short-term, you can immediately tame the fight-or-flight response misfiring in your brain, cool your body’s inflammatory response to all those stress hormones, and halt anxiety or panic by using a simple breathing technique.
I recently learned this technique from a local psychologist who specializes in stress, panic and anxiety. I find it tremendously helpful whenever I’m feeling irrationally worried or anxious. (Which, with chronic stress, CFIDS and pyroluria, happens more often than I’d like to admit.)
The technique is called 4-7-8 Breathing, and it has five easy steps:
- Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, right behind your front teeth.
- Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Release your breath from your mouth with a whooshing sound for a count of 8.
- Without a break, breathe in again for a count of 4, repeating the entire technique 3-4 times in a row, then resume normal breathing and activity.
If you use a second hand on a watch to count your breaths, the whole exercise will take just 57 seconds! But it doesn’t really matter if each count lasts an actual second; it only matters that you count evenly so the ratio of 4-7-8 is maintained.
You may find yourself feeling mildly light-headed after doing this. That’s actually a sign it is working, and it will quickly pass. Feel free to do this as often as you want, but you may need to get used to it first.
Many people find that this breathing technique immediately ends an anxiety or panic attack.
Why It Works
The 4 7 8 breathing technique works because when you are stressed out, your breathing becomes very shallow. People who experience long-term, chronic stress are often chronically under-breathing and are in a constant state of mild hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation.
Additionally, under-breathing can lead to a build up of excess carbon dioxide in your tissues, which contributes to oxidative stress, inflammation and acidification in your body—the foundations for disease.
It’s hard to think clearly (much less be healthy) if you’re not getting enough oxygen. And when you are totally freaking out with anxiety or a panic attack, it’s common to breathe very shallowly, hyperventilate, or even unconsciously hold your breath—which affects your thinking and your health even more!
But by drawing out your inhale over a count of 4, you are making yourself slowly and consciously take in more oxygen.
Then by holding your breath for a count of 7, you allow as much of that oxygen to saturate into your bloodstream as possible, cleansing and energizing all your cells, tissues and organs.
Finally, by exhaling for a count of 8, you make sure you have expelled as much carbon dioxide from your lungs as possible.
The 4 7 8 breathing technique basically takes the shallow, oxygen poor breathing you normally do when you are stressed out, and turns it upside down. This has some profound effects on your body and your mind.
The Nervous System 101
The central nervous system is made up of the brain, the spinal cord and millions of individual nerve cells called neurons, which serve as the body’s wiring. Nerve signals are transmitted as electrical impulses through the length of a neuron. When a nerve impulse reaches the end of the neuron it jumps over to the next neuron using chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
At the end of each neuron there are tiny sacs filled with neurotransmitters. When a nerve impulse reaches the end of the neuron, it triggers these sacs to dump their neurotransmitters into the gaps that separate one nerve cell from another. These gaps are called synapses, and the neurotransmitters float across the synapse.
When they reach the neighboring neuron, the neurotransmitters lock into specialized receptor sites. When enough neurotransmitters attach to the receptors, the neuron “fires,” sending an electrical impulse down its length.
Glutamate and GABA are the most abundant neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. GABA is short for gamma amino butyric acid, and is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is essential for the proper function of your brain and the central nervous system.
GABA has the effect of reducing excessive brain activity and promoting a state of calm. While glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, and encourages neurons to “fire” and send a nerve impulse, GABA does the opposite, and tells the adjoining cells not to “fire,” not to send an impulse.
Without enough GABA to balance glutamate, nerve cells fire too often and too easily. Anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, seizure disorders, and numerous other conditions including addiction, headaches, depression, Parkinson’s syndrome, and cognitive impairment are all related to low GABA activity.
GABA hinders the transmission of nerve impulses from one neuron to another. To help understand this effect, think about the last time you had some caffeine. Caffeine is a natural drug that inhibits GABA from locking into the neuron receptors. The less GABA, the more nerve transmissions occur. Think about what drinking too much coffee feels like: that is the sensation of too much glutamate in your system, without enough GABA.
This is where the 4 7 8 breathing technique comes in.
The slow breathing rate and the increase in blood oxygen that 4 7 8 breathing creates signals the brain to release GABA! GABA, in turn, inhibits the release of cortisol and adrenaline, allowing your body-mind to finally slow down, rest, digest and repair itself.
You can use 4-7-8 breathing whenever you need to create an immediate release of GABA that will help bring your nervous system back to baseline, and make you feel calmer, more relaxed and better able to meet the challenges that life offers you.
Getting More GABA
When you feel that you just can’t relax or concentrate on what you are doing, GABA can help chill you out. Some people supplement with GABA, but it is very poorly absorbed via the digestive system. I prefer to increase it using natural means.
In addition to 4 7 8 breathing and other forms of healing breathwork, yoga has been shown to increase GABA, which makes sense, because it increases the depth of your breath and your blood oxygen levels too.
For thousands of years, people have sworn by breathwork and exercise systems like yoga, tai chi, qi gong, etc. for managing stress and anxiety, but now science understands how and why they work so well.
There are also numerous natural substances which can increase or decrease GABA. In fact, understanding how GABA works helps explain the action of many commonly used herbs, vitamins and minerals. While these things alter the GABA receptor, they do not actually add any GABA to the system.
For example, valerian root has a long history of use as a tranquilizer and works by increasing the effect of GABA on its receptors. American Ginseng, Kava Kava and caffeine also act on the GABA receptors, inhibiting them and creating a stimulating effect.
Oddly, the chemicals formed by aging whiskey in oak barrels increase GABA effect. Aging really does make whiskey mellower based on what it does to your brain’s neurotransmitters. These chemicals are released from the alcohol as a fragrance and appear to reach the brain by inhalation. Wow!
The fragrance of Oolong tea has a similar effect, increasing GABA action. Theanine is an amino acid found in large amounts in tea, and is why a cup of tea can be calming despite the fact it contains caffeine. Theanine may increase glutamate transport and increase GABA levels.
Fermented foods like homemade yogurt and sauerkraut (as well as high-quality probiotic pills) can strengthen your immune system and heal your gut by providing beneficial bacteria that produce GABA, lactocepin, lymphocytes, and antibodies.
Magnesium binds to GABA sites and increases its effect, which is why it is so effective for calming the system and alleviating cramps. Taurine protects against glutamate overstimulation. Serotonin is another neurotransmitter and it happens to enhance GABA. Therefore, as precursors to serotonin, Tryptophan and 5-HTP increase GABA action. This is why a glass of warm milk or a turkey dinner (both of which contain lots of tryptophan) is so sleep-inducing.
The vitamin B6 derivative pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P5P) is a co-factor in the synthesis of GABA. Some people (like me) have trouble converting Vitamin B-6 to P5P, and might need to take P5P as a supplement to increase GABA levels.
If you have pyroluria/KPU (a blood disorder in about 10% of the population that prevents absorption of zinc and B-6), P5P can make a huge difference in how you feel. I swear by it.
It’s amazing that all these different things known to relax or sedate the body, or excite and stimulate the body, do so by influencing one Master neurotransmitter: GABA.
Most of all, it’s amazing that our body chemistry can not only influence our thoughts and actions, but it can also change so readily in response to our thoughts and actions too.
Whether we are stressing ourselves out and releasing more glutamate, cortisol and adrenaline, or we are doing things that intentionally increase the release of GABA, endorphins and other “happy” neurotransmitters, we have a lot more control over the way we feel than we think.
This is Part 2 in the Stress and Sustainability series.
- Clinical studies on the benefits of proper breathing.
- Science Daily – May 22, 2007. “Yoga May Elevate Brain GABA Levels, Suggesting Possible Treatment For Depression”
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- Neuroreport. 2001 Jul 20;12(10):2175-9. Magnesium potentiation of the function of native and recombinant GABA(A) receptors. Moykkynen T, Uusi-Oukari M, Heikkila J, Lovinger DM, Luddens H, Korpi ER.
- FASEB J. 2004 Mar;18(3):511-8. Taurine prevents the neurotoxicity of beta-amyloid and glutamate receptor agonists: activation of GABA receptors and possible implications for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders. Louzada PR, Lima AC, Mendonca-Silva DL, Noel F, De Mello FG, Ferreira ST.
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- Biochim Biophys Acta. 2003 Dec 5;1653(2):47-59. Theanine and glutamate transporter inhibitors enhance the antitumor efficacy of chemotherapeutic agents. Sugiyama T, Sadzuka Y.
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