Practice the Three M’s daily — mindfulness, mindset, and movement. One of the most common things I hear from patients, and am guilty of myself, is, “I don’t have enough time.” — enough time to exercise, be still, meditate, and play.
With all that’s going on in our country, in our economy, in the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. We know that chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. For many of us, our work, our livelihood, is a particular cause of stress. Of course, a bit of stress is just fine, but what are stress management strategies that leaders use to become “Stress-Proof” at work? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help to reduce or even eliminate stress from work? As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sunjya Schweig.
Sunjya Schweig, MD is an internationally recognized functional medicine physician, researcher, and educator. As the Founder and President of the California Center for Functional Medicine, Dr. Schweig and his team are on a mission to prevent and reverse chronic illness and help people recover their optimal health.
CCFM is at the forefront of the functional medicine movement and, since 2016, has been honored to provide comprehensive wellness programs for first responders to help mitigate the unique occupational risks that they experience.
Dr. Schweig’s work has been featured worldwide, and on media outlets including Fox News, ABC, NBC, Telemundo, Yahoo, Bustle, Fast Company, Women’s Health, and more. Dr. Schweig’s research has been successfully published in peer-reviewed journals and has received academic acclaim. Dr. Schweig attended UC Berkeley for his undergraduate degree, UC Irvine for medical school, and completed his residency training at the UC San Francisco Santa Rosa Family Practice Residency.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory! What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
I have always been a creative thinker and learned early in my life the value of being curious, persistent, and pursuing the truth. From when I was an infant, I was raised on holistic healing modalities and a healthy lifestyle combined with an abiding love of science and technology. These forces have all shaped my vision and passion. Just after I completed my medical residency at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), Santa Rosa Family Practice Residency Program, my wife was diagnosed with Lyme disease after a decade of mysterious symptoms. Together we learned the complexities of tickborne illness, and I became increasingly clear on my mission to help people with invisible illnesses recover their health. I have since dedicated myself to building a new care platform that leverages a comprehensive care team and technology to help people live their best lives.
Lessons for my younger self:
- Have faith in the fact that everything is happening for a reason and that the universe brings you what you need to know or learn at the right time.
- Understand that when life feels hard or overwhelming, it means that you are at your growing edge. Slow down, and lean in. Stay present, get curious, and be patient. Things go in cycles, and with patience, the hard will give way to a new plateau and vista.
- When you don’t know what to do or how to do it, get help. You do not need to know how to do everything. Learn what your unique strengths are and as much as possible stay in that lane. Delegate or use outside resources to help with the things you are not passionate about.
- Take care of yourself. You need to be a priority. Your health and well-being are vital so that you can then be most effective at helping and supporting others.
None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?
My mission is to help people live their best lives and to recover and preserve optimal health. I have dedicated my career and life’s work to all of our patients and all of the people struggling with health issues. These are my teachers and also the impetus for me to always push myself. Seeing hope return in people’s eyes when they learn that there are new directions, tests, treatments, and a team of people to help them, is an amazing and enriching experience for me personally. This light and the shared connection is a source of great support and fulfillment for me personally and has helped me during my own family experiences of chronic illness and tragic loss.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
Our clinic continues to evolve, and we are actively working on improving and optimizing the patient experience. I have a grand vision for an optimized model of care for people with complex chronic conditions. This model of care leverages a comprehensive care team for medical and lifestyle support, social support, group visits and programs, and a data-driven/technology component to help harness the digital exhaust of our lives to bring visibility to the individual’s experience in illness and in the transition to health.
In 2020 we launched a 501c3 called the Functional Medicine Research and Technology Center, where we aim to prevent and reverse chronic illness through research, education, and innovation. I see this new endeavor as the logical next step in my career, where I can leverage the experience, I have gained over 20 years of clinical practice, research, and innovation to grow our mission and make functional medicine healthcare accessible to more populations.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
Stress is a physical, mental, or emotional reaction in response to an external or internal challenge or demand. The human body is designed to experience and respond to stress. It helps to keep us alert, motivated, and ready to avoid danger.
Stress can be acute (one-time, or short-term reaction, e.g., being in traffic or having an argument with your spouse) or a chronic and long-term response (e.g., job-related, finances, difficult relationships) Essentially, a stressor is any event in which environmental demands, internal demands, or both, tax or exceed your adaptive resources. Our response to the stressor is based on how we perceive it, how we each cope differently, and our level of resilience to stress.
The brain is the command center that manages all of the body’s needs, most of which are happening outside of our awareness. It is a complex system, but it is important to understand the concept of allostasis in order to understand stress. Allostasis is the process by which the body responds to stressors in order to regain homeostasis or balance. It is a survival mechanism. The body uses allostasis to meet the body’s needs even before they arise. Think of this as an internal “budgeting” system. Each action the body performs spends a resource. Then, the brain tracks what is spent and the deposits that are made (eating, drinking, resting, self-care, connection, community) to know the remaining balance that it has for the next withdrawal. This is also referred to as allostatic load.
The stress response, commonly the “fight or flight response”, is a built-in reaction controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and is activated in times of acute stress or emergency. The response begins in the brain, specifically the amygdala, which contributes to emotional processing. When the amygdala interprets images and sounds around us as dangerous, it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This part of the brain tells the nervous system how to respond to the stressor — to fight, freeze, or flee. The second half of the stress response is controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which releases a cascade of hormones and revs up the body. It turns up essential functions like breathing and heart rate to deliver oxygen to muscles so the body can escape the stressor. During prolonged periods of stress, we see a chronic low-grade stress response — keeping the body on high alert, causing physical and emotional wear and tear on the body, and shutting down non-essential body functions like reproduction, tissue repair, and digestion.
In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. So what has led to this chronic stress? Why are so many of us always stressed out?
While many do have these factors stabilized, there are a huge number of people who do experience housing instability and or live in somewhat or very unsafe environments in the inner city, exposed to crime, or even just noise/air/water/light pollution which are stressors. Also, poverty or economic uncertainty is a huge stressor and has been shown to increase inflammation and risk of chronic illness and shorter life span, the severity of illnesses such as COVID, etc., more autoimmune diseases, and worse outcomes. Also, the Standard American Diet and problems there. The ideal would be organic grass-fed, non-processed, etc. but the poor and less educated are disproportionately consuming junk food, they are the prime market for a lot of the mass companies and then live in food deserts where it is hard to access clean produce, meats, nutrient-dense foods, etc.
Secondly, the global work culture, especially in the United States, reflects the widespread acceleration of daily life that many experience at work, and in their personal lives. We take sick days instead of mental health days, worship deadlines instead of our lifespans, and give into rise and grind rather than rise and enjoy the day. We are so busy creating to-do lists and then trying to accomplish them, that we forget to slow down and pause, often forgetting how to relax at all. This way of living creates a turbulent and toxic lifestyle, perpetuating the stress response. In 2019, Skye Learning’s Work Confidence Survey found that 38% of American workers cite a lack of time for their personal lives with 40% working between 8 and 12 hours a day. While careers are important and jobs serve an important role in our livelihood, they are also one of the greatest stressors we face and the reason so many of us are stressed out (and burnout!).
Finally, I believe the rise of social media and internet culture to be a major contributor to current-day stress. We live in a time when more information is flowing into people’s lives than ever before — and at a rapid speed. This information can be stimulating and challenging, and oftentimes distressing. While social media can be an incredible connection tool, it also comes with stressors like comparing yourself to others and possibly feeling jealous of their perfectly documented lives, demands of replying to messages and comments, being exposed to stressful and upsetting events (like the news), and wasting time scrolling through countless images. Although using social media comes with risks, we keep going back because the platforms are designed to be addictive. New research shows that social media use is associated with anxiety, depression, and some physical conditions. I’m not saying we have to cut it out altogether, but limiting our time on social media, and screens in general, could significantly improve our stress for the better.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
As mentioned, the stress response isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing. Our body goes in and out of the stress response throughout the day, helping us stay motivated, accomplish tasks, and make decisions. It is when we are unable to move freely in and out of the stress response that we start to see dysfunction form.
During an acute stress response, we may experience decreased saliva flow, constriction of blood vessels, heart racing, decreased digestive function, tense masseter muscles, dilated eyes, rapid breathing, and increased blood pressure to name a few. Blood is diverted from the gut, immune system, reproductive organs, and executive thinking and goes to the heart, muscles, blood vessels, and instinctual thought. In the short-term, you can see the advantage of shifting focus away from these organ systems because digesting our dinner, having sex, fighting off a cold or flu, or figuring out how to manage your to-do list does not matter if you don’t survive the immediate threat in front of you.
In our modern world, the stress response can be activated by:
- Eating an inflammatory diet
- A stressful work environment
- Repeated exposure to micro and macro trauma
- Commuting and traffic jams
- Managing relationships
The stress response was once adaptive and protective, but because of these modern stressors, it can now contribute to dysfunction and disease.
Chronic stress can cause physical symptoms like headache, upset stomach, high blood pressure, chest pain, decreased libido and dysfunction, sleep disturbance, mental and emotional symptoms like anxiety, depression, panic attacks, worry, and loss of focus, and can worsen existing symptoms or disease. Specific examples of how it affects certain body systems include:
- The gut and the brain are intimately connected, so when fight or flight is activated, digestion slows or even stops.
- Increased intestinal permeability occurs with chronic stress, and this increases systemic body inflammation, immune dysregulation or overactivation, and even predisposition to autoimmune diseases.
- Persistent stress causes ongoing activation of the HPA axis and can damage blood vessels and arteries, increase blood pressure and raise the risk of heart attacks or strokes, lead to weight gain, and cause an imbalance of stress and sex hormones.
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
Stress can take many forms, but not all stress is bad for our health. As discussed, our modern world has added many stressors that our ancestors didn’t experience. These little daily stressors, like technology, air pollution, traffic jams, demanding jobs, etcetera, ignite our stress response regularly, and if we aren’t using strategies to help build our stress resilience, the stress can have a negative impact on our emotional, mental, and physical health. This is what we refer to as “distress”. Distress is “bad” stress. These are stressors that are perceived negatively and cause us to feel burdened or are actual burdens. Oftentimes these are things that feel out of our control and overwhelming, causing us to feel hopeless and like there is no way out. An important theory of stress and coping developed by Lazarus and Folkman argues that stress is not simply events that trigger negative emotional responses, but it is a two-way process where individuals interact with their environment. In other words, stress can impact an individual’s well-being when they perceive the situation as stressful, and their resources are inadequate to handle the environmental stressors. This can include things like financial trouble, health concerns, poor communication, and difficult relationships, but can also include highly processed and inflammatory foods, gut imbalances, systemic inflammation, a sedentary lifestyle, toxins/chemicals, air pollutants, and poor sleep.
On the other hand, eustress, or “good” stress, helps us to grow and feel our best. Good stressors include things like exercising, starting a new job, getting promoted, traveling, starting new relationships, having a baby, marriage, or learning a new skill. Although our stress level can be determined by our perception of the stress, it is important to note that stress, good or bad, becomes harmful when a person faces continual stressors without relief or relaxation.
If we can begin to shift our perception of stress, we can learn to harness stressors for some of the benefits they can provide, simultaneously lowering the negative consequences they might have on us. The work of scientists exploring the power of mindset such as Kelly McGonigal, Aila Crum, and Carol Dweck has been instrumental in helping me understand how we can work with our perception and mindset to become more resilient and adaptable in the face of stress.
Is there a difference between being in a short-term stressful situation versus ongoing stress? Are there long-term ramifications to living in a constant state of stress?
Again, the stress response is an innate reaction designed to keep us alert, motivated, and safe from danger. Short-term, it is essential for our survival, like getting out of the way of a moving vehicle or staying on time with a work deadline, but long-term “chronic” stress is associated with greater health risks and mortality. That which is protective in the short term is often damaging in the long term.
As we think about short- versus long-term stress, I want to introduce the importance of the vagus nerve. There are 12 cranial nerves that come out of the brainstem and the vagus nerve is Cranial Nerve #10. It is the largest nerve in the body, connects to most major organs, regulates all of the body’s autonomic functions, and plays a major role in the stress response. The vagus nerve has the most extensive distribution of the cranial nerves. Its pharyngeal and laryngeal branches transmit motor impulses to the pharynx and larynx; its cardiac branches act to slow the rate of heartbeat; its bronchial branch acts to constrict the bronchi; and its esophageal branches control involuntary muscles in the esophagus, stomach, gallbladder, pancreas, and small intestine, stimulating peristalsis and gastrointestinal secretions.
Long-term stress can decrease the function of the vagus nerve. This is called low vagal tone. Low vagal tone, if persistent, can lead to systemic inflammation, impaired decision-making, decreased digestive motility, dampened immune response, delayed recovery from stress, lower heart rate variability, mood disorders, and more. With chronic activation of the long-term stress response, we see the body staying “revved up”, on high alert, like the foot is always pressing down on the gas pedal. If we are unable to release the gas and use the brake (the relaxation response), there can be a persistent release of hormones like epinephrine and cortisol. While we need these hormones to regulate many body functions, in excess they can damage blood vessels and arteries, increase blood pressure, raise the risk of having a cardiac event, cause weight gain, and increase systemic inflammation.
Chronic stress also lowers our metabolic reserve. This is the long-term ability of tissues and organ systems to withstand repeated changes to physiological needs, and the ability of that organ to successfully return to its original physiological state following repeated episodes of stress. Metabolic reserve is vital for energy regulation, cognitive aging, and cardiovascular function, and is heavily influenced by external lifestyle factors. Metabolic reserve and resilience help the body to cope with added workload or stress, however as we age, we have fewer reserves, and our ability to restore homeostatic balance declines. This decline becomes even more evident under stressful conditions. You may have seen this in a grandparent or parent, who becomes very irritable or is easily overwhelmed by an acute stressor. In large part, it is the long-term reduction in resilience and metabolic reserve that drives disease.
Is it even possible to eliminate stress?
The goal of stress management isn’t to eliminate all stress, but to reduce unnecessary stress and effectively “manage” the rest. By becoming aware of our stress and using stress reduction techniques, we can transform negative stress to help build resilience and effective coping skills.
Recall our discussion about allostatic load and remember that our brain is constantly checking and balancing withdrawals and deposits. So, the first thing to do when we feel stressed is to tune inward and ask ourselves, “What do I need right now?” If we haven’t made proper deposits, we may not have enough metabolic reserves to stay resilient. For example:
- Have you eaten today? If so, was that meal nutrient-dense and satiating?
- How did you sleep last night?
- Are you dehydrated?
- Do I need to go for a walk to move my body and get some fresh air?
Thinking about these questions can help us recognize how our emotions are connected to our physical body, and then make the appropriate “deposits” to improve how we are feeling.
If we feel like our allostatic load is in check, the quickest way to relieve stress is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxation response). The relaxation response is the ability to encourage the body to release chemicals and brain signals that slow the muscles and organs down and increase blood flow to the brain. This is the exact opposite of the fight-flight-freeze response (sympathetic nervous system). Activating the relaxation response is achievable through multiple techniques including (but not limited to):
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and aware of where we are and what we’re doing, without judgment. Being mindful may seem trivial, but when we are under stress or experiencing a stressful event, this state of mind helps us to prevent becoming overwhelmed or being overly reactive.
- Meditation: Meditation helps you to pay close attention to the present moment and learn to observe and sort through your thoughts and feelings, without judgment, so that you may understand them better as your practice grows. Meditation techniques are now an accepted and effective complementary treatment for many psychosomatic disorders.
- Breathwork: Breathwork is any breathing exercise or technique in which conscious breathing influences a person’s mental, emotional, or physical state. When the stress response is activated, our breath becomes short and shallow, which can further evoke feelings of stress and anxiety. Deep and slow breathing (DSB) does the opposite.
- Yoga, Qigong, or Tai Chi: These movement practices incorporate mindful breathing, physical poses, and meditation or relaxation. Bringing together physical and emotional disciplines can help establish a sense of peacefulness — body, and mind — helping to improve stress and anxiety.
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT/Tapping): EFT or Tapping, is a holistic healing practice that helps calm the nervous system, rewire the brain’s response patterns, and restore energetic balance. Research has shown that just one self-administered tapping session can reduce stress, anxiety, psychological distress, depression, and feelings of burnout. Tapping is simple, painless, and can be quickly learned. Finally, when someone is experiencing a considerable amount of stress, we must also consider adrenal function. The adrenal glands play a large role in regulating the stress response. Nutritional support can help the adrenals function optimally, especially during times of stress. In particular:
- Vitamin C: The adrenal glands have one of the highest tissue concentrations and the highest active uptake of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) of any tissue in the body. Ascorbic acid protects against oxidative damage and studies have shown that supplementing with vitamin C reduces inﬂammatory cytokines, balances cortisol, and lowers subjective stress and blood pressure. Food sources include papaya, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and cauliflower.
- B Vitamins: Suboptimal B vitamin status can lead to poor stress-related metabolic function. Top food sources of B vitamins include liver, clams, seafood, dark leafy greens, lentils, mushrooms, spices, poultry, egg yolks, peppers, squash, nuts, and seeds.
- Potassium: Potassium depletion is commonly seen in adrenal fatigue and is a nutrient many adults are deficient in. Food sources include plantains, sweet potato, pumpkin, parsnip, halibut, rockﬁsh, sockeye salmon, mushrooms, kohlrabi, beet greens, and bananas.
- Caffeine: Caffeine can impair adrenal function, so we recommend only using it in moderation, if at all.
In your opinion, is this something that we should be raising more awareness about, or is it a relatively small issue? Please explain what you mean.
There should absolutely be more awareness around the consequences of chronic stress. I do think there is a decent amount of literature and awareness out there, but stress has become a buzzword that has lost a lot of its significance. Many have been told their symptoms are a result of stress and that “it’s just all in their head” or have been told to meditate one too many times, turning them off from learning more about stress and a mindfulness practice altogether. It’s important for people to understand that stress is cyclical. Stress can cause disease and it can worsen existing disease, but disease can also cause stress (psychologically and physiologically). So, figuring out ways to reduce the burden of stress in our lives can help improve the quality of our health and lives, and help prevent future disease.
Let’s talk about stress at work. Numerous studies show that job stress is the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. For you personally, if you are feeling that overall, work is going well, do you feel calm and peaceful, or is there always an underlying feeling of stress? Can you explain what you mean?
Most Americans spend more time at work than at home, and more time with coworkers than with family and friends. If this huge chunk of your life is stressful and difficult, it’s likely that you will feel stressed in other areas of your life too — and I am no exception to that. The work stress cycle is dangerous because not only does it affect your stress level outside of work, but it can also interfere with your work performance, making work even more stressful. Because our clinic works with many people who have stressful work lives, we have worked to “practice what we preach ‘’ by making conscious decisions to build a work environment that promotes work-life balance and protects health — mind, body, and spirit. While deadlines and stressful situations still exist, I’ve developed a toolkit of mindfulness-based modalities and lifestyle habits that help keep me grounded. Even when things are hard, this helps prevent that constant underlying feeling of stress outside of work hours. For me personally, breathing exercises, meditation, hiking in nature, and gentle restorative modalities such as Qigong are very restorative and easy to access.
Okay, fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 stress management strategies that busy leaders can use to become “Stress-Proof” at Work?” Please share a story or example for each.
- 5–10 minutes of deep, controlled breathing can transform stress — and your physical health. Breathing is one of the most important things we can do for our health and one of the most powerful remedies for instant stress relief. Simply put, rapid, shallow, chest breathing is a sign of stress, and activates the sympathetic response (fight-flight-freeze), while slow, deep, belly breathing is a sign of rest, activating the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic response (creating a relaxation response). Many of us have not learned how to breathe correctly, or it has been lost with the adoption of a hunched spine and mouth breathing. Correct breathing patterns balance our autonomic nervous system and altered or dysfunctional breathing tells the body it is under stress. When you are not breathing optimally and are under psychological stress, your nervous system is carrying a heavy stress load! Slow breathing helps to slow heart rate, improve heart rate variability, and bring the nervous system back into balance. Just five minutes per day of deep belly breathing can have significant positive effects on your mood, stress levels, and overall health. For the best results, practice this multiple times per day, especially during periods of stress, and focus on nasal breathing rather than mouth breathing to make it an even more effective stress reliever. Some of my favorite exercises include Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4–7–8 breath, Scott Sonnon’s 4–0–6–2 NASL technique, and basic box breathing (5–5–5–5). Breathwork is something I depend on as a doctor and business owner. It is a quick and effective tool I use between meetings and patients to help lower my stress load and carry me to the next thing. How much better would we all work if we just took five minutes out of our busy schedules to pause and just breathe? We are happy to provide readers with free access to our Breathwork Course. (Use code “ccfmbrthwrk” for free access).
- Expressing gratitude releases dopamine and serotonin producing an almost instant mood boost. We’ve talked a lot about the importance of mindset and a gratitude practice is one of the easiest ways to start shifting our perspective — and stress levels. For survival and protection, our brain adopts a negativity bias, which is why it can be so easy to get caught up in stress and negative thoughts and feelings. Focusing on gratitude and appreciation can quickly help us shift out of that pattern, reducing short-term and long-term stress. Gratitude, another evolutionary practice, is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. It helps us acknowledge the goodness in our lives, the source of that goodness, and connect to something larger than ourselves. When we express gratitude or receive appreciation or praise, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin — the feel-good hormones — quickly enhancing mood. With regular practice over time, a consistent gratitude practice forms new neural pathways that evoke positive change in our thought patterns and helps us handle adversity with more resilience. Expressing gratitude and appreciation during a stressful moment stimulates the prefrontal cortex of our brain which reduces negative emotions like anxiety, anger, or shame, and then shifts our attention toward positive thoughts and feelings. When we experience stress, it’s easy to focus on what is going wrong, but if we are able to pause, and notice what is going well and what we can appreciate at that moment, it can quickly take us out of fight-or-flight and into a more relaxed state. Just like breathwork, this is something that can be used daily, and rather quickly to reduce acute stress. With a consistent gratitude practice, our neural pathways shift, and our stress response becomes less easily provoked by little daily stressors. This doesn’t only make you less stressed, but also spreads to those around you, creating a work environment that is less about putting out fires and more about mindfully navigating each day together.
- Good quality sleep is strongly correlated to a low-stress level. Have you ever woken up cranky after a poor night’s sleep? Or maybe noticed more irritability and anxiousness after a long night of tossing and turning? That’s no coincidence. There are many vital physiological processes that take place during sleep that are essential for our physical health and for our emotional well-being. Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (NREM) constitutes about 75 to 80 percent of the total time spent in sleep. During deep NREM sleep specifically, the brain sends a calming signal to the fight-or-flight sympathetic branch of the body’s nervous system. As a result, deep sleep prevents an escalation of physiological stress.
Supporting good quality sleep and circadian rhythm ensures we get every stage of sleep. When we have circadian disruption, we can miss out on certain stages, and we do not get all the benefits sleep has to offer, especially when it comes to stress. In fact, those with sleep disorders and circadian rhythm disruption are at a higher risk for developing anxiety, mood swings, depression, PTSD, and other psychological disorders. My circadian rhythm was knocked off track while in medical school and residency, and this really took a toll on my overall well-being. Now, I put a lot of focus and energy into maintaining a regular sleep schedule, winding down before bed, and implementing various sleep hygiene techniques. On the days my old med-school habits rear their ugly heads, I feel noticeable changes in my mood and ability to handle stress. On those days, I always try to sneak in a midday power nap to improve my energy and resiliency. For me, a 10–15-minute rest session helps me feel awake and alert, even better than a cup of coffee.
- Optimize your diet to support the stress response and regulate stress hormones. Similar to sleep, diet is a key player in physical and mental health. When under stress, one of our first reactions might be to stress-eat our favorite comfort food. Unfortunately, more often than not this does more harm than good. Hyper-palatable, processed foods are filled with chemicals and toxins that our body wasn’t designed to consume. Most of the foods included in our Standard American Diet, like sugar, gluten and ultra-processed grains, low-fiber foods, and industrial seed oils cause systemic inflammation, gut dysfunction, blood sugar imbalances, and hormone shifts — all of which contribute to physiological and psychological stress and disrupt the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis is a bidirectional signaling network between the enteric (gut) nervous system and the central nervous system (brain/spinal cord). There is a direct relationship between the gut microbiome, digestive health, and brain function. The connection is so strong that our gut is often referred to as “the second brain”. Disruptions in the gut-brain axis can release inflammatory cytokines (such as IL-1B, IL-6, and TNF-a) that cross the blood-brain barrier and trigger or exacerbate emotions like depression, anxiety, isolation, worry, and fear. These are also linked to insomnia, changes in cognitive function, and even suicide risk. Diet can improve the health and function of the gut-brain axis. The goal is to eat nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods including fermented foods, fruits and vegetables of all colors (“eat the rainbow” to optimize phytochemical intake), and omega-3 fatty acids. I recommend a diet rich in vegetables, well-sourced hormone and antibiotic-free meat, poultry, and fish, healthy fats, fiber, and balanced carbohydrates to support many body systems, but especially the gut-brain axis and stress resiliency. Your body and brain will thank you!
- Practice the Three M’s daily — mindfulness, mindset, and movement. One of the most common things I hear from patients, and am guilty of myself, is, “I don’t have enough time.” — enough time to exercise, be still, meditate, and play. We live in a society that encourages and rewards busy lifestyles and full to-do lists, and success is defined by external accomplishments and achievements. This is especially true for business owners and leaders, but this hurried lifestyle only adds to our stress levels and hurts our health — physically, mentally, and spiritually. Using the Three M’s (mindfulness, mindset, movement) daily reduces stress levels and makes us all happier, healthier, and more peaceful. Each day, my goal is to catch old thought patterns to help shift my mindset into a more supportive state and live mindfully in each moment. When we live mindfully, we do not ruminate on the past or worry about the future. This helps us stay present, lowering stress levels. If stress does arise, because it will, moving my body helps to release negative emotions and reset my body and mind. All of these things together have become a way of life and, in reality, do not require a lot of time or effort.
We can all make time for the things that are important to us, and if living stress-free (or at least with less stress) is important to you, prioritize these five stress management strategies every single day.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
Many! Here are some of my personal favorites that have guided me:
- Tara Brach’s podcast and meditations
- The work of Eckhart Tolle, especially the Power of Now
- Breath (James Nestor), The Upside of Stress and The Joy of Movement (Kelly McGonigal), When the Body Says No (Gabor Mate), The Last Best Cure (Donna Nakazawa Jackson)
- I also highly recommend The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, by Jim Dethmer. This is a crystal-clear manifesto on living consciously, as a partner, leader, or person. I keep this on my bedside table and read a little at a time to remind me and soak it in.
- The Wild Edge of Sorrow, by Frances Weller. This is an incredible and poetic book that opens the door to our souls’ need and desire to process grief. Grief is a sacred portal to a vital part of our nature, and we live in a society devoid of ways to process our grief. We have so much learning to do in this area, and this book has become my how-to manual.
- I use the Pzizz app for power naps-I have been using this many times per week for 15+ years.
- HeartMath Biofeedback for improving heart rate variability and the stress response.
- Oura ring and app. Oura is my favorite wearable for tracking sleep and nervous system set point. I use it myself, and we use it with patients and our Protect Wellness first responder health program.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe that we need a new care ecosystem for people with complex illnesses. Many people struggle with invisible illnesses that greatly impact their daily functioning such as autoimmune diseases, thyroid problems, Lyme disease, long COVID, ME/CFS, gastrointestinal imbalances, and more. I believe that we need to build a system that scales the care team, uses technology and wearables, and creates a real-time dashboard that can give visibility to people’s lived experience. I also believe that this new ecosystem will help us crowdsource new treatment directions and get smarter and nimbler. For this movement to be successful, we all need to approach it with open minds and a “can do” attitude. Doctors and medical systems need to get more comfortable with collaboration with patients and be open to learning and evolving. And patients need to trust themselves and advocate for themselves more, and most of all, don’t give up! Together we can prevent and reverse a huge proportion of the chronic illness that we experience personally and as a global society.
I also believe that this movement has to have a core mission to bring holistic functional medicine care to more people at an affordable cost. Our healthcare system is still catching up to the value that this care provides and unfortunately many people still have to pay out of pocket. We recently launched a low-cost offering called the Functional Medicine Checkup to enable people to work with us more easily.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
The best way to connect with me is on the web and through social media. You can follow us on:
Sunjya Schweig, MD: https://www.instagram.com/drschweig
California Center for Functional Medicine: https://www.instagram.com/ccfmed_ca/
Sunjya Schweig, MD: https://twitter.com/drschweig
California Center for Functional Medicine: https://twitter.com/ccfmed
You can also visit our clinic, The California Center for Functional Medicine.
I was recently a guest on Mark Hyman’s and Chris Kresser’s podcasts as well if you’d like to learn more about the work I am passionate about and how we at CCFM are working hard to change the healthcare ecosystem.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.