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We’ve all heard that stress is a killer. And it really is. A 2014 study of veterans found that major life stresses, such as divorce or job loss, increased the risk of premature death by 38 percent. Vets experiencing both daily hassles—such as commuting, family arguments, and household repairs—plus stressful life events were more than three times more likely to die early.1 A substantial body of research confirms what this study found—stress has the potential to destroy health. It increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and mental illness such as depression and anxiety, it shrinks brain cells, it leads to weight gain, and it accelerates aging.2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
Stress comes in a multitude of forms, sometimes caused by external events and sometimes entirely self-inflicted. It chips away at our well-being, wears us down, and depletes our nutritional reserves. During stressful times important nutrients, such as the B-vitamins, are quickly depleted. And if we’re eating a less-than-stellar diet, we have fewer reserves to begin with. The good news is that there are feasible action steps we can all take to help our bodies better cope with stress, thus improving long-term health.
Good nutrition is one of the most effective ways to buffer our bodies from the long-term physiological effects of stress. When the stress response is turned on, the body quickly burns through important nutrients such as the B vitamins and magnesium and is unable to adequately replace them. A nutrient-dense diet is a vital component to build the reserves our bodies need to maintain energy, support immunity, promote focus, and support healthy blood sugar balance—all crucially important during times of stress. It’s essential that you maintain the best eating habits possible, emphasizing quality protein, fresh and preferably organic vegetables, and healthy fats. Don’t skip meals, and when you do eat, slow down and savor each bite of food—enjoying a good meal or snack can be stress-relieving in itself!
For specifics on a diet to support healthy mood check out the article on Foods for Mental Wellness.
In addition to building your nutritional reserves, become mindful of when your stress level starts to build and work to proactively diffuse the stress. Step outside and take a walk, soak up the sun, and breathe in the air—one study found that it only took five minutes of outdoor activity to have a positive effect on mental health and overall wellbeing; the presence of water heightened the effects. Outdoor activities included walking, gardening, fishing, and cycling.11 Try not to take things too seriously and laugh as much as possible; these simple things can do wonders for diffusing stress. In fact, researchers found in test subjects that simply anticipating laughter reduced their cortisol levels by nearly 40 percent and adrenaline levels by 70 percent.12 When you feel stress start to build, it also helps to take three very deep breaths—doing so can slow your heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and suppress the release of stress hormones; in effect, it serves as a stress reset switch. Meditation, yoga, and regular physical activity can also help protect you against many of the mental and physiological effects of stress.
Along with a nutrient-dense diet and mindful practices, there are a number of specific nutrients and herbs that can provide the body with even more support during times of stress. These are some of the most helpful ones.
The B-complex vitamins have been recognized as anti-anxiety and anti-stress nutrients since the 1940s13—they are also among the first to be depleted during times of stress. The body needs these vitamins, along with several other nutrients, to make serotonin and other calming neurotransmitters.14
In an Australian study, researchers gave a daily high potency B-complex supplement to 60 men and women who were experiencing intense workplace stress. By the end of the three-month study, the supplements significantly reduced personal strain, depression, dejection, confusion, and anger.15 Other studies have found a multivitamin (which contains the B-complex) or the combination of a B-complex and vitamin C also reduce stress and improve mood.16 17
Try: A high-potency B-complex supplement containing 20 to 50 mg of vitamins B1, B2, and B3. Typically, the other B vitamins are included in their relative proportions.
In one of its many important roles in the body, magnesium acts as a sort of “gatekeeper,” helping to move calcium (which is excitatory) into and out of the cells. Part of the stress response involves calcium entering neurons in the brain, causing them to fire; if there isn’t sufficient magnesium to move calcium out of the cell, neurons become overloaded with calcium, fire too frequently, and eventually die. Magnesium can also suppress the release of stress hormones and may prevent the adrenal hormones from penetrating the blood-brain barrier.22 It is another nutrient that is quickly depleted in stressful times.
Try: 300 mg daily.
Although all forms of magnesium are capable of supporting the body during times of stress, magnesium threonate may be especially helpful for some of the mood issues experienced when stressed. It has been found to effectively cross the blood-brain barrier, elevating brain magnesium, and thereby improving brain function and reducing depression and anxiety.18 19 20 Magnesium threonate has also been demonstrated to enhance learning, memory, and quality of sleep.21
Two studies have found that the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA can ease feelings of stress and anxiety.23 24
Try: 500 to 1,000 mg total of a combination of EPA and DHA daily.
This vitamin is needed for normal adrenal function. A study conducted at the National Institutes of Health found that the first symptoms of vitamin C deficiency were irritability and fatigue—two of the more common responses to stress.25
Try: 1,000 to 2,000 mg of vitamin C daily.
Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is both an amino acid and the body’s primary calming neurotransmitter.26 It helps the brain filter out nonessential sensory information, sort of like blocking out background noise. By doing this, it allows the brain to deal with the most important sensory information, leading to improved mental focus and reduced anxiety.27 28
Try: 500 mg one to three times daily.
This amino acid, found in green tea, boosts the brain’s levels of alpha waves, which promote a combination of relaxation and mental sharpness, similar to the effects of meditation. It also appears to increase brain levels of GABA. L-theanine’s effect on brain waves generally occurs within 30 to 40 minutes of consumption, and its benefits may last as long as 12 hours.29 30 31
Try: 50-100 mg one to three times daily.
Some herbs are considered adaptogens, meaning that they enhance the body’s ability to adapt to stress. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) improves adrenal function and can help with stress-related fatigue.
Try: 200 to 300 mg daily. Eleuthero (Eleutherococus senticosus), sometimes referred to as Siberian ginseng, helps the body cope with stress and may support immunity.
Try: 200 to 300 mg daily. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine and is sometimes called “Indian ginseng.” It can help people suffering from stress-related fatigue.
Try: 500 mg daily.
Herbs that have a direct effect on the nervous system are considered nervines. They are often divided into categories based on their specific effect on the body. Nervine tonics are herbs that, when taken regularly, strengthen and nourish the nervous system. They are excellent for people recovering from trauma or long-term stress. Perhaps the best recognized nervine tonic is oats (Avena sativa) and specifically milky oats (immature oat seeds). Nervine relaxants can be used any time of day to bring calm and a sense of peace. Many also act as nervine tonics. Some popular choices include skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), catnip (Nepeta cataria, an especially good choice for children), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), hops (Humulus lupulus), and valerian (Valeriana officinalis). The final category is nervine stimulants and includes obvious caffeine-containing herbs, like coffee and tea, which may not be appropriate for someone under stress. If needed, more gentle and nourishing stimulants such as ginseng may be more beneficial. Nervines can be taken as a tea, tincture, or capsule and should be taken for at least several weeks according to the package directions.
The calming neurotransmitter serotonin depends on L-tryptophan and 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) for production. With the help of vitamin B6, the body converts L-tryptophan to 5-HTP; and in the next step, vitamins C and B3 help complete 5-HTP’s conversion to serotonin. Subsequently, serotonin gets converted to melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone.
Try: Either (but not both) 500 mg of L-tryptophan, or 50 mg of 5-HTP, one to three times daily.
Intriguing research has found that probiotic supplements can influence moods and our resistance to stress.32 33 For example, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, reported that a combination of several probiotics (including B. animalis, S. thermophiles, and L. bulgaricus) enabled women to more effectively cope with stress and anxiety.34 A study conducted at Cork University Hospital, Ireland, found that L. rhamnosus can boost brain levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that reduces anxiety and enhances mental focus.
Essential oils are also starting to emerge as powerful stress reduction therapies. Lavender essential oil has been shown to change brain wave patterns, making people feel better.35 This might be why researchers decided to go a step further and study the effects eating lavender would have on anxiety levels. In a double-blind study36 researchers compared capsules of lavender-infused oil to Lorazepam, (also known as Ativan) for generalized anxiety disorder. At the end of the study lavender appeared to outperform Ativan but without the potential for addiction, which so often comes with benzodiazepine drugs such as Lorazepam, and also without the potential side effects, which researchers are starting to realize are far more detrimental than first thought, in particular to cognitive function.37 38 39 Use the oil in a diffuser, or look for supplements that contain lavender essential oil.
Another essential oil to consider when trying to alleviate stress and anxiety is sweet orange. When used to infiltrate a dentist waiting room40 sweet orange oil was shown to reduce anxiety and improve moods in patients. An additional study41 also concurred that sweet orange oil has anti-anxiety effects.
Editor’s Note: Bear in mind that essential oils are highly concentrated and thus can be very powerful. We do not recommend taking essential oils internally unless they are in a supplement designed for internal use from a reputable company or you are following the advice of a trained professional.
Managing stress requires multiple approaches. These include improving eating habits to maintain your nutrient reserves, incorporating mindful practices that help diffuse stress, and taking some of the specific nutritional supplements shown to have anti-stress benefits. Incorporating all three approaches provides the best shield against the stresses life throws at us.
Hugs are proven to induce biochemical and physiological changes in the body that reduce blood pressure, lower heart rate, increase levels of oxytocin (the “love” hormone that also reduces levels of cortisol), and increase production of feel-good endorphins.42 And recently researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that frequent hugging protected people from the increased susceptibility to infection associated with being stressed. In the study, 404 healthy adults were questioned on their social networks, levels of stress, and how frequently they received hugs. Then they were intentionally exposed to a cold virus. Those who reported having strong social networks and receiving the most hugs were less likely to get sick.
“We know that people experiencing ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off cold viruses,” Sheldon Cohen, lead author of the study explained. "This suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress.”43
As adults, we often get lost in our own stressful worlds of family, careers, bills, and other responsibilities, forgetting that teenagers can—and do—carry heavy stress loads too, sometimes even greater than adults. In a 2014 survey sponsored by the American Psychological Association 27% of teens reported feeling extreme stress during the school year and 34% expected stress to increase in the coming year.
The survey, including 1,108 teens, ages 13-17, revealed the ways in which stress is affecting U.S. teens: 40% reported feeling irritable or angry; 36% reported feeling anxious or nervous; 35% reported stress keeping them awake at night; and 30% reported feeling depressed because of stress. Respondents also reported skipping meals, change in sleep habits, and upset stomach or indigestion related to stress. Teens were also more likely to say that stress had no impact on their health, even while they reported feeling both emotional and physical symptoms of stress.
And teens are not using the best stress coping mechanisms—just a small percentage engage in physical activity to manage stress; the majority turn to video games, the Internet, or TV for stress relief. Are adults setting a bad example? Maybe. Teens learn behaviors, healthy and otherwise, from watching adults, especially their parents. As it is, adults are stressed out, and many of us are not actively managing that stress, or are doing so in unhealthy ways like watching TV or surfing the Internet (see a pattern?).
Teens are struggling with unhealthy levels of stress and whether they know it or not, it is negatively affecting their health. It’s important that as adults, we open the line of communication with teens, allowing them a safe place to talk when they need to, and consciously set healthy examples of what it means to effectively manage stress. A healthy diet, healthy sleep habits, regular physical activity, and healthy relationships are just as important in managing teenage stress as they are in managing adult stress.44