It’s a fact that chronic stress is bad for your health. Studies show that ongoing tension increases the risk of colds, allergies, and/or flu. Chronic high stress can destroy the brain’s neurons and prevent the birth of new brain cells, leading to depression and cognitive impairment. And a recent study of more than 7,000 men and women found that those who reported being most stressed were almost 50 percent more likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease.
Why is stress so harmful to health? New research suggests that cortisol is the key. A hormone released during times of tension, cortisol has many beneficial actions; however, the body can become resistant to cortisol’s effects when levels of the hormone are chronically high. This happens in much the same way that the body develops insulin resistance in the face of excessive sugar intake.
In one study, participants who were resistant to cortisol also produced higher levels of cytokines, compounds that trigger inflammation. And inflammation is linked with a variety of diseases.
Coping Strategies for Instant Calm
How to combat stress and soothe the mind? You’ve already heard all the rules: do yoga, meditate, get lots of sleep, think happy thoughts. It’s true that, ultimately, you need to get to the root of what’s making you worry and fret. But in the meantime, give yourself a little relief with anti-stress supplements. When you’re overwhelmed, under-nurtured, and frazzled to the bone, these nine remedies can lend a healing hand.
1. Omega-3s. People need the two principal omega-3 fats, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), for normal development of the brain, eyes, and nervous system. Abundant in fish oils, EPA and DHA are incorporated into the walls of brain cells, where they turn on genes involved in neurotransmitter activity and promote connections between brain cells. Considerable research has found that EPA and DHA benefit a wide range of mood problems, including depression, impulsiveness, hostility, and physical aggressiveness. Recent studies also support the benefits of omega-3s in reducing anxiety and symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Try: 1–3 grams of omega-3s from fish oil daily. Vegetarians can opt for algae-sourced EPA and DHA supplements.
2. Lemon balm. Also known by its Latin name Melissa officinalis, this member of the mint family has long been used to treat stress and anxiety. A number of compelling studies back its effects. In one study, participants who took lemon balm lozenges showed significant increases in alpha wave activities in the brain, associated with relaxation. In another study, lemon balm lowered stress and increased calmness and alertness more than a placebo. In yet another study, 1,600 mg of dried lemon balm was linked with increased calmness for up to six hours. Look for it as a single herb in capsules or tinctures, or combined with other herbs in stress relief formulas.
3. St. John’s wort.This herb, whose Latin name is Hypericum perforatum, originates from the flowers and leaves of a small shrub that has been used for hundreds of years to improve mood and ease anxiety. Its stress-fighting effects are thought to be linked to hypericins and hyperforin, compounds in the herb that influence chemical messengers in the nervous system. A number of studies have found that, in addition to lowering anxiety, St. John’s wort eases depression caused by chronic stress, and may also prevent oxidative damage. Because it has a number of potential interactions with other medications, check with your health care provider, especially if you’re taking anti-anxiety medications. Look for an extract that’s standardized to 0.3% hypericins.
4. L-theanine. This compound found in tea helps relax the mind, and is helpful for extreme tension. Technically an amino acid, L-theanine helps boost mood and improve cognition, and is useful for treating physiological as well as psychological symptoms of stress. In one study, participants who took L-theanine showed a lowered heart rate and reduced levels of other physiological responses to stress. L-theanine seems to work in part by increasing levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure-seeking behaviors. Look for it in capsules or tablets, or in stress-relief blends.
5. Passionflower. Native to the southeastern United States, Passiflora incarnata can be used as a gentle remedy for stress and anxiety. Studies support its effectiveness in treating anxiety and anxiety disorders, including panic attacks, PTSD, and obsessive compulsive disorder. In one study, taking liquid passionflower daily was as effective as the prescription medication oxazepam. Passionflower is available as a tea in loose-leaf form or bags; as a tincture; or in capsules.
See Also 7 Ways to Reduce Stress
6. Holy Basil. Also called tulsi or Ocimum tenuiflorum, it has been used in ayurvedic medicine to treat heart problems, restlessness, and other conditions. Studies have shown its effectiveness in treating stress. In one study comparing holy basil, Siberian ginseng, and Asian ginseng, holy basil was the safest and most effective at relieving tension and anxiety. It’s also thought to reduce elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and to act as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Holy basil comes in tea form (usually sold as tulsi), or in tinctures or capsules.
7. Phosphatidylserine. A phospholipid and key component in the brain’s nerve cells, phosphatidylserine (PS) is primarily used to improve memory and cognitive function. Numerous clinical trials have also shown its effectiveness in improving mood and coping with stress. In one study, people who were self-described “nervous types,” and who responded poorly to stress experienced less tension and anxiety when they took PS, and reported a more stable mood. It’s thought that PS works by modulating cortisol and possibly by increasing brain levels of dopamine. You can take it alone in capsules, or in combination with other brain-healing herbs and supplements.
A phospholipid and key component in the brain’s nerve cells, phosphatidylserine (PS) is primarily used to improve memory and cognitive function. Numerous clinical trials have also shown its effectiveness in improving mood and coping with stress. In one study, people who were self-described “nervous types,” and who responded poorly to stress experienced less tension and anxiety when they took PS, and reported a more stable mood. It’s thought that PS works by modulating cortisol and possibly by increasing brain levels of dopamine. You can take it alone in capsules, or in combination with other brain-healing herbs and supplements.
8. Valerian root, Valeriana officinalis, a flowering plant that’s native to Europe and Asia, helps treat stress and anxiety, and is especially useful in stress-related insomnia. In one study, valerian root combined with St. John’s wort was more effective at reducing anxiety than diazepam (Valium). It’s sold in tinctures or capsules, alone or with other stress-reducing herbs such as passionflower or St. John’s wort. Check with a health care provider before using valerian—high doses or long-term use can upset heart rhythm and cause blurred vision.
9. Kava. From the root of the kava plant (Piper methysticum), a member of the pepper family that’s native to the South Pacific, kava has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety and lessen stress. In some studies, kava was as effective as benzodiazepines (prescription medications such as Valium and Xanax). Because it has been implicated in liver disorders, kava has been treated with some suspicion. But other studies have shown that kava is safe for the liver at normal doses. Be sure to use a product that is made from the rhizome and not the whole plant, which may be associated with the toxic effects. Look for it in capsules or tablets, or as a liquid tincture (it has a distinctive and robust flavor) for more immediate relief. And check with your health care provider before using if you have concerns about your liver.
Lisa Turner is a food writer and holistic nutritionist based in Boulder, Colo.
Help ease depression with B-complex vitamins, St. John’s wort, and vitamin D
Depression will affect 20 million Americans at some point during their lives. Sometimes it has an obvious cause, such as grief, which can lead to profound long-term changes in brain chemistry. Other times depression has no obvious cause, which suggests a problem with brain chemistry and neuronutrients. Taking a high-potency B-complex supplement can often brighten moods.
In addition, the herb St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) works as well as the leading prescription antidepressant medications. St John's wort by itself may cause sensitivity to sunlight in fair individuals and may interact with some medications. An analysis by the respected Cochrane Collaboration concluded that the herb also helped in cases of major (the most severe) depression, which is difficult to treat conventionally.
Try: For the Bs, opt for a high-potency B-complex supplement. For St. John’s wort, take 300 mg of a standardized extract three times daily (900 mg total), but double the amount for major (severe) depression. Vitamin D might also be helpful, especially for the wintertime blues; try 1,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily.
JARROW FORMULAS PS100 supports a healthy stress response with 100 mg of phosphatidylserine per capsule.
NATURE'S ANSWER Kava-6 alcohol-free tincture is extracted from the root (rhizome) of the kava plant. Try adding a few drops to your water bottle or a cup of tea.
PLNT BY THE VITAMIN SHOPPESt. John's Wort is standardized to 0.3% hypericins, the ratio commonly recommended to promote a positive mood and help to ease anxiety.
THE VITAMIN SHOPPE Theanine with Lemon Balm calms and relaxes with a stress-busting combination of L-theanine (as Suntheanine) and lemon balm.
YOGI TEA Bedtime tea is a perfect way to unwind after a hectic day. This soothing herbal blend includes valerian, passionflower, and other calming herbs.
These products can be found in The Vitamin Shoppe stores or on vitaminshoppe.com