As a Registered Dietitian, you might think that I believe diet is the most important aspect of health.
Although, it’s definitely important, there is one thing that impacts your health way more than how many burgers you eat or don’t eat.
That one thing is how well you are managing (or not managing) your stress.
Everyone has stress, it’s simply part of living day to day, stuff happens. But, how well you are dealing with your stress is what can really make or break your health. This doesn’t mean you should throw your diet out the window.
Good nutrition and tailored herbs and supplements can be a tool to help manage stress more effectively.
How Does Stress Influence Health?
Unregulated stress permeates every aspect of your life and health. Any stressful situation, whether it be traffic or a fight with your spouse, puts your body into a state of “fight or flight”.
This type of reaction, to either fight or run away, was very valuable when we were hunter-gatherers facing real dangers and trying to survive in the wilderness. In order stay safe, our bodies jump into action at any sign of danger.
To prepare for running away or fighting, our bodies increase our heart rate, slow down digestion, and spike a series of hormones to allow for the strength and stamina to get out of the situation fast.
This is a really useful reaction when running away from predators.
But, now the stress we face isn’t quite as deadly. It is much more mental and “low grade”. Daily annoyances like bills, world events, or work are what we struggle with. The problem is that although these stressors are not immediately deadly, being under chronic stress is a big problem.
Our stress hormones are elevated all the time, our digestion is slowed, and our bodies store any excess calories for a “just in case” situation. The chronic state of stress eventually leads to weight gain, poor digestion, and feeling drained and exhausted all the time.
Long-term, stress is the underlying cause of almost every chronic disease, from heart disease to diabetes.
Research backs up the impact of chronic stress on our health. Exposure to stress hormones decreases our ability to think and learn.
It also increases risk for substance abuse, anxiety, and depression. The reason these hormones are so impactful on our mental health is that they are able to bind to receptors in the brain changing both structure and function.
Chronic stress can lead to other negative health behaviors such as drinking, smoking, and overeating as a way to cope (1).
Who hasn’t come home after a stressful day and used a less than healthy method to unwind?
Unmanaged stress has been linked to weight gain, heart disease, and cancer. It can really impact your sleep, causing excessive sleepiness or insomnia.
All of these symptoms both mental and physical are interconnected, as stress hormones are a major trigger of systemic inflammation (2, 3, 4). Inflammation is the underlying cause of almost every chronic disease.
9 Supplements for Stress Relief
As you can see, no matter how well you might be managing other aspects of your health, excessive uncontrolled stress will undermine your efforts. Nutrition can be one way to help get stress under control.
Many dietary supplements, herbs, and nutrients can be very useful for helping your body manage stress better.
Here are a few of the best research-backed supplements to try for stress relief.
Ashwagandha is an herb common in Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient form of medicine originating in India. Ashwagandha is known for its adaptogenic properties, meaning it is an herb that helps regulate stress and reduce the side effects of chronic stress by supporting the function of the adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands are responsible for the production of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. When you are overly stress the adrenal glands can go into overdrive and burn themselves out, leaving you exhausted and completely out of balance.
A 2008 study of 98 chronically stressed participants found that dosages of ashwagandha as low as 125 mg significantly reduced a stress marker called C-reactive protein (CRP) by 36%.
Chronically elevated levels of CRP have been linked to inflammation and the risk of developing chronic diseases. The ashwagandha group had lower cortisol levels and lower blood pressure. In this study, participants who received the supplement also self-reported fewer high stress days (5).
This is no surprise, since ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that helps regulate neurotransmitters and stress hormones, as well as decreasing inflammation and helping mitigate the effects of stress.
How to Take Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is considered generally safe for most healthy people. It is found in pills or capsules. Choose a supplement that is free of artificial ingredients or fillers.
Dosages between 300-500 mg per day seem to be well tolerated and safe for most people to help manage stress (6).
Related: Top 10 Ashwagandha Supplements
Lemon balm is a plant in the mint family that has been found to have anti-stress and anti-anxiety effects. It can also improve mental clarity and help with relaxation.
A 2004 study evaluated the effects of lemon balm on stress.
Eighteen subjects received either 300 or 600 mg of lemon balm or a placebo before taking a stress test.
The researchers found that 600 mg of lemon balm improved negative mood, increased calmness ratings, and reduced alertness. There was a significant increase in processing speed for cognitive tests for both the 300 and 600 mg doses.
How to take Lemon Balm
Recommended doses of lemon balm for stress management range from 300 to 900mg in various studies. It can be consumed via a capsule or through tea that contains the herb.
A word of caution, it can cause drowsiness in some people, so it is best if you take it at night before going to sleep.
Related: Top 10 Lemon Balm Supplements
B-vitamin complex is combination of several of the B-vitamins your body needs grouped into one pill or capsule.
In general, a B-complex supplement will include varying dosages of thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, B6, folic acid, B12, and biotin. These vitamins play many roles in the body, but most of them are required for proper brain and nervous system function.
A deficiency in any of these vitamins increases physical stress and will decrease production of neurotransmitters that regulate mood.
A 2011 study of sixty workers found that taking B-complex for three months resulted in lower depression, improved mood, and decreased personal strain while at work (9).
How to Take B-Vitamin Complex
B-vitamin complex, since it is generally made up of B-vitamins, is a relatively safe supplement to take. B-vitamins are water soluble, so what your body doesn’t use will simply be excreted. Toxicity is only reported at very high doses and will resolve once the supplement is stopped. Doses of each individual B-vitamin may vary between supplements, but most contain between 300-500 mg.
Related: Top 10 Vitamin B-Complex Supplements
Kava, also referred to as kava kava, is a root found in the islands of the Pacific. In South Pacific cultures it is used as a drink to help lower anxiety and promote relaxation. It may also help with sleep.
Kava is high in an active compound called kavalactones, which has relaxation and psychoactive effects on the brain.
A 2004 study found that a specific kava extract called WS 1490 improved sleep and reduced anxiety and tension. In this study, 61 subjects received 200 mg of kava or a placebo over a 4 week period.
During this time, subjects reported on their sleep quality, anxiety levels, and overall well-being. The group that received the kava experienced an increase in overall well-being, decreased anxiety, and improved sleep (10).
How to Take Kava
Kava can be found in an extract called WS 1490, which is the type commonly used for research purposes. The recommended dose is 300 mg which should be split up into three dosages a day.
It should be noted that high doses of kava have been linked to liver damage, so caution should be used with this supplement, particularly if you have any concerns about liver health (11).
Related: Top 10 Kava Supplements
This amino acid is one reason why sipping a cup of tea is so relaxing. Green tea in particular is high in L-theanine, which is one reason why there are so many health benefits associated with this beverage.
It acts as a calming neurotransmitter in the brain, helping reduce blood pressure.
A study on L-theanine and relaxation found that 50-200 mg a day increased alpha waves in the brain, which are generally associated with relaxation, within 40 minutes of taking the supplement. Subjects did not report any additional drowsiness, just an overall feeling of well-being and relaxation (12).
How to Take L-Theanine
Since the number one source of L-theanine is tea, sipping a cup of tea is a great way to get some relaxing L-theanine and take a little break from the worries of your day.
But, if you don’t like tea, L-theanine also comes in supplement form in dosages between 100-200 mg.
Related: Top 10 L-Theanine Supplements
Valerian Root is a sleep aid and helps reduce anxiety. It contains a chemical called valeric acid that can be converted into gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter responsible for inhibiting and calming the nervous system.
In a 2015 study, researchers used valerian root to help women who were undergoing hysterosalpingography, a painful and stressful procedure for assessing causes of infertility. Subjects who were going to undergo this procedure were given 1500 mg of valerian root 90 minutes before. Their anxiety was measured before and after the procedure. Researchers found that subjects reported significantly less anxiety after the procedure while taking the valerian root with few side effects (13).
This research suggests that valerian root can be used as a natural way to calm patient anxiety before painful or difficult medical procedures.
How to Take Valerian Root
Valerian root supplements generally come in 500 mg doses which can be split between 2-3 doses per day.
High doses can cause blurred vision and changes in heart rhythm, so proceed with caution and increase the quantity you take slowly.
Related: Top 10 Valerian Supplements
Magnesium is commonly referred to as the “relaxation mineral”. Its primary function is to help maintain a healthy nervous system, a normal heart rhythm, and regulate blood pressure. It is also required for serotonin production, known as the “feel good” neurotransmitter.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for adult men is 420 mg per day while women need 320 mg per day. It is found naturally in many foods, primarily in green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains (14).
Due to our highly processed diets, many people do not get enough magnesium. In addition, too much stress, coffee, and alcohol can deplete the body’s magnesium, making any deficiency worse.
Research has found that magnesium excretion is increased under stressful situations like taking tests. So, when you are under stress magnesium is not only depleted, inadequate magnesium can increase feelings of stress and anxiety (15).
If you are really struggling with stress, you may want to make sure you are including plenty of high magnesium foods in your diet.
A 2017 review of eighteen studies on the topic of magnesium and stress found that magnesium status is associated with subjective reports of anxiety. About half the studies found that magnesium supplementation decreased self-reported stress in people with generalized anxiety, high blood pressure, and PMS related anxiety. It had no impact on those with post-partum anxiety. Based on this data, researchers concluded that there is suggestive evidence of the beneficial effects of magnesium on stress, but more rigorous trials are recommended to solidify ideal dosages and who would most benefit (16).
How to Take Magnesium
If you want to try a magnesium supplement for stress, although magnesium is generally safe, you want to proceed with caution. A high dose of magnesium at once can cause diarrhea, so start increase your dose a little at a time as your body adjusts.
Magnesium can also be absorbed through the skin. Another option, if you don’t want to use an oral supplement is to use a magnesium lotion or a hot bath with Epsom salts (made of magnesium) to help with stress management.
The upper limit for supplemental magnesium set by the National Institute of Health is 350 mg per day. But, toxicity symptoms are usually seen at doses higher than 5,000 mg/day. Several studies have utilized doses higher than the upper limit to treat certain medical conditions, such as high blood sugar, depression, and migraines (17, 18, 19). At this time until further research on dosage is available, it is probably best to not exceed the recommended upper limit of 350 mg/day.
Related: Top 10 Magnesium Supplements
Melatonin is a hormone that has the opposite effects of the stress hormones. It is a sleep hormone that increases at night to help you go to sleep and stay asleep. Melatonin, produced by the pineal gland, is responsible for regulating your circadian rhythm and reaction to light and darkness.
When stress hormones are high, they prevent melatonin from functioning properly, leading to restless sleep and insomnia (20).
Melatonin doesn’t decrease stress directly, but instead helps mediate some of the side effects caused by stress such as a suppressed immune system and poor sleep (21).
A 2010 study found that supplementation with melatonin for three weeks resulted in faster sleep onset, improved sleep quality, increased morning alertness, and improved quality of life. Subjects taking melatonin did not report drowsiness or have safety concerns while utilizing the supplement (22).
How to take Melatonin
If stress is impacting your sleep, you may want to give melatonin a try. Ideally, you should take melatonin about thirty minutes before you plan on going to sleep.
Melatonin is found in tablets in 1, 3, 5, or 10 mg. Start with a lower dosage and increase if needed. If a low dosage isn’t helping you fall asleep within 30 minutes of laying down, then increase to a higher dose. If you feel overly groggy in the morning, then cut back on your dose.
Melatonin can interact with certain medications, increasing drowsiness, so it is best to speak to your doctor about starting it.
Related: Top 10 Melatonin Supplements
Passionflower is the flower of the passion fruit tree, a common plant found in tropical countries. It has been shown to lower anxiety and help with insomnia because it can increase GABA levels in the brain relaxing the nervous system.
A 2017 study of dental patients who were going to undergo an invasive surgery found that taking passionflower before helped control anxiety just as much as a prescription anti-anxiety medication. Subjects were given either 260 mg of passionflower or 15 mg of midazolam 30 minutes before surgery. Their anxiety levels were measured through questionnaires and physical assessments of blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen saturation. Passionflower helped reduce anxiety during the procedure just as much as those receiving the prescription medication. Those who had the passionflower reported no issues with amnesia, a common side effect of midazolam (23).
How to Take Passionflower
Passionflower is available in teas, tinctures, tablets, or extract. It can cause sleepiness, so it is best taken at night. Tinctures or teas are the most effective way to take it. The standard dose for tea is 0.25-2 grams of the dried herb in 8 ounces hot water or a 1 mL tincture three times a day.
A word of caution, it can lower blood pressure too much, so caution should be used when taking it with blood pressure lowering medication.
Related: Top 10 Passionflower Supplements
Optimal Stress Management
Supplements can be one piece of the puzzle to help reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and calm an overactive nervous system. As always before taking any dietary supplement it is always best to speak with your doctor to help assess safety for you.
Since some of these supplements can cause drowsiness, try taking them for the first time at home in a controlled environment. There are many different herbs and supplements that can be used to help manage stress, and how they work can vary.
Effectively managing stress requires multiple lifestyle, psychological, and nutritional changes, it really takes a holistic approach to get that stress under control.
Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Ana.
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