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 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.
Try: MRM Relax-All.
2 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..
Try: Nature’s Way Perika St. John’s Wort.
3 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.
Try: Source Naturals Theanine Serene with Relora.
4 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.
Try: Gaia Herbs Passionflower Liquid Phyto-Caps.
5 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.
Try: Organic India Tulsi Tea, Sweet Rose flavor.
6 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” 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.
Try: Jarrow Formulas PS-100.
7 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.
Try: Solgar Valerian Root.
8 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.
Try: Nature’s Answer Kava-6.
9 Essential oils. A number of essential oils that are naturally derived from plants and flowers can help ease stress, calm anxiety, promote sleep, and soothe mental and emotional tension. “Certified pure therapeutic grade essential oils are so small in molecular size, they can penetrate the skin easily and contain hundreds of potent compounds,” says Jenni Hulburt, MSc, HFS. Some of the best for stress:
Be sure to choose pure essential oils, rather than perfume extracts, in single forms. Put a few drops on a handkerchief or your pillowcase, or use diluted as a bath oil or body lotion.
Try: Nature’s Alchemy essential oils.
Sleep More, Stress Less
Good sleep. It’s the most important thing you can do for your health—and it’s also the best antidote to stress. It’s pretty simple: your body is better able to handle whatever anxieties come your way (stress at work, physical exhaustion from illness, relationship tensions) when it’s well rested. So what can we do to promote restful sleep that renews energy, clarity, and well-being? Try the following therapies.
Chinese Herbal Blend—Specific Chinese herbs support various organ systems to promote rejuvenating sleep. Three of the top remedies: He shou wu helps to promote deep sleep by supporting the liver, kidneys, digestion and heart; danshen (or dan shen) induces sleep by reducing inflammation and promoting circulation and relaxation; and shi chang pu optimizes sleep by enhancing mental clarity and relaxation while also supporting better oxygenation during sleep. All of these ingredients can be taken together,
15 minutes before bed, to help you ease into a gentle state of relaxation and optimize your body’s natural repair processes.
Foods for Relaxation—Foods high in carbohydrates, certain minerals, and amino acids such as tryptophan (the ingredient that many people blame for their post-Thanksgiving lethargy) all help promote relaxation. Turkey is high in tryptophan, which the body converts to serotonin and melatonin for relaxation and deep sleep. Lentils and bananas are good sources of tryptophan, magnesium, and potassium for relaxation. Cherries are high in melatonin. Carbohydrate-rich foods such as potatoes, carrots, and white rice can also promote sleep when eaten before bed, especially for people with hypoglycemia. Don’t eat too much, however, as the extra digestive efforts can negatively affect your sleep quality.
—Isaac Eliaz, MD, LAc
In one study, the herb lemon balm lowered stress and increased calmness and alertness more than a placebo.
New research suggests that “cat napping” isn’t necessarily counterproductive for nighttime sleep,
but rather supports it.