Stress has numerous effects on both physical and mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, 75-90 percent of all physician office visits are for stress-related complaints. And stress is linked to the six leading causes of death-heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. Following is a brief look at how stress impacts our health.
We've all seen people who go through stressful life events and seem to age before our eyes, but it was only recently that scientists proved stress can accelerate the aging process by damaging DNA.
Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, and Elissa Epel, PhD, from the University of California, San Francisco, studied 39 women, ages 20-50, who experienced intense stress because they were caring for a child suffering from a serious illness. They compared them to 19 women in the same age group whose children were healthy.
Specifically, the researchers examined part of the DNA that controls cell aging, called a telomere. "The telomere protects the DNA from damage," says Blackburn. "They naturally get thinner as we age, and the thinner they get, the thinner the protection."
When telomeres fray away, the cell dies. That's why we lose eyesight, hearing, and so forth as we get older. Blackburn and Epel demonstrated that the telomeres in women caring for a sick child showed the equivalent of 10 years of premature aging compared to the control group. The stressed women also had higher levels of "oxidative stress," which occurs when free radicals damage DNA.
Also in this study, researchers found that the greater a woman's perception of her stress, the worse she scored. Mothers who coped well under stress didn't suffer as much damage to their telomeres. This research points to the importance of having a healthy and positive attitude.
Supplements for Stress
The proper supplements can offer significant benefits for dealing with stress. They include:
Omega-3 fatty acids
The brain and nervous system need omega-3s for optimal function. They influence how cells communicate and support neurotransmitter function. Fish is the preferred source because it contains high levels of the biologically active fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-3s also reduce risk of coronary heart disease, one of the more severe conditions related to stress.
Dosage: 500-3,000 mg daily of omega 3 fats from fish oil.
Over the past few decades, studies have revealed that the antioxidants in green tea benefit heart health, immune function, and more. But there is another component of green tea that is gaining popularity-the amino acid L-theanine.
L-theanine offers a wide range of benefits: it promotes calming and relaxation, improves sleep quality, and heightens mental clarity and focus. All without serious side effects. While it may sound too good to be true, studies have validated the benefits of L-theanine, and it is regarded as one of the safest and most effective natural products for stress.
"The form of L-theanine is important," explains researcher Michael Lyon, MD, of the University of British Colombia. "Look for products that contain Suntheanine, which is produced to meet the highest standards of purity. It's also the only L-theanine that's been studied in dozens of published clinical trials."
Key benefits identified in studies of Suntheanine include:
- Stress: reduces symptoms of stress and anxiety; promotes calmness
- Cognitive function: improves focus, clarity, alertness, and memory
- Sleep: improves sleep quality; reduces nighttime awakenings and nightmares
- PMS: reduces irritability, anger, and mood swings
- ADHD: reduces hyperactive behaviors and improves short-term memory
- Immune system: improves immune function; reduces incidence of colds and flu
- Heart health: lowers blood pressure
Dosage: 50-200 mg one to two times daily. Effects are generally felt within 30 minutes, and have been shown to last 8-12 hours. Suntheanine is not impacted by food; it can be taken at any time.
Last but definitely not least is ashwagandha, which has been referred to as "an antidote for stressful living" for its effectiveness at helping the body handle stress. This Indian herb has been used for hundreds of years to reduce inflammation, boost immunity, increase endurance and energy, and much more.
Dosage: Many products contain Sensoril, which is a patented form of ashwagandha. A typical dosage is 250-500 mg daily
What's Your Stress Index?
For some of us, stress becomes a chronic problem that goes unrecognized. To check your stress level, take a few minutes to complete the following test. (Mark each box that applies and then total the number of boxes marked.)
Do you frequently:
☐ Neglect your diet?
☐ Have few supportive relationships?
☐ Try to do everything yourself?
☐ Get too little rest?
☐ Blow up easily?
☐ Ignore stress symptoms?
☐ Seek unrealistic goals?
☐ Put things off until later?
☐ Fail to see the humor in situations others find funny?
☐ Use sleeping pills and tranquilizers without a doctor's approval?
☐ Act rude?
☐ Make a "big deal" of everything?
☐ Get angry when you are kept waiting?
☐ Look to other people to make things happen?
☐ Think there is only one right way to do something?
☐ Have difficulty making decisions?
☐ Complain you are disorganized?
☐ Fail to build relaxation time into your day?
☐ Spend a lot of time complaining about the past?
☐ Avoid people whose ideas are different from your own?
☐ Fail to get a break from noise and crowds?
☐ Keep everything inside?
☐ Race through the day?
☐ Neglect exercise?
What does your score mean?
1-6: There are few hassles in your life, but don't avoid problems by shying away from challenges.
7-13: You're in fairly good control of your life. Work on the choices and habits that may be causing unnecessary stress in your life.
14-20: You're approaching the danger zone. You may be experiencing stress-related symptoms and strain in your relationships. Think carefully about the choices you make and take time to relax every day.
Above 20: Emergency! You must take time now to work on your attitude, make changes to your diet, exercise, and relax.
("Stress Index" reproduced with permission from The Canadian Mental Health Association, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada)
Following is a list of other supplements to consider for managing stress and bolstering your immune system-the two go hand and hand.
Panax Ginseng: an adaptogenic herb that helps reduce the response to stress. It also supports physical and mental performance, immune function, and adrenal gland function, all of which can be hampered by stress. Dosage: 200-3,000 mg daily.
Vitamin C: helps the adrenal glands in dealing with the stress response. Vitamin C is involved in the production of neurotransmitters that are required for mood and proper sleep. It also provides support for the heart and immune system (areas impacted negatively by stress). Vitamin C levels are depleted by stress, smoking, and use of birth control pills. Dosage: 500-1,000 mg one to three times daily.
Chinese astragalus root: This herb is mainly used long-term to prevent infection. During cold and flu season, use a few grams per day in tea to ward off illness. Astragalus can also be used for the acute symptoms of respiratory virus. Traditionally, it is indicated primarily for colds with symptoms of pale face and body aches, but will reduce symptoms in pretty much any case. The active ingredients include immune-enhancing polysaccharides similar to those in echinacea and shiitake mushroom. Fortunately, the tea actually tastes good. Dosage: brew 30 grams of dry, sliced root and drink it throughout the day to knock down your symptoms; alternatively, you can find a variety of supplements that contain astragalus.