Make a Stress Relief Toolkit
Have you ever noticed your pulse accelerate when you do something as mundane as watching the news? In an automatic response to perceived danger, the body floods with hormones and elevates the heart rate, boosting our energy in preparation for “fight or flight.” These days, some of us find our bodies’ alarm systems going off all the time, which can lead to serious health consequences.“Stress relief isn’t optional anymore, it’s a necessity,” says Cassandra Bodzak, a holistic lifestyle expert, meditation and wellness teacher, and TV personality. “Consider creating a foundational support system for your life. If you don’t have a way to relieve stress, whether it’s national or personal, it’s so easy to crumble.” The following tools can help us create that system.
Tool No. 1: Take 15 Minutes
Bodzak suggests taking 15 minutes in the morning to “fill your own cup first.” Her practice is to have some tea, meditate, then go on a walk through her neighborhood. Your own personal routine could include reading a favorite blog or journaling, “but make that walk a thing, even if it’s just 10 minutes,” Bodzak says. “The sunshine does wonders for your health and sanity, and taking that time for yourself first thing in the morning gives you extra bandwidth for the day.”
For Bodzak, meditation and mindfulness are like a daily vitamin. She encourages meditating for five minutes a day, even while you’re still in bed. Numerous experiments have shown that the practice reduces anxiety, lowers levels of stress hormones, and improves attention and cognition. If you’re just starting out, there are many good resources, such as the guided tutorial on the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center website, marc.ucla.edu.
In an article in Real Simple, Diana Winston, director of Mindfulness Education at the UCLA research center, explains that the simple act of taking a deep breath has been scientifically proven to help curb anxiety and refocus our attention. “That’s important,” she says, “because dwelling on negative emotions only pushes us further into sadness and despair.” She also suggests practicing mindful breathing at least five minutes a day. “Once you get used to it,” she says, “you can use the technique whenever you need it.”
Practicing gratitude is also advantageous. “There is some neuroscience around the idea that people can’t have fear and gratitude in their minds at the same time,” Winston says. Try calling a loved one to express appreciation for that person, writing down things you’re thankful for, or just being aware of time spent with your favorite people.
Tool No. 2: Stop Eating Stress-Inducing Foods
This is the cardinal component of the body’s ability to deal with stress. A strong, healthy body is less affected by stressors than a weak one.
“If you eat inflammatory foods every day, and your body is consistently low in the essential nutrients it needs, then it’s only a matter of time until the stress wins out and something in your body breaks,” says Peter Glidden, ND. To optimize health, Glidden suggests eliminating foods such as wheat, barley, rye, oats, well-done red meat, meat with added nitrates, the skins of baked potatoes, and genetically modified corn or soy (an informative video on his website, glidden.healthcare, explains why each may be problematic). And get your daily allowance of the 60 minerals, 16 vitamins, 12 amino acids, and two fatty acids that the human body cannot make.
What we fuel our bodies with in the morning enables—or disables—our interactions during the day. “Try experimenting with this,” says Bodzak. “Grab a bagel or croissant at Starbucks and notice how you feel at 10 a.m. Another morning, have a cleaner, more soothing breakfast: a smoothie, or scrambled tofu with veggies, or a coconut yogurt parfait, and then notice how you feel at 10 a.m. You’ll be surprised how much you notice the difference. Listen to your body.”
As Bodzak indicates, certain foods are soothing and actually help relieve stress. In general, good-quality fats such as coconut, avocado, and salmon are calming because they support nerve function, explains Emily A. Kane, ND, LAc. Foods with high levels of tryptophan can also be soothing because tryptophan, an essential amino acid, produces serotonin, a chemical considered responsible for maintaining mood balance. Those foods include nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, beans, lentils, and eggs.
Tool No. 3: Move More
The National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health notes that yoga, like meditation, is a mind-body practice that contributes to reduced stress and boosts immune function.
And if possible, take that yoga mat outside. Any kind of outdoor exercise—such as those walks Bodzak mentions above—is ideal because of the extremely soothing effect the natural world has on the human brain. Kane notes that it’s also beneficial to walk barefoot on the dirt or sand for a few minutes to connect to the earth’s natural energy charge. Called “earthing,” or “grounding,” the practice contributes to vibrant health.
Tool No. 4: Make Face-to-Face Connections
Among other significant techniques to reduce stress are strengthening our face-to-face social connections; creating an environment that induces calm by minimizing distractions, such as having the TV news on in the background, and eliminating clutter. And give yourself some down time to enjoy favorite activities such as listening to music,
writing a poem, or going to a movie.
While these tools have been separated by category, they all work together—the mind and body function like two sides of a coin. Over time, as you acclimate to these practices, you’ll be able to recognize stress as it happens and let it go. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.
Herbs for Stress Relief
Adaptogens get their names from the adaptive properties the plants exhibit in nature, meaning the plants respond and adapt well to stressful environmental conditions, making them hardier and stronger. Fortunately, these herbs have the same effect on us. The following adaptogens can help to improve your stress response and mitigate the negative impact stress has on your immune system. As a result, these adaptogens help restore balance to your entire body.
1. Ashwagandha is a calming adaptogen that supports healthy adrenal function.
It is often used to relieve anxiety and fatigue, and to help balance the immune system by reducing cortisol levels. During one randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial involving 64 people with a history of chronic stress, those taking ashwagandha twice a day for 60 days showed significantly reduced stress-assessment scores. Serum cortisol levels were also substantially lower and more normal in the ashwagandha group compared to those in the placebo group.
2. Holy basil is commonly used to reduce the effects of stress while improving memory.
But more recent studies show that it also contributes to a healthy immune response, thanks to the active constituent eugenol. It’s so powerful, holy basil has even demonstrated antimicrobial effects against Streptococcus mutans, the pathogen responsible for tooth and gum disease.
3. Rhodiola is best known for its ability to enhance energy, endurance, alertness, and memory while reducing fatigue.
Recent finding in the Archives of Virology suggest that it also boosts NK cell levels (which helps enhance immune function) and produces an antiviral immune response for stress-free protection. —Kim Erickson
5 Homeopathic Remedies for Stress Relief
Looking for a gentle way to ease stress, anxiety, and depression? Homeopathic remedies offer nontoxic solutions that have been used for centuries to treat many ailments, including stress, anxiety, and depression. Although there is an ongoing debate in conventional medicine about its effectiveness, homeopathic therapy’s age-old wisdom has been bolstered over the years by clinical observations showing it works for many people.
Here are my top five choices of homeopathic remedies to help calm and soothe acute or chronic anxiety, stress, and depression. These remedies are sold individually and in combination formulas. Use a 30C potency, and follow label instructions for dosing.
1 - Aconitum napellus
Also called monkshood, has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine. The roots produce aconite, which is useful for anxiety, panic, and insomnia.
2 - Gelsemium
Comes from a flowering vine and is particularly effective when treating stress caused by a specific event, such as appearing in front of a group. It’s also good for general nervousness.
3 - Natrum muriaticum
Is the homeopathic version of simple table salt. It can help with mental strain, anxiety, irritability, and worry.
4 - Pulsatilla
Is an effective remedy for people who are depressed or sensitive. It’s also useful for people dealing with anxiety that results from hormonal fluctuations, and is commonly recommended for anxiety and depression associated with PMS.
5 - Sepia
Is good for both anxiety and depression. It’s particularly helpful for people who are feeling overwhelmed. It’s often recommended for women.
A great advantage of homeopathic remedies is that they’re widely available and relatively inexpensive, making them an attractive choice for those seeking gentler health solutions. For more in-depth support, a trained homeopathic doctor can help you refine your program by prescribing a customized remedy or formula. To find a homeopathic physician in your area, visit nationalcenterforhomeopathy.org. —Isaac Eliaz, MD, LAc, MS
Editor's picks: 5 supplements for stress
1. Bluebonnet Nutrition Targeted Choice Stress Relief blends holy basil and rhodiola with other calming herbs.
2. Gaia Herbs Stress Response features the adaptogenic herbs holy basil, ashwagandha, and rhodiola in liquid Phyto-Caps.
3. Natrol 5-HTP Mood & Stress has 100 mg of this amino acid from a plant-based source. It's also a time-release formula.
4. NOW Foods Rhodiola boasts a standardized extract of this adaptogenic herb. Take on an empty stomach for best results.
5. Organic India Ashwagandha is made with certified organic ashwagandha. It's gluten-free and safe for vegans and vegetarians.