Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Stress has numerous and far-reaching effects on both physical and mental health. The most obvious and commonly experienced symptoms are headaches, insomnia, anxiety, stiff muscles, and upset stomach. Less-common symptoms include impaired fertility, reduced sexual drive, and hampered immune function.
According to the American Psychological Association, 75–90 percent of all physician office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. 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. Researchers have long thought that stress is a cause of premature aging, but the underlying mechanism was a mystery until recently when it was found that stress accelerates the aging process by damaging DNA.
Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, and Elissa Epel, PhD, from the University of California, San Francisco, conducted a study to look at how real-life stress affects cellular aging. Blackburn and Epel studied 39 women, ages 20–50, who experienced intense stress because they were caring for a child suffering from a serious chronic illness. They compared them to 19 women in the same age group whose children were healthy.
To look at the impact of stress on aging, the researchers examined part of the DNA that controls cell aging, called a telomere. “If you think of a strand of DNA as a shoelace, the telomere is the plastic tip on the end. It protects the DNA from damage,” says Blackburn. “Telomeres naturally get thinner as we age, and the thinner they get, the thinner the protection.”
When the telomeres fray away, the cell dies. That’s why we lose eyesight, hearing, and muscle strength as we get older. In their landmark study, Blackburn and Epel demonstrated that in women caring for a sick child, the telomeres shortened the equivalent of 10 years of premature aging compared to the control group. The longer a woman had been caring for a sick child, the shorter her telomeres, the lower her levels of telomerase (an enzyme that helps rebuild telomeres), and the higher her 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 on all these factors. Mothers who coped well under stress didn’t suffer the same 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 by helping to control and lessen the effects of stress, reduce cortisol levels, improve mental function and clarity, boost energy and immunity, and improve sleep.
Omega-3 fatty acids
The brain and nervous system need omega-3 fatty acids for optimal function. These essential fatty acids are incorporated into cell membranes. They influence how cells communicate and support neurotransmitter function. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish and seeds (chia, flax, and hemp seeds). Fish is the preferred source because it contains higher amounts of the biologically active fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-3 fatty acids may help with the management of stress, and they also reduce your risk of developing coronary heart disease, one of the more severe conditions related to stress. Dosage: 3–6 gm daily.
Over the past few decades, countless studies have revealed that the antioxidants in green tea benefit heart health, weight loss, digestion, cognitive function, immune function, and more. But there is another component of green tea that is gaining popularity—the amino acid L-theanine. L-theanine occurs naturally in tea plants, and is found in the highest concentration in green tea leaves. It creates the characteristic “umami” flavor, also known as the “fifth taste” (besides the four traditional tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter).
L-theanine offers a wide range of benefits for stress management: it promotes calming and relaxation, improves sleep quality, and heightens mental clarity and focus. And it offers all of this without causing any serious side effects, drowsiness, tolerance, or addiction. While it may sound too good to be true, numerous studies have validated the benefits of L-theanine, and it is now regarded as one of the safest and most effective natural products for stress.
“The form of L-theanine is very important,” explains researcher Michael Lyon, MD, of the University of British Colombia. “I strongly advise my patients to look for products that contain Suntheanine. I know that Suntheanine is produced to meet the highest standards of purity, and it is the only L-theanine that has been studied in dozens of published clinical trials.”
Here is a summary of some of the key benefits that have been identified in studies of Suntheanine:
Stress: reduces symptoms of stress and anxiety; promotes calmness
Cognitive function: improves mental focus, clarity, alertness, reaction time, and memory
Sleep: improves sleep quality; reduces nighttime awakenings and nightmares
PMS: reduces irritability, anger, and mood swings
ADHD: improves sleep quality, 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 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. There are several high-quality dietary supplements available that feature Suntheanine as a key ingredient.
Magnesium relaxes muscles and nerves and calms anxiety. A magnesium deficiency was found to increase anxiety-related behavior in mice, according to a 2004 study published in Neuropharmacology. Dosage: 200-400 mg per day.
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:
o Neglect your diet?
o Have few supportive relationships?
o Try to do everything yourself?
o Get too little rest?
o Blow up easily?
o Ignore stress symptoms?
o Seek unrealistic goals?
o Put things off until later?
o Fail to see the humor in situations others find funny?
o Use sleeping pills and tranquilizers without a doctor’s approval?
o Act rude?
o Make a “big deal” of everything?
o Get angry when you are kept waiting?
o Look to other people to make things happen?
o Think there is only one right way to do something?
o Have difficulty making decisions?
o Complain you are disorganized?
o Fail to build relaxation time into your day?
o Spend a lot of time complaining about the past?
o Avoid people whose ideas are different from your own?
o Fail to get a break from noise and crowds?
o Keep everything inside?
o Race through the day?
o 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)
OUR PRODUCT PICKS
GREENS + ORGANICS Omega 3 Chia Stick Packs are a convenient way to get natural omegas from chia seeds—just mix and go!
FLORA Flax Oil can be used in salad dressings, drizzled on vegetables, and added to smoothies.
SOURCE NATURALS L-Theanine provides 200 mg of this amino acid, shown in human studies to stimulate brain waves associated with relaxation.
THE VITAMIN SHOPPE Advanced Theanine with Lemon Balm offers natural stress and mood support with a smart combination of powerful calming ingredients.
NATURAL VITALITY Natural Calm Organic Raspberry-Lemon Flavor mixes easily in water or juice—2 tsp. provide 250 mg of nerve-calming magnesium.