Natural Stress Relief
November 1st is International Stress Awareness Day, a campaign aimed at highlighting the importance of stress management and ending the stigma associated with mental health.
Stress is one of the most common illnesses in the UK, costing the country an estimated £10 billion each year. The first signs of stress are usually sleep difficulties, low energy, tense muscles and digestive problems. Long term stress has been linked to a wide range of serious diseases including heart disease, obesity, depression and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.
Modern lifestyles often mean that stress is unavoidable. Tight work deadlines, juggling work life and family life and financial pressures all increase stress levels. While many of these pressures are unavoidable, it is important to be able to manage our response to stress effectively.
Taking early steps to support your physical and mental wellbeing can prevent stress from becoming a more serious and long term problem. Below are three of the most effective ways to beat stress naturally.
Balance Your Blood Sugar
Stress can cause blood sugar swings because stress hormones create signals to raise blood sugar. This can result in a vicious cycle, leading to poorly controlled blood sugar peaks and dips, sugar cravings, poor energy levels and sleep difficulties.
For this reason, eating in a way that helps manage your blood sugar levels is crucial. Eating a protein-rich breakfast and reducing sugar and caffeine will help to eliminate extreme blood sugar fluctuations.
Also try to base your main meals around blood sugar stabilising whole foods that are rich in soluble fibre, protein and essential fatty acids. These include foods such as oats and barley, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, vegetables, berries, natural yoghurt and oily fish.
Work Out to Wind Down
It is well known that exercise reduces stress. Studies show that those who exercise suffer from less depression and anxiety (1,2). For those too tired to exercise, it may be worth considering that exercise is also known to reduce levels of fatigue (3,4).
Exercise boosts the levels of certain brain chemicals such as serotonin and norepinephrine, which help to buffer the effects of stress. Exercise also increases the levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter with a potent calming effect on the mind and body. For a lower intensity workout, yoga has been found to be particularly effective in raising levels of stress-relieving GABA (5).
The mood-boosting effects of exercise are both immediate and long-term. Just one exercise session triggers the release of mood-boosting chemicals, while it is thought that in the long term the brain can actually be remodelled with a greater proportion of ‘calming’ neurons to defend against stress (6).
Stress Relieving Supplements
The adrenals, which sit on top of the kidneys, are the chief organs for dealing with stress, producing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Ongoing stress can make it hard for the adrenals to function properly, leading to unhealthy levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. The result is symptoms such as sleep disruption, weight gain, anxiety disorders and fatigue. One way to protect against the effects of stress is to support the adrenal glands.
The health of the adrenals relies on two key vitamins for healthy function – vitamin C and vitamin B5. The adrenals need these vitamins to manufacture hormones. Studies have found that vitamin C and B5 supplementation lowers excessive cortisol levels and helps adults to feel less ‘stressed’ (7,8).
Another adrenal supportive nutrient is the mineral magnesium. Sometimes referred to as the ‘anti-stress mineral’, magnesium supports our adrenals and also improves quality of sleep. It increases GABA, a ‘calming’ brain chemical, and lowers levels of cortisol (9).
Medical herbalists often use adaptogens to help relieve stress. Adaptogens are believed to help the adrenal system regulate hormones and manage stress. For example, the adaptogen ashwagandha has been found to significantly lower cortisol levels in stressed individuals when taken over a period of 60 days (10). Other popular adaptogens include Siberian ginseng, rhodiola and maca.
1. Rethorst CD et al (2009) The antidepressive effects of exercise: a meta-analysis of randomized trials. Sports Med. 39(6):491-511.
2. Wipfli BM (2008) The anxiolytic effects of exercise: a meta-analysis of randomized trials and dose-response analysis. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 30(4):392-410.
3. Resnick et al (2006) Cross-sectional relationship of reported fatigue to obesity, diet, and physical activity: results from the third national health and nutrition examination survey. J Clin Sleep Med. 2(2):163-9.
4. Theorell-Haglöw J et al (2006) What are the important risk factors for daytime sleepiness and fatigue in women? Sleep.29(6):751-7.
5. Streeter CC et al (2010) Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study. J Altern Complement Med. 16(11): 1145–1152.
6. Schoenfeld et al . (2013) Physical exercise prevents stress-induced activation of granule neurons and enhances local inhibitory mechanisms in the dentate gyrus. J Neurosci 33(18):7770-7
7. Brody S et al (2002) A randomized controlled trial of high dose ascorbic acid for reduction of blood pressure, cortisol, and subjective responses to psychological stress. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 159(3):319-24.
8. Onuki M, Suzawa A. (2016) Effect of pantethine on the function of the adrenal cortex. 2. Clinical experience using pantethine in cases under steroid hormone treatment. 18:937-940. [Article in Japanese]
9. Möykkynen T et al Neuroreport. 2001 Magnesium potentiation of the function of native and recombinant GABA(A) receptors. 12(10):2175-9.
10. K. Chandrasekhar et al (2012) A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 34(3): 255–262.