Category Archives: stress

De-stress this Valentine’s day with a bit of dark chocolate

It is Valentine’s Day on Sunday and chocolate sales are bound to be high.  Readers of this blog may remember reading about my penchant for good dark chocolate (my preferred chocolate is very rich and dark at 85% cocoa solids), well it seems like giving this treat to yourself or a loved-one could really be a stress-buster.



Cocoa and good quality dark chocolate (the 70%+ cocoa solids varieties) have been shown to have numerous health benefits mainly due to their antioxidant capacity in the body.  A recent study has found that dark chocolate may also be useful in reducing emotional stress (1).



The study (1) was small and very preliminary but certainly interesting.  The study participants were first tested using validated psychological questionnaires to see if they had low or high anxiety traits.  They were given 40g of dark chocolate daily for two weeks.  Blood and urine samples were collected 3 times during the study – at the start, middle and end.  The samples were rigorously tested to see whether various measures of body chemistry of the individuals was changed by the chocolate eating and also to see whether specific processes of gut bacteria was altered.



Interestingly the participants with higher anxiety traits showed a distinct change in their metabolic (bodily chemical processes) profiles when eating the dark chocolate.  Dark chocolate was, amongst other things, found to reduce the urine levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as other body chemicals related to stress.  Dark chocolate was also found to partially normalise and correct stress-related differences in specific body chemistry levels as well as the activity of specific gut bacteria (1)



In conclusion the scientists suggest that the study provides strong evidence that a daily consumption of 40 g of dark chocolate daily during a period of 2 weeks is sufficient to modify the metabolism of healthy human subjects (1)



Further studies to confirm these results are needed and the study definitely does not justify chocolate binges!  However, reaching for a few squares of good quality dark chocolate may be a soothing way to treat yourself to something indulgent, especially on Valentine’s Day.



(1)Francois-Pierre J. Martin, FPJ et al.  2009. Metabolic Effects of Dark Chocolate Consumption on Energy, Gut Microbiota, and Stress-Related Metabolism in Free-Living Subjects.  J. Proteome Res. 8 (12), pp 5568–5579
Written by Ani Kowal

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A few ways that might help to keep ‘back to work’ lethargy at bay

Many people are currently heading back to work after an extended Christmas and New Year break.  It can be tough to get back into the swing of things after having time off and often people feel lacking in energy.  There are a few natural ways that can be useful to help provide a mood boost and prevent feelings of lethargy.



Back in September I wrote about the link between anxioxidant nutrients and symptoms such as stress, anxiety and fatigue.  It is important to keep your dietary antioxidant levels high, this will boost your immune system but may also help to combat fatigue.  The best way of providing the body with ample antioxidants is to eat a variety of colourful vegetables and fruits daily.  Get a minimum of 5 portions a day.  A good way to make sure you are always supplied is to take easy to eat fruits and vegetable stick to work with you.  Keep them at your desk and snack away guilt-free.  Blueberries, any berries in fact, are packed with antioxidants and also very tasty.  Clementines are easy to peel and readily available at the moment and most supermarkets stock carrot and celery sticks if you don’t have time to prepare your own in the morning.  You can dip these into a tomato-based salsa for an extra antioxidant hit. Any fruits and vegetables will work to boost antioxidant levels in the body – remember to eat a variety to provide an array of different antioxidants to the body.  Antioxidant supplements made from natural berries and herbs are now also available to buy but should not be viewed or used as an alternative to a healthy diet.



Magnesium is also considered a great lethargy buster.  Fatigue is thought by some in the medical field to be one of the typical early symptoms of magnesium deficiency (1).  Stress hormones can promote a reduction in tissue magnesium levels and mild magnesium deficiency may promote the feelings of fatigue.  Magnesium is an incredibly important mineral and acts as a multi-functional nutrient in the body where it is present in all cells!  It takes part in around 300 processes in the body and is vital to many bodily functions such as energy production, nerve function, muscle relaxation, bone and tooth formation, heart rhythm and aids in the production and use of insulin. 


The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) of adults aged 19-64 (2) found that quite a shocking number of women in the UK are not achieving adequate daily magnesium intakes with 74% of women age 19-64 not reaching the RNI (reference nutrient intake) for magnesium and 85% of 19-24 year old women not beaching the RNI for this vital nutrient.  Many men (about 42%) too appear not to be reaching recommended levels.  Modern society does not eat as many whole grains, seeds, beans and nuts as in previous times and it is these sources that are rich in magnesium.  Processed foods contain little of this vital mineral.  Good dietary sources of magnesium include dried figs, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashew nuts, sunflower seeds and dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids!).  Wholegrains such as brown rice and oatmeal also contain good amounts.



Omega 3 fatty acids from oily fish such as salmon are vital for the brain and may help lift the mood.  Good dietary sources of omega 3 fatty acids include oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, trout and some nuts, especially walnuts, and flax seeds.  For people who don’t regularly eat fish considering a daily omega 3 supplement could be very helpful.  In fact I would suggest that the majority of individuals in the UK do not achieve good dietary Omega 3 intakes.  For vegetarians and vegans a flaxseed oil supplement can be useful and there are now supplements containing the longer chain omega 3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, available which are made from algae. 



Ginseng is often taken as an energy boosting supplement.  Korean Ginseng, also known as Panax ginseng, appears to be helpful in treating and reducing stress-related fatigue (3,4,5).  A short term, one month, supplement with this herb could be worth a try.  Remember to read the label and stick to the recommended dosages.



Keeping blood sugar levels stable during the day will help prevent energy and mood slumps – a key here is to ensure you include a source of protein with each meal, this could include eggs, unprocessed meats and fish, beans, lentils or other pulses and nuts or seeds.  It is also important to avoid refined carbohydrates and minimise caffeine intake since this can disrupt hormones involved in blood sugar balance.  Eating a healthy balanced diet rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits and minimal processed and refined foods will help to keep levels of all nutrients and antioxidants high.  If you feel that you are in need of a boost or are consistently finding it hard to eat a diet rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits you could consider taking a good quality multi-vitamin and mineral supplement to cover any dietary shortfalls.  Personally I like the food-state supplements which are easily absorbed by the body and derived from natural sources.  Multi-nutrient supplements that also contain probiotics (‘good’ bacteria) are also available.  A study (6) found that such a supplement could help to reduce stress and exhaustion as well as improving the immune system.  Remember that a nutrient supplement can never be considered as an alternative to a healthy diet. 


 


(1)Saris N-E L et al.  2000.  Magnesium:  an update on physiological, clinical and analytical aspects.  Clinica Chimica Acta.  294:1-26, 2000.
(2)Henderson L et al.  2003.  The National Diet and Nutrition Survey: Adults aged 19-64 years.  HMSO London.
(3)Bannerjee U et al.  1982.  Antistress and antifatigue properties of panax ginseng:  comparison with piracetam.  Acta Physiol Lat Am.  32(4):277-285.
(4)Reay J L et al.  2005.  Single doses of Panax ginseng (G115) reduce blood glucose levels and improve cognitive performance during sustained mental activity.  J Psychopharmacol.  19(4):357-365, 2005.
(5)Reay J L et al.  2006.  Effects of Panax ginseng, consumed with and without glucose, on blood glucose levels and cognitive performance during sustained ‘mentally demanding’ tasks.  J Psychopharmacol.
(6)Grunenwald J et al.  2002.  Effect of a probiotic multivitamin compound on stress and exhaustion.  Adv Ther.  19:141-150
Written by Ani Kowal

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Could antioxidants help reduce symptoms such as stress, anxiety and fatigue?

Due to the economic events occurring over the last year many people have felt under incredible stress.  A recent study (1) has found that an antioxidant supplement may be helpful in reducing symptoms such as fatigue, stress and anxiety which are fairly prevalent in developed populations at this current time.  There have been several suggestions in the scientific literature that there is a link between individual perceived stress and ‘oxidative stress’ – a kind of stress that occurs in the cells of our bodies when they are under attack by molecules known as ‘free radicals’.  In the body antioxidant defences are important to prevent damage by these free radical molecules which can cause inflammation and are linked to many diseases.  Our bodies contain many enzymes that act as antioxidants, a main one being SOD, superoxide dismutase.  The study mentioned (1) used a melon juice supplement that was high in SOD to see if it had any effect on individual symptoms of stress.



This pilot study (1) was well planned and included seventy healthy volunteers aged between 30 and 55 years, who felt daily stress and fatigue. They took the dietary melon supplement or a placebo once daily over a 4 week period. Symptoms of stress and fatigue were measured using four specific psychometric scales.



Supplementation with the melon concentrate supplement significantly improved perceived signs and symptoms of stress and fatigue linked to e.g. pain, sleep troubles, concentration, weariness, attitude, irritability compared to the placebo. In the same way, quality of life and perceived stress were significantly improved with supplementation (1).



One of the authors of the study said in a press release (2) “Several studies have shown that there is a link between psychological stress and intracellular oxidative stress. We wanted to test whether augmenting the body’s ability to deal with oxidative species might help a person’s ability to resist burnout. The 35 people in our study who received capsules containing superoxide dismutase showed improvement in several signs and symptoms of perceived stress and fatigue.” She added that ” It will be interesting to confirm these effects and better understand the action of antioxidants on stress in further studies with a larger number of volunteers and a longer duration.”



The best way of providing the body with antioxidants is to eat a diet that is rich in vegetables and fruits.  These foods provide antioxidant vitamins, minerals and bioflavonoids (bioactive plant compounds).  Antioxidant supplements made from natural berries and herbs are now also available to buy but should not be viewed or used as an alternative to a healthy diet.  If you feel that you are under particular stress/mental strain at the moment you may wish to increase the number of antioxidant containing foods in your diet.  If you are struggling to reach the daily minimum of 5 portions of vegetables and fruits then a good quality antioxidant supplement may be something you wish to consider in the short term in order to boost your antioxidant levels during periods of stress.


It will be interesting to see what further research uncovers in the realm of antioxidants and stress symptoms, with so many people feeling pressure in their lifes these kinds of studies could represent important steps toward helping to ease difficult symptoms.


 


(1)Milesi MA et al.  2009.  Effect of an oral supplementation with a proprietary melon juice concentrate (Extramel) on stress and fatigue in healthy people: a pilot, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial.  Nutrition Journal.  8:40 (15 September 2009)
(2)Press Release: Antioxidant Ingredient Proven To Relieve Stress. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 16, 2009, from
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090914194652.htm


Written by Ani Kowal

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Can Siberian ginseng help feelings of stress and fatigue?

Recently a friend recommended that I try taking some Siberian Ginseng to boost my energy levels during a particularly busy time.  Siberian ginseng was not a herb that I knew very much about.  Korean ginseng, often known as panax ginseng or Asian ginseng is the ginseng that I have read a lot about in the past and seems to have immune and metabolism boosting properties.  So what about Siberian ginseng?



Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is also known as Eleuthero, Eleutherococco, Ciwujia, Devil’s Bush, Touch-me-not and ussurian thorny pepper bush.  It is a herb that is native to Siberia, Korea and parts of China.  Since Siberian ginseng does not belong to the Panax family it cannot be considered as a ‘true’ ginseng.  Although the beneficial actions of Siberian ginseng seem to be similar to those of Korean ginseng there is some debate as to whether it may be better to rename the herb Eleuthero so as to dissociate it from Korean ginseng.



Herbalists refer to Siberian ginseng as being an ‘adaptogen’.  The term is used to describe herbs that seem to help the body to adapt during times of stress, trauma, fatigue and anxiety.  Sometimes adaptogens are simply referred to as rejuvenating herbs and their use dates back thousands of years in China and India.  It is not entirely known how these herbs work, many of them have antioxidant properties but this does not explain all of their reported benefits.  It could be that adaptogenic herbs can balance the hormonal and immune systems in the body.  I wanted to have a look to see if there was much research evidence to back up the claims that Siberian ginseng can help during times of stress.



A review paper, released very recently (1), was carried out to assess clinical trials of different adaptogenic herbs in fatigue.  The authors who collated the research say that good scientific evidence has been recorded in trials in which Siberian ginseng increased endurance and mental performance in those with mild fatigue and weakness.  The scientists also propose that the beneficial, stress protective, effect of adaptogenic herbs is related to a variety of complex mechanisms in the body that involve hormones and brain activity.



Many of the studies done with Sibersian ginseng have been animal or laboratory studies and the results have been quite positive for the use of the herb to help during times of stress or fatigue.  However, not many studies have yet been conducted in humans.  The few trials that have taken place have been small, but certainly interesting, and further evidence is warranted before any firm conclusions can be drawn.


Two studies were published in 2004 (2,3) which look specifically at Siberian ginseng and fatigue in human subjects.  The first (2) took place in elderly individuals who were suffering from fatigue and feelings of lack of energy.  The study was small and preliminary involving only 20 individuals aged 65 or over.  The participants were given either 300mg a day of died extract of Siberian ginseng or a placebo for 8 weeks.  A health related quality of life questionnaire was taken at the study and then again at 4 and 8 weeks.  At the start of the study the two groups had similar health related quality of life scores.  The participants did not know if they were receiving the Siberian ginseng or the placebo.  After 4 weeks the individuals receiving the active herb had higher scores in the health related quality of life questionnaire (in the social functioning section) than those receiving placebo.  However after 8 weeks the differences did not seem to persist.  The authors of the study conclude that Siberian ginseng may improve some aspects of mental health and social functioning in the short term.  Further studies are necessary to investigate long term effects.



The other study (3) took place in sufferers of chronic fatigue.  Siberian ginseng seemed to be most helpful for individuals with more severe fatigue.  Overall the authors conclude that the findings for the use of Siberian ginseng in chronic fatigue are not yet strong but that “the findings of possible efficacy for patients with moderate fatigue suggests that further research may be of value”.
 


Siberian ginseng has been used for many years as a tonic for vitality and health and I believe we can learn a lot by looking at ancient herbal treatment regimens.  However, I also feel that it is important to investigate the science behind the claims and test the efficacy and safety of herbs before promoting them.  Laboratory evidence for Siberian ginseng is fairly strong and human trials are beginning to emerge to strengthen the health claims.


If your energy, vitality and stamina seem to be waning, rather than reaching for a coffee (which can further stress the body systems) you might want to investigate whether short term use of Siberian ginseng works for you.  Consulting a herbalist is a good option and always read the manufacturers dosage suggestions before use.  The most commonly recommended therapeutic dosage for Siberian Ginseng (20:1 concentration, containing at least 1% Eleutheroside E) is 300 mg – 600 mg per day.



(1) Panossian A, Wikman G.  2009.  Evidence-Based Efficacy of Adaptogens in Fatigue, and Molecular Mechanisms Related to Their Stress-Protective Activity. Curr Clin Pharmacol. 2009 Sep 1. [Epub ahead of print]
(2) Cicero AF et al.  2004. Effects of Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus maxim.) on elderly quality of life: a randomized clinical trial. Arch Gerontol Geriatr Suppl.  9:69-73.
(3) Hartz AJ et al.  2004.  Randomized controlled trial of Siberian ginseng for chronic fatigue. Psychol Med.  34(1):51-61.


Written by Ani Kowal

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Balanced diets may improve work energy and productivity levels

My last posting concentrated on new evidence suggesting that desk work could be contributing to overeating.  Staying on the work theme I wanted to briefly mention a recent(1) study published by ComPsych Corporation that reveals how healthy eating seems to improve our energy levels at work.



ComPsych Corporation is the world’s largest provider of employee assistance programs, operating in 92 countries.  They also provide services to address employee behavioural health, wellness and work-life balance.  Their 2008 workplace wellness study, which surveyed over 1000 employees in the US, revealed that 50% of workers with balanced diets have high energy compared to only 5% with those with unbalanced diets.  In addition to the aforementioned results the study also found that of the employees with healthy diets 73% reported having high levels of productivity compared to 24% of employees with poor dietary habits.  51% of employees who were not overweight had high morale compared to 25% who were overweight.



It seems obvious to me that continual feelings of high energy will help keep us motivated and hence productive at work.  Healthy eating can impact us in many ways.  Providing the body with optimal nutrition will keep us functioning well both mentally and physically.  Not rocket science really!



In the last post I mentioned the stress hormone cortisol and the possible effects of work on our blood sugar balance.  ‘Stress’ within the workplace is really a ‘fight or flight’ response to a mental challenge but it can become a problem when it is too much for an individual to handle.  Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline flood the body during stressful times and cause digestion to slow, muscles to tense, heart rate to rise and blood sugar levels to fluctuate.  In a situation such as a tiger about to attack us this is a beneficial response as we use all our energy to flee the scene!  If we are at our desks in a work situation and this energy and tension is not discharged it starts to have an effect all of our organs and cells which can lead to health problems ranging from high blood pressure to digestive problems, sleep problems and even cancers.  Each of us responds differently under pressured situations so stress is a very personal issue.  There are many ways that we can attenuate the negative effects of too much work and mental pressure.  Exercise, relaxation, avoiding caffeine, reducing alcohol levels, making room for fun and eating a balanced and healthy diet can all help.



In addition to ensuring a diet that is as healthy as possible there are a few specific nutrients which may help support the body during times of stress.



Stress seems to promote the release of inflammatory chemicals in the body.  Omega 3 fatty acids may inhibit the ability of excess stress to initiate inflammation.  Excessive amounts of omega 6 fatty acids (found in vegetable oils), and a relative lack of omega 3 fatty acids (found in oily fish and some nuts and seeds) also seems to promote inflammation in the body. Maintaining a balance of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids i.e. avoidance of excessive amounts of margarine and vegetable oils and the regular inclusion of oily fish (e.g. salmon and mackerel), walnuts and flaxseeds in the diet may therefore benefit individuals during times of stress.  In one(2) study twenty-seven university students had their blood serum sampled a few weeks before and after, as well as one day before, a difficult oral examination (a time of considerable stress).  This stress was associated with a significant increase in the production inflammatory chemicals in the body (cytokines).  Subjects with high omega-6 fatty acid levels had a greater production of these inflammatory cytokines compared with subjects with high omega-3 fatty acid levels. Another study (3) found that supplementation with fish oils inhibited the release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in response to mental stress.  If you are not a regular eater of oily fish you may wish to consider a supplement that provides around 250mg of EPA and 250mg of DHA (long chain omega 3 fatty acids) daily.  Or, if you are vegetarian/vegan, a daily flaxseed oil supplement providing around 500mg alpha-linoleic acid.



Another useful nutrient during times of stress is the mineral magnesium.  Studies have shown that excessive stress may cause the depletion of magnesium within the body (4,5).  Many people in the UK do not get enough magnesium in their diets.  Rich sources include nuts, seeds, pulses (beans, chickpeas) and wholegrain cereals.  If you feel you are not regularly eating these foods you may wish to consider a supplement providing around 300mg of magnesium a day.  



Finally I would like to mention gut bacteria (for more information see IBS post part I). Studies have shown that excessive stress can cause the depletion of beneficial ‘good’ bacteria (such as species of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria) in the intestinal tract (6) Individuals may therefore benefit from taking a probiotic and prebiotic in times of stress.  One study(7) evaluated the use of a probiotic multivitamin supplement in 42 adults suffering from stress or exhaustion.  The supplement was taken daily for 6 months.  At the end of the study, an overall 40.7% improvement in stress was noted.  In addition, decreases of 29% in the frequency of infections and of 91% in gastrointestinal discomforts, both established indicators of stress, were recorded.  This was probably due to a combination of both the vitamins and the probiotics.  It is also known that stress can cause depletion of certain antioxidant vitamins in the body.



A balanced diet that prevents fluctuations in blood sugar levels (see post dated Monday 8th September) that includes a variety of vegetables and fruits together with healthy fats from nuts, seeds and oily fish and minimal amounts of processed and refined foods will really help to support the body during times of stress (well at all times really!)



(1)ComPsych 2008 Health and Productivity Index.
(2)Maes M  et al.  2000.  In humans, serum polyunsaturated fatty acid levels predict the response of proinflammatory cytokines to psychologic stress.  Biol Psychiatry.  47(10):910-920.
(3)Delarue, J., et al.  Fish oil prevents the adrenal activation elicited by mental stress in healthy men.  Diabetes Metab.  29(3):289-295, 2003.
(4) Johnson S et al.  2001.  The multifaceted and widespread pathology of magnesium deficiency.  Medical Hypotheses.  56(2):163-170.
(5) Cernak I et al.  2000.  Alterations in magnesium and oxidative status during chronic emotional stress.  Magnes Res.  13:29-36
(6)Lizko NN et al.  1984.  [Events in the development of dysbacteriosis of the intestines in man under extreme conditions.]  Nahrung.  28:599-605.
(7)Gruenwald J et al.  2002.  Effect of a probiotic multivitamin compound on stress and exhaustion.  Adv Ther.  19(3):141-50


Written by Ani Kowal

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