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As a Registered Dietitian, you may reasonably infer that I believe diet is the most important aspect of health.
Although it’s definitely important there is one thing which, in the long term, can impact your health way more than how many burgers you eat or don’t eat.
That one thing is: how well you are managing (or not managing) your stress.
Now, you may have different triggers, but everyone experiences stress.
It’s simply part of living day to day in the modern world, stuff happens! But, how well you are dealing with your stress is what can really make or break your health.
I’m not suggesting diet doesn’t play a role. . . after all, I’m a Nutritionist!
In fact, as you’ll see below, good nutrition coupled with tailored herbs and supplements can be a tool to help manage the stress monster more effectively.
How Does Stress Influence Health?
A little bit of stress can actually be useful at times, but unregulated stress permeates every aspect of your life and health.
Any stressful situation, whether its persistent traffic on your commute to work or a silly fight with a spouse, puts your body into a state of “fight or flight.”
This type of reaction, to either fight or run away, was very valuable when we were hunter-gatherers facing real dangers and trying to survive in the wilderness.
In order to stay safe, our bodies jump into action at any sign of danger.
To prepare for running away (or standing your ground), our bodies increase our heart rate, slow down digestion, and spike a series of hormones to allow for the strength and stamina to swiftly get out of the situation.
This is a really useful reaction when running away from predators. But, nowadays the stress we face isn’t quite as evidently lethal as an attacking cave bear.
Illustration by Joshua Seong. © Verywellmind.com
Modern stress is much more mental and “low grade,” think of things like:
- credit card bills,
- public speaking,
- moving to a new home,
- world events,
- getting married/divorced,
- working long hours,
- not getting the promotion,
- getting laid off,
- emotional problems,
- traumatic events, etc.
. . . this is what we struggle with in exchange for a civilized way of life.
All these worries mean our stress hormones are constantly being elevated and are subsequently being manifested in symptoms that you’ve probably experienced but attributed to other, more tangible causes.
Stress and Mental Health
The problem is that although these stressors are not immediately deadly,
. . . being under chronic stress is of significant concern.
A chronic state of stress can eventually lead to things like weight gain, poor digestion, feeling drained and exhausted all the time.
Additionally, exposure to stress hormones can:
- decrease our ability to think and learn,
- and increase the risk of substance abuse, anxiety, and depression.
The reason these hormones are so impactful on our mental health is that they are able to bind to receptors in the brain; changing both structure and function.
Research backs up the impact of chronic stress on our health and shows that long-term, stress can be the underlying cause for chronic diseases such as heart disease, heart attacks, weight gain/loss, high blood pressure, etc. Left unmanaged, it can really impact your sleep too, causing excessive sleepiness or insomnia.
Chronic stress can also lead to other negative health behaviors such as drinking, smoking, and overeating as a way to cope (1). All of these symptoms, whether mental or, physical are interconnected.
Stress hormones are a major trigger of systemic inflammation (2, 3, 4). Inflammation is the underlying cause of almost every chronic disease. To help you avoid these issues as much as possible, I’ve put together this list of some of the most useful supplements whose ingredients have been shown by science to naturally fight stress.
9 Helpful Supplements for Stress Relief
Who hasn’t come home after a stressful day and used a less-than-healthy method to unwind?
But as you can see, finding better ways to de-stress is crucial. Because no matter how well you might be managing other aspects of your health, excessive uncontrolled stress will undermine your efforts.
So, what can you do?
Nutrition & supplementation can be one way to help get your stress back under control. Many dietary supplements, herbs, and nutrients can also be very useful tools for helping your body regulate stress better.
Here are a few research-backed supplements to try in pursuit of stress relief.
Ashwagandha is an herb common in Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient form of medicine originating in India.
Widely known for its adaptogenic properties, this herb helps regulate stress and reduce the side effects of chronic stress by supporting the function of the adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands are responsible for the production of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. When you’re overly stressed the adrenal glands can go into overdrive and burn themselves out, leaving you exhausted and completely out of balance!
How does ashwagandha fight stress?
A 2008 study of 98 chronically stressed participants found that dosages of ashwagandha (as low as 125mg) significantly reduced a stress marker called C-reactive protein (CRP) by 36%. Chronically elevated levels of CRP have been linked to inflammation and the risk of developing chronic diseases.
The ashwagandha group had lower cortisol levels and lower blood pressure. In this study, participants who received the supplement also self-reported fewer high-stress days (5).
This is no surprise since ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that helps regulate neurotransmitters and stress hormones, as well as decreasing inflammation and helping mitigate the effects of stress.
How to take ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is generally considered safe for most healthy people. It can be consumed in pill or capsule forms. Choosing one that is labeled free of artificial ingredients or fillers is the better way to go.
Dosages between 300-500mg per day seem to be well tolerated and safe for most people to help manage stress (6).
Melissa officinalis is a plant in the mint family, commonly called lemon balm, and has been found to have anti-stress and anti-anxiety effects. It can also improve mental clarity and help with relaxation.
How does lemon balm fight stress?
A 2004 study evaluated the effects of lemon balm on laboratory-induced psychological stress, below is what they concluded.
Before taking a stress test, eighteen subjects received either, 300mg or 600mg of lemon balm, or a placebo.
The researchers found that 600mg of lemon balm:
- improved negative mood,
- increased calmness ratings,
- and reduced alertness.
There was a significant increase in processing speed for cognitive tests for both the 300 and 600mg doses.
How to Take Lemon Balm
Recommended doses of lemon balm for stress management range from 300 mg to 900 mg in various studies.
It can be consumed via a capsule or through tea that contains the herb (my preferred method!).
ⓘ A word of caution, it can cause drowsiness in some people, so it is best if you take it at night before going to sleep.
The B-complex vitamin is a combination of several of the B-vitamins your body needs, grouped into one pill or capsule.
In general, a B-complex supplement will include varying dosages of:
- thiamine (B1)
- riboflavin (B2)
- niacin (B3)
- pantothenic acid (B5)
- pyridoxine (B6)
- biotin (B7)
- folic acid (B9)
- and cyanocobalamin (B12)
How do b-complex vitamins fight stress?
These vitamins play many roles in the body, but most of them are required for proper brain health and nervous system function. A deficiency in any of these vitamins can increase physical stress and will decrease the production of neurotransmitters that regulate mood.
How to Take B-Vitamin Complex
This vitamin complex is a relatively safe supplement to take. B-vitamins are water-soluble, so what your body doesn’t use will simply be excreted during visits to the bathroom.
Toxicity is only reported at very high doses and will resolve once the supplement is stopped. Doses of each individual B-vitamin may vary between products, but most typically contain between 300 mg – 500 mg.
Kava, also referred to as kava kava, is a root found in the islands of the Pacific.
It is high in an active compound called kavalactones, which has relaxation and psychoactive effects on the brain. This is probably why South Pacific cultures have traditionally used it as a drink to help lower anxiety and promote relaxation; it may also help with sleep issues.
How does kava fight stress?
A 2004 study found that a specific kava extract called WS 1490 improved sleep and reduced anxiety and tension.
In this study, 61 subjects received 200 mg of kava or a placebo over a 4 week period. During this time, subjects reported on their sleep quality, anxiety levels, and overall well-being.
The group that received the kava experienced an increase in overall well-being, decreased anxiety, and improved sleep (10).
How to Take Kava
Kava can be found in an extract called WS 1490, which is the type commonly used for research purposes.
The recommended dose is 300 mg which should be split up into three dosages a day.
This amino acid is one reason why sipping a cup of tea is so relaxing. Green tea, in particular, is high in L-theanine, which is one reason why there are so many health benefits associated with this beverage.
It acts as a calming neurotransmitter in the brain, helping reduce blood pressure.
How does l-theanine fight stress?
A study on L-theanine and relaxation found that 50-200 mg a day increased alpha waves in the brain, which are generally associated with relaxation, within 40 minutes of taking the supplement.
Subjects did not report any additional drowsiness, just an overall feeling of well-being and relaxation (12).
How to Take L-Theanine
Since the number one source of it is tea, sipping a cup of green tea is a great quick way to get some relaxing L-theanine and take a little break from the worries of your day.
But, if you’re no fan of green tea, it also comes in supplement form; typically in dosages between 100-200 mg packaged as capsules, pills, and/or tablets. You can even opt for some green tea extract.
Valerian Root is a sleep aid and helps reduce anxiety. It contains a chemical called valeric acid that can be converted into gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter responsible for inhibiting and calming the nervous system.
How does valerian root fight stress?
In a 2015 study, researchers used valerian root to help women who were undergoing hysterosalpingography, a painful and stressful procedure for assessing causes of infertility. Subjects who were going to undergo this procedure were given 1500 mg of valerian root 90 minutes beforehand.
Their anxiety was measured before and after the procedure.
Researchers found that subjects reported significantly less anxiety after the procedure while taking the valerian root with few side effects (13). Thus, this research suggests that valerian root can be used as a natural way to calm patient anxiety before painful or difficult medical procedures.
How to Take Valerian Root
Valerian root supplements generally come in 500 mg doses which can be split between 2-3 doses per day. You can take it via a tincture, with your tea, or simply take a capsule form.
ⓘ High doses can cause blurred vision and changes in heart rhythm, so proceed with caution and increase the quantity you take slowly.
Make sure to always consult with your doctor beforehand with any concerns.
Magnesium is commonly referred to as the “relaxation mineral.” Its primary function is to help maintain a healthy nervous system, a normal heart rhythm, and regulate blood pressure. It is also required for serotonin production, known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for adult men is 420 mg per day while women need 320 mg per day.
It is found naturally in many foods, primarily in (14):
- green leafy vegetables,
- and whole grains.
Due to our highly processed diets, many people do not get enough magnesium. In addition, too much stress, coffee, and alcohol can deplete the body’s magnesium, making any deficiency worse.
How does magnesium fight stress?
Research has found that magnesium excretion is increased under stressful situations like taking tests. So, when you are under stress magnesium is not only depleted, inadequate magnesium can increase feelings of stress and anxiety (15).
If you are really struggling with stress, you may want to make sure you are including plenty of high magnesium foods in your diet.
A 2017 review of eighteen studies on the topic of magnesium and stress found that magnesium status is associated with subjective reports of anxiety. About half the studies found that magnesium supplementation decreased self-reported stress in people with generalized anxiety, high blood pressure, and PMS related anxiety.
ⓘ It had no impact on those with postpartum anxiety.
Based on this data, researchers concluded that there is suggestive evidence of the beneficial effects of magnesium on stress, but more rigorous trials are recommended to solidify ideal dosages and who would most benefit (16).
How to Take Magnesium
If you want to try and regulate stress with magnesium, keep in mind that although magnesium is generally safe, you still want to proceed with caution.
The upper limit for supplemental magnesium set by the National Institute of Health is 350 mg per day.
ⓘ Toxicity symptoms are usually seen at doses higher than 5,000 mg/day.
A high dose of magnesium at once can cause diarrhea, so increase your doses in intervals, a little at a time, as your body adjusts.
If you don’t want to use an oral capsule forms, another option is to use a magnesium lotion or a hot bath with Epsom salts (made of magnesium) to help with stress management; since magnesium can be absorbed through the skin.
At this time, until further research on dosage is available, it is probably best to not exceed the recommended upper limit of 350 mg/day.
Melatonin is a hormone that has the opposite effects of the stress hormones.
It is a sleep hormone that increases at night to help you go to sleep and stay asleep. Melatonin, produced by the pineal gland, is responsible for regulating your circadian rhythm and reaction to light and darkness.
How does melatonin fight stress?
When stress hormones are high, they prevent melatonin from functioning properly, leading to restless sleep and insomnia (20).
Melatonin doesn’t decrease stress directly but instead helps mediate some of the side effects caused by stress such as a suppressed immune system and poor sleep (21).
A 2010 study found that supplementation with melatonin for three weeks resulted in:
- faster sleep onset,
- improved sleep quality,
- increased morning alertness,
- and improved quality of life.
ⓘ Subjects taking melatonin did not report drowsiness or have safety concerns while utilizing the supplement (22).
How to Take Melatonin
If stress is impacting your sleep, you may want to consider introducing melatonin to the mix. Ideally, you should take it about thirty minutes before you plan on going to sleep.
Melatonin tablets usually come in 1, 3, 5, or 10mg. Start with a lower dosage and increase if/as needed.
If a low dosage isn’t helping you fall asleep within 30 minutes of laying down, then consider increasing to a higher dose. If you feel overly groggy in the morning, then cut back on your dose.
ⓘ Melatonin can interact with certain medications, increasing drowsiness, so it is best to speak to your doctor about starting it.
Passionflower is the flower of the passion fruit tree, a common plant found in tropical countries. It has been shown to lower anxiety and help with insomnia because it can increase GABA levels in the brain relaxing the nervous system.
How does passionflower fight stress?
A 2017 study of dental patients who were going to undergo an invasive surgery found that taking passionflower before helped control anxiety just as much as a prescription anti-anxiety medication.
Subjects were given either 260 mg of passionflower or 15 mg of midazolam 30 minutes before surgery. Their anxiety levels were measured through questionnaires and physical assessments of blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen saturation.
Passionflower helped reduce anxiety during the procedure just as much as those receiving the prescription medication. Those who had the passionflower reported no issues with amnesia, a common side effect of midazolam (23).
How to Take Passionflower
Passionflower is available in teas, tinctures, tablets, or extract forms. It can cause sleepiness, so it is best taken at night. Tinctures or teas are the most effective way to take it.
The standard dose for tea is 0.25-2 grams of the dried herb in 8 ounces hot water or a 1 ml tincture three times a day.
ⓘ A word of precaution, passionflower can lower blood pressure too much, so be careful if/when taking it while on blood pressure-lowering medication. Speak with your doctor before mixing medications.
Recap on Using Supplements for Stress
There are many different herbs and supplements that can be used to help manage stress, and how they work can vary. Though in the end, they can indeed serve as a useful tool in reducing anxiety, improving sleep, and calming an overactive nervous system.
But as always, before taking any dietary supplement, it is always best to speak with your doctor to help assess safety for you.
Since some of these products can induce drowsiness, try taking them for the first time at home in a controlled environment.
Effectively managing stress requires multiple lifestyle, psychological, and nutritional changes, it really takes a holistic approach to get that stress under control.
Keep reading: 9 Natural Supplements for an Energy Boost
ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Ana.
Stock Photos from EpicStockMedia / E.Druzhinina/ TeraVector / Shutterstock
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About the Author
Ana Reisdorf is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with 11-years experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics. After graduating from California State University, Long Beach, she began her career as health educator, helping educate patients on a variety of nutrition-related conditions. Email Ana.