Stress has been with us since the beginning of time. That’s not necessarily bad. Short-term stress can generate the motivation necessary to convert thought into action, whether that action is planting a garden, meeting a deadline, or escaping from a fire or flood. In fact, stress has been the force behind much of humankind’s progress through the ages.
Understanding the Stress Response
Our reaction to stress, known as “fight or flight,” is a built-in response that also ensures our survival. When faced with danger, humans experience a complex chain of biological changes that instantly put us on alert. It begins in the hypothalamus, a tiny cluster of cells at the base of the brain that controls all automatic body functions. The hypothalamus triggers nerve cells to release norepinephrine, a hormone that tightens the muscles and sharpens the senses. At the same time, the adrenal glands release epinephrine, better known as adrenaline, which makes the heart pump faster and the lungs work harder to flood the body with oxygen. The adrenal glands also release the hormone cortisol, which helps the body convert sugar to energy. Once the threat has passed, the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system takes over, allowing the body to return to normal.
But, unlike our ancestors, who only had to deal with the occasional saber-toothed tiger or club-wielding enemy, we are often subjected to 50 or more stressors a day. As a result, stress-related health problems have skyrocketed. Fortunately, there are natural herbs and nutrients that can help mitigate the ill effects of a stress-filled life.
How you respond to stress can dictate the physical, emotional, and mental impact it has on your life. But when stress is relentless or throws you an unexpected curve ball, the fol- lowing nutrients can help to smooth out life’s rough edges.
5-HTP is a naturally occurring nutrient derived from the seed pods of the West African plant Griffonia simplicifolia. It acts as a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, boost- ing levels in the brain. As a result, 5-HTP can improve mood and helps to relieve anxiety, depression, insomnia, and the urge to stress eat. Research also suggests that 5-HTP may help ease some stress-related conditions such as PMS, migraines, and even fibromyalgia.
B vitamins are often among the first nutritional casualties of ongoing stress. Yet they are critical for anyone experiencing chronic stress or anxiety. Vitamin B1 strengthens the immune system and improves the body’s ability to withstand stressful conditions. Vitamin B3 plays a key role in serotonin synthesis. Vitamin B5 is important for the adrenals and therefore helps with modulating stress. Folic acid and vitamin B12, taken
together, have been shown to reduce anxiety and depres- sion. But because the Bs work in concert, it’s smart to take a good B complex to help prevent nutrient imbalances.
Bacopa may be best known for its brain-boosting benefits but it also has been found to reduce anxiety and produce a feeling of calmness and tranquility. This is due to bacopa’s ability to regulate the uptake of serotonin, to prevent dopamine receptor dysfunction, and to support the activity of GABA. This ancient Ayurvedic herb is so effective that research reports that it’s anxiolytic activity is comparable to the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam. As a bonus, bacopa also improves the quality of sleep.
Choline is another well-known brain nutrient with mood benefits. Research has linked low choline levels to greater feelings of anxiety, and some studies suggest that supplementation may have a calming effect. Choline has also been shown to improve mania in people suffering from bipolar disorder.
gABA, technically known as gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a non-essential amino acid that functions as a neurotransmitter, calming the brain by preventing too many neurons from firing at once. This essentially reduces brain activity and acts like a brake during times of runaway stress. Having a healthy amount of GABA in the brain also helps to combat high levels of stimulating brain chemicals like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine. As a bonus, studies show that GABA enhances sleep and the production of endorphins—those feel-good brain chemicals that boost mood.
l–theanine, an amino acid found in green tea, has a calming effect and reduces the physiological response to stress. In the brain, l-theanine increases dopamine, sero- tonin, and the inhibitory neurotransmitter glycine. It also raises GABA levels. Studies show that l-theanine induces alpha brain wave activity in a dose-dependent manner, which makes people feel more relaxed without making them sleepy.
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the human body. Yet it is readily depleted in the face of chronic stress. Going through a stressful period with- out sufficient magnesium can set up a deficit that, if not corrected, can linger, causing more stress that depletes even more magnesium from your system. While loading up on magnesium-rich foods, avoiding processed foods, and learning to identify and manage your stress triggers can help to preserve your magnesium status, it’s also important to supplement. For maximum absorption and bioavailability, look for a chelated magnesium supplement.
Schisandra has a long history of use as an adaptogen and mood lifter in Tradi- tional Chinese Medicine. Because it increases dopamine levels in the brain, schisandra is often used to enhance focus and motivation. Studies have found that this ancient herb also restricts the amount of cortisol in the brain during times of stress.
Reference: Better Nutrition Joyful Living by Gregory Jantz, PhD
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The statements in this publication have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The information contained herein is provided for educational purposes only under Section 5 of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please consult a licensed physician or other qualified health-care professional for more in-depth information or prior to taking any dietary supplements.