Easing stress safely and naturally

Most of us consider mild or occasional stress a “fact of life” in our fast-paced society, and to some degree, our bodies are built to handle it. However, when stress is extreme and prolonged, our adrenal glands run in overdrive and produce hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that can damage organs and upset body systems until serious disease or complete exhaustion sets in.

There are a number of ways to help reduce stress, the most important being to find ways to calm the mind, manage time, improve relationships, eat well and exercise. There are also some herb-based supplements that may help ease stress and support the adrenal glands.

Rhodiola: This herb is considered an adaptogen — a substance able to increase the body’s resistance to stress, and to enhance physical and mental functioning. A number of studies now support rhodiola’s role in attenuating stress. In one of these, medical students who took rhodiola during a stressful exam period reported a better sense of general well being and also performed better on tests of mental and psychomotor performance. In another study, military cadets performing 24-hour duty exhibited significantly reduced mental fatigue, as measured by a number of performance tasks.

Other adaptogenic herbs may be used to support the adrenal glands and reduce stress, including Chinese and Siberian ginseng, schizandra and ashwagandha.

5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan): 5-HTP is a derivative of the amino acid tryptophan and is used by the body to make serotonin — the “good mood” hormone. Unfortunately, the stress hormone cortisol impairs the conversion of tryptophan to 5-HTP, which means less serotonin can be made. By supplementing with 5-HTP (made from the seeds of an African plant called Griffonia simplicifolia) you provide the body with extra building materials for optimum serotonin production. The result is improved sense of well being. Research suggests that other complaints linked to low serotonin — including migraines, fibromyalgia, obesity and PMS — also benefit from 5-HTP.

L-Theanine: This amino acid found in green tea is ideal for stressed people who have trouble sleeping and who wake up feeling exhausted. Experiments show that L-theanine increases brain levels of dopamine and GABA, both of which promote relaxation and a sense of well being — without causing drowsiness. One study showed that it increases the generation of alpha brain waves, considered to be an index of relaxation. L-theanine works quite quickly, generally in about 30 minutes, and no drug interactions are known.

Sources: Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (2nd Ed) by M Murray and J Pizzorno, Prima:1998; The Healing Power of Vitamins, Minerals and Herbs, Reader’s Digest:1999; An A-Z Women’s Guide to Vibrant Health by L Vanderhaeghe, Health Venture, 2004; Ask the Doctor: L-Theanine for Relaxation and Stress by M Laux, ND (www.atdonline.org)