“Stressed out” is a common phrase these days. While some stress is healthy, unwanted stress can be harmful. According to research or other evidence, the following self-care steps may be helpful.
Get some extra C
Help normalize stress-hormone levels by taking 1 to 3 grams of vitamin C every day
Relax with rhodiola
Taking 170 mg a day of a standardized herbal extract during stressful phases may improve your feelings of well-being and support mental function
Work in a workout
Improve your resistance to stress by enjoying routine aerobic exercise
Participate in a program
Find a stress-reduction program that includes group counseling, instruction in coping skills, relaxation training, and other helpful techniques
Check out tyrosine
Occasionally taking this amino acid before a stressful activity can help maintain your mental capacity; calculate 150 mg for every 2.2 lbs of body weight and split into two doses (take the second dose 40 to 90 minutes after the first)
About This Condition
The popular idea of stress in relation to human health is often described as an unpleasant mental or emotional experience, as when people say they are “stressed out.” This expression relates primarily to the idea of prolonged or sudden and intense stress, which can have unpleasant effects on the body, impairing the ability to function, and even harming health.1, 2, 3 However, the biological concept of stress is much more broadly defined as any challenge (physical or psychological) that requires an organism to adapt in a healthy manner. In other words, responses to stress can sometimes be of benefit when the organism is strengthened by the experience. The discussion below focuses on reducing the effects of excessive, unwanted stress.
While cigarette smokers often describe their habit as relaxing, smoking is associated with increased stress levels,39 and stopping the habit eventually results in reduced feelings of stress.40
Drinking alcohol can reduce feelings of stress,41 but using alcohol regularly in response to chronic or repetitive stress can lead to an unhealthy dependency.
Exercise has long been thought to have potential benefits to mental health and stress reduction;42, 43 however, exercise can also be stressful when it is intense or competitive.44, 45 Many preliminary studies have found that regular exercisers score better on measures of psychological well-being and perceived stress,46, 47, 48, 49, 50 and that people who improve their exercise habits develop changes in their mental attitudes that are associated with better resistance to stress.51 A controlled trial found that a single session of aerobic exercise reduced the anxiety associated with a subsequent experience designed to be psychologically stressful.52 However, studies of overall aerobic fitness have found that people with higher fitness levels are not different from those with lower fitness in their resistance to stress. One preliminary study gave aerobically fit and unfit women a mentally stressful test, and found no differences between them in physical or psychological measures of their stress reaction.53 Another preliminary study found that while physical activity was associated with reduced stress symptoms, having high aerobic fitness had no influence.54 This may mean that effects other than improved aerobic fitness, such as an improved self-image or the social support from belonging to an exercise group, are responsible for the benefits of exercise on controlling stress. A preliminary study in Thailand found that postmenopausal women who completed an aerobic exercise program consisting of 40- to 50-minute sessions twice weekly for 12 weeks had improved scores on a questionnaire designed to measure psychological stress.55 In a controlled trial, cancer patients hospitalized for chemotherapy who exercised for 30 minutes daily until discharge had significant improvement in several measures of psychological distress, while a similar group who did not exercise showed no change in these measures.56 In a controlled trial, 10 weeks of aerobic exercise resulted in healthier responses to acute mental stress in college students compared with students who did no exercise.57
Mind-body medicine is a branch of healing that focuses on the role of thoughts and emotions on physical health. Many techniques used in this healing system, including biofeedback, relaxation training, tai chi, yoga, and meditation, which affect the nervous system in ways that could theoretically help people cope with stress.58 In a controlled trial, tai chi practice, meditation, walking exercise, and quiet reading all resulted in similar biochemical and psychological improvements in the response to a stressful experience.59 Meditation, practiced for spiritual reasons, for relaxation, or as part of the treatment of a disease, has been reported helpful for stress reduction in preliminary studies.60, 61, 62 A controlled study found 15 minutes of meditation twice a day reduced measures of stress in adolescents during two experiences designed to produce stress.63 Other controlled studies have found reductions in reported stress and related psychological measures after a program of meditation.64, 65
Stress reduction programs involving combinations of group counseling, instruction in coping skills and problem-solving, relaxation training, meditation, or other methods are effective for reducing stress and helping to prevent or manage health problems relating to stress, according to preliminary and controlled research.66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71
The right diet is the key to managing many diseases and to improving general quality of life. For this condition, scientific research has found benefit in the following healthy eating tips.
Focus on flaxseed
Flaxseed, a good source of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, has been shown to reduce the blood pressure–elevating effect of stress in one study.
Flaxseed is a good source of fiber and alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and is a major source of lignans that may influence hormone function. A controlled study found that adding 30 grams per day of freshly ground flaxseed to the diets of postmenopausal women reduced the blood pressure–elevating effect of mental stress and reduced stress-related changes in fibrinogen, a blood component associated with increased risk of heart disease.72 However, flaxseed had no significant effect on blood levels of an adrenal stress hormone.
Our proprietary “Star-Rating” system was developed to help you easily understand the amount of scientific support behind each supplement in relation to a specific health condition. While there is no way to predict whether a vitamin, mineral, or herb will successfully treat or prevent associated health conditions, our unique ratings tell you how well these supplements are understood by the medical community, and whether studies have found them to be effective for other people.
For over a decade, our team has combed through thousands of research articles published in reputable journals. To help you make educated decisions, and to better understand controversial or confusing supplements, our medical experts have digested the science into these three easy-to-follow ratings. We hope this provides you with a helpful resource to make informed decisions towards your health and well-being.
3 StarsReliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.
2 StarsContradictory, insufficient, or preliminary studies suggesting a health benefit or minimal health benefit.
1 StarFor an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support.
150 mg for every 2.2 lbs (1 kg) of body weight, split into two doses taken before stressful activitiy (take the second dose 40 to 90 minutes after the first)
Occasionally taking this amino acid before a stressful activity may help maintain your mental capacity.
Tyrosine is an amino acid used by the body to produce certain adrenal stress hormones and chemical messengers in the nervous system (neurotransmitters). Animal research shows that brain levels of these substances decline with stress, and that giving animals tyrosine supplements reverses this decline and improves various tests of performance in stressed animals.73 In a controlled study, a protein drink containing 10 grams per day of tyrosine was more effective than a carbohydrate drink for improving mental performance scores in a group of cadets taking a stressful six-day combat training course.74 A double-blind trial in humans found that one-time administration of 150 mg of tyrosine per 2.2 pounds of body weight helped prevent a decline in mental performance for about three hours during a night of sleep deprivation.75 Single administrations of tyrosine (100 to 150 mg per 2.2 pounds of body weight) have also helped preserve mental performance during physically stressful conditions such as noise or extreme cold in several controlled studies.76, 77, 78, 79
170 mg daily of a standardized herbal extract
Rhodiola has been shown to promote feelings of well-being and support mental function.
The herbs discussed here are considered members of a controversial category known as adaptogens, which are thought to increase the body's resistance to stress, and to generally enhance physical and mental functioning.80, 81 Many animal studies have shown that various herbal adaptogens have protective effects against physically stressful experiences,82, 83 but whether these findings are relevant to human stress experiences is debatable.
Animal studies have demonstrated protective effects of rhodiola extracts against physical stresses.84, 85, 86 A double-blind study of healthcare workers experiencing the stress of night duty found that taking 170 mg per day of a standardized rhodiola extract prevented some of the decline in a set of mental performance measures during the first two weeks. However, when this regimen was repeated after a two-week period of not taking the extract, rhodiola did not provide protection from mental performance decline.87 In another double-blind study, 100 mg per day of the same extract was given to medical students during a stressful exam period. Those taking the extract reported a better sense of general well-being, and performed better on tests of mental and psychomotor performance.88 A third double-blind study of military cadets performing a 24-hour duty showed that 370 to 555 mg of rhodiola extract per day significantly reduced mental fatigue, as measured by several performance tasks.89 Another double-blind trial confirmed the effectiveness of rhodiola for the treatment of stress-related fatigue.90
1 to 3 grams daily
Studies have shown that supplementing with vitamin C helps to normalize stress-hormone levels.
Animal studies suggest that supplementing with vitamin C can reduce blood levels of stress-related hormones and other measures of stress.91, 92, 93, 94 Controlled studies of athletes have shown that vitamin C supplementation (1,000 to 1,500 mg per day) can reduce stress hormone levels after intense exercise.95, 96 Surgery patients given 2,000 mg per day of vitamin C during the week before and after surgery had a more rapid return to normal of several stress-related hormones compared with patients not given vitamin C.97 In a double-blind trial, young adults took 3,000 mg per day of vitamin C for two weeks, then were given a psychological stress test involving public speaking and mental arithmetic.98 Compared with a placebo group, those taking vitamin C rated themselves less stressed, scored better on an anxiety questionnaire, had smaller elevations of blood pressure, and returned sooner to lower levels of an adrenal stress hormone following the stress test.
Take an extract supplying at least 1.6 mg daily of ginsenosides, along with a multivitamin
Supplementing with Asian ginseng has been shown to enhance feelings of well-being and improve quality of life in some studies.
The herbs discussed here are considered members of a controversial category known as adaptogens, which are thought to increase the body's resistance to stress, and to generally enhance physical and mental functioning.99, 100 Many animal studies have shown that various herbal adaptogens have protective effects against physically stressful experiences,101, 102 but whether these findings are relevant to human stress experiences is debatable.
Animal studies support the idea that Asian ginseng is an adaptogen.103 Some studies have suggested that Asian ginseng can enhance feelings of well-being in elderly people with age-associated memory impairment,104 nurses working night shifts,105 or people with diabetes.106 In a double-blind trial, people taking a daily combination of a multivitamin-mineral supplement (MVM) with 40 mg of ginseng extract (standardized for 4% ginsenosides) for 12 weeks reported greater improvements in quality of life measured with a questionnaire compared with a group taking only MVM.107 The same MVM-ginseng combination was tested in a double-blind study of night-shift healthcare workers.108 Compared with a placebo group, the group receiving the MVM-ginseng combination improved on one out of four measures of mental performance, one out of three measures of mood (increased calmness, but no change in alertness or contentment), and a measure of reported fatigue. However, in another double-blind study, healthy adults given 200 or 400 mg per day of a standardized extract of Asian ginseng (equivalent to 1,000 or 2,000 mg of ginseng root) showed no significant improvement in any of several measures of psychological well-being after two months.109
1.5 to 1.8 grams daily
Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA, may help improve responses to stress.
Animal and human studies suggest that deficiencies of omega-3 fatty acids may contribute to behaviors associated with unhealthy responses to stress.110, 111 A double-blind study of students with a low dietary intake of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid) reported that taking 1.5 to 1.8 grams of DHA per day for three months prevented an increase in aggressiveness in these students during a stressful final exam period.112 This group of researchers reported in another double-blind study that 1.5 grams per day of DHA given to medical students during a stressful exam period resulted in changes in some, though not all, blood measurements indicating improved responses to stress.113
2 to 3 grams per day of powdered root for 6 to 8 weeks, then stop 1 to 2 weeks, then resume if desired
Eleuthero appears to have antistress effects. Supplementing with an eleuthero extract led to higher quality-of-life measures in healthy elderly people, according to one study.
The herbs discussed here are considered members of a controversial category known as adaptogens, which are thought to increase the body's resistance to stress, and to generally enhance physical and mental functioning.114, 115 Many animal studies have shown that various herbal adaptogens have protective effects against physically stressful experiences,116, 117 but whether these findings are relevant to human stress experiences is debatable.
Animal research has reported antistress effects of Eleutherococcus senticosus (also known as Siberian ginseng),118 and Russian research not available in the English language reportedly describes human studies showing similar effects in humans.119, 120 A double-blind study of healthy elderly people reported that those who took 60 drops per day of a eleuthero liquid extract (concentration not specified) scored higher in some quality-of-life measures after four weeks, but not after eight weeks, compared with a group taking a placebo.121 Athletes experiencing the stress of training who took an eleuthero extract equivalent to 4 grams per day had no changes in their blood levels of an adrenal stress hormone after six weeks.122 More research is needed to clarify the value of eleuthero for treating stress.
Follow label directions
Several studies have shown that a daily multivitamin-mineral supplement may help people better cope with chronic stress by improving concentration, mood, and energy levels.
When asked why they are taking nutritional supplements, combating stress is one of the most common reasons given by people.123, 124, 125 Despite this popular attitude, human research on the effects of supplements on stress is sparse and conflicting.126 While there are animal studies and preliminary human reports suggesting that many vitamins are important for protecting the body from the consequences of physical stresses such as surgery,127 evidence supporting the use of vitamins to combat everyday stress is somewhat limited.
Several studies have evaluated a daily supplement of vitamin B1 (15 mg), vitamin B2 (15 mg), vitamin B3 (50 mg), vitamin B6 (10 mg), vitamin B12 (10 mcg), vitamin C (500 mg), pantothenic acid (23 mg), folic acid (400 mcg), biotin (150 mcg), calcium (100 mg), magnesium (100 mg), and zinc (10 mg) for combating stress effects. People participating in preliminary trials of this combination have reported some benefits that relate to the effects of chronic stress, including improved concentration, better mood, and less fatigue.128, 129, 130 A small double-blind study of this combination reported no significant psychological benefits relating to stress.131 However, in a larger double-blind trial with healthy young men, this supplement resulted in significantly less anxiety and perceived stress according to some measurements after one month, though other stress-related symptoms did not improve.132 Another large, double-blind study of people experiencing high stress levels found this combination significantly helpful after one month according to several measures of anxiety, well-being, and psychological stress.133
Stress is understood to have a detrimental effect on the balance of intestinal bacteria,135, 136 but whether probiotic supplements improve the ability to handle stress is unknown. In a six-month preliminary trial, a multivitamin-mineral (MVM) supplement that also contained a blend of Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and Bifidobacterium longum was effective for improving scores on a stress questionnaire.137 However, this improvement could have been a placebo effect or could have been due to the MVM component. Controlled research comparing MVM supplements with and without added probiotics is necessary to determine whether probiotics are helpful for treating stress.
Refer to label instructions
Ashwagandha may be helpful for reducing the effects of stress, including chronic psychological stress.
The herbs discussed here are considered members of a controversial category known as adaptogens, which are thought to increase the body's resistance to stress, and to generally enhance physical and mental functioning.138, 139 Many animal studies have shown that various herbal adaptogens have protective effects against physically stressful experiences,140, 141 but whether these findings are relevant to human stress experiences is debatable.
Animal studies have suggested that ashwagandha may be helpful for reducing the effects of stress,142, 143, 144 including chronic psychological stress.145 However, no controlled research has been done to explore these effects in humans.
An herbal formula from the Ayurvedic medicine tradition, containing extracts of ashwagandha, asparagus, pueraria, argyreia, dioscorea, mucuna, and piper, has been studied as an aid to coping with the stress of military combat. A double-blind study found that soldiers performed similarly in a set of mental and psychological tests after an eight-day combat mission whether they were given two capsules daily (exact content not revealed) of this formula or a placebo.146 This suggests there was no real benefit of the herbal formula under these conditions.
Refer to label instructions
Studies have shown that maca can reduce the negative effects of stress.
The herbs discussed here are considered members of a controversial category known as adaptogens, which are thought to increase the body's resistance to stress, and to generally enhance physical and mental functioning.147, 148 Many animal studies have shown that various herbal adaptogens have protective effects against physically stressful experiences,149, 150 but whether these findings are relevant to human stress experiences is debatable.
Animal studies have shown that maca can reduce the negative effects of stress; however, whether maca is effective in humans is unknown.151
Refer to label instructions
Probiotic supplements may help counteract stress’s detrimental effect on the balance of intestinal bacteria.
Stress is understood to have a detrimental effect on the balance of intestinal bacteria,152, 153 but whether probiotic supplements improve the ability to handle stress is unknown. In a six-month preliminary trial, a multivitamin-mineral (MVM) supplement that also contained a blend of Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and Bifidobacterium longum was effective for improving scores on a stress questionnaire.154 However, this improvement could have been a placebo effect or could have been due to the MVM component. Controlled research comparing MVM supplements with and without added probiotics is necessary to determine whether probiotics are helpful for treating stress.
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The information presented in Aisle7 is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires June 2014.
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