Everyday stress is a normal part of modern living. Job pressures, family arguments, financial pressures, traffic, and time management are just a few of the “stressors” we are faced with on a daily basis. Although we most often think of a stressor as being one of these examples of something that causes us to feel “stressed out,” technically speaking a stressor may be almost any disturbance — heat or cold, environmental toxins, toxins produced by microorganisms, physical trauma, and strong emotional reaction — that can trigger a number of biological changes to produce what is commonly known as the “stress response.”
Fortunately for us, control mechanisms in the body are geared toward counteracting the everyday stresses of life. Most often the stress response is so mild it goes entirely unnoticed. However, if stress is extreme, unusual, or long-lasting, these control mechanisms can be overwhelming and quite harmful.
Stress: a Healthy View
So often we think of stress as a negative in our lives, but stress is actually a good thing. Dr. Hans Selye, a Canadian researcher and father of modern stress research, developed valuable insights into the role of stress in our lives. According to Selye, stress in itself should not be viewed in a negative context. It is not the stressor that determines the response; instead it is the individual’s internal reaction, which then triggers the response. This internal reaction is highly individualized and holds the real key to the effects of stress. What one person may experience as stress, the next person may view entirely differently. Selye perhaps summarized his view best in the following
passage from his book The Stress of Life:
“No one can live without experiencing some degree of stress all the time. You may think that only serious disease or intensive physical or mental injury can cause stress. This is false. Crossing a busy intersection, exposure to a draft, or even sheer joy are enough to activate the body’s stress mechanisms to some extent. Stress is not even necessarily bad for you; it is also the spice of life, for any emotion, any activity causes stress. But, of course, your system must be prepared to take it. The same stress which makes one person sick can be an invigorating experience for another.”
The key statement Selye made may be “your system must be prepared to take it.” That is the crux of what the goals are of this booklet – to help you understand how you can strengthen your resistance to stress by giving your body (and mind) the support that it needs.
Whether you are aware of it or not, you definitely have developed a pattern for coping with stress. Unfortunately, most people have found patterns and methods that ultimately do not support good health. These include negative coping patterns like overeating, uncontrolled emotional outbursts, feelings of helplessness, having a cocktail or beer, or smoking a cigarette. It is important for you to identify any negative coping pattern and replace it with positive ways of coping. I believe that effective stress management involves four equally important areas:
- Techniques to calm the mind and promote a positive mental attitude
- Following a healthy lifestyle, including regular physical exercise
- Eating a healthy diet
- Utilizing key dietary and botanical supplements
Calming the Mind and Body
Learning to calm the mind and body is extremely important in relieving stress. Among the easiest methods to learn are relaxation exercises. The goal of relaxation techniques is to produce a physiologic response known as a relaxation response—a response that is exactly opposite to the stress response. Although an individual may relax by simply sleeping, watching television, or reading a book, relaxation techniques are designed specifically to produce the relaxation response.
Relaxation response was a term coined by Harvard professor and cardiologist Herbert Benson in the early 1970s to describe a physiologic response that is just the opposite of the stress response. With the stress response, the sympathetic nervous system dominates. With the relaxation response, the parasympathetic nervous system dominates. The parasympathetic nervous system controls bodily functions such as digestion, breathing, and heart rate during periods of rest, relaxation, visualization, meditation, and sleep. Although the sympathetic nervous system is designed to protect against immediate danger, the parasympathetic system is designed for repair, maintenance, and restoration of the body.
One of the most popular techniques for producing the relaxation response is diaphragmatic breathing. Here are the basics:
- Find a comfortable and quiet place to lie down or sit.
- Place your feet slightly apart. Place one hand on your abdomen near your navel. Place the other hand on your chest.
- You will be inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
- Concentrate on your breathing. Note which hand is rising and falling with each breath.
- Gently exhale most of the air in your lungs.
- Inhale while slowly counting to 4. As you inhale, slightly extend your abdomen, causing it to rise about 1 inch. Make sure that you are not moving your chest or shoulders.
- As you breathe in, imagine the warmed air flowing in. Imagine this warmth flowing to all parts of your body.
- Pause for 1 second, then slowly exhale to a count of 4. As you exhale, your abdomen should move inward.
- As the air flows out, imagine all your tension and stress leaving your body.
- Repeat the process until a sense of deep relaxation is achieved.
L-Theanine Promotes the Relaxation Response
L-Theanine is a unique amino acid found almost exclusively in tea plants (Camellia sinensis). In fact, L-Theanine is the primary amino acid component of green tea comprising between 1 to 2 percent of the dry weight of tea leaves. The effects of L-Theanine are truly amazing. Clinical studies have demonstrated that L-Theanine reduces stress, improves the quality of sleep, diminishes the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, heightens mental acuity and reduces negative side effects of caffeine. These clinical effects are directly related to L-Theanine’s ability to stimulate the production of alpha brain waves (a state often achieved by meditation and characterized by being relaxed with greater mental focus and mental alertness) as well as reduce beta-waves (associated with nervousness, scattered thoughts, and hyperactivity).
L-Theanine has been approved for use in Japan as an aid to conquer stress and promote relaxation. It is a very popular ingredient
in functional foods and beverages as well as dietary supplements designed to produce mental and physical relaxation, without inducing drowsiness. L-Theanine is fast-acting. Generally, the effects are felt within the first 30 minutes, and have been shown to last up to 8 to 12 hours. Based on the results of clinical studies, it has been established that L-theanine is effective in the range of 50 to 200 mg.1-3 If you have higher levels of stress take at least 100 to 200 mg one to three times daily. Although L-Theanine is safe and without any known adverse drug interactions, as a general guideline it is recommended to take no more than 600 mg within a 6 hour period and no more than 1,200 mg within a 24 hour period.
Your lifestyle is a major determinant of your stress levels. In addition to negative coping patterns, ineffectively diffusing stress and failure to employ techniques that promote the relaxation response, the other primary lifestyle issues that greatly add to reducing a person’s ability to deal with stress are poor time management, relationship issues, lack of physical exercise, and poor sleeping habits.
The immediate effect of exercise is stress on the body. However, with a regular exercise program the body adapts, and exercise becomes an effective stress reduction technique. With regular exercise, the body becomes stronger, functions more efficiently, and has greater endurance. Exercise is a vital component of a comprehensive stress management program and overall good health.
People who exercise regularly are much less likely to suffer from fatigue and depression. Tension, depression, feelings of inadequacy, and worries diminish greatly with regular exercise. Exercise alone has been demonstrated to have a tremendous effect in terms of improving mood and the ability to handle stressful life situations.
Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Over the course of a year, over one-half of the U.S. population will have difficulty falling asleep. About 33% of the population experiences insomnia on a regular basis. Many use over-the-counter sedative medications to combat insomnia, while others seek stronger drugs. Insomnia can have many causes, but the most common reasons are depression, anxiety and tension. If psychological factors do not seem to be the cause, caffeine and medications may be responsible. Well over 300 drugs have been identified that can interfere with normal sleep.
Common Causes of Insomnia
- Anxiety or tension
- Environmental change
- Emotional arousal
- Fear of insomnia
- Fear of sleep
- Phobia of sleep
- Disruptive environment
- Pain or discomfort
Special Dietary Supplements to Promote a Good Night’s Sleep
There are a number of special natural products that I have found to be extremely reliable in helping to improve sleep quality. Here are the best of the bunch:
- Melatonin is an important hormone secreted by the pineal gland, a small gland in the center of the brain. Melatonin is one of the best aids for sleep. In several studies, supplementation with melatonin has been found helpful in inducing and maintaining sleep in both children and adults, for both people with normal sleep patterns and those suffering from insomnia.4-6 However, it appears that the sleep-promoting effects of melatonin are most apparent only if a person’s melatonin levels are low. In other words, taking melatonin is not like taking a sleeping pill or even 5-HTP. It will only produce a sedative effect when melatonin levels are low. A dosage of 3 mg at bedtime is more than enough. I prefer products in the form of sublingual (under the tongue) tablets.
- 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is converted in the brain to serotonin – an important initiator of sleep. 5-HTP has also been reported, in numerous double- blind clinical studies, to decrease the time required to get to sleep and to decrease the number of awakenings.7-9 Because tryptophan is currently available only by prescription, 5-HTP is an obvious substitute. The sedative effects of 5-HTP can be enhanced by taking it near bedtime with a carbohydrate source such as fruit or fruit juice. The recommended dosage is 50 to 100 mg.
- L-Theanine is an important consideration when trying to get a better night’s sleep. At typical dosages, e.g., 100 to 200 mg L-Theanine does not act as a sedative, but it does significantly improve sleep quality.1 It is an excellent support agent to melatonin and 5-HTP. In fact, Natural Factors® makes a fantastic tasting chewable tablet called Tranquil Sleep that provides L-Theanine in combination with 5-HTP and Melatonin. These ingredients exert synergistic effects to promote restful sleep. NOTE: At higher single dosages, e.g. 600 mg, L-Theanine does exert sedative action.
Dietary Guidelines for Reducing Stress
As Hans Selye stated, whether or not stress is harmful is based on the strength of the system. From a purely physiologic perspective, it can be strongly argued that delivery of high-quality nutrition to the cells of the body is the critical factor in determining the strength of the system. When the eating habits of Americans are examined as a whole, it is little wonder that so many people are suffering from stress, anxiety, and fatigue. Most Americans are not providing their bodies with the high-quality nutrition they need. Instead of eating foods rich in vital nutrients, most Americans focus on refined foods high in calories, sugar, fat, and cholesterol.
One of the key culprits for many people who are stressed out is caffeine. The average American consumes 150 to 225 mg of caffeine daily, or roughly the amount of caffeine in two cups of coffee. Although most people can handle this amount, some people are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine than other people. Even small amounts of caffeine can affect sensitive people, whereas those with normal sensitivity respond to large amounts. Excessive caffeine consumption can produce “caffeinism characterized by symptoms of depression, nervousness, irritability, recurrent headache, heart palpitations, and insomnia.” People prone to feeling stress and anxiety tend to be especially sensitive to caffeine.
In addition to eliminating or restricting caffeine, here are some other very important guidelines for supporting the body’s stress response:
- Eliminate or restrict the intake of alcohol.
- Eliminate refined carbohydrates from the diet, especially sources of white sugar and white flour.
- Increase the potassium-to-sodium ratio by focusing on whole, natural foods.
- Eat regular planned meals in a relaxed environment.
Key Vitamins and Mineral Supplements to Fight Stress
Key nutrients especially important for supporting adrenal function are vitamin C, vitamin B6, zinc, magnesium, and pantothenic acid. All of these nutrients play a critical role in the health of the adrenal gland as well as the manufacture of adrenal hormones. During stress, the levels of these nutrients in the adrenals decrease substantially.
For example, during chemical, emotional, psychological, or physiologic stress, the urinary excretion of vitamin C is increased. Examples of chemical stressors are cigarette smoke, pollutants, and allergens. Extra vitamin C in the form of supplementation is often recommended to keep the immune system working properly during times of stress. Rather than taking nutrients separately, I recommend taking a high potency multiple vitamin and mineral formula such as the MultiStart® formulas that I designed for Natural Factors.
Fish Oils, the Stress Response, and Brain Function
The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA from fish oils are extremely critical for proper brain function. Researchers have linked low levels of these omega-3 fatty acids to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, and other psychological/psychiatric disorders. The importance of omega-3 fatty acids to brain function relates to their role in the composition of nerve cell membranes.
For general health, I recommend taking a high quality fish oil product providing at least 1,000 mg per day of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. The specific product that I recommend is RxOmega-3 Factors from Natural Factors, a true pharmaceutical grade fish oil. Each capsule provides 400 mg of EPA and 200 mg of DHA, so taking two capsules daily meets the necessary daily dosage.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a natural calming and anti-epileptic agent in the brain. In fact, it is one of the brain’s most important regulators of proper function and neurotransmitters. It appears that many people with anxiety, insomnia, epilepsy, and other brain disorders do not manufacture sufficient levels of GABA. Many popular drugs such as Valium, Neurontin, Baclofen, and Valproate act by increasing the effects of GABA within the brain.
Since GABA does not cross the blood-brain barrier very well, virtually all of the GABA found in the brain is manufactured there. This fact implies that supplemental GABA would not increase levels of GABA in the brain. That appears to be the case with synthetic GABA, but not with PharmaGABA a special form of GABA naturally manufactured from Lactobacillus hilgardii – the bacteria used to ferment vegetables in the preparation of the traditional Korean dish known as kimchi. Unlike chemically produced, synthetic GABA, PharmaGABA appears to be able to cross the blood brain barrier to produce relaxation.
Like L-Theanine, PharmaGABA increases brain alpha waves and lowers beta- waves. However, it is more powerful in this action compared to L-Theanine, hence, its effects are a bit more noticeable. Clinical studies with PharmaGABA have yielded some very interesting results. For example, one study had subjects who were afraid of heights transverse a long walking suspension bridge that spanned a 150 foot canyon.
Halfway across the bridge a saliva sample was obtained and blood pressure was determined. What the researchers were looking for in the saliva was the level of secretory IgA – an important antibody in saliva that helps fight infection. Typically, during times of stress saliva levels drop, sometimes quite precipitously. This event happened when the subjects were given a placebo, but when they were given PharmaGABA the secretory IgA levels in the saliva were maintained halfway across the bridge and actually increased upon completion of the crossing.10
The recommended dosage schedule for PharmaGABA is similar to L-Theanine, i.e., it produces rapid results (especially in a chewable tablet form) and can be used whenever someone feels a bit “stressed out.” However, since GABA is more powerful than L-Theanine (about 2.5 times), its effective dosage is a bit lower. For higher levels of stress or nervousness, take at least 100 to 200 mg. PharmaGABA is safe and without any known adverse drug interactions. As a general guideline it is recommended to take 100 to 200 mg one to three times daily.
Key Botanical Medicines
There is a long list of botanical medicines useful in dealing with stress, anxiety, insomnia, and supporting the adrenal glands. Botanical medicines that support adrenal function are among the most used. Most notable are the ginsengs. Both Chinese ginseng
(Panax ginseng) and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) exert beneficial effects on adrenal function and enhance resistance to stress. These ginsengs are often referred to as “general tonics” or “adaptogens.”
The term general tonic implies that an herb will increase the overall tone of the whole body. The ginsengs are also often referred to as “adrenal tonics” because they improve the tone and function of the adrenal glands. The modern term adaptogen is a more descriptive word used to describe the general tonic effects of Siberian and Chinese ginseng. An adaptogen is a substance with the following characteristics:
- Demonstrates nonspecific effects, such as increasing resistance to physical or biological stressors.
- Possesses a normalizing influence on the body.
- Does not disturb body functions already within the normal range.
- Must be very safe.
- Restores vitality in debilitated and feeble individuals.
- Increases feelings of energy.
- Improves mental and physical performance.
- Prevents the negative effects of stress and enhances the body’s response to stress.
Sensoril is a patented proprietary extract of roots and leaves from Withania somnifera, a plant known as Ashwagandha in Ayurvedic medicine and also referred to as the Ayurvedic adaptogen. Developed by researcher Dr. S. Ghosal, Sensoril was the result of intense scientific investigations on the anti-stress action of various compounds in Withania somnifera. Sensoril is standardized to contain the proper amounts of the compounds glycowithanolides, Withaferin-A, and oligosaccarides that research has shown to promote optimal anti-stress activity.
Sensoril is derived from the freshly harvested roots and leaves of specially cultivated Withania somnifera obtained from the Northern regions of India. The roots used in Sensoril are from plants not more than two years old as roots from older plants, which are generally used in many commercially available extracts of Ashwagandha, may contain very little, if any, glycowithanolides (the known anti-stress actives).
Sensoril works with the body’s natural biological systems to help restore balance to the body and normalize body functions. It helps to increase the body’s resistance to stress and reduce physiological responses to stress events. Sensoril’s comprehensive mechanism of action, by balancing and harmonizing body systems, delivers a variety of benefits to maintaining good health.
Among other things, Sensoril:
- Helps counteract the negative effects of stress.
- Supports increased resistance to fatigue.
- Helps promote mental clarity and concentration.
- Supports healthy weight management by inhibiting stress responses that can lead to overeating.
- Helps increase resistance to stress and tension.
- Helps protect against the effects of aging by protecting against free radical damage to cells.
Lavender has long been used by herbalists as a treatment for anxiety, nervous exhaustion, and depression. Recently, this long time historical use has been verified in a detailed double-blind clinical trial.11 The findings of the study indicated that taking a moderate amount of lavender can reduce feelings of depression, anxiety and helplessness. In the study, 45 adults between the ages of 18 and 54 who were diagnosed with depression were assigned to one of three groups. The groups received either (1) lavender extract plus a placebo tablet, (2) a placebo extract plus 100 mg per day of the antidepressant drug imipramine, or (3) lavender extract and 100 mg per day of imipramine.
The study lasted for four weeks and scores from the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HAM-D), a questionnaire used to evaluate the severity of depression (higher scores suggest more severe depression), were evaluated initially and then weekly after the start of treatment.
What the results indicated was that the lavender extract was just as effective as the drug, but lavender was without the side effects common to drug treatment for depression (dry mouth, weight loss or weight gain, low blood pressure, arrhythmias, and decreased sexual function).
Effective Stress Management: Putting it All Together
The Stress-RelaxTM program from Natural Factors provides an interrelated comprehensive approach of nutritional and herbal support for a healthier, calmer life. The individual pieces of the program can be utilized according to one’s need to provide a more personalized program.
Level 1 Support
In addition to following the appropriate lifestyle and dietary approaches to stress reduction as well as regular utilization of techniques to calm the mind and body, Level 1 Support simply involves taking a high potency multiple vitamin and mineral formula like MultiStart along with two capsules of RxOmega-3 Factors daily.
Level 2 Support
Level 2 Support involves using Level 1 Support and the use of Suntheanine® L-Theanine from Natural Factors, to deal with situational stress and nervousness.
Level 3 Support
In the more anxious individual, PharmaGABA may be more effective than L-Theanine. Level 3 Support involves using Level 1 Support and the use of PharmaGABA to deal with more pervasive feelings of stress and nervousness. I also recommend two capsules of Sensoril daily for this level of support.
Level 4 Support
For people who are starting to experience or are experiencing significant signs of adrenal fatigue and generalized exhaustion, Level 4 Support is recommended. This level involves using Level 1 Support along with taking Serenity Formula from Natural Factors. This formula makes it easier to take advantage of the full spectrum of botanical support for dealing with stress. Each two capsules contain:
- Sensoril 250 mg
- Eleuthero 150 mg (standardized to contain 0.8% eleutherosides)
- Lavender extract (5:1) 150 mg
- Rhodiola rosacea extract 75 mg (standardardized to contain 3.5% rosavins)
While Suntheanine L-Theanine and PharmaGABA are useful as a quick fix for stressful situations, Serenity Formula is designed for long-term use to help build resistance and act as an adaptogen. The dosage of the formula is one or two capsules twice daily. Either L-Theanine or PharmaGABA can be used when needed to deal with immediate stress.
Tranquil Sleep can be used to provide support to any of the above described levels.
1. Eschenauer G, Sweet BV. Pharmacology and therapeutic uses of theanine. Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2006;63(1):26, 28-30.
2. Juneja LR, Chu D-C, Okubo T, et al. L-Theanine — a unique amino acid of green tea and its relaxation effect in humans. Trends Food Sci Tech. 1999; 10:199-204.
3. Kimura K, Ozeki M, Juneja LR, Ohira H. L-Theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biol Psychol. 2006;Aug 21;online ahead of press [article in press].
4. Zhdanova IV. Melatonin as a hypnotic: pro. Sleep Med Rev. 2005;9(1):51-65.
5. Buscemi N, Vandermeer B, Pandya R, et al. Melatonin for treatment of sleep disorders. Evid Rep Technol Assess. 2004;(108):1-7.
6. Brzezinski A, Vangel MG, Wurtman RJ, et al. Effects of exogenous melatonin on sleep: a meta-analysis. Sleep Med Rev. 2005;9:41-50.
7. Wyatt RJ, et al. Effects of 5-hydroxytryptophan on the sleep of normal human subjects. Electroencephalogr Clinical Neurophysiol. 1971;30:505-509.
8. Soulairac A, Lambinet H: Clinical studies of the effect of the serotonin precursor, L-5-hydroxytryptophan, on sleep disorders. Schweiz Rundsch Med Prax. 1988;77:19-23.
9. Bouchard JM, Pujol M. 5-HTP in clinical sleep disorders in humans. Psychiat. 1977;53:215.
10. Theanine – monograph. Altern Med Rev 2005;10(2):136-138.2. Abdoua AM; Higashiguchia S, Horiea K, et al. Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans. BioFactors 2006;26:201–208.
11. Akhondzadeh S, Kashani L, Fotouhi A, et al. Comparison of Lavandula angustifolia Mill. tincture and imipramine in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized trial. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2003;27:123-7.