Biological stress manifests itself as physical or mental tension in response to physical, mental or emotional cues. Stress can be caused by external inputs like the environment in which we find ourselves, physical activity, social situations and so on, or by internal inputs that result from external inputs, for instance in rumination, anxiety and so on.
Contrary to how it might feel in the moment, stress can be useful. Stress can give us information that helps us to better deal with challenging times, typically producing a “fight or flight” response that mobilises energy, heightens our awareness and sharpens our focus to help better deal with the situation at hand. Stress becomes problematic as soon as it goes from being acute, and so relating to a specific situation, to chronic stress wherein you continually are exposed to, and feel stress with insufficient recovery time between instances.
Examining stress has never been more relevant than at this very moment, gripped as we are by the novel coronavirus COVID-19. The lifestyles we have become accustomed to are being challenged daily, and we are suddenly facing psychological stress through concerns over health, finance and the health and financial situations of those close to us. If that wasn’t enough, we also face physical stress through inadequate diet and poor sleep. This is even before we consider the chronic stress that a pandemic can induce, manifesting itself through anxiety and depression, the return of common complaints like irritable bowel syndrome, along with ongoing health complaints like obesity, type II diabetes and hypertension.
In these times we can control our diet, activity levels and sleep, but we cannot control psychological stress, no matter how hard we try. While the first ports of call in managing psychological stress are typically lifestyle changes, and in some cases, psychological interventions, there are some supplements we can turn to in order to help us manage stress effectively. Serotonin support supplements can be helpful in improving mood overall, for instance, and so can supplements mixing zinc and magnesium, both of which are essential for neurotransmitter production and effective functioning.
A herb used in traditional medicine for centuries in India. Ashwagandha sits among herbs and compounds known as ‘adaptogens’. Adaptogens are non-toxic substances that help increase our body’s ability to resist the damaging effects of chronic stress.
The mechanisms that drive adaptogens are not well understood, but the prevailing theory is that they increase our non-specific resistance to stress by increasing our ability to adapt to stressors. Ashwagandha is thought to be one of the most effective adaptogens, providing the largest boost to stress resistance.
A 2009 study by Salve et al. reported that healthy participants reporting high levels of stress had significantly reduced perceived stress scores and cortisol levels with daily doses of 250mg and 600mg of ashwagandha compared to a placebo. They also experienced significant improvements in the quality of their sleep.
Another popular adaptogenic herb associated with reduced fatigue and exhaustion in prolonged stress episodes. The specific mechanisms that drive rhodiola are different to that of ashwagandha, though the overall impression is similar – creating more robust resistance to stress by reducing its chronic side effects.
Darbinyan carried out a double blind randomised control trial in 2000, asking doctors to take 170mg of rhodiola daily. It goes without saying that doctors are maybe the most likely candidates to regularly experience stress-induced fatigue, so to see significant antifatigue effects in this sample carries more weight than it would in a sample of average people. As an added benefit, rhodiola was also found to improve work-related task performance by as much as 20%.
An amino acid not typically gained in the diet, but easily found in green tea alongside caffeine. L-theanine is known to promote relaxation without fatigue or drowsiness, allowing it to act as a potential anti-anxiolytic and sleep aid.
Studies investigating the effect of L-theanine are few and far between, however, Lu et al. (2004) found that 200mg of L-theanine prior to relaxed and anxiety-inducing situations in turn produced a significant relaxing effect compared to a placebo and comparable drugs. It did not, however, impact anticipatory anxiety.
No matter which supplement you choose to try for yourself, no one will be a silver bullet in managing stress. What they can do is work as a single effective tool in an arsenal of techniques and strategies you put in place to manage the day-to-day stressors of life. So take some time to experiment, see how supplements like these work for you, and let us know how you get on.