Feeling irritable? Exhausted? Having trouble sleeping? You’re not alone. Nearly half of the 1,791 people polled in the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey say they’re more stressed than they were a year ago.
“Today’s economy is stressing people out, and stress has been linked to a number of illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and increased risk for cancer,” says Jason Block, MD, MPH, a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar at Harvard. One new study even links stress with weight gain.
Your Body on Stress
“Mild stress acts as a useful motivation for activity and productivity,” says integrative physician Elson M. Haas, MD. But too much “can generate many symptoms and diseases, mediated by changes in immune function, hormonal response, and biochemical reactions,” which then impact the cardiovascular, digestive, neurological, or musculoskeletal systems.
“The brain and pituitary gland respond to stress by releasing adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH),” Dr. Haas adds. “This stimulates the adrenals to increase production of the hormones epinephrine [aka adrenaline], norepinephrine, and cortisol,” as well as other hormones that influence metabolism and water balance. During extreme stress, the adrenal glands ramp up our ‘fight or flight’ reaction, sharpening the senses and raising the heart rate (so we can protect ourselves), while slowing digestion to as more important functions take over. But you pay a price: Adrenaline increases blood pressure, straining the heart, and raises blood sugar, increasing metabolic rate. Over time, our ability to cope with stressors—and to bounce back after a crisis—can be compromised.
Feed Your Adrenal Glands
If you’re stressed out these days, your adrenal pilot light is probably burning 24/7, says Suzy Cohen, RPh. You may experience body aches, digestive distress, fatigue, nervousness, and sleep disturbances—all signals that you need to slow down, rest, and recharge, particularly your adrenal glands. Otherwise, “your pilot light blows out and your adrenals come very close to stopping production,” she explains.
Eat a healthy, whole-foods diet, making mealtime as relaxed as possible. Avoid coffee, colas, and other stimulants that may pick you up temporarily, only to let you down in a big way later, as well as refined carbs that only increase blood sugar imbalances.
Antioxidants A, C, E, selenium, and zinc are commonly depleted during stress; replenish them with a high-quality daily multivitamin/mineral. Vitamin C offers cellular protection and immune support, while allowing the adrenals to produce more cortisone and epinephrine. Because this antioxidant is rapidly utilized and little gets stored in the body, take 1 to 2 grams, in divided doses, every day you’re feeling stressed.
In one recent study, the B vitamin choline (a precursor for acetylcholine in the central nervous system) was inversely associated with anxiety. Dr. Haas recommends taking more than the RDA for all the easily depleted B vitamins in two divided doses during the day—but not after dark as they may prevent sleep.
Restore Balance with Herbs
In addition many botanicals support the adrenals, balance neurotransmitters, relieve anxiety, and ease you into restful sleep. Medicinal plants that enhance our resistance to stress while increasing concentration and endurance, adaptogens are most effective.
Scientific evidence is strong for Rhodiola rosea and good for Eleutherococcus senticosus (formerly known as Siberian ginseng) and Schisandra chinensis. But since conventional medicine barely recognizes adrenal fatigue, don’t expect to find numerous double-blind, placebo-controlled trials on this class of herbs.
Respected herbalists, however, have long recognized their balancing benefits. “When stress stops, adaptogens help the adrenal glands shut down more quickly,” explains David Winston, RH (AHG). These herbs also support adrenal function by allowing cells in the body access to more energy and by preventing oxidative damage.
For overall adrenal support, he recommends American ginseng, ashwagandha, Asian ginseng, cordyceps, dang shen, eleuthero, holy basil, jiaogulan, licorice, reishi, rhaponticum, rhodiola, and schisandra. “If you are generally fatigued yet have sleep disorders,” add herbalists Christopher Hobbs, LAc, and Kathi Keville, select herbal formulas that contain one or more of these herbs: American ginseng, Chinese wild yam, eleuthero, kudzu, licorice root, rehmannia, reishi, and schisandra. “Chronic stress and anxiety almost always affect the digestive system,” they explain, recommending taking bitters (a combination of bitter herbs that helps stimulate the process of digestion, absorption, and elimination) before meals. Look for a formula containing gentian, ginger, angelica, cardamom, artichoke leaf, and orange peel.
Traditional Chinese medicine seeks to rebalance the body by supporting digestion and the liver as well as the adrenals, making detoxification useful after intense stress. Other effective, holistic approaches include acupuncture and relaxation techniques.
“Last but not least, begin and end your day with something uplifting and spiritual that brings you outside of yourself and creates peace,” says nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS.