Stress is an unavoidable part of life, and while some stress is OK or even healthy, it becomes an issue when that stress turns chronic—or long-lasting. Chronic stress can disrupt sleep and mess with the immune, digestive, reproductive, and cardiovascular systems.
However, there are a lot of things you can do to combat stress naturally. Of course, the goal isn’t to get rid of stress completely (that would be a losing battle) but to find ways to minimize and manage it:
There are clear physical benefits to exercise (weight loss, improved heart health, etc.), but movement has mental benefits as well.
Exercise produces endorphins—chemicals in the brain that make you feel good—which help decrease tension, elevate mood, improve sleep, and boost self-esteem. All these are factors that can lead to reduced stress. In addition, research has found that exercise can increase emotional resilience, or the way you handle stress.
While structured gym time is great, Samantha Boardman, M.D., a clinical instructor in psychiatry and attending psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College, recommends building regular activity into your daily routine as well.
Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park farther away in the parking lot. Get off the subway one to two stops earlier and walk the rest of the way to your destination. Just five minutes of exercise can help stimulate stress-reducing effects.
Hemp oil extract is becoming increasingly popular due to its many potential benefits, especially when it comes to stress, but there is still some confusion surrounding the plant extract.*
To clarify, hemp oil is extracted from the hemp plant for its beneficial compounds called phytocannabinoids, like CBD. While hemp and cannabis are technically the same plant species, hemp extract contains less than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive compound associated with marijuana, so it is legal in all 50 states.
The phytocannabinoids in hemp have many beneficial properties, including stress management.* Studies show that the phytocannabinoids in hemp oil extract support the activity of the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, two brain structures involved in stress, by attaching to specialized receptors in the body.*
When you’re stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. While cortisol is OK, and even good in small amounts, having too much in your body for too long can lead to chronic inflammation—the underlying cause of various health problems from heart disease to non-alcoholic fatty liver to depression.
In one study, researchers reported that regular meditation can help improve emotional reactivity—or the way you respond to stress—which, in turn, reduces cortisol levels and inflammation. Researchers from this study also compared meditation to other forms of stress relief, like physical activity and music therapy, and found that while they all had a positive effect on cortisol levels, meditation seemed to help the most.
Adaptogens are herbal supplements named after their ability to help you “adapt” to stress.*
They help support your adrenal glands, the endocrine glands near your kidneys that produce and release stress hormones, including cortisol.*
One study found that participants who took 300 milligrams of full-spectrum ashwagandha, one of the most well-known adaptogens, twice a day experienced significant and positive impacts in both cortisol levels and symptoms of stress and reported improved quality of life.*
But while ashwagandha might be one of the most common options, other highly effective adaptogens you can try are:
- Rhodiola Rosea
- Asian Ginseng
The olfactory nerve, which travels from your nose to your brain, gives you your sense of smell, of course, but it also plays a role in regulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The nerve sends signals to your brain that affect the limbic system and amygdala, parts of the brain that affect your emotions and mood (as well as memory).
Some active compounds in essential oils, the foundation of aromatherapy, trigger the olfactory nerve to shut down signaling, which produces a calming effect in the brain that extends to the rest of your body, too.
Lavender essential oil, specifically, has been found to improve mood and help calm your nervous system down—all factors that play a role in the alleviation of stress. In addition, frankincense has been shown to reduce cortisol and decrease inflammation.
Some other essential oils you can try for stress relief are:
- Ylang Ylang
- Clary Sage
- Sweet Basil
- Holy Basil
Although it’s become more mainstream in the Western world in the last decade or so, yoga has been used in India as a form of mind/body medicine for nearly 4,000 years. While yoga can certainly stretch your muscles and make you more physically fit, it’s even more beneficial for your mind.
Yoga helps moderate the nervous system, balance hormones, and regulate nerve impulses, three factors that can help reduce stress levels, making you better equipped to handle stressful situations. A regular yoga practice can also reduce blood pressure and heart rate, lower cortisol and inflammation, and promote beneficial changes in the brain.
The act of sipping on a hot cup of tea is relaxing in itself, but the tea leaves in your cup can have a major impact on your stress levels from a physiological standpoint, too.
In one study, researchers kept track of cortisol levels in two groups of men. They had one group drink black tea four times a day for six weeks. The other group drank a placebo. Both groups were then purposely subjected to stressful events to see how they responded.
After the six-week period, the tea-drinking group showed lower cortisol levels than the placebo group. The tea drinkers were also able to recover from stress more quickly. Another study that looked at green tea reported similar results.
But it’s not just tea leaves that can be beneficial. Many teas are made with herbs, like lavender or chamomile, which have also been shown to have stress-relieving properties. If you’re looking for an herbal tea to help lower your stress levels, some good choices are:
- Lemon Balm
Hops may be most well known as one of the main ingredients in beer, but the plant has also been used as an herbal remedy for stress and sleep-related disorders for centuries.*
While hops don’t appear to lower cortisol levels directly, the bitter acids that give them their signature taste have a calming effect that can help alleviate stress and the muscle tension that comes along with it.*
In addition, hops can interact with the neurotransmitter GABA.* GABA plays a role in brain signaling and nervous system activity and can contribute to an overall calming effect.*
Hops may also promote good sleep quality, and better sleep means more balanced cortisol levels.*
Since alcohol can have a negative effect on stress by increasing cortisol levels, it’s best to forgo the beer and get your hops from nonalcoholic sources, like herbal teas or supplements.*
While most of the research on kava kava, another herbal medicine, has been done on participants with generalized anxiety disorder, the herb shows some promise for helping to manage stress, even if you don’t have GAD.*
Similar to how hops promote a sense of calm, kava kava interacts with GABA receptors in your brain, affecting nervous system activity and helping to calm you down.* Kava kava also helps block the activity of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that can act as a stress hormone in your body, and interferes with your body’s sodium/potassium channels, reducing muscle contractions and serving as a muscle relaxant.*
According to one meta-analysis, kava kava is so good at calming you down that it’s considered a comparable alternative for benzodiazepines, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and other antidepressants in the treatment of stress- and anxiety-related disorders.* Of course, you always want to talk to your doctor before using any natural treatments in place of your medication.
Caffeine is the world’s drug of choice, with 80% of adults regularly consuming the stimulant. While caffeine does have some positive effects, like enhanced alertness, better mood, and improved exercise performance, it has some downsides too, especially if you drink too much.
In one study, researchers gave healthy men and women varying doses of caffeine at different times and found that the caffeine spiked cortisol levels throughout the day. The researchers were also interested to see whether or not participants could build a tolerance to caffeine that would eventually prevent these increases in cortisol. They found that while the cortisol responses were less severe over time, they never fully went away.
Caffeine can also interfere with sleep. According to another study, caffeine reduces the quality of your sleep by as much as 10% and the amount of sleep you get by almost 40%. And these effects can persist for three to five days after you’ve consumed it.
Although there are many different sources of caffeine, coffee tends to be the major contributor to a high caffeine intake. While moderate consumption is OK, it becomes a problem when the amount of caffeine you’re getting equals the amount in two to three cups of coffee. And that number drops for people who are more sensitive to caffeine.
It’s best to stick to no more than 200 milligrams—the amount in around 16 ounces (or Starbucks’ Grande size)—per day or switch to a caffeine-free alternative. If you’re addicted to caffeine or currently consuming well over the recommended limit, Ellen Vora, M.D., a holistic psychologist with a functional medicine approach to mental health, recommends gradually reducing your overall caffeine consumption and cutting off your intake earlier in the day, by 11 a.m. or 12 p.m. at the latest.
Although you can’t avoid stress completely, there are lots of things you can do, like exercise, meditation, and taking targeted herbal supplements, to deal with it naturally.* For most people, the best defense against stress is a multifaceted, holistic approach that combines several of these strategies.
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.
And are you ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.