Hardly a day goes by when you’re not reminded of the importance of “chilling out” and learning how to let go of stress…or at least find healthier ways of wading through it. There’s a good reason for this.
All stressful situations trigger a cascade of hormonal and physiological changes in your body. When it senses a perceived threat, the body’s sympathetic nervous system causes the adrenal glands to release various hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. These are what cause your skin to get pale and sweaty, your heart rate and blood pressure to spike, your pupils to dilate, and your muscles to start trembling when you find yourself in a sticky situation.
Known as the “fight or flight” response, these reactions are normal and designed to help you deal with a threat (fight) or flee to protect yourself (flight). Once things quiet down, the hormones and symptoms subside over a couple of minutes or hours and things return to normal.
Back in prehistoric times, the fight or flight response enabled people to survive wild animal attacks and other life-threatening events. But these days, this overblown bodily process tends to cause more problems than it solves.
Thankfully, we don’t typically encounter wild animal attacks (or similar threats) in our daily lives—at least not on a regular basis. Rather, today’s stressors tend to be related to the twists and turns of everyday life, whether it’s short term (like a looming deadline at work or a frustrating traffic jam) or long term (such as a health concern, marital strain, or financial woes).
The thing is, your body’s response is just as powerful and acute. And, physiologically, this constant stress response elicits a steady, nonstop release of hormones from your adrenal glands. The most concerning is cortisol.
To be fair, short-term bursts of cortisol help the body survive periods of acute stress. Cortisol raises blood sugar which provides energy, and pulls minerals from bones so that they can feed the muscles, prepping them in case they need to be used for defense.
However, with chronic stress, cortisol levels never get a chance to fully dissipate and return to normal. Constantly elevated cortisol can result in some serious problems, including elevated blood sugar, weight gain/fat accumulation, high blood pressure, and loss of bone and muscle mass. Over the long term, it increases risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other debilitating conditions.
The fact is, we will never be able to fully eliminate all stressors from our lives. Work will always have deadlines. Traffic will always be a problem. For some, chronic disease is a daily battle that doesn’t go away. For others, money or marital problems simply can’t be resolved overnight.
But we can do the next best thing: Lessen the dangerous effects of cortisol.
Increasing Your Resistance to Stress
When it comes to combatting the dangers associated with stress, supplements called adaptogens can offer remarkable powers.
Adaptogens are plant extracts that boost your resistance to the effects of stress, in part by targeting the hormones released by your adrenals (including cortisol). As their name suggests, adaptogens allow your body to adapt – mentally, physically and emotionally – to situations and pressures, without disrupting other biological functions.
There are several different adaptogens that have been shown to help ease the body’s reaction to stress, including:
- Ashwagandha. In a study of 64 people with a history of chronic stress, participants received either Ashwagandha or placebo for 60 days. Results showed that those taking the herb had substantially reduced blood levels of cortisol compared to the placebos, and also an improvement in stress-related symptoms.1 The recommended dose is 250–500 mg daily.
- Rhodiola rosea has been proven to decrease cortisol secretion during stressful events. In one study, researchers reviewed the available literature to “reach a clinically meaningful strategy for prevention and treatment of persistent stress symptoms and their consequences…” They concluded that Rhodiola rosea influences the release of stress hormones and offers comprehensive treatment of stress symptoms while also preventing stress-related complications.2 Daily dosages range from 200–600 mg.
Other important tools in the fight against stress are amino acids—in particular GABA and L-theanine.
GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric acid) is naturally produced by the brain and acts as a calming neurotransmitter. GABA steps in at the conclusion of a stressful event and helps release serotonin and other “feel good” hormones that ease stress and anxiety.
Supplementing with GABA has been shown to increase alpha waves in the brain, which are associated with calmness and peace. The recommended daily dosage of GABA is 100 mg.
Likewise, L-theanine is a calming amino acid. In an interesting study of 34 adults, a drink containing L-theanine was found to significantly lower stress one hour after consumption. Salivary cortisol levels also fell three hours after participants drank the beverage.3
Taken in supplement form, the recommended daily dose for L-theanine is 200 mg.
You can take these nutrients individually, or you can look for stress-relief products that combine various adaptogens and GABA/L-theanine into one formula.
Like it or not, stress is a part of life. You can’t always control the circumstances that cause you to be stressed out, but you can take control of how you react to them. Give these supplements a try, and be patient as in some people they take a few days or weeks to fully take effect.
- Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, and Anishetty S. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012 Jul;34(3):255-62.
- Anghelescu IG, et al. Stress management and the role of Rhodiola rosea: a review. Int J Psychiatry Clin Pract. 2018 Jan 11:1-11.
- White DJ, et al. Anti-Stress, Behavioural and Magnetoencephalography Effects of an L-Theanine-Based Nutrient Drink: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial. Nutrients.2016 Jan 19;8(1).