Stress is our body’s natural response to an external stimulus that we’re not 100% prepared for. We feel it in varying degrees and the level of stress we experience is proportional to how large the stimulus is and how prepared we are for it. The stimuli can disturb either our physical or mental state or a combination of both. Our body’s stress response is typically hormone related and can cause fluctuations in our adrenaline and cortisol levels, which will eventually be felt physically and cognitively.
While the term often carries a negative connotation, not all stress is bad. During times of ‘acute stress’, it helps kick our bodies into ‘fight-or-flight’ which puts our bodies in a heightened physiological state to escape danger and/or defend ourselves. We also feel stress when something good happens in our lives. We experience it when we win a race or score a touchdown. It’s important to understand that stress isn’t inherently bad for us and managing how we experience is often just as beneficial as trying to eliminate it.
The negative side can manifest itself throughout the body. We can feel it when we get clammy hands or experience it more consistently with nagging headaches. Below is a list of how our different systems can be affected by stress:
It often begins in our nervous system, which controls the hormone levels in our bodies. When we feel stressed, our nervous system will signal our body to release certain hormones to fight off the perceived threat. These hormones will cause a cascade of effects throughout the body.
The musculoskeletal system will often experience contractions throughout the body under stress. These contractions can amount to tense muscles around areas where stress is felt (i.e. tense shoulders/neck and lower back pain). Other symptoms of stress in the musculoskeletal system is through muscle twitching or other involuntary muscle contractions (i.e. eye twitching and fidgeting).
Stress can cause you to breathe harder and faster (i.e. hyperventilation). In more serious cases, panic attacks can ensue.
Bouts with stress usually result in an increase in your heart rate and go hand-in-hand with a higher respiratory rate. Your heart tends to work harder when the body is stressed, pumping more blood throughout your body. For those of who suffer from chronic bouts of stress may also suffer from inflammation in the coronary arteries. Extreme cases could lead to heart attacks.
Generally the system responsible for kicking your body in to fight-or-flight, the endocrine system releases adrenaline which cause a series of signals throughout your body preparing it to cope with an external stimulus. While this is generally a good response when a person is in danger from an immediate threat, it’s bad to stay in state for long periods of time when there is no imminent threat.
Your appetite can both increase and decrease and people tend to vary in their response in regards to this area. One thing to be mindful of is your cravings – alcohol and tobacco usage tend to go up during periods of stress.
For men, testosterone production can get hindered during chronic stress. Stress for women can cause them to have irregular or absent menstrual cycles.
Supplements that help with stress tend to reduce our perception of stress or help us with restfulness. They tend to work by minimizing further stimulation to the brain. One important thing to keep in mind when dealing with supplements that help with stress is they tend to have negative interactions with anti-depressants and medication for ADHD. As with any supplement, it’s always good to consult with your doctor before taking.
An herb strongly associated with reducing fatiegue, rhodiola rosea is a powerful adaptogen that many swear by for dealing with ‘burnout’. As a side benefit, the research suggests that this herb increases a person’s subjective well-being and has notable effects for treating depression. As a side note, I use this herb throughout the year when I cycle off of caffeine.
Usage: Rhodiola rosea has been reported to be effective for fighting stress when taken at 300 – 700 mg per day. It is not recommended to go above 700 mg as there have not been reports of increased effectiveness at higher dosages.
Theanine is an amino acid that has ‘relaxing’ effects throughout the body. Many have found that taking theanine with their morning coffee allows them to enjoy the wakefulness from the caffeine without the ‘rush’ from it. Theanine is also found in green tea, which is a very healthy dietary inclusion. If you suffer from anxiety, theanine is a good starting point.
Usage: Theanine is relatively safe, but positive reports have been found when taken in dosages of 100 – 200 mg.
Ashwagandha is an herb commonly used in Ayurveda medicine. I’ll warn you ahead of time, this stuff smells so finding it in pill form is strongly recommended. It has similar effects as rhodiola rosea with the added bonus of slight increases in your cholesterol profile. If you found the effects of rhodiola not to your liking, give this herb a try.
Usage: Start with dosages of 300 – 500 mg and see if your stress levels decrease after a week or so. According to the latest studies, the optimal range is between 2,000 – 6,000 mg a day but supplementation can become cost prohibited at these ranges.
We all suffer from stress from time to time. If you’re finding it difficult to cope with, or just need a little help along the way, I strongly recommend that you give one of these natural supplements a try. If you suffer from extreme cases of stress where you feel it’s too overwhelming to deal with, I suggest you consult your primary physician.