By Dr. Tasneem Bhatia, Medical Director and Founder of the Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine and medical expert for ABC and Headline News. Dr. Bhatia is also Integrative Medicine adjunct faculty at Emory University.
Deadlines. Holidays. Relationship hiccups. Stress has become an unwelcome addition to our daily discourse. While it is tempting to declare one stressor more significant than another, our bodies perceive all stress equally. Cortisol levels rise, neurotransmitter levels become erratic, key nutrients are depleted, and hormone levels become difficult to predict.
Stress-management strategies are critical in maintaining wellness and disease prevention. Supplements are an easy, cost-effective method of managing stress, as long as they are targeted at the right symptoms. Many of my patients are often confused about what supplements to take. I typically encourage them to develop a supplement plan based on their symptoms.
Stress Symptom: Insomnia
Restless nights, obsessive thoughts, counting sheep. Sound familiar? Losing sleep when stressed can wear down the immune system and worsen an already crabby mood. Instead of staring at the clock, look to supplements that help coax the mind to sleep, such as:
Magnesium: This multipurpose supplement helps to relax the body while also easing anxiety. The starting dose of magnesium is usually 200 mg and is best in a glycinate or chelate form. Take at least one hour prior to bedtime.
Melatonin: For those who have trouble falling asleep, melatonin is a natural time shifter. It will help patients fall asleep and is also taken one hour prior to bedtime. It works best in a slow-release formula. The starting dose of melatonin is 1 mg. I will often combine melatonin and magnesium in patients with sleep difficulties.
Valerian Root: Unlike magnesium and melatonin, valerian root works better to maintain sleep. The starting dose is 400 mg.
Stress Symptom: Headaches
Poor sleep is not the only symptom of stress. Many patients will also complain about worsening migraines or tension headaches. My favorite supplements for headache prevention include:
B6: The B vitamins generally get depleted in stressful conditions, but vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) depletion has been linked to all types of headaches. B6 is best taken as a complex with the other B vitamins. Starting doses of 25 mg per day help to keep headaches away.
B6: Along with B6, vitamin B2 is also helpful in headache prevention. I start with 25 mg of vitamin B2 as well.
Feverfew: This headache remedy is better for migraines than for tension headaches. Feverfew is a flower, belonging to the daisy family. Most of my patients will begin with 50 mg of feverfew.
Stress Symptom: Pain
Whether it’s in your neck, shoulders or hips, stress will enhance the overall sensation of pain. Stress can create pain through stiffening muscles and joints. Keeping muscles relaxed to prevent muscular aches and pains can also prevent headaches that result from exaggerated muscle tension. Here are a few supplements that I recommend to prevent stress-related muscle stiffness and tension:
Omega-3s: The omega-3 oils (EPA and DHA) act as potent anti-inflammatories. Omega-3 fats work to lubricate both muscles and joints, thereby decreasing pain. Most of my patients take approximately 2-3 grams per day of total omega-3.
Curcumin: There are many natural anti-inflammatories that prevent worsening pain in stressful conditions. These include curcumin, willow bark and boswellia. Curcumin is extracted from turmeric and appears to boost the immune system while also preventing pain. The starting dose of curcumin is approximately 2 grams per day.
Stress Symptom: Anger, Rage and Anxiety
We all know stress worsens our moods, but chronic stress can lead to outbursts of anger or rage. These outbursts are an extreme expression of anxiety, one of the most frequent symptoms of stress. There are a number of anti-anxiety remedies, including the aforementioned magnesium.
Theanine: Found naturally in green and black tea, theanine helps to relax the mind, tuning down the desire to have an adult temper tantrum. Theanine doses begin at 200 mg per day.
Phosphatidyl Serine and Taurine: These natural anxiolytics work to increase dopamine, relaxing the central nervous system.
Stress Symptom: Poor Immunity
Many patients find that in times of stress, they are frequently ill. Stress, remember, depletes essential nutrients, wearing down the immune system.
Astragalus: This herb acts as an anti-viral, helping to fight off winter coughs and colds.
Stress Symptom: Fatigue
For many patients, stress will lead to an overwhelming sense of fatigue. Patients will complain that they cannot get out of bed and need a nap during the day. The following supplements are adaptogens, a class of herbs that help the body fight stress by reducing the production of stress hormones that result in the fight-or-flight response. Adaptogens increase the body’s natural resistance to stress. The following prevent worsening fatigue and improve energy:
Rhodiola: Known throughout Europe, this tonic herb fights fatigue, decreases stress and improves energy. Most patients start at 170 mg per day.
Ashwaghanda (Indian Ginseng): Ashwaghanda helps the body to adapt to stress and is a common Ayurvedic remedy for stress. Standard dosing is 500 mg per day.
Stress Symptom: Disruption of the Menstrual Cycle
Finally, women should remember that chronic stress eventually impacts the menstrual cycle. B vitamins and magnesium, together, will help prevent the hormonal decline that results from chronic stress.
Creating a supplement plan individualized to treat your symptoms can help minimize the negative effects of stress. I always remind my patients that in stressful times, we should double or triple our self-care. Supplements are an important piece of self-care and can help stop stress from taking over your life.