Building Natural Resilience Towards Stress
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What’s in your stress-support toolkit?
"Health is the ability to adapt to one’s environment” George Canguilhem
Chronic stress has sadly become a hallmark of 21st century life and is a common underlying cause of many of the chronic diseases that have become so prevalent in our modern world. And not only does ongoing stress increase the risk of health problems in the longer term; day-to-day living with chronic stress can be miserable and difficult to cope with in the short term too. In this article we take a closer look at stress; what happens when acute stress becomes chronic and highlight the tools you can use to help shift the vicious cycle of chronic stress into a positive spiral of building resilience instead.
When acute stress becomes chronic…
‘Stress’ is a normal part of life. And we are brilliantly adapted to deal with acute stress. When faced with an emergency situation our bodies respond by making physiological changes to enable us to ‘fight or take flight’; changes such as increased heart rate, raised blood sugar and increased blood flow to the muscles - changes that are intended to increase our chances of survival. This stress response is designed to be short-lived, and once the threat has passed, the body then responds by initiating physiological changes to restore its normal ‘rest and digest’ state.
Unfortunately, many of the stressors we face today are not short-lived. And often they don’t require us to actually spring to action to ‘fight or take flight’ either. Most 21st century stressors tend to be more of the persistent mental, psychological and emotional type of stress, or the insidious chronic overwhelm, strain and burnout type of stress. Whilst our stress response works brilliantly for an acutely stressful situation; if the stressor persists and is ongoing or chronic, our stress response stays switched on and can start to work against us. We are not designed to be constantly in a ‘fight or flight’ state and over time this has damaging effects on our health.
Lifestyle changes take time and patience
We know chronic stress isn’t good for us, yet dealing with it can feel like a bit of a mountain to climb. It requires a multi-faceted approach which includes, first and foremost, taking steps to identify and reduce stressors. It’s important to be realistic and gentle however; it can be a real challenge to make the significant lifestyle changes that are often needed, and it’s important to be patient too, because big changes take time.
Using your stress-support toolkit to build resilience
Whilst getting to work on these changes, it’s useful to consider the nutritional, botanical and herbal ingredients that might provide help in the interim. Think of these like your stress-support toolkit - we have an incredible wealth of naturally effective tools at our fingertips; nutrients and ingredients that may help to calm things down, quieten the stress response, buffer the damaging effects of stress, brighten mood, improve sleep, bring clarity of mind and help to cope in the short term. Not only may this help with feeling a bit better and building stress resiliency, it can also help to increase motivation and inner resources to help actually make the changes that are needed. Your stress-support toolkit is there to help interrupt the vicious cycle of chronic stress and transform it into a positive spiral of increased resilience instead.
“Your stress-support toolkit is there to help interrupt the vicious cycle of chronic stress and transform it into a positive spiral of increased resilience instead.”
What’s in your stress-support toolkit? Let’s take a closer look:
Humans are one of only a few species that can’t make vitamin C, and we only have very limited capacity to store it too, so it’s crucial we regularly include good sources in our diets. Vitamin C is found in very high concentrations in the adrenal glands, is used up during the stress response and has a critical role to play in stress regulation. Supplementation of vitamin C in human and animal models is associated with a decreased cortisol response after a psychological or physical stressor, thus it is reasonable to conclude that vitamin C may be linked to a more balanced cortisol output.
Often nicknamed ‘nature’s tranquiliser’ magnesium has important roles to play in supporting mood, balance, calm, relaxation and restful sleep. Acute stress has been shown to be associated with increased plasma magnesium levels and increased urinary excretion of magnesium. As with most physiological responses, there’s actually a protective reason why magnesium shifts from the intracellular to extracellular space during acute stress; initially this shift helps to diminish the adverse effects of stress. But when stress is prolonged and becomes chronic, this results in gradual loss of magnesium and negative consequences for health. In addition, chronic stress is known to be a significant risk factor for mental illness and there is substantial evidence to support the use of magnesium in stress-related illness and mental health. Not only is magnesium used up rapidly during times of stress, but a typical Western diet is often low in this important mineral too, which further compounds the problem. Magnesium is thus an essential supplement to consider for anyone suffering from chronic stress.
B vitamins are often nicknamed ‘anti-stress’ nutrients for their powerful ability to balance mood and calm the nervous system. They are water-soluble and need to be regularly included in the diet, yet typical Western diets often don’t contain enough. Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) is particularly important during times of stress; it is needed as a co-factor for the production of stress hormones and forms the molecular core of Co Enzyme A, which is required for hundreds of biochemical reactions, including the synthesis of neurotransmitters. Vitamin B5 also helps to support cognitive health and mental performance.
Is a relaxing, health-promoting amino acid found in tea. Studies have shown that when L-theanine is absorbed by the body, it can help to bring about an alert, yet totally relaxed state of mind. When Japanese tea-drinkers refer to the ‘tea-mind’; it is this particular state of tranquillity brought about by L-theanine to which they are referring. L-theanine may help to support balance and improve sleep quality.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
A citrus-scented herb which is widely revered for its many culinary and therapeutic uses. It has a wide range of potential beneficial effects including stress-relief, anti-anxiety, sleep, mood and cognitive function support. Studies have demonstrated beneficial effects of lemon balm supplementation in volunteers suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances. Additional research has also demonstrated potential benefits for mood, cognitive performance, neuroprotection and restlessness.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha has a long history of traditional use in supporting stress. Traditional Ayurvedic medicine describes it as a safe and effective adaptogen (a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress) and it is widely used to promote stress relief, health and longevity. The health effects of ashwagandha are often attributed, at least in part, to its regulatory effects on the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis and research has shown that supplementation with ashwagandha may help to bring common markers of chronic stress (such as cortisol, DHEA and C-Reactive Protein) back into balance.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Has long been used as an adaptogen, both as a tonic and a rejuvenator; it may help to modulate the HPA axis and may also help to protect against the wider effects of chronic stress such as inflammation, anxiety and depression.
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)
Is a medicinal mushroom with a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to promote health, longevity and athletic power due to its tonic effect, antioxidant effects and ability to reduce fatigue. Research has also demonstrated beneficial effects of cordyceps on HPA axis regulation, stress, mood and protection against oxidative stress.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
And last but most certainly not least, reishi is often referred to as ‘the king of mushrooms’, and is one of the longest-used and best-studied medicinal mushrooms. It contains around 400 different bioactive compounds, is considered an adaptogen, has demonstrated calming effects on the nervous system and has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, neuro-protective, mood-supportive, anti-hyperglycaemic and immune-modulating properties. Studies have also found that reishi may help to improve sleep quality.
Building stress resilience with natural support
For anyone struggling with chronic stress, taking the first steps to deal with it may seem like a bit of a mountain to climb. The good news though is that adding in key nutrients and ingredients is actually a fairly simple start. Think of the group of nutrients and ingredients highlighted here a bit like a multivitamin to support stress; they are safe to be taken longer term in supplement form and can provide background support whilst lifestyle changes are put into place. Building resilience to stress takes time and know-how; hopefully this article has given you some useful tools to help you along the way.
Find out more about diet, lifestyle and supplement strategies to support HPA regulation in our fully referenced functional medicine guide here
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