It’s hard to imagine anyone living a modern lifestyle that doesn’t experience a level of stress. Whether it’s our life at home, work-related stress, relationships with friends and family, or just reading the news every day, situations we encounter inevitably raise our stress levels. As the world is dealing with the ramifications of the pandemic, stress levels have gone up with increased social isolation, a feeling of not being in control of our own lives, shortages of supplies, and worrying about how to keep ourselves and our kids safe. Stress levels may, in fact, be at an all-time high!
As our bodies experience stress on a constant basis, those acute or one-time stressors turn into more chronic stress. We are built to handle a certain amount of stress and its effects well; however, when that stress becomes chronic, our bodies fail to keep up with their coping measures and fall into a state of exhaustion. Life requires balance, and the body can only handle so much.
The mental effects of stress are well-known. Mental stress symptoms often manifest as changes in mood, worrying, a sense of panic and anxiety, depression, sadness, and irritability. However, chronic stress can lead to physical manifestations as stress impacts the function of organs and systems outside of the brain. This can include physical stress symptoms such as general aches and pains, muscle tension, chest discomfort, headaches and dizziness, high blood pressure, digestive problems, sleep issues, low energy, decreased immune function, and many other physical health issues. Since the effects of stress are so broad, supporting the body’s ability to cope with stress is imperative.
How to Reduce Stress
Lifestyle tactics to cope with stress are essential. Take the time to practice breathing exercises or meditation, allowing the body down time to regenerate and rejuvenate. Ensuring you get adequate sleep is essential. Supporting the body in what it needs to sleep well means that it has time to repair and heal itself, allowing it to effectively face the stressors of the next day. In addition to lifestyle modifications, what we eat is crucially important. Eating highly processed, calorie-rich but nutrient-poor foods aggravates the experience of stress on our bodies. How we eat also matters. Eating too quickly and multi-tasking while eating is unhelpful as the body can’t focus on the nourishment it receives and is distracted by additional things that add to our sense of stress.
Getting the body the nutrients it needs is also critical for stress management. Several vitamins and minerals are needed by the body to be able to effectively counter the effects of physiological stress. This is another reason why a nutrient-rich diet is important. In this realm, several supplements for anxiety and stress are also helpful for supporting the body’s stress response. Two of our favorite supplements for stress are the mighty mineral magnesium and the rejuvenating adaptogenic herb, ashwagandha.
Magnesium Stress Relief Benefits
Magnesium is one of the most critical minerals needed by the body to function daily. Over 300 enzymes participating in crucial metabolic functions require magnesium as a cofactor to fulfill their role. However, more than half of the US population fails to consume the recommended daily intake of magnesium.
An interesting benefit of magnesium with respect to its ability to support the stress response is its influence on cognitive function and mental health. Its contribution to mood health was highlighted by a review paper looking at 18 different clinical trials centering around anxiety. The review found magnesium intake had significant benefits for reducing anxiety and the authors of the review attributed this benefit to magnesium’s effect on neurotransmitter function in the brain, facilitating nerve cell signaling and improving the efficiency of brain function.
Magnesium deficiency is also an important factor in individuals experiencing symptoms of depression. A recent study assessed the relationship between magnesium levels and depression. Researchers looked at the medical records of 3,604 adults with an average age of 62 and found that low blood levels of magnesium were a significant predictor of depression, indicating the benefits of magnesium for healthy mood.
Magnesium also supports the production of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and in other studies has been found to reduce inflammation in the body, as shown by its ability to lower C-reactive protein, a marker for systemic inflammation. As inflammation is a key contributor to the effects of stress as well as related health conditions, magnesium could prove to be an essential tool to reduce these effects on the body.
In addition, magnesium plays an integral role in relieving the physical manifestations of stress. It supports cardiovascular health, normalizes blood pressure and blood vessel function, and supports muscle contraction and relaxation. Magnesium facilitates muscles to relax properly. Adequate magnesium levels are needed to decrease intracellular calcium levels and effectively relax muscle tissue. This occurs both in skeletal muscle as well as in smooth muscle, where adequate magnesium levels facilitate the relaxation of arteries, allowing arteries to open and enhancing blood flow.
Muscle spasms or leg cramps are often a sign of magnesium deficiency and related to the impact of stress on the body. Studies suggest that supplementing with magnesium can help to reverse this.
Whether it is the muscles or the mind, magnesium serves the body by exerting calming effects. Aging is a significant factor for magnesium deficiency symptoms while stress and other mental health issues as well as poor sleep indicate an increased need for magnesium by the body. Magnesium is essential for nerve transmission and regulating the excitability of the central nervous system. It also supports the action of gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is the body’s main inhibitory (or relaxing) neurotransmitter and plays a crucial role in supporting sleep and calming stress and anxiety. By supporting GABA, magnesium stress relief benefits include calming excitable nerves, supporting healthy sleep, mood, and relaxation, relieving the overall effects of stress on the brain.
Magnesium reduces the psychological response to stress by working on the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis to decrease the production of ACTH and cortisol, two hormones that are key to the body’s stress response. In doing so, adequate magnesium levels support a healthy stress response.
Ashwagandha Stress Relief Benefits
The ashwagandha plant is a botanical that is well-renowned in the Ayurvedic medical tradition where it is classified as a rasayana. To Ayurvedic practitioners this means that it has a reputation for invigorating the body and contributes to healthy aging. Ashwagandha has a documented history of use dating to 6000 BC and is widely used to benefit numerous health conditions. Often called Indian ginseng, ashwagandha falls into the category of adaptogens, herbs that help the body adapt to stress and contribute to a feeling of balance. Traditionally, this balancing property is what lends to its ability to support health.
Studies on ashwagandha indicate that it contains compounds known as withanolides, the plant’s active components. These compounds are found in the roots and leaves of the plant. A placebo controlled clinical trial conducted using an extract of ashwagandha from the roots and leaves found significant benefits for reducing the effects of stress and enhancing mood. The ashwagandha stress supplement was administered daily in participants experiencing chronic stress for a period of 60 days. The study included 130 participants and found that ashwagandha extract had significant benefits over placebo for reducing stress levels, reducing serum levels of cortisol, reducing inflammation by lowering C-reactive protein (CRP), and reducing blood pressure levels. Ashwagandha benefits further included a lowering of fasting blood sugar and cholesterol levels. This study showed that ashwagandha creates a sensation of balance and equilibrium in the body by addressing the mental effects of stress on the brain and is also an effective remedy for the physical effects of stress on the body. Balancing levels of the stress hormone cortisol and reducing overall inflammation leads to a protective effect on the cardiovascular system, which was shown by ashwagandha’s ability to support healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Given these actions on the brain and body, the balancing adaptogen ashwagandha holds significant promise for stress relief by bolstering the body’s overall stress resilience and supporting health.
In addition to lifestyle and dietary practices, stress relief supplements can provide useful support. Supplementing with ashwagandha and magnesium can be an effective supportive measure for stress management. Both are excellent tools for supporting today’s always-on lifestyle.
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