There’s no question we would all like to feel calm, cool, and collected every day. But stressors are a fact of life and as naturopathic physicians and parents of three young children, we get it. Juggling work, family, and other obligations is stressful. Plus, the uncertainties and disruptions of the past couple of years have really piled it on.
Yet, it’s important to recognize that stress is more than worries, fears, and ruminating thoughts. Stress can affect your mood, sleep, and cortisol levels (a marker of stress). Plus, when you’re under stress, it can take a toll on your body’s B vitamin levels, including vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), which supports your body’s response to stress.
The fact is you can’t avoid stress—it’s part of the human condition. But you can learn to handle it better and, in the process, improve your health, well-being, and peace of mind. Here are our top strategies for mitigating stress.
Exercise—And the Healing Power of Nature
Physical activity is one of the most powerful stress relievers out there. In addition to releasing tension from your muscles, exercise reduces stress by stimulating your body’s production of feel-good endorphins. It also improves sleep, mood, and self-confidence.
Whenever possible, exercise outdoors. A brisk 20-minute walk or jog can make a real difference in how you feel. Plus, many of the outdoor activities we enjoy double as exercise, whether it’s tending your garden, taking a bike ride with your children, or playing a game of tennis or a round of golf.
Exercise aside, simply being outside relieves stress. There is incredible healing power in nature. Gazing at the sky, feeling the warmth of the sun, listening to the birds in nearby trees… All of these sights and sounds calm and reawaken the mind and help to put your stress into perspective.
Go on a News/Social Media Diet
Back in the day, if you wanted to know what was going on in the world, you had to read a newspaper or watch the evening news. Now, our phones, news feeds, and 24-hour cable news stations bombard us day and night with things to worry about and react to. No wonder so many people are feeling stressed out!
There are also links between social media and stress. Social media was likely intended to connect us to one another, but it can have the paradoxical effect of fostering disconnection and more stress. Scores of studies have found that excessive use of social media platforms can have an adverse effect on psychological health.
Limit the time you spend consuming news and scrolling through social media channels. You want to be informed and feel connected, yet not overloaded. And make a point to put away phones, tablets, etc., at a reasonable hour. At our house, we unplug at least an hour before bed.
The Balm of Sleep
Everybody knows that stress affects sleep. We’ve all had those nights when intrusive thoughts that you just can’t turn off keep you awake. An occasional sleepless night is no big deal, but regular sleep disturbances can take a real toll on how you feel. The flip side is that finding solutions to your sleep problems will improve your resistance to stress. Plus, you’ll find it’s much easier to deal with stress after a good night’s sleep.
Aim for a regular bedtime and try to get 7–9 hours of sleep. Adopt a relaxing bedtime routine that includes turning off your digital devices. For extra support, take 2 mg of melatonin and 100 mg of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Lavender can also help. You can combine these nutrients on your own, or to make it even easier, you can find them all in Sleep Tight.
Meditation: The Ultimate Stress Buster
Thousands of scientific papers have confirmed the power of meditation to reduce stress. This ancient practice has been shown to support healthy levels of cortisol and help to promote a feeling of calm and wellbeing. You can meditate at any time, but we try to fit in a 20-minute meditation in the morning before the day gets underway. This isn’t always possible with three kids, but by making it a priority, we are usually able to make it happen.
If you’re new at meditation, it can be a bit daunting at first. A good way to get started is to try some of the smartphone apps that walk you through breathing exercises and guided meditations.
- Adapt to Stress with Ashwagandha: Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an herb that is classified as an adaptogen. It helps your body adapt to stress by supporting healthy cortisol levels and balancing other aspects of the stress response. What is great about ashwagandha is that you can actually feel it working as it enhances your mood and helps your sleep and focus. Suggested dosage: 125+ mg daily.
- Boost Your Mood with Saffron: Although saffron is best known as a culinary spice, concentrated saffron extract has been shown to improve stress, fatigue, occasional anxiousness, and irritability. It also helps to regulate mood changes associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS). In addition to boosting mood, saffron helps to support sleep as well. Suggested dosage: 30 mg daily.
- Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5): You don’t hear about it often, but vitamin B5 plays an important role in supporting your body’s response to stress. Plus, it helps to generate cellular energy within your body. To support a healthy stress response, we highly recommend supplementing with vitamin B5. Suggested dosage: 30 mg daily.
Once again, you can combine these nutrients on your own—or to make it easier (and less stressful for you!) you can find them all in Keep Calm.
Back to the Basics: Diet & Stress
You know that too much caffeine can make you feel edgy and anxious, but coffee isn’t the only dietary item that can elevate your stress level. Sugar is a major culprit. When you’re feeling stressed, it’s easy to reach for a cookie or candy bar for a mood and energy boost.
Unfortunately, that sugar high is followed by a drop in blood sugar, which means you’ll likely need another quick fix. It’s a tough cycle to break and one that many of us have experienced. Alcohol poses a similar problem. You may feel that a drink will calm you down and help you relax, but it’s a risky way to deal with stress.
So, what should you eat? High-fiber, low glycemic foods that help keep blood sugar on an even keel. Fresh fruits and vegetables. High-quality protein. Olive oil and other healthy fats. In other words, the same nutrient-dense “real” foods that engender optimal health.
Make Stress Management a Priority
Hans Selye, the endocrinologist who first described the effects of stress on the human body, said, “It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it.”
We all need to take this to heart and prioritize stress management. None of the above suggestions for handling stress are difficult or tedious. All they require is a little time and attention—a small price for better health and peace of mind.