On its way to shortening your life span, excess stress can make your belly bigger, your brain smaller, and life less enjoyable. A little bit of stress can be beneficial, and even fun; however, chronically inhabiting a misguided fight-or-flight neurological state shuts down many of the body’s maintenance and repair systems.
There is no replacement for lifestyle changes and more healthful habits. However, nutritional and herbal supplements can offer some immediate symptomatic relief and assist in reducing the long-term negative effects of stress on our bodies and minds.
It is far above my pay-grade to recommend or prescribe any supplement. While this list is not a complete offering of what is available, hopefully these overviews can highlight possibilities for your own research and consultation with your healthcare provider. This article is not intended to be medical advice.
Most of one’s supply of this neurotransmitter is manufactured within the brain. Inhibitory in nature, GABA quite literally calms the brain down. People with insomnia, epilepsy, anxiety and other brain disorders may not maintain high enough levels of GABA.
Valium, alcohol, and cannabis, all work in part by manipulating GABA levels, or its effectiveness. The mechanism by which supplemental GABA acts is not completely understood, but it appears that it may work to lower anxiety levels, improve mood, and lessen premenstrual symptoms without actually crossing the blood/brain barrier.
Most GABA supplements are synthesized in the laboratory, however the Natural Factors brand PharmaGABA is cultured from Lactobacillus hilgardii, the same bacterium used to make the fermented food kimchi. Eating unpasteurized fermented foods like kimchi, kefir, miso and sauerkraut can also offer one an external supply of GABA. Additionally, those Lacto bacteria can take up residence in the gut, continuing to positively affect brain function.
Naturally occurring L-theanine is almost exclusively found in tea plants, composing 1% to 2% of their dried weight. L-theanine can increase the brain’s levels of GABA and dopamine, promotes restful sleep when taken at bedtime, and can assist in stimulating alpha brain waves like those brought on by meditation, without causing drowsiness. Taken in conjunction with caffeine, L-theanine limits its stimulating effects, while improving mental acuity and working memory. In chewable form, L-theanine can take effect as rapidly as in five minutes and last for 8 to 10 hours. The FDA classifies L-theanine as a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) ingredient.
Considered one the most important Ayurvedic herbs, tulsi is also my personal favorite. I often begin and end my day with tulsi tea, popping a couple New Chapter extract capsules when the going gets tough. A tonic, anti-inflammatory, and adaptogenic herb, tulsi may decrease the production of the stress hormone cortisol, and can also lower blood sugar. Taken as a capsule, tincture, or tea, some of tulsi’s effects can be felt immediately, while others tend to become more apparent after regular use. Those who find the relaxing qualities of tulsi to border drowsiness may enjoy one of the many tulsi/green tea combinations available in tea bags from Organic India, or available in bulk from the Wellness department.
Another herbal adaptogen, ashwagandha has been found to lower levels of cortisol in humans, and in animal studies promoted the reconstruction of damaged nerve cells and synapses, reducing stress-imposed neural damage by as much as 80%. Research continues into the possible long-term protection from, and reversal of, degenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are critical in normal brain function, taking an important role in the composition of nerve cell membranes. Low levels of these fatty acids have been associated with anxiety, ADD, and depression. The most concentrated source of DHA and EPA available from the Co-op is the Willy Street Co-op Omega Once Daily, an omega supplement molecularly distilled from Peruvian sardines and anchovies.
An option that is closer to a “whole food” is the salmon oil from New Chapter. It provides not only the essential DHA and EPA, but also 15 other omega oils in their ratios naturally found in salmon. Processed at low temperatures and stabilized with extracts of oregano and rosemary, this oil’s vitamin D content is also preserved.
The oils of walnuts, hemp seeds and flax seeds also help boost levels of essential fatty acids. They supply ALA, which the body can partially convert to DHA and EPA.
One of the dangerous effects excess stress is reduced immunity. When one’s fight or flight response is engaged, the body diverts resources from this non-immediately-essential function. Genetically, humans are closer to mushrooms than any other kingdom, and share the risk of infection from many of the same microbes. To protect themselves, mushrooms produce a wide array of antibiotics. Humans can benefit from these antimicrobial agents, especially when many different mushrooms are combined, as each species targets different microbes. The Host Defense Stamets 7 formula contains an equal measure of reishi, maitake, cordyceps, royal sun blazei, lion’s mane, chaga, and mesima mushrooms, and may work to support general immunity.
The Host Defense brand was founded by renowned mycologist Paul Stamets. Their methods regularly return to nature to renew the genetics of their sustainably grown myco-medicine. In addition to human medicine, Stamets has pioneered mushroom-based bioremediation techniques that can quickly transmute toxic wasteland into fertile soil. Using fungi’s ability to break down carbon/hydrogen bonds, they can neutralize many petroleum and chemical pollutants. His TED talk video, “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World,” is an eye-opening primer to his research.
Work at a Co-op
While reading up on the science of stress, I was reminded of two long-term scientific studies on socially stratified groups. Stanford University neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky’s study of a troop of baboons, and the Whitehall study, which followed 18,000 British civil servants. Each study found levels of stress hormone, and stress-related diseases to be reflective of an individual’s rank within the group. The further down the hierarchical hill, the more stuff rolled at them, and the less control they had over their situation. Those near the bottom were left overweight, sick, and stressed-out. I wonder if the cooperative model, and its focus on participatory management might help to mitigate the effects of rank-based stress. So far, I believe the anecdotal information points to yes! Thank you, dear reader, for supporting that ongoing experiment!