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Stress Less This Holiday Season

"Stressed out" is a common phrase these days, especially when the holidays approach. While some stress is healthy, unwanted stress can be harmful. According to research or other evidence, the following self-care steps may help reduce destructive stress:

  • Get some extra C: Help normalize stress-hormone levels by taking 1 to 3 grams of vitamin C every day.
  • Relax with rhodiola: Taking 170 mg a day of a standardized herbal extract during stressful phases may improve your feelings of well-being and support mental function.
  • Work in a workout: Improve your resistance to stress by enjoying routine aerobic exercise.
  • Participate in a program: Find a stress-reduction program that includes group counseling, instruction in coping skills, relaxation training, and other helpful techniques.
  • Say no to smoking: Kick the habit to keep stress in check and to avoid other health hazards.
  • Check out tyrosine: Occasionally taking this amino acid before a stressful activity can help maintain your mental capacity.

About stress
The popular idea of stress in relation to human health is often described as an unpleasant mental or emotional experience, as when people say they are "stressed out." This expression relates primarily to the idea of prolonged or sudden and intense stress, which can have unpleasant effects on the body, impairing the ability to function, and even harming health. However, the biological concept of stress is much more broadly defined as any challenge (physical or psychological) that requires an organism to adapt in a healthy manner. In other words, responses to stress can sometimes be of benefit when the organism is strengthened by the experience. The discussion below focuses on reducing the effects of excessive, unwanted stress.

What are the symptoms?
Symptoms may include anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, stomach problems, sweating, racing heart, rapid breathing, shortness of breath, and irritability. Many health problems have been associated with various kinds of sudden or long-term stress, including alcohol abuse, asthma, chronic fatigue, erectile dysfunction and male infertility, fibromyalgia, headaches, heart disease, high blood pressure, immune system dysfunction, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, peptic ulcers, pregnancy complications, rheumatoid arthritis, skin diseases, impaired wound healing, and others. Problems with recovery from surgery and impaired workplace performance are also associated with excessive stress.

Dietary changes that may be helpful
Flaxseed is a good source of fiber and alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and is a major source of lignans that may influence hormone function. A controlled study found that adding 30 grams per day of freshly ground flaxseed to the diets of postmenopausal women reduced the blood pressure–elevating effect of mental stress and reduced stress-related changes in fibrinogen, a blood component associated with increased risk of heart disease. However, flaxseed had no significant effect on blood levels of an adrenal stress hormone.

Lifestyle changes that may be helpful
While cigarette smokers often describe their habit as relaxing, smoking is associated with increased stress levels, and stopping the habit eventually results in reduced feelings of stress.

Drinking alcohol can reduce feelings of stress, but using alcohol regularly in response to chronic or repetitive stress can lead to an unhealthy dependency.

Exercise has long been thought to have potential benefits to mental health and stress reduction; however, exercise can also be stressful when it is intense or competitive. Many preliminary studies have found that regular exercisers score higher on measures of psychological well-being and perceived stress, and that people who improve their exercise habits develop changes in their mental attitudes that are associated with better resistance to stress. A controlled trial found that a single session of aerobic exercise reduced the anxiety associated with a subsequent experience designed to be psychologically stressful. However, studies of overall aerobic fitness have found that people with higher fitness levels are not different from those with lower fitness in their resistance to stress. One preliminary study gave aerobically fit and unfit women a mentally stressful test, and found no differences between them in physical or psychological measures of their stress reaction. Another preliminary study found that while physical activity was associated with reduced stress symptoms, having high aerobic fitness had no influence. This may mean that effects other than improved aerobic fitness, such as an improved self-image or the social support from belonging to an exercise group, are responsible for the benefits of exercise on controlling stress. A preliminary study in Thailand found that postmenopausal women who completed an aerobic exercise program consisting of 40- to 50-minute sessions twice weekly for 12 weeks had improved scores on a questionnaire designed to measure psychological stress. In a controlled trial, cancer patients hospitalized for chemotherapy who exercised for 30 minutes daily until discharge had significant improvement in several measures of psychological distress, while a similar group who did not exercise showed no change in these measures. In a controlled trial, 10 weeks of aerobic exercise resulted in healthier responses to acute mental stress in college students compared with students who did no exercise.

Medical management of stress includes teaching people how to avoid or cope with stressful situations and encouraging a healthful diet, good exercise habits, and adequate sleep. Those unable to find relief on their own might benefit from professional counseling.

Vitamins that may be helpful
Tyrosine is an amino acid used by the body to produce certain adrenal stress hormones and chemical messengers in the nervous system (neurotransmitters). Animal research shows that brain levels of these substances decline with stress, and that giving animals tyrosine supplements reverses this decline and improves various tests of performance in stressed animals. In a controlled study, a protein drink containing 10 grams per day of tyrosine was more effective than a carbohydrate drink for improving mental performance scores in a group of cadets taking a stressful six-day combat training course. A double-blind trial in humans found that one-time administration of 150 mg of tyrosine per 2.2 pounds of body weight helped prevent a decline in mental performance for about three hours during a night of sleep deprivation. Single administrations of tyrosine (100 to 150 mg per 2.2 pounds of body weight) have also helped preserve mental performance during physically stressful conditions such as noise or extreme cold in several controlled studies.

Animal studies suggest that supplementing with vitamin C can reduce blood levels of stress-related hormones and other measures of stress. Controlled studies of athletes have shown that vitamin C supplementation (1,000 to 1,500 mg per day) can reduce stress hormone levels after intense exercise. Surgery patients given 2,000 mg per day of vitamin C during the week before and after surgery had a more rapid return to normal of several stress-related hormones compared with patients not given vitamin C. In a double-blind trial, young adults took 3,000 mg per day of vitamin C for two weeks, and then were given a psychological stress test involving public speaking and mental arithmetic. Compared with a placebo group, those taking vitamin C rated themselves less stressed, scored better on an anxiety questionnaire, had smaller elevations of blood pressure, and returned sooner to lower levels of an adrenal stress hormone following the stress test.

Animal and human studies suggest that deficiencies of omega-3 fatty acids may contribute to behaviors associated with unhealthy responses to stress. A double-blind study of students with a low dietary intake of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid) reported that taking 1.5 to 1.8 grams of DHA per day for three months prevented an increase in aggressiveness in these students during a stressful final exam period. This group of researchers reported in another double-blind study that 1.5 grams per day of DHA given to medical students during a stressful exam period resulted in changes in some, though not all, blood measurements indicating improved responses to stress.

Several studies have evaluated a daily supplement of vitamin B1 (15 mg), vitamin B2 (15 mg), vitamin B3 (50 mg), vitamin B6 (10 mg), vitamin B12 (10 mcg), vitamin C (500 mg), pantothenic acid (23 mg), folic acid (400 mcg), biotin (150 mcg), calcium (100 mg), magnesium (100 mg), and zinc (10 mg) for combating stress effects. People participating in preliminary trials of this combination have reported some benefits that relate to the effects of chronic stress, including improved concentration, better mood, and less fatigue. A small double-blind study of this combination reported no significant psychological benefits relating to stress. However, in a larger double-blind trial with healthy young men, this supplement resulted in significantly less anxiety and perceived stress according to some measurements after one month, though other stress-related symptoms did not improve. Another large, double-blind study of people experiencing high stress levels found this combination significantly helpful after one month according to several measures of anxiety, well-being, and psychological stress.

In a year-long double-blind trial, a one-a-day type multivitamin-mineral supplement was no better than a supplement containing only vitamin B2, calcium, and magnesium for improving mental or physical measures of quality of life in a group of healthy adults.

Herbs that may be helpful
The herbs discussed here are considered members of a controversial category known as adaptogens, which are thought to increase the body's resistance to stress, and to generally enhance physical and mental functioning. Many animal studies have shown that various herbal adaptogens have protective effects against physically stressful experiences, but whether these findings are relevant to human stress experiences is debatable.

Animal studies have demonstrated protective effects of rhodiola extracts against physical stresses. A double-blind study of healthcare workers experiencing the stress of night duty found that taking 170 mg per day of a standardized rhodiola extract prevented some of the decline in a set of mental performance measures during the first two weeks. However, when this regimen was repeated after a two-week period of not taking the extract, rhodiola did not provide protection from mental performance decline. In another double-blind study, 100 mg per day of the same extract was given to medical students during a stressful exam period. Those taking the extract reported a better sense of general well-being, and performed better on tests of mental and psychomotor performance. A third double-blind study of military cadets performing a 24-hour duty showed that 370 to 555 mg of rhodiola extract per day significantly reduced mental fatigue, as measured by several performance tasks.

Animal studies support the idea that Asian ginseng is an adaptogen. Some studies have suggested that Asian ginseng can enhance feelings of well-being in elderly people with age-associated memory impairment, nurses working night shifts, or people with diabetes. In a double-blind trial, people taking a daily combination of a multivitamin-mineral supplement (MVM) with 40 mg of ginseng extract (standardized for 4% ginsenosides) for 12 weeks reported greater improvements in quality of life measured with a questionnaire compared with a group taking only MVM. The same MVM-ginseng combination was tested in a double-blind study of night-shift healthcare workers. Compared with a placebo group, the group receiving the MVM-ginseng combination improved on one out of four measures of mental performance, one out of three measures of mood (increased calmness, but no change in alertness or contentment), and a measure of reported fatigue. However, in another double-blind study, healthy adults given 200 or 400 mg per day of a standardized extract of Asian ginseng (equivalent to 1,000 or 2,000 mg of ginseng root) showed no significant improvement in any of several measures of psychological well-being after two months.

Animal research has reported antistress effects of Eleutherococcus senticosus (also known as Siberian ginseng), and Russian research not available in the English language reportedly describes human studies showing similar effects in humans. A double-blind study of healthy elderly people reported that those who took 60 drops per day of a eleuthero liquid extract (concentration not specified) scored higher in some quality-of-life measures after four weeks, but not after eight weeks, compared with a group taking a placebo. Athletes experiencing the stress of training who took an eleuthero extract equivalent to 4 grams per day had no changes in their blood levels of an adrenal stress hormone after six weeks. More research is needed to clarify the value of eleuthero for treating stress.

 


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