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6 Evidence-Based Natural Approaches to Reducing Stress

By Eric Madrid MD

In this article:


Every living creature faces stress. Although uncomfortable, stress is necessary for survival as it encourages us to make changes that help us adapt to the world around us. Stress can be acute, meaning short-lived, or chronic, lasting months or years. The most common examples are financial stress, mental stress, biological stress, health-related stress, relationship stress, and even environmental stress.

Finding healthy and productive ways to manage stress is crucial for overall well-being. For some, meditation or prayer can be useful tools, while others might take comfort in confiding in a friend during a challenging period or personal crisis. Routine physical activity or exercise can also be beneficial for reducing built-up tension, panic, and anxiety. 

Consuming a healthy, balanced diet shouldn’t be abandoned during times of stress. The foods we put in our body can either strengthen us or weaken us, both mentally and physically. While it’s easy to reach for comfort foods when life is difficult, it’s important to ensure our physical bodies are empowered by nutrients to deal with the daily — and once-in-a-lifetime — stressors that come our way.

For those who need additional help, the following herbal supplements, minerals, vitamins, and essential oils may also be beneficial.

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that may be helpful in managing stress. Native to Asia, specifically India and regions of China, ashwagandha is commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine and has been employed in other practices as well for thousands of years. 

This adaptogen has been reported to improve symptoms of anxiety and stress. In a 2014 study, researchers concluded that Ashwagandha, “…resulted in greater score improvements (significantly in most cases) than placebo in outcomes on anxiety or stress scales.”

A 2012 study in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine evaluated 64 subjects. Half were given ashwagandha while the other half were given a placebo. The researchers concluded, “… a high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual's resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”

In addition, a 2019 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study also showed benefit. In this study, 60 adults were given either 240 mg of ashwagandha or a placebo pill. There were no adverse events noted in either group, and results showed that those who took the ashwagandha had reduced morning cortisol and DHEA-S hormones compared to placebo. This demonstrates the ability of this herb to not only reduce feelings of stress but also blood markers of stress. Suggested dose: Ashwagandha – 250 to 1000 mg per day.

Lemon Balm

Lemon balm is a popular herb used by millions around the world. Scientists call it “melissa officinalis" (the word “melissa” comes from the Greek word meaning "honey bee"), but it also goes by many other names, including "nectar of life”, "cure-all", "balm mint" or simply, "honey plant”.

Lemon balm is a member of the mint family and is native to Southern Europe, the Mediterranean region, and Central Asia. It is green in color and has small, heart-shaped leaves with clusters of white and yellow flowers. Lemon balm is considered a stress-reducing herb and has been used for medicinal purposes for more than 500 years. 

There are several studies showing that lemon balm may reduce overall stress and anxiety symptoms. It is believed that lemon balm helps increase a brain chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). This chemical pathway plays an important role in the treatment of anxiety and is actually targeted by some prescription medications that treat stress and anxiety symptoms. 

A 2017 study in Phytotherapy Research analyzed the effects of lemon balm on GABA pathways and found that the herb could help with anxiety and stress. An article published in 2016 also looked closely at the compounds that make up lemon balm and concluded that it contains GABA-stimulating receptors. 

Overall, these research studies show that lemon balm may be used as a safe and effective source in treating stress. Lemon balm can be consumed as an herbal supplement, food or tea. 

L-Theanine

L-Theanine, an amino acid, is considered a nootropic, meaning that it can exert positive effects on the brain and may improve alertness. It is commonly found in green tea and may help reduce feelings of stress. 

A 2019 randomized, placebo-controlled study evaluated the effects of L-theanine on stress-related symptoms in healthy adults. Thirty healthy adults were given either L-theanine or a placebo. After 4 weeks, researchers concluded, “ …. that L-theanine has the potential to promote mental health in the general population with stress-related ailments and cognitive impairments.”

Other studies have also shown mental health benefits. 

Suggested dose 200 mg capsule once or twice per day. It can also be consumed in green tea — one cup contains about 30-50 mg of L-theanine.

Magnesium

Magnesium is known as the “stress mineral.” In times of stress, our body produces increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol hormones, and magnesium is required for this to occur. In total, 350 other biochemical reactions in the human body also require magnesium to be present in adequate amounts for the enzymes to properly function.

Low magnesium is the most common nutritional deficiency I see in my medical practice, second only to vitamin D deficiency. Those with high levels of stress or who take certain medications (i.e. acid reducers and diuretics) are most at risk. Evidence of magnesium deficiency may manifest itself with the following symptoms:

  • Tension headaches and migraines
  • Muscle spasms, leg cramps, and eyelid twitches
  • Urinary frequency due to an overactive bladder
  • Heart palpitations 
  • Esophageal spasms
  • Insomnia

Many of us know the usefulness of taking a warm bath with Epsom salts to relieve stress. Epsom salts are actually magnesium salts. When they dissolve in warm water, magnesium is absorbed through the skin and saturates the muscles, allowing for feelings of calm and relaxation.

Daily, I recommend magnesium to patients. It comes in many formulations such as magnesium oxide or magnesium chelate. Suggested dose: 200 mg to 500 mg per day. 

Rhodiola

Rhodiola is an adaptogen which appears to have numerous health benefits, including stress management. Used for thousands of years by ancient healers, Rhodiola, like other adaptogens, is an herb that helps protect cells and tissues from oxidative stress and damage caused by day-to-day living. Because adaptogens grow under challenging climates and weather extremes, they learn to protect themselves, passing their hardy properties on to those who consume them. 

A 2012 study demonstrated Rhodiola could help reduce stress levels when taken as a supplement. A 2015 study by Dr. Mark Cropley concluded that Rhodiola users, “...demonstrated a significant reduction in self-reported anxiety, stress, anger, confusion, and depression at 14 days and significant improvements in total mood.”

In addition, a 2017 study also showed benefits in helping to reduce stress and burnout. In it, 118 patients were enrolled and given 400 mg of Rhodiola. At the end of the 12 weeks, those who supplemented reported reduced levels of stress and burnout. 

Lastly, a 2018 study in Gut Pathology demonstrated that Rhodiola exerts a beneficial effect on the gut microbiome, which partially explains its benefit in helping with anxiety and stress-related symptoms. Suggested dose is 250 to 1,000 per day. 

Essential Oils and Stress

Since the beginning of human civilization, people have sought out the benefits of essential oils. The Egyptians used essential oils during the mummification process and during ceremonial and religious celebrations. The oils were highly valued, frequently given as gifts and even used as a form of money.

Essential oils were used by our ancestors in fragrances and perfumes. In addition to their pleasant aroma, most also are used for their perceived health benefits. Frequently used in air diffusers (a device that aerosolizes the oil-water mixture into the air), essential oils appeal to the sense of smell, which directly provides benefit to the brain.

Certain essential oils can help reduce stress, improve energy, and provide a sense of well-being, happiness, and optimism. Consider the use of essential oils on your skin (always be sure that the oil you are using is safe for skin contact) or in a diffuser in your work station. Stress-reducing essential oils include the following:

Other Supplements 

vitamin B-complex which contains all the B-vitamins can be useful. The B-vitamins are important for energy generation, mitochondrial health, optimal memory, and overall brain and neurological health. Making sure you have adequate amounts of these vitamins in your blood can help you make it through stressful events that may be encountered. 

Since a good night's sleep is also crucial to combat life’s stresses, many have found benefit when taking melatonin to help restore the circadian rhythm and allow restful sleep. Most people need to recharge their bodies each night with at least seven hours of quality uninterrupted sleep. The suggested dose ranges from 1 mg to 10 mg 3 hours before bed. Many start low and work their way up to a higher dose. 

References:

  1.  Pratte MA, Nanavati KB, Young V, Morley CP. An Alternative Treatment for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of Human Trial Results Reported for the Ayurvedic Herb Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2014;20(12):901-908. doi:10.1089/acm.2014.0177.
  2. Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012;34(3):255–262. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022
  3. Lopresti AL, Smith SJ, Malvi H, Kodgule R. An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019;98(37):e17186. 
  4. Hidese S, Ogawa S, Ota M, et al. Effects of L-Theanine Administration on Stress-Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Nutrients. 2019;11(10):2362. Published 2019 Oct 3. doi:10.3390/nu11102362
  5. Bryan J. Psychological effects of dietary components of tea: caffeine and L-theanine. Nutr Rev. 2008;66(2):82–90. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2007.00011.x
  6. Gertsch E, Loharuka S, Wolter-Warmerdam K, Tong S, Kempe A, Kedia S. Intravenous magnesium as acute treatment for headaches: a pediatric case series. J Emerg Med. 2014;46(2):308–312. doi:10.1016/j.jemermed.2013.08.049
  7. Phytother Res. 2012 Aug;26(8):1220-5. doi: 10.1002/ptr.3712. Epub 2012 Jan 6.
  8. Phytother Res. 2015 Dec;29(12):1934-9. doi: 10.1002/ptr.5486. Epub 2015 Oct 27.
  9. Kasper S, Dienel A. Multicenter, open-label, exploratory clinical trial with Rhodiola rosea extract in patients suffering from burnout symptoms. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2017;13:889–898. Published 2017 Mar 22. doi:10.2147/NDT.S120113
  10. Gut Pathog. 2018 Mar 20;10:12. doi: 10.1186/s13099-018-0239-8. eCollection 2018.

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