How to Manage Stress Naturally
By Elizabeth Leppart, MS, LN
May 5, 2020
From the moment we wake up to the time we go to bed, and even during sleep, our bodies and minds are going through stress. It’s an unavoidable part of life, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. From an evolutionary standpoint, stress told us to run from predators or to hunt and gather food for survival. In today’s world it helps us to get things done and motivates us to achieve successes big and small. However, chronic negative stress can affect our health by causing inflammation throughout our bodies and our brains, which can lead to disease over time. Luckily, there are some ways to manage stress through diet and lifestyle. First it’s helpful to understand that there are two kinds of stress.
External stress (or environmental stress) is caused by, you guessed it, things in our environment. This could include air quality, the water we bathe in, household chemicals, personal products, essentially everything that touches our body.
On the flip side, we have internal stress, or the processes that go on biochemically inside of us. This kind of stress might be less obvious, even silent. Need an example? Think of the stress your body goes through when skipping meals, not hydrating adequately, and skimping on sleep. These are all common tendencies in our modern lifestyle that we do without a second thought, not feeling the damage it’s putting on us internally.
Sure, much of our external stress is out of our control for the most part, like those examples listed above along with things like air quality or pesticides on our land and in our food. This external stress is especially heightened during a pandemic where much is out of our control. In fact, according to the American Psychiatric Association, as of late March 2020 “More than one-third of Americans (36%) say coronavirus is having a serious impact on their mental health.” (1) The good news though is that we can help control our internal stress through the following lifestyle factors.
Natural Ways to Reduce Stress
Let’s start with food. Have you ever thought of the food we consume as causing stress? For example, when you skip meals or eat sugary, processed foods you’re actually adding stress on your brain and your body. This is because it causes an imbalance in blood sugar. When our blood sugar is out of balance, we release cortisol, or what we call the stress hormone. An all too common cause of blood sugar imbalance is eating a high carbohydrate meal (such as breakfast cereal), which causes blood sugar to spike up and then come crashing down within a couple of hours. Unbalanced blood sugar can also be caused by skipping meals; then we feel moody, tired, anxious, shaky, craving, inability to concentrate. All in all, stressful symptoms which over time lead to chronic stress on our body.
The Fix: The first step is to stay ahead of your hunger with balanced meals and snacks that include protein, fat, and healthy carbohydrates. Snacks might look like a make-ahead protein ball or a simple deli meat roll-up with a pickle and full-fat cream cheese. Lunch might be canned salmon or tuna, mixed with mayo and cut up veggies and then served wrapped in lettuce. Check out more simple and healthy recipe ideas here.
Drinking sufficient filtered water is more than just a good idea. Water helps the electrical system of our bodies and brains to function better and to support our nerves along with keeping our heart rhythm regular. Water helps to flush out toxins we get exposed to regularly, such as things like pesticides in our food, the plastic residues in the water supply, or the bad fats in convenience foods. The list of toxins goes on and on, but water helps flush out those unwanted guests. Plus drinking water and staying hydrated also help us to keep our blood pressure normal.
The Fix: Truly, any good stress management plan should include drinking eight to ten glasses of filtered water every single day. If you're feeling really stressed out, try drinking a couple glasses of water and you might find that your stress level comes down. Water keeps our brains hydrated and helps us avoid those stress headaches or migraines, brain fog, and lapses in memory.
Sleep is essential l as it helps the body reset stress. During sleep is when we process our thoughts and emotions and heal our bodies; it’s truly critical for every system in the body. Lack of sleep reduces our brain’s ability to function properly, making it difficult to focus and be productive, and to balance our moods and emotions. We all know how it feels to not get a good night’s sleep. But did you know that over time lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain, decreased immunity, and even brain degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s? For a great in-depth review of the importance of sleep, check out this episode of Dishing Up Nutrition.
The Fix: It sounds like a simple concept to get enough sleep, but as you may well know, it’s not always easy to do. When we say adequate sleep we’re aiming for at least seven and a half to nine hours of sleep each night. I see many clients who are getting four, five, or six hours of sleep per night and that is very stressful on bodies and on brains.
My go-to suggestion for sleep support is supplementing with Magnesium Glycinate. This is a calming mineral that helps our bodies and minds relax. It naturally comes from food sources like leafy greens, nuts, and seeds. However, most of us don’t get enough magnesium naturally because of a lack of these nutrient-rich foods in our modern day diets. Beyond that much of the soil that our food is grown in has been depleted of these important minerals over time. That’s why supplementing can be the missing piece for a lot of us in order to get a good night’s sleep.
Extra Help for Stress
Supplement Help: If you need a little extra support outside of diet and lifestyle, supplementing can often be the answer. Here are some of our other favorite stress supplements.
- Melatonin- Start with 3mg sublingually and take more as needed for help falling asleep. Some people need up to 15mg! Did you know melatonin is also essential for immune support and can help reduce your risk for cancer? Research has shown the benefits of melatonin’s immune-enhancing, antioxidant properties to help prevent us from catching viruses and to reduce our risk for cancer.(2)(3) I take this every night for sleep and also as a preventative supplement. Clients frequently share concerns about becoming dependent on melatonin supplementation for sleep, but we have not found this to be true in clinical practice. Your brain should continue to produce melatonin even if you stop taking it regularly.
- GABA- GABA is a neurotransmitter that we naturally produce which supports a calm mind and relaxed muscles. Supplementing with one capsule before bed can give us an extra boost of relaxation after a stressful day.
- 5-HTP- 5-HTP is an amino acid which promotes the production of serotonin, our calming neurotransmitter. I often recommend taking one capsule before bed. It can also be helpful to get back to sleep if you wake up in the night with recycled thoughts or brain chatter. Our general recommendations are for 50-200 milligrams of 5-HTP.
- Neurocalm- For more severe sleep issues, this can be a powerful supplement. It’s designed to support GABA and serotonin production, two important neurotransmitters for a calm mind. I recommend starting with one or two capsules per day.
To fine tune which supplements and dosages are right for you, it’s always best to speak with a licensed nutritionist or registered dietician.
Nutritionist Help: As nutritionists and dieticians, we help people learn how to reduce these negative stressors in both our classes and our individual consultations. First we look at food that could help manage stress, then the water that they’re drinking, and the sleep they’re getting. Often we help clients uncover food sensitivities that are silently stressing their bodies, then work together to get those cleared out of the body. It’s amazing to watch their health flourish after piecing together those pieces of the puzzle. Learn more about our classes or consultations to get started on your own personalized stress management plan, timelier now than ever.
1) “New Poll: COVID-19 Impacting Mental Well-Being: Americans Feeling Anxious, Especially for Loved Ones; Older Adults Are Less Anxious.” New Poll: COVID-19 Impacting Mental Well-Being: Americans Feeling Anxious, Especially for Loved Ones; Older Adults Are Less Anxious, American Psychiatric Association, 25 Mar. 2020, www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/news-releases/new-poll-covid-19-impacting-mental-well-being-americans-feeling-anxious-especially-for-loved-ones-older-adults-are-less-anxious.
2) Jurgelewicz, Michael. “New Review Investigates Melatonin as a Potential Immunity Enhancement Adjuvant.” Designs for Health, Science Update, 10 Apr. 2020, blog.designsforhealth.com/node/1226.
3) Li, Ya, et al. “Melatonin for the Prevention and Treatment of Cancer.” Oncotarget, Impact Journals LLC, 13 June 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5503661/.