Stress can manifest in many different ways – from emotional suffering to physical symptoms like back or stomach pain.  The body is designed to withstand small amounts of stress.  When faced with a stressful event, your body releases specific hormones like cortisol that activate a range of physiological symptoms.  You’ve likely experienced this rush of adrenaline after a near-miss in the car.  The key is that after the stressful event passes, the body calms down and relaxes.  With chronic stress, there is no downtime.

Chronic stress is like a slow leak from a water pipe under your house.  Over time the leak grows, and what was once a tiny puddle can destroy the entire foundation.  With chronic stress, your body is trapped in fight or flight mode, and the constant wear and tear of stress hormones can impact your long-term health.

Stress management and stress resilience go hand-in-hand.  You may not be able to completely avoid certain stressful situations (like a problematic work environment), but you can learn how to better manage your response.  Behavioural stress management techniques combined with supplements and lifestyle behaviours can help you manage stress and the associated symptoms while supporting resilience.

These six tips for stress relief are simple, natural tools to add to your toolbox:

  1. Make sleep a priority.  While most people understand that sleep is essential for wellness, getting a good night’s rest is not always easy, especially if you are already struggling with the cycle of insomnia.  Stress and sleep affect one another.  Interruptions in your body’s natural circadian rhythms can increase cortisol levels making it more difficult for you to fall asleep, even if you are exhausted.1

Sleep hygiene, or creating an environment that is sleep supportive, is a critical first step if you struggle with sleep.  This means examining your sleep environment (including temperature, darkness, and noise control) as well as your evening wind-down routine while avoiding screentime, eating too late, or work emails in bed.

In addition to sleep hygiene, many natural supplements can support sleep without the side effects that some over-the-counter or prescription medications may cause. Most are familiar with melatonin, but with the approval of your health care practitioner, alternative solutions including botanicals like lavender, lemon balm, or valerian root have the double benefit of promoting sleep while supporting feelings of anxiety and calming the mind to help you get a restful nights’ sleep.2,3,4,5

2. Move your body.  The wellness benefits of physical activity extend to stress reduction as daily movement can lead to better sleep, improved mood, and even an enhanced ability to bounce back from stressful events.6  Researchers suggest that since exercise induces physiological responses that match anxiety symptoms (think heart pounding and sweating), the body can recognise and recover more quickly even if the feelings come from a stressful event.7 

Multiple studies have also found correlations between improvements in mental health and exercise.8  A meta-analysis found that physical activity significantly improved feelings of anxiety across various studies with a range of subjects.9  This may be because exercise can influence the neurotransmitters that affect positive emotions, including serotonin and dopamine. Your body also naturally creates endorphins through various forms of exercise that can relieve stress and pain. These neurotransmitters may also help cushion the reaction to cortisol or other stress hormones.10

3. Cut back on coffee.  While coffee is surprisingly high in antioxidants,11 for some people the high amounts of caffeine may be doing more harm than good.  As stress can negatively impact energy levels, an afternoon latte may sound enticing, but that extra dose of caffeine late in the day can increase feelings of stress and anxiety while sabotaging sleep. 

While cutting back on coffee is a good idea, you may not need to completely remove caffeine from your life.  Green tea is often touted as a substitute for coffee because while it does have small amounts of caffeine (about one-third as much as coffee), it also contains l-theanine.  L-theanine is a stress-supporting amino acid found in green tea or supplements but is not easily obtained in the diet.  Studies suggest that it may  ease occasional feelings of unrest and support quality sleep.12  And while some drink coffee to improve focus, green tea may offer the same positive cognitive benefits.13

4. Consider adaptogens.  Adaptogens are botanicals that help your body respond appropriately to stress.14  These herbs are named because they appear to adapt to each person’s needs.  There are several types of adaptogens, each providing a unique benefit for the stress response, from calming your stress hormones, improving energy levels, and even supporting sleep.

One of the most commonly used adaptogens is Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera).  Ashwagandha is an Ayurvedic herb that strengthens the stress response through neurological, immune, and endocrine support. 15

Ashwagandha has a notable amount of evidence behind its use for managing stress.  In one study, people who took a daily dose of ashwagandha for sixty days noted significant improvements in stress levels, better mood, and reduced serum cortisol measurements compared to placebo.15 Another recent study also found that ashwagandha significantly improved occasional physical and mental stress symptoms after six weeks.16

5. Bump up your intake of omega-3 fatty acids.  Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with stress support that can translate to improved stress resilience.  Low dietary levels of omega-3 are associated with mood disorders.17  One study conducted on medical students found that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids significantly improved mood and stress symptoms while also reduced inflammatory markers.18

While omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained in the diet by eating foods like fatty fish or flaxseed, many people do not eat enough to reach the necessary amount of omega-3 to meet their daily needs. In these cases, supplementation can help.

6. Focus on magnesium.  You may not immediately think of magnesium as a stress-supporting nutrient, but this critical cofactor can help with your stress response and even support your sleep patterns.  Magnesium helps to support the activity of neurotransmitters that regulate the stress response, but chronic stress and sleep disruption can also deplete magnesium.19  Studies have also found an association between low magnesium levels and people who struggle with stress, feelings of anxiety, and sleep deprivation.19

While magnesium is available in many foods, especially grains, legumes, and leafy greens, many people still don’t get enough. Supplementation can support symptoms of stress, mood support, and sleep, especially for those who have suboptimal magnesium intake and status.20, 21

Applying natural solutions for stress management 

Stress resilience doesn’t arise from one single behaviour change or supplement.  Diet, lifestyle, and behaviour all can play a role in protecting you from the adverse consequences of chronic stress. 

Assuming you can’t simply walk away from whatever is impacting you, these natural options can help you find simple yet effective solutions to keep you healthy and able to adapt to difficult challenges in your life.

1. McEwen, Bruce S., and Ilia N. Karatsoreos. “Sleep Deprivation and Circadian Disruption: Stress, Allostasis, and Allostatic Load.” Sleep Medicine Clinics 10, no. 1 (March 1, 2015): 1–10.

2. Taavoni, S., N. Nazem Ekbatani, and H. Haghani. “Valerian/Lemon Balm Use for Sleep Disorders during Menopause.” Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 19, no. 4 (November 2013): 193–96.

3. Lillehei, Angela Smith, Linda L. Halcón, Kay Savik, and Reilly Reis. “Effect of Inhaled Lavender and Sleep Hygiene on Self-Reported Sleep Issues: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 21, no. 7 (July 1, 2015): 430–38.

4. Haybar, Habib, Ahmad Zare Javid, Mohammad Hosein Haghighizadeh, Einollah Valizadeh, Seyede Marjan Mohaghegh, and Assieh Mohammadzadeh. Clinical Nutrition ESPEN 26 (August 2018): 47–52.

5. Shinjyo, Noriko, Guy Waddell, and Julia Green. “Valerian Root in Treating Sleep Problems and Associated Disorders-A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine 25 (December 2020): 2515690X20967323.

6. Childs, Emma, and Harriet de Wit. “Regular Exercise Is Associated with Emotional Resilience to Acute Stress in Healthy Adults.” Frontiers in Physiology 5 (May 1, 2014).

7. Smits, Jasper A. J., Angela C. Berry, David Rosenfield, Mark B. Powers, Evelyn Behar, and Michael W. Otto. “Reducing Anxiety Sensitivity with Exercise.” (2008): 689–99.

8. Mikkelsen, Kathleen, Lily Stojanovska, Momir Polenakovic, Marijan Bosevski, and Vasso Apostolopoulos. “Exercise and Mental Health.” Maturitas 106 (December 1, 2017): 48–56.

9. Stubbs, Brendon, Davy Vancampfort, Simon Rosenbaum, Joseph Firth, Theodore Cosco, Nicola Veronese, Giovanni A. Salum, and Felipe B. Schuch. “An Examination of the Anxiolytic Effects of Exercise for People with Anxiety and Stress-Related Disorders: A Meta-Analysis.” Psychiatry Research 249 (March 1, 2017): 102–8.

10. Lin, Tzu-Wei, and Yu-Min Kuo. “Exercise Benefits Brain Function: The Monoamine Connection.” Brain Sciences 3, no. 1 (January 11, 2013): 39–53.

11. Liang, Ningjian, and David D. Kitts. “Antioxidant Property of Coffee Components: Assessment of Methods That Define Mechanisms of Action.” Molecules 19, no. 11 (November 19, 2014): 19180–208.

12. White, David J., Suzanne de Klerk, William Woods, Shakuntla Gondalia, Chris Noonan, and Andrew B. Scholey. “Anti-Stress, Behavioural and Magnetoencephalography Effects of an L-Theanine-Based Nutrient Drink: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial.” Nutrients 8, no. 1 (January 19, 2016).

13. Hidese, Shinsuke, Shintaro Ogawa, Miho Ota, Ikki Ishida, Zenta Yasukawa, Makoto Ozeki, and Hiroshi Kunugi. “Effects of L-Theanine Administration on Stress-Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Nutrients 11, no. 10 (October 3, 2019).

14. Panossian, Alexander, Ean-Jeong Seo, and Thomas Efferth. “Novel Molecular Mechanisms for the Adaptogenic Effects of Herbal Extracts on Isolated Brain Cells Using Systems Biology.” Phytomedicine: International Journal of Phytotherapy and Phytopharmacology 50 (November 15, 2018): 257–84.

15. Chandrasekhar, K., Jyoti Kapoor, and Sridhar Anishetty. “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 Journal of Psychological Medicine 34, no. 3 (2012): 255–62.

16. Fuladi, Sara, Seyed Ahmad Emami, Amir Hooshang Mohammadpour, Asieh Karimani, Ali Akhondpour Manteghi, and Amirhossein Sahebkar. Current Clinical Pharmacology, April 13, 2020.

17. Larrieu, Thomas, and Sophie Layé Frontiers in Physiology 9 (2018): 1047.

18. Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K., Martha A. Belury, Rebecca Andridge, William B. Malarkey, and Ronald Glaser. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 25, no. 8 (November 2011): 1725–34.

19. Pickering, Gisèle, André Mazur, Marion Trousselard, Przemyslaw Bienkowski, Natalia Yaltsewa, Mohamed Amessou, Lionel Noah, and Etienne Pouteau. “Magnesium Status and Stress: The Vicious Circle Concept Revisited.” Nutrients 12, no. 12 (December 2020): 3672.

20. Pouteau, Etienne, Marmar Kabir-Ahmadi, Lionel Noah, Andre Mazur, Louise Dye, Juliane Hellhammer, Gisele Pickering, and Claude Dubray. “Superiority of Magnesium and Vitamin B6 over Magnesium Alone on Severe Stress in Healthy Adults with Low Magnesemia: A Randomized, Single-Blind Clinical Trial.” PloS One 13, no. 12 (2018): e0208454.

21. Nielsen, Forrest H., LuAnn K. Johnson, and Huawei Zeng. “Magnesium Supplementation Improves Indicators of Low Magnesium Status and Inflammatory Stress in Adults Older than 51 Years with Poor Quality Sleep.” Magnesium Research 23, no. 4 (December 2010): 158–68.