Contributed by Dr. Amy Whittington, Trilogy’s Naturopathic Physician
Life can be stressful. Regardless of the effort you put in to control your own health, surroundings, and choices, there can be what seems to be a constant flow of stressors that remain out of your control. Sometimes staying upbeat is easy, and sometimes it takes a little more work to appreciate the blue skies during times of high stress. Below are a few simple tricks for decreasing anxiety and for boosting your mood even during stressful times.
ROUTINE. As difficult as it is during times of stress to maintain a normal routine, attempting to keep good habits during these times is vital. Consistent sleep/ wake cycles will assist your body in producing predictable amounts of the stress hormone cortisol, the sleep hormone melatonin, and stress-relieving hormones such as endorphins and dopamine. Strive to get to bed around the same time, and wake near the same time, every day.
EXERCISE. Hopefully part of your ongoing routine includes exercise. In times of stress and low mood, this becomes even more important because this stimulates the release of endorphins to promote mood. Regular exercise will also help you sleep, so that you can more easily maintain your healthy routine. A little activity goes a long way and exercise doesn’t always have to be a formal event! Do what you love and keep it simple. If your stressors are keeping you from the gym, just make sure you are taking the stairs or parking a little farther away. Pause for a minute throughout day to do a little yoga, stretching, or isometric exercises (flexing and holding muscles).
MEDITATION/MINDFULNESS. Not enough people take advantage of meditation or mindfulness exercises to decrease stress. Many people immediately think they would have to stop what they are doing and sit cross-legged on the floor to achieve benefits. If this works for you, great, but many people can achieve mindfulness and promote mood through other activities. For example, exercise that requires repetitive motion like running or swimming can serve as a mindfulness session, as long as you are focusing on the repetition or experience itself, and thinking about your stressor. Even completing a jigsaw puzzle, singing along to music, or enjoying a good meal (especially with enjoyable company!) can promote a calming mindfulness as long as you are focusing on what you’re doing in the moment, and not letting your mind wander.
FIND NATURE. Getting outside can help to promote your mood in several ways. Light exposure has been shown to improve mood and lessen depression symptoms. Sunlight will also help promote the production of Vitamin D, deficiency of which has been linked to both anxiety and low mood. It has even been shown that touching earth — walking barefoot in the sand or on grass — increases the production of those feel-good endorphins.
INCREASE YOUR OMEGAS. Increasing essential fatty acids either through diet or by supplementation can improve your mood greatly. These good fats are especially found in wild Alaskan salmon, walnuts, and flax seed. I’m an advocate for supplementing as well, and it has been estimated that an appropriate dosage of the active omegas EPA and DHA can alleviate depression and anxiety symptoms by as much as 25%. I recommend you use 1200-2400mg EPA/ DHA per day (less for a lipid or krill version). Fish oil is a mild blood-thinner, so be aware if you are using warfarin or other blood thinning medications.
SUPPLEMENT. If lifestyle tricks aren’t enough, there are a myriad of supplements that can effectively support your mood and stress response. Dosages vary on all of these supplements and should be discussed with your treating physician. L-theanine is an extract from green tea which functions as a mild, calming anxiolytic. It is safe with no known interactions, and has been shownin study to promote the generation of alpha brain waves, an indication of relaxation. You can get some of this benefit from drinking green tea, but l-theanine is generally a much more concentrated extract taken by supplementation if the tea itself isn’t providing enough relief.
B vitamins, especially folic acid, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6 can promote positive mood, energy, and also serve to protect the body against the effects of ongoing stress. B12 should be taken sublingually or by injection. Other B vitamins can be taken orally and are found highest in animal products and whole grains.
GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, and healthy levels have been associated with positive mood. Like green tea, studies show that GABA also enhances alpha wave production in the brain and moderates occasional stress. GABA can have cumulative effects with some pharmaceuticals for anxiety, so be careful with this one.
Several herbs are known to have anxiolytic properties. Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Lavendar, Melissa, and others will often be found in combination and can serve to both help moderate stress and decrease anxiety. These herbs can cause drowsiness in some people and should be considered for nighttime use if this is the case for you. They are otherwise considered safe with very low interaction and side effect profiles.
Finally, magnesium can be very calming both physically and mentally, and is often used before bed for restful sleep, especially if you tend toward tension or cramping in the night. Magnesium should be used in the citrate, malate, or glycinate form, and will lower your blood pressure, so be aware if you are on other blood pressure medication.
If stress more commonly leads to low mood or depression for you, the above nutrients and herbs will likely lend some support, but you might need more focused mood-enhancing support such as St. John’s Wort or 5-HTP. Due to the nature of depression and because of an increased likelihood of possible interaction between herbs and medications, I highly recommend you have an integrative physician guide you through options for mood support when you need them.
We all go through limited times of stress that can adversely affect our moods. Even with self-awareness that anxiety or depression will pass, it is often useful to put support in place to hasten the recovery and to protect our bodies against the health detriments associated with long-term stress. And, of course, if you continue to feel anxious, stressed, or depressed for an extended amount of time, seek help. From hormone balance to therapy, there are always options to investigate and treat for mood disturbance that go well beyond these simple tricks.
Stay healthy & be well!
— Amy Whittington, NMD