Updated November 20, 2018.
You’ve seen the ads promoting supplements that claim to aid everything from common cold relief to weight loss. Another problem many supplements claim to fix? Stress. And since two-thirds of Americans believe stress has a significant impact on their physical and mental health, it’s no wonder these products are flying off the shelves.
Although they aren’t for everyone, therapeutic doses of the right supplements can, in some cases, be reasonable stress-targeting additions to a healthy diet and lifestyle. Unfortunately, supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so it can be difficult to determine which ones are worth a shot. Here’s more insight into these supposed stress-busters, along with recommendations from One Medical’s Erica Matluck, ND, NP. Remember: Consult your health care provider before beginning any supplementation regimen.
What is it? A hormone produced by the brain’s pineal gland, melatonin helps control sleep cycles. Because sleep and mood are closely connected, supplementing with melatonin can alleviate stress. It’s considered safe, but can cause side effects like headaches, short-term feelings of depression, dizziness, and irritability.
Does it work? Research indicates that melatonin can be a helpful in promoting healthy sleep patterns. One small study found that the supplement significantly improved sleep, behavioral disorders, depression, and anxiety in elderly patients. In another study, melatonin produced significant improvements in sleep efficiency in insomniac patients 50 and older.
How to take it: “I advise starting with 3 milligrams (mg) at bedtime. If 3 mg isn’t effective, bump it up to 6 mg,” Matluck says. “Usually if 6 mg is not effective, melatonin isn’t the right fit. If you’re waking up in the middle of the night, try the extended-release preparation.”
What is it? Magnesium is a mineral essential for nerve and muscle function. Although most people who eat a balanced diet get enough magnesium, an analysis of data from the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that a majority of Americans consume less than they should. The supplement is considered safe, but side effects can include stomach upset, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Rarely, large doses can cause irregular heartbeat and low blood pressure.
Does it work? Magnesium is known to promote relaxation; therefore, a deficiency can cause stress to have detrimental effects on the body. In addition, research indicates magnesium seems to play a major role in the hormonal axis and regulation of the stress response, and some research indicates it can be an effective part of depression treatment.
How to take it: “I usually recommend 600 mg of magnesium citrate before bed,” Matluck says. “If 600 mg causes loose stools, taper to 300 mg, which is very well tolerated.”
What is it? Valerian is an herb commonly used to treat insomnia, anxiety, and stress. Although it’s considered safe for most adults, the effects of long-term use are unknown. Short-term side effects include headaches and sluggishness in the morning, especially if taken at higher doses.
Does it work? Early research indicates it could be helpful in reducing blood pressure, heart rate, and feelings of pressure when under stress.
How to take it: “I usually use valerian in a tincture form and recommend three droppersful before bed,” Matluck says. “If it doesn’t make you too sleepy, try it during the day as needed for stressful situations.”
What is it? The vitamin B-complex refers to all of the known essential water-soluble vitamins except for vitamin C: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin, folic acid, and the cobalamins (B12). B vitamins are important for cell metabolism. Most people who eat a balanced diet should have adequate B vitamins, but a vegan diet or an immune disorder such as lupus can lead to B12 deficiencies.
Does it work? Some research indicates B-complex vitamins are linked to improved mood.
How to take it: “I recommend a B-complex that contains at least 1 mcg B12 and 50 mg B6,” Matluck says. “B-complex is best taken in the morning because it may boost your energy.”
What is it? An amino acid found in green tea, theanine is often used for treating anxiety and high blood pressure.
Does it work? There’s limited evidence that theanine may help people who aren’t stressed feel more tranquil. However, those with elevated stress levels didn’t experience the same effect. Another study indicated theanine may reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure increases in high-stress response adults.
How to take it: “Theanine should be taken at 200 to 400 mg on an empty stomach,” Matluck says. “Most of my patients find that it takes the edge off their anxiety without sedating them. If it doesn’t cause sleepiness, I encourage theanine two to three times a day, depending on stress levels.”
What is it?: Phosphatidylserine (PS) occurs naturally in the body and supports cellular function, especially in the brain. Although the supplement form is considered safe for most adults and children, it can cause side effects like insomnia and stomach upset, particularly at doses over 300 mg.
Does it work?: Some research suggests that athletes taking PS during strenuous training might experience less muscle soreness, but there are conflicting results. One study found preliminary evidence that a combination of soy-based PS and lecithin may moderate the body’s reaction to stress.
How to take it: “PS is best taken in the evening or before bed at 200 mg. It tends to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” Matluck says. “Very rarely, it can cause people to feel awake and energized. If you are one of the few that has this reaction, try it in the morning.”
What is it? Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) is a chemical made in the brain and often taken as a supplement to relieve anxiety, improve mood, reduce PMS symptoms, and treat symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Does it work? There’s limited evidence to suggest that orally-administered GABA supplements can help promote relaxation and immunity and reduce anxiety during times of stress.
How to take it: “It tends to be calming without being sedating, so people usually do fine with GABA during the day,” Matluck says. “I recommend 500 mg as needed in times of stress from one to three times a day on an empty stomach.”
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