It’s no secret that the demands of our modern lives can leave us feeling stressed out. But what happens when that stress feels relentless?
Chronic stress is the persistent exposure to stress over a long period and may increase your risk of developing numerous health challenges like anxiety, insomnia, heart disease, and depression. Chronic stress has also been linked to weight gain and obesity because it alters our metabolism and gut microbiota, causing us to crave high-calorie comfort food.
Fortunately, there are many ways to approach our stress naturally, safely, and effectively. Here are some of my favorite natural stress management techniques.
1. Move Your Body
Exercise is a great way to boost your mood, and science suggests it improves our ability to deal with stress. In one study, the brains of mice, who were allowed access to an exercise wheel for six weeks, actually changed in a way that made stress easier to handle. If the very thought of squeezing a lengthy workout into your busy day adds to your stress, try a quick stroll on your lunch break. I take our dogs out every morning before breakfast and every night after dinner for a 20-minute walk. It benefits all of us.
2. Surround Yourself with Nature
Have you heard of forest bathing? A form of preventive medicine in Japan, this simple act of walking in the woods relieves stress, improves mood, increases focus, and more. As someone who lives deep in the forest, I can say with certainty that the forest feels incredibly healing to me. Even if you don’t live anywhere near a forest, you can harness the healing power of nature just by going outside. Spending time outdoors can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, relax your muscles, and boost your immune system.
3. Embrace Adaptogens
Adaptogens are botanicals with a particular affinity for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA)—the chief regulator of our stress response. Simply put, adaptogens help our bodies adapt to stressors in healthier ways. I especially love these three for stress support:
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
When taken over time, research supports this plant’s ability to ease anxiety, improve sleep quality, and lower stress and cortisol (a biological marker for stress). Ashwagandha is fantastic for relieving nervous tension, and I often recommend it to exhausted people who struggle to turn off their brains at night. Most research conducted used 200–600 mg per day of ashwagandha root extract standardized to 2–5% withanolides (an active compound in the plant). Safety is very good.
- Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Like ashwagandha, research shows holy basil leaf reduces the stress hormone cortisol while improving attention, reducing anxiety, and easing stress-related symptoms, such as fatigue and insomnia. Holy basil can be beneficial for improving patience and clearing the mind. It’s the perfect adaptogen for multi-tasking individuals and those struggling to find calm amidst the chaos of daily life. Holy basil, or tulsi, is delicious as tea. It is also available in capsules—doses used in studies range from 300 mg per day to 400 mg three times per day. Safety is very good.
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
The research for rhodiola is steadily growing, demonstrating a beneficial effect on fatigue, mood, and the immune system. Over the years, I’ve found that it can dramatically improve the quality of life for those living with fibromyalgia, fatigue, and/or burnout. Try this adaptogen if you’re having a hard time finding your strength because of stress. Rhodiola is more stimulating than ashwagandha or holy basil, so you may want to take it in the morning and/or early afternoon. Most of the research has been conducted on doses of 250–600 mg per day of rhodiola root/rhizome extract standardized to rosavin and salidroside. There is a possibility that rhodiola could interact with warfarin or phenytoin.
4. Practice Gratitude
The road of our lives undoubtedly involves peaks and valleys. When we’re down, it can sometimes feel impossible to confront the difficulties and challenges we may face. Yet, taking a moment to recognize the good things in our lives can put hard times in perspective, helping us to remember that this too shall pass. I highly recommend the Happiness Project One-Sentence Journal. Read the quote for the day, and then write your one-sentence reflection. I received it as a gift, and I love it.
5. Don’t Forget to Breathe
Never underestimate the power of a deep breath during a stressful moment. Experts believe taking slow, steady breaths activates our parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for slowing our heart rate and promoting a sense of calm. Breathing techniques, like the 4-7-8 breath, not only work well, but we can practice them anytime, anywhere. I do four of these breaths every night when I close my eyes to go to sleep. So centering and calming.
6. Be Mindful
Mindfulness meditation is a proven stress reliever. In one study, people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder who followed a stress reduction program based on mindfulness were considerably less anxious than those taught other stress management techniques. Like breathing exercises, meditation doesn’t require anything more than a few quiet minutes. If you’re unsure where to start, my dear friend, Myles Spar, MD, put together a great guide on choosing the right smartphone app for you.
7. Just Say No
Maintaining healthy boundaries is crucial for keeping stress in check. When we look around and see so many people in need, it’s natural to want to do everything we can to help. Learning to say no has been a personal challenge, but it gets easier with practice. Practice saying no when what’s asked of you doesn’t feel right or if you’re running on empty and need some time to replenish your reserves.
8. Eat Nutritious Foods
Most of us know that food impacts our mood and our mood plays a huge role in our food choices. I’ve yet to meet a stressed-out person who craves celery! You know what I mean! But added sugars and refined carbs (high glycemic load) can exacerbate feelings of moodiness, irritability, and depression. Cutting back on these foods while loading up on fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, with some seafood and eggs, will keep you feeling at the top of your game. If you need help managing carbs, check out the app and book Low Glycal Diet by Jeffrey Dunham, MD.
9. Use Herbs to Unwind
Mother Nature holds the solution to so many of our woes, stress included. Here are some of my most trusted natural remedies for stress support. These herbal allies are known to support rest and relaxation, and I’ve recommended them to countless patients over the years.
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
I love passionflower for people who have a hard time saying no, and wear themselves out in service to others. Research shows that passionflower can help relieve anxiety and improve sleep quality. Generally, a small dose (300 mg) is used during the day, with a larger dose of 1000 mg, 30 minutes before bed (less if used with other herbs.)
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
This herb is one of my favorite stress relievers. At the first sign of feeling overwhelmed, I reach for lemon balm tea to help me relax. Its pleasing aroma and sweet taste are inviting, and it instantly calms me without making me drowsy. Traditional Medicinals Organic Lemon Balm is a wonderful tea.
- Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
When I feel nervous before a big event, I turn to skullcap. Traditionally used as a natural remedy for anxiety and depression, this herb is excellent for soothing worried minds and frayed nerves. I drink Traditional Medicinals Stress Ease tea with skullcap almost daily.
10. Develop a Grounding Ritual
Many of us rely on routines to help us feel safe and secure. With so many of these routines upended in the wake of 2020, we may find ourselves feeling unsteady and adrift. To help bring yourself back to solid ground, consider creating a relaxing daily ritual. I like to spend some time every evening drinking tea and listening to music or writing in my journal. Make time to chill.
We live in a uniquely stressful time, and many of us struggle to process all that’s happening around us. Remember, you are never alone on this journey called life, and no matter what challenges you’re facing—there are natural solutions to help reduce stress along the way.