An inevitable part of modern life, stress can exhaust natural defences, leaving the body susceptible to a wide range of health problems. Certain nutrients can help you cope, and various herbs and other nutritional supplements can calm the mind and restore equanimity.

What is it?

Stress is simply an individuals' response to taxing physical, emotional or environmental demands. Though the body is equipped to deal with brief episodes of stress, sustained high-level stress can eventually take a heavy toll on your physical and mental health.

What causes it?

A variety of predicaments can produce stress: job pressures, family discord, financial problems, traumatic events, injuries or illness. The body's initial reaction to stress, called the 'fight or flight' response, is a natural and healthy reaction in which the adrenal glands prepare the body for impending danger. These two small glands, one atop each kidney, release adrenaline and other so-called stress hormones that provide an instant burst of energy and strength – allowing the body to confront an enemy or escape to safety.

Problems arise, however, if stress persists. Over time, chronically high levels of stress hormones deplete both nutrient and energy reserves, creating an overall state of exhaustion. What's more, blood pressure and cholesterol levels increase (sometimes damaging the heart and blood vessels); the stomach secretes too much acid; sex hormones diminish; and the brain becomes starved for glucose (its only energy source), impairing mental ability. All these effects take an additional toll on the immune system, which can become so weakened that the body can muster little resistance to infection and illness.

What are they symptoms?

  • Fatigue, insomnia or difficulty in concentrating.
  • Nervousness, agitation or unusual excitability.
  • Loss of appetite, nausea, upset stomach, diarrhoea or constipation.
  • Headaches.
  • Loss of sexual interest.
  • Irritability, anger, resentment, apathy or pessimism.

Are there any natural therapies?

Because many nutrients are crucial to the body's natural ability to cope, a daily multivitamin and mineral is especially important during times of stress. Take vitamin B complex as well; the extra B vitamins it supplies promote the health of the nervous and immune systems and can counteract fatigue. Calcium and magnesium are worthwhile, too, because they can relieve muscle tension and strengthen the heart. Both Siberian and Panax ginseng, which bolster the adrenal glands, may also be effective. These stress fighting herbs are sometimes called 'adaptogens' (because they help the body 'adapt' to challenges) or 'tonics' (because they 'tone' the body, makign it more resilient). All can safely be taken together.

Other herbs and nutritional supplements, used singly or together or combined with the supplements above, may be of value in special circumstances. Kava may be helpful for stress-induced anxiety, but is best reserved for high-stress periods lasting up to three months. Try melatonin if worry is keeping you up at night, and St John's wort if stress is accompanied by mild depression.

What else can I do?

  • Exercise regularly. In addition, try breathing exercises, yoga, t'ai chi, meditation, massage, biofeedback and other relaxation techniques.
  • Eliminate or restrict your intake of caffeine and alcohol. They can contribute to jitteriness and keep you from sleeping.
  • Consider psychological counselling and therapy, which can help increase your coping skills.
  • Maintain social ties. A close support network of family and friends is crucial to good health. Even a cherished pet can be a great stress reliever.

Did you know?

In 1984, the Russian Ministry of Health reported that job performance among telegraph operators improved when they took Siberian ginseng. Workers wre able to transmit text faster while making fewer mistakes, and were generally bettwer able to cope with job-related stress.