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Stressed Out

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If you're like so many other people, you're stressed from the moment you wake up until you hit the sack some 16 hours late.

If you're like so many other people, you're stressed from the moment you wake up until you hit the sack some 16 hours later.

Stress has become a constant in our time-strapped society: the consequence of rushing out the door, arguing with your spouse or kids, dealing with inconsiderate drivers, and wrestling with the day-to-day frustrations and anxieties of life.

Being this stressed isn't the norm. In the wild, animals experience stress only briefly, such as when they're being chased by a predator. In contrast, we've built entire lifestyles around stress, with coffee and sugary foods to get us up and running and hurried fast-food meals to keep us going.

Stress prompts the secretion of cortisol, which is the principal stress hormone. Cortisol ages brain cells and also promotes the accumulation of fat around the belly. When you're stressed, it's difficult to relax over a nutritious meal, so you may be more tempted to eat sugary or high-carb foods (like soft drinks, sweets, and white pasta) that can lead to weight gain. These foods boost your levels of the hormone insulin, which, in turn, further raises cortisol levels. Stress also arouses a host of unpleasant feelings, including anxiety, irritability, fatigue, and depression.

Sounds awful. Is there no escape from day-to-day stresses?

Alleviate the Anxiety

You can lessen the effects of stress by focusing on nutritious foods, taking anti-stress supplements, and adopting other lifestyle habits, some as simple as breathing regularly.

Eating habits - Emphasize healthy nutrient-dense foods, including fish, chicken, and vegetables, which stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels. Avoid deep-fried foods, sugary foods, and refined "white" carbohydrates, which elevate insulin and cortisol levels. Make eating wholesome meals part of your de-stressing activities.

B vitamins - This family of vitamins has long been known as anti-stress supplements. Many of the B vitamins are needed for the body's production of brain-calming neurotransmitters including vitamin B6 for the synthesis of serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Researchers found that supplemental vitamin B1 (50 mg) daily helped people feel more "composed and energetic." In a separate study, high-potency multivitamins helped women feel more "agreeable" and in better mental health. The benefits seemed most related to vitamins B2 and B6 in the multivitamin supplement. Take: High-potency B-complex supplement with 25 to 50 mg of the major B vitamins daily.

Inositol - When we're stressed, it's easier to become panicky. Several clinical studies have found that inositol, a nutrient related to B vitamins, can help in panic attacks, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder and with fewer side effects, when compared with antidepressant drugs. Take: Combined with other supplements, try two to five grams daily.

Vitamin C - When you're low in vitamin C - and as many as 30 percent of North Americans may be - you're more apt to feel fatigued and irritable. Brain cells are rich in vitamin C, which modulates neurotransmitters that temper stress reactions. In a study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry (2002), Vitamin C supplements (3,000 mg daily) have been shown to improve the overall mood of patients and lead to increased sexual activity. Take: 1,000 to 3,000 mg daily.

Theanine - This natural substance has a powerful anti-caffeine, brain-calming effect. It is abundant in green tea, which might account for some of the health benefits of tea, despite its caffeine. Some research suggests that theanine might also lower blood pressure, one consequence of stress. Take: Products vary, so use as directed on the label.

GABA - Nutritionally oriented physicians often use GABA to treat anxiety in patients. A new study by researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine in the US, explains part of the mechanism. GABA helps the brain filter out distracting brain signals - background noise, so to speak - that impair thinking. Take: 500 to 4,000 mg daily.

5-HTP - Tryptophan, an amino acid, and its precursor 5-hydroxy-tryptophan (5-HTP) boost levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin has brain-calming, anti-anxiety benefits. (Note: In the US, tryptophan, but not 5-HTP, was banned as a supplement when hundreds of people were sickened by a contaminated batch of the substance). Take: 300 to 400 mg daily.

Holy basil - Don't confuse this medicinal herb with culinary basil, a distant cousin. Holy basil not only reduces stress reactions but may protect against their damaging effects, too. Studies show that laboratory animals maintain better endurance and performance, stronger immune systems, and lower cortisol levels when given supplemental holy basil. Take: Products vary, so use as directed on the label.

Valerian - Stress and anxiety often disrupt sleep. This venerable European herb has long been used as a sleep aid. A recent clinical trial found that an extract of valerian had significant anxiety-reducing effects. Take: Products vary, so use as directed on the label.

C'mon, Give Yourself a Break

Many non-nutritional habits can also help you de-stress and have a restful sleep, including taking a relaxing early-evening walk (30 minutes), reading a book, and doing breathing exercises. Deep breathing (filling the belly and not just the chest) during moments of stress can calm and focus the mind as well as oxygenate the blood. Breathing techniques are a major part of yoga, which many people also use to manage stress.

You can address your day-to-day stress by eating nutritious meals, taking the right supplements, and not forgetting to breathe.

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