What are your mornings like? Do you make time for self-care practices such as meditation and exercise, or are you rushing to get the day started? As our schedules become more packed and hectic, so do our stress levels—while simultaneously, our health and sense of wellbeing diminishes. So what can we do about it?
What Stress and Anxiety Do to The Body
Chronic stress and anxiety raise levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with our natural “fight or flight” survival response. Cortisol and other biochemical stress compounds can fuel inflammation, along with major diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, mast cell activation and autoimmune disorders—and much more. This vicious cycle can cause more stress and also deprive you of sleep, reinforcing the loop of chronic stress, inflammation, and damage to your brain and long-term health.
Natural Solutions for Stress and Anxiety
When stress, anxiety and feelings of burnout are high, it’s important to take time to slow down. However, this often feels difficult or impossible, like a catch-22 for many people. The thinking goes like this: if you slow down, you don’t get things done, so anxiety increases over unfinished tasks. This is a symptom of a stress-cycle that can feel difficult to break.
But if we just slow down a little bit, say with a ten-minute morning meditation session, we can actually get more done, and support our mental and physical health. That’s because stress can impair the brain, making us feel distracted and scattered, and emotional. On the other hand, regular meditation and other mind-body practices that help us slow down are shown to increase brain power, mood, and cognitive function. These cumulative benefits of meditation and creating more space in our day can allow us to tune in to a calmer and clearer state of being, which gives us greater brain power, energy, and overall wellness.
In addition to meditation, a healthy diet and regular physical activity are foundational for supporting a healthy mental state, reducing neuroinflammation, and controlling overactive stress responses.
For optimal brain and mental health, it’s important to avoid high sugar/high-glycemic index foods that rapidly spike blood sugar, leading to an equally rapid crash. Blood sugar crashes can cause serious mood imbalances and leave your brain and body feeling depleted and drained. Stick with whole, unprocessed foods emphasizing high quality protein, healthy fats and lots of green vegetables. These foods can boost brain power, help stabilize moods, support detoxification of stress hormones, and provide the body with optimal nutrition to address anxiety.
Natural Ingredients for Mental Health and Mood
Adapting to Stress with Adaptogenic Herbs
Adaptogens are botanicals that protect us against stress, premature aging and chronic illness. They work by helping us adapt our internal responses to external influences. A variety of studies have shown that specific plants can reduce our biological response to stress on the cellular level. Here are some recommendations for adaptogenic herbs that can help support your mood and mental health:
- Ashwagandha root
Also known as Indian ginseng, Ashwagandha has been shown to reduce stress in a number of studies. In one, people with chronic anxiety experienced a significant reduction in symptoms, as well as lower cortisol levels, after ingesting Ashwagandha for 60 days. In another, Ashwagandha reduced evidence of anxiety in animals. Another study found similar anti-anxiety effects. Traditional use and recent research demonstrate Ashwagandha to be free of unwanted side-effects including dependency.1
One of the most fundamental herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine, schisandra is a powerful antioxidant that can help defend against acute and chronic stress and related imbalances. It is used as an anti-aging herb to combat premature aging and promote longevity; to strengthen immunity; normalize blood pressure; balance blood glucose levels and help heal tissues after surgery.2
Natural Calming Herbs
Some herbs are prized in traditional, natural medicine for their abilities to calm anxiety through different mechanisms. Here are some particularly effective herbs and extracts that can support natural calm, without causing dependency, mental fog, or unwanted side effects.
Low levels of the neurotransmitter GABA are associated with a number of conditions including anxiety. Passionflower has been used for centuries to control anxiety, and data has demonstrated that it works by modulating GABA receptors in the brain to support increased GABA activity.
Lavender is a potent sedative, making it especially useful to overcome anxiety as well as insomnia. Many people find relief just smelling the essential oil – it’s also available as a tea and in supplements. There’s nothing like fresh lavender, so if you can, consider growing some near your home to have on hand whenever stress takes hold.
Honokiol—Neuroprotectant Mood Enhancer
One of my top supplement recommendations for mental health, stress, and brain function, is the botanical extract, honokiol. Purified from Magnolia bark, honokiol has a variety of beneficial properties. In addition to being a powerful antioxidant (1,000 more potent than vitamin E) and anti-inflammatory, honokiol also modulates GABA receptors, providing natural relaxation. For comparison, there are a number of popular pharmaceuticals, such as Valium and Xanax, which target GABA. Honokiol’s advantage is that it works gently and doesn’t cause side effects. It has also been shown to fight depression and is an excellent sleep aid.3-5
Chronic stress and anxiety are like background noise. We become so accustomed to these feelings, we hardly notice them anymore. But just because we get used to the stress, doesn’t mean our bodies can handle it better. Over time, chronic stress does cumulative damage to our physical and mental health. But if we prioritize our mental wellness with daily steps to ease our minds calm neuroinflammation, we can fully let go and allow ourselves to enjoy all life has to offer.
- Speers AB, Cabey KA, Soumyanath A, Wright KM. Effects of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) on Stress and the Stress- Related Neuropsychiatric Disorders Anxiety, Depression, and Insomnia. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2021;19(9):1468-1495.
- Song Y, Shan B, Zeng S, et al. Raw and wine processed Schisandra chinensis attenuate anxiety like behavior via modulating gut microbiota and lipid metabolism pathway. J Ethnopharmacol. 2021 Feb 10;266:113426.
- Talarek S, Listos J, Barreca D, Tellone E, Sureda A, Nabavi SF, Braidy N, Nabavi SM. Neuroprotective effects of honokiol: from chemistry to medicine. Biofactors. 2017 Nov;43(6):760-769.
- Zhang B, Li Y, Liu M, Duan XH, Hu KL, Li LN, Yu X, Chang HS. Antidepressant-like mechanism of honokiol in a rodent model of corticosterone-induced depression. J Integr Neurosci. 2020 Sep 30;19(3):459-467.
- Chen C, Zhang QW, Ye Y, Lin LG. Honokiol: A naturally occurring lignan with pleiotropic bioactivities. Chin J Nat Med. 2021 Jul;19(7):481-490.