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Woman taking anti-stress supplements

The 5 best supplements for beating stress

Knot in the stomach, racing heart, frayed nerves: stress certainly knows how to sow discord in our bodies. Discover the 5 most effective supplements for maintaining a calm outlook on life.

What do we actually mean by stress?

Stress can be defined as a collection of physical and psychological reactions triggered by a situation we perceive (rightly or wrongly) to be threatening. It can be understood as an instinctive and adaptive response by the body to dealing with an ‘aggressor’ (1).

In prehistoric times, such responses were enormously helpful. They formed an integral part of our survival kit: for example, they enabled the caveman to run for his life at the sight of a mammoth. Although times have changed, we have inherited this defensive reflex which can resurface without warning.

There are also different types of stress. Acute stress occurs when we’re faced with an unexpected or unnerving event (exams, public speaking …). It manifests in a rush of adrenaline, resulting in, amongst others, a faster heart rate, increased blood pressure and heightened awareness. Temporary in nature, it normally stops once the event in question has passed (2).

But sometimes this mechanism goes into overdrive, as a result of repeated or prolonged exposure to anxiety-inducing situations (overwork, family issues, serious or long-term illness ...). This is known as chronic stress. Cortisol, the famous ‘stress hormone’, takes over from adrenaline. The symptoms become more insidious but are no less significant: headaches, constant fatigue, muscle pain, sleep problems, lower immunity and mood… (3-4)

Ashwagandha, Indian medicine’s relaxing adaptogen

Used for more than 3000 years in Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha (Withamnia somnifera) literally translates as “strong as a horse” in Sanskrit. Known as ‘Indian ginseng’, it has a rayasana profile, a rejuvenator that confers vitality and longevity. It contains more than 140 different compounds, mainly in its root, including withanolides and their derivatives (5).

Ashwagandha has powerful adaptogenic properties: it increases physical and mental strength in the face of various symptoms of stress. It benefits mental health, promotes relaxation and helps maintain good quality sleep (6).

It appears to have a complex mechanism of action. Several studies have highlighted its interaction with the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal and sympathetic-adrenal medullary axes, as well as with GABAergic and serotoninergic pathways, all of which play a part in maintaining emotional equilibrium (7). It may also affect the underlying inflammatory context as well as stress-induced free radical generation.

If you wish to start supplementing with ashwagandha, choose a supplement free from withaferin A, a cytotoxic withanolide (try Super Ashwagandha, made from the patented KSM-66®, the most scientifically-supported ashwagandha extract) (8).

Passion flower, one of the best anti-stress supplements

Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) is a woody, perennial climber native to central America. All its aerial parts (flowers, fruit and leaves) have medicinal properties which come from a unique combination of active compounds: flavonoids, flavonoid glycosides, alkaloids and phenolic compounds.

Used as natural tranquilliser by the Algonquin peoples, this sedative plant induces a state of calm by reducing psychomotor agitation (9). Various studies have also compared its effects on anxiety with those of conventional anxiolytic treatments (10).

It also improves resistance to stress and helps ensure restful sleep (often elusive during periods of nervous tension) (11). In some supplements, it is combined with other anti-stress plant extracts to expand its field of action (enriched with magnesium and vitamin B1, which supports normal nervous system function, the natural formulation Stress Relief Formula combines passion flower with 6 plant extracts, including schisandra and magnolia) (12-13).

GABA’s natural ‘braking’ action excellent for tackling stress

Have you heard of gamma-aminobutyric acid? Commonly referred to as GABA, it’s one of the central nervous system’s key neurotransmitters. Involved in sight, sleep and motor function, it’s primarily characterised by its inhibitory role in brain activity (14). GABA’s natural effect of ‘applying the brake’ prevents the body’s neurons from being in a constant state of hyperexcitability.

One study also points out that the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls our emotional response to a stress stimulus, relies on a network of GABAergic interneurons. Conversely, stress seems to lead to dysfunction of these inhibitory structures, creating a vicious circle (15).

The body is able to produce GABA from glutamic acid present in foods such as fermented dairy products, nuts, dried pulses, eggs, fish and meat (16). You can also supplement directly with GABA (with, for example, PharmaGABA®, produced from the lactic bacteria Lactobacillus hilgardii and certified safe by an expert panel of the US Food and Drug Administration) (17).

Potent stress-busting supplement: magnolia

A flagship of traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2000 years, and subsequently Japanese kampo medicine, magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis) is used for improving the flow of ‘Qi’, the body’s vital energy, stagnation of which impairs physical and emotional well-being. These properties come from its high content of honokiol and magnolol which are involved in muscle relaxation (18).

A good quality supplement should therefore deliver a sufficiently high quantity of these two active principles (guaranteed free from synthetic excipients, Magnolia Bark Extract is standardised to 90% honokiol and magnolol).

Several studies have looked at the effects of supplementing with both magnolia and phellodendron (a ‘dream-team’ found in the patented complex Relora®) on cortisol in saliva, raised levels of which are a sign of increased vulnerability to stress (19). Feeling of anger and anxiety, as well as fatigue, have been measured with significant results.

Tulsi, sacred herb of relaxation and vitality

A close relative of common basil, tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) has attracted many nicknames including ‘holy basil’, ‘queen of plants’, ‘the incomparable one’ and ‘elixir of life’. Deserving just as many accolades, this ancient member of the Indian pharmacopoeia has been used for more than 3000 years for relieving various ailments. Its long list of compounds is testament to its versatility: eugenol, ursolic acid, β-caryophyllene, linalool, 1,8-cineole… (20)

A renowned adaptogen, it helps maintain optimal physical and mental health. It supports the body against physical and psychological stress, helps maintain vitality and promotes good cardiac health (with a particular effect on the lipid profile and artery walls) (21-22). Its antioxidant properties also protect our cells against stress-induced damage.

Holy basil also helps to maintain strong immunity, known to be compromised by chronic stress. Studies have also shown increased populations of NK and T helper cells in tulsi-supplemented subjects compared with a placebo group (23).

The efficacy of anti-stress supplements is reinforced when combined with other medicinal plants and recognised adaptogens (such as maca, eleutherococcus and rhodiola, which, with tulsi, form an unassailable quartet in Adrenal Support) (24-26).



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