Confession: I have a drawer full of supplements, and I actually take them every day. Because, for real, I want to live to see people on Mars. Or Europa. Or whichever non-earth terrestrial body we finally colonize – I want to see that, y’all. Which is one of the many reasons I’ve done research into which over-the-counter supplements manage stress. Or help manage stress at least.
The first time I did this little research run, my life didn’t look exactly how I’d pictured my mid-twenties. I didn’t have any adorable children *or* a husband who seemed delighted (not annoyed) by my hilarious and endless supply of sarcasm. #ThankYouVeronicaMars I did have borderline high blood pressure and a newly diagnosed arrhythmia though. After blindly taking a beta blocker for a few months, I decided to get to the bottom of the issue instead of treating the symptom. Because science.
Despite a careful examination of my dysfunctional family, high stress work environment, and type A personality, I still couldn’t peg a likely cause. #MustBeCellPhones, right?
But, I clearly had all the signs of what I’m gonna call constant, aggressive cortisol levels – aka serious consequences of chronic psychological and physiological stress. So I decided to make like a pharmaceutical company, give up on addressing the cause, and focus on the symptoms.
Before I tell you what I found, let’s take a look at the biological consequences of stress and what happens if we don’t address them. Spoiler Alert: it’s basically an extended Snicker’s hungry commercial. Two parts entertainment, one part terrifyingly accurate truth and consequences.
Stress Affects Your Whole Body
Most of the systems in your body devote themselves to one critical job: maintaining the status quo. Processes continually provide push and pull, hopefully completely balanced with each other. When something out of the ordinary happens to us or around us – Coca Cola announces they’re discontinuing your favorite drink, or your new boss holds a lot of scream meetings because “they really get people moving” – our bodies see that as a threat to maintaining normal operations. We get stressed.
In response to that stress, your body produces cortisol to give you the energy you need to either fight or run like The Leprechaun is after you. [I don’t care what anyone says, that dude still creeps me out.] In a perfect world, this provides glucose and insulin to all your muscles. But in the real world, where Russian bots popularize conspiracy theories about bears replacing all the teachers in Idaho, that cortisol doesn’t always help.
It slows down bone formation, leading to osteoporosis, and decreases collagen synthesis. Yes, y’all. That means stress can actually cause wrinkles. So you *can* blame your boss for aging you. But only if you have a terrible boss. If you have a good one, congratulations, and hang onto them!
Stress Affects Your Heart, Brain, & Metabolism
I know cortisol already seems pretty bad, but the most insidious effects of stress come in the form of cardiovascular, metabolic, and brain related changes. Our heart rate and blood pressure immediately skyrocket when stressed, but when the stressor hangs out for a while, things get worse. We end up developing chronic high blood pressure, insulin resistance (we get fat), and cognitive impairment (i.e. cotton candy for brains).
And. And, and, and. Stress rewires our brains to make us eat more, even though it knows it already made us fat! I suppose you could argue that response is really just attempting to prepare us for a long, hard winter. But come on y’all. Whether you believe in climate change or not, none of us really needs to pack on that winter finish anymore.
Long-term, all this stuff adds up and kills us much faster than all the other stuff that’s killing us. Like eating the whole bag of candy corn despite promising yourself you absolutely wouldn’t do it this year. Or going ahead and jumping off that cliff because those idiot college freshmen did it, and they survived, right? #GradStudentsAreTheWorst #BecauseIDidThatInGradSchool
Some Supplements Help Curb The Symptoms
Today’s post isn’t all doom and gloom though. Whole Foods, Amazon, and a slew of other retailers carry a few supplements that are clinically proven to combat some of the downstream effects of chronic stress, like high blood pressure. And not in the “4 out of 5 dentists recommend Trident” kind of way. More like the “statistically significant decrease in systolic blood pressure” kind of way. Which, as you all know, is the right way.
Is it just me, or did I take a Joey Tribbiani having and giving and loving and sharing the love that we have and give kind of detour just now? Well if not, I definitely have now!
And Now Back to Those Supplements
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Ashwagandha on the other hand has achieved blood sugar control comparable to a prescription diabetes medicine. And, patients who took an Ashwagandha supplement for a period of 60 days had statistically significant decreases in cortisol levels and stress assessment values as compared to placebo.
i could have really used this stuff in undergrad when I earned my first grey hairs by spending weeks running on less than 6 hours of sleep (per week). According to a lot of research, that’s the level of sleep deprivation where you start hallucinating, which may explain my repeated waking nightmares about showing up late to an organic chemistry test, proctored by a shark, without ever studying.
Fish Oil Rocks
We don’t eat a lot of fish in this country, or at least we don’t over here in Central Texas. I think the first time I saw fish it was in stick form, and that inspired me to avoid seafood for decades. Which was a mistake, y’all! Fish provide a lot of really beneficial nutrition, as evidenced by a bunch of clinical studies. In this one, people who took a fish oil supplement had 20 – 26% lower risk of cardiac related death. In a meta-analysis (a study of studies), these Mayo Clinic authors concluded that fish oil supplementation likely reduces a person’s risk of coronary heart disease.
Now, I can’t live with myself if I don’t mention that not all studies have come to the same conclusions about fish oil. Some researchers have analyzed their own or other people’s research and concluded that fish oil doesn’t provide benefit. Right now that says the jury is still out. In another ten years, our information will have improved. And I bet we’ll have learned that our doses weren’t standardized in previous studies, which explains the seemingly equivocal conclusions.
Kind of like if you did two studies on the efficacy of food to alleviate hunger in college students. In one study you provide 200 grams of meatloaf, and in the other one you provide 200 grams of spring salad. They both study food and hunger, but I bet the salad one fails where the meatloaf succeeds. And you can’t really conclude that food doesn’t alleviate hunger if the studies you’re using don’t standardize their food.
For now, I personally find the evidence strong enough that I take fish oil every single day. I use this one, but you can take any high quality one. You just want to make sure that whatever version you’re taking, it’s been certified to have very small or zero levels of mercury in it. Because fish carry a lot of mercury these days. And you don’t want to be the first person to gain super powers from excessive mercury exposure. Right? Unless you do, in which case, by all means source your fish oil from a discount pharmacy in Russia.
My Stress Supplements
Because I’m a crazy person who likes to fill their tiny kitchen with bottles of supplements, this is what you’ll find me taking every day:
- Rhodiola Rosea
relaxes blood vessels & decreases the brain slowing effects of stress.
- AM: 2 capsules
- PM: 2 capsules
helps with blood sugar control and decreases cortisol levels.
- AM: 3 capsules
- Fish Oil
decreases the risk of cardiac related death.
- AM: 2 Gelcaps
- PM: 2 Gelcaps
Now, certainly other stress symptom-controlling supplements exist. These just happen to be the ones I’ve researched most extensively and used personally for many years now. And to be fair, I no longer take beta blockers. My blood pressure is perfect, and I barely have any arrhythmias anymore. So I guess addressing the symptoms (blood pressure, cortisol) instead of the cause (stress) gets the job done every once in a while. Not bragging, just saying… science works, y’all.
Oh, also – the fish oil I mentioned is lemon flavored. So if you happen to wash your pills down with a morning Coke, you won’t end up burping fish coke. Which we can all admit is revolting. #ThatsNasty
And for those wondering if I really take these every single day, I do. Even when I travel. Every. Single. Day. Because I decided years ago that I wanted to see people on Mars, and I will. NOT. let a silly thing like stress or cardiovascular disease get in my way. Not as long as I can help it.
Alright folks, that’s it for today’s episode of “my pantry already looks like I’m in a Colonial Penn commercial.”
Wondering how I got this crazy? Or trying to figure out if that fish Coke comment was from personal experience? Ask me in the comments, or drop a line directly in my inbox!