Some Remedies for Stress (April 15, 2015)
Last week I spoke to a nice lady who wanted to know how to actually handle stress. She and her roommate presented me with two situations, the first being the universally-recognized creep at work who is making your life there miserable, and the other the in-law who is maliciously alienating your grandchildren from you.
The reason that these types of situations cause stress is not so much that they are disturbing or upsetting, but that you mostly can’t do anything about them. CAN’T. Otherwise you WOULD, and then the situation would resolve and your stress response would go away. Stress mobilizes your body to take action to remove the stressor, and when you don't do that the response continues -- indefinitely. Your body doesn’t understand what you can and can't accomplish. It doesn't understand anything but the physiology it’s developed over the last billion-plus years. It only knows that you think that something is threatening you and that that means that you'd better do something about it, and it won’t take no for an answer.
Your body NEVER takes “no” for an answer. It does not listen to reason. It doesn’t care if you can only afford to eat ramen this week, it will still be deficient in nutrients. It doesn’t care if you don’t have time to exercise, your muscles will get flabby and stop supporting your bones anyway. It doesn’t care how good the reasons are that it can’t have what it needs -- it still insists on what it needs.
The life situations my friends presented me with are both prime examples of how if you cannot change the stressor (by quitting the only decent employer in town in the first example, or by substituting LSD for the in-law’s antidepressant in the second) your only alternative is to change your response to the situation. If you feel less threatened, you’ll feel less stress. But changing your response to a situation is not a satisfactory answer for most people. They want to DO something about it, which brings us back to the start of all this. So I do offer this – if you will take appropriate steps to keep yourself from becoming overwhelmed by a stressful situation, you may be able to think of a creative solution to it.
I once knew a guy whose workplace was plagued by someone who continually raided the common refrigerator and ate everyone else’s lunches and snacks. My friend solved this problem by first finding and killing one of those horrid palmetto bugs with insect spray, leaving the body intact. He then carefully inserted the little corpse into a lovely raspberry danish and placed said pastry into the refrigerator, prominently displayed. A few hours later the aforementioned co-worker ran down the hall to the restroom, retching the entire way, and never touched anyone else’s food again. You see my point here. (By the way, this is a true story and the principle is probably adaptable to a multitude of different circumstances.)
Meditation and other mind-body techniques are so highly respected in the stress-relief biz because they enable you to step outside yourself and the situation to some degree. Once you have a little distance you feel a little more in control and can look at it differently. If you feel too overwhelmed by a situation you cannot think rationally about coping with it. That sense of overwhelm is why everyone searches for something they can take to ameliorate stress, because we all know that no matter how bad things get, we can always swallow something. So I tried to find a couple of nice healthy things that could be reliably swallowed to alleviate stress.
The subject of natural substances that relieve stress contains a vast amount of research with little consistency or agreement. The problem here is the one shared by most areas of alternative medicine -- since the substances (or techniques) being studied cannot be patented, it isn't in anyone's financial interest to find out what works. There are many herbs and nutritional supplements that have been used to relieve stress and most if not all of them have at least a little evidence for them. Sadly, usually only a little. Still I thought there were a few that stood out.
But let me first pound you with this again -- if the basics for good health are missing in your life, you’re probably fighting a losing battle against stress. And not just stress, but EVERY SINGLE PROBLEM YOU HAVE. The first thing to do is always to eat properly and not too much, exercise at a sufficient level (for the average adult, two sessions of weights and two-and-a-half hours of moderate aerobic activity weekly) and get enough sleep, or you already have two strikes against you.
In that vein, very interestingly, multivitamins plus minerals were recommended by ConsumerLab on the basis of two small trials (these trials are always small, for the reasons I mentioned above). In one study, after 30 days the people taking a tablet containing vitamin B1 (10 mg), vitamin B2 (15 mg), vitamin B6 (10 mg), vitamin B12 (10 mcg), vitamin C (1,000 mg), calcium (100 mg), and magnesium (100 mg) experienced less overall anxiety and an increased ability to cope with stressful circumstances. The other study was with a proprietary formula called “Berocca” with similar ingredients that also got good results.
Now, this “Berocca” phenomenon happens a lot in alternative medicine. A substance (or several) are found by some small but respectable study to have some desired effect. A company or entrepeneur formulates some kind of combination product based on these results, tests it on a small group, then manages to get the results published as to the efficacy of their particular formulation. So if it's generally thought that magnesium is helpful in stress (which it is), some smart guy will put magnesium together with a couple of other things, test it on a small group, then strong-arm some journal into publishing his results. Now he's in the evidence-based literature and can flog the results ad infinitum. This is the alternative-health version of patenting a prescription medication.
There is another proprietary formula, a homeopathic one, called Formula 303, which most chiropractors carry. It contains passionflower and valerian root, both of which not only have evidence for relief of stress but promote good sleep, as does its third ingredient magnesium (magnesium also is deficient in most people’s diets, by the way). Formula 303 may be very beneficial, certainly will not get you in trouble, and I do not make any money on it whatsoever, so you might give it a shot.
You’ve probably heard of Rescue Remedy as well. That is a homeopathic remedy which contains brandy, water and flower extract. Rescue Remedy has been studied fairly thoroughly and found to be of no value at all in the relief of stress. All I can tell you about it is that it works on my cat. In fact, it worked so well on her during a very long car drive some years ago that my mother asked for some for herself. Go figure.
I just recommended two homeopathic formulas to you even though the final word is supposed to be that homeopathy doesn't work, because they are both commonly used and many people find them beneficial. Next time I want to talk about some other supplements and remedies for stress that are more evidence-based, as well as to discuss the whole “relaxation practice” thing. In the meantime, if you want to try something for stress I would at least start with the vitamin/mineral combination I mentioned above. And also think about where you might be able to find a large palmetto bug.
--dr. diane holmes
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