Yes today I’m talking supplements! I know, I know – I usually talk whole food only. For good reason – supplements are not nearly as effective when we’re not also eating well. So please know I’m trusting you have the intention of (or already are) nourishing yourself with nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory food – and simply wish to support your body under the stress you’re facing from another angle.
To understand why the supplements I recommend are valuable for anyone who faces a lot of stress in their life, we first need to understand the stress response, what causes it and when it becomes a problem.
The Stress Response
Our bodies are uniquely equipped to manage any stress we might face with a built-in “flight-or-flight” response, governed by our HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). Essentially, the hormones cortisol, adrenaline (also called epinephrine) and noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine) are released by our adrenals (glands that sit above our kidneys) in response to a hormones released by the hypothalamus (a portion of our brain) when we encounter a psychological or physiological stressor.
These stressors might include anything we interpret as negative – such as too much work, career struggles, not enough time, loss of control / sense of helplessness, perfectionist tendencies, financial issues, relationship difficulties, or death/loss (psychological stressors) or anything our bodies experience as negative, such as injury or illness, extreme temperature, low quality/highly processed food, not enough food or not enough certain nutrients, too much caffeine and/or alcohol, not enough sleep, pain, or hard/intense exercise (physiological stressors).
Did that last one surprise you? Yes, it’s true – running (particularly hard or long runs) is a stress to the body. In fact we know that short, easy runs boost the immune system while hard, intense or very long runs actually inhibit the immune system. (By the way, this doesn’t mean don’t run hard or long! It just means ensure you take the time to properly rest and recover after hard or long training sessions.)
Here’s where I need to point out that stress in and of itself isn’t a bad thing (and physical stress from exercise has been shown to have more beneficial qualities than psychological stress, such as this 2015 review points out). The hormones produced by our fight-or-flight response are designed to be helpful in the moment – for example, cortisol and adrenaline work together to turn stored carbohydrate into immediate useable energy. Additionally, cortisol is a life-sustaining and required hormone that aids in metabolism, immune responses, anti-inflammatory actions and central nervous system activation.
The problem occurs when the fight-or-flight response becomes chronically, constantly activated. For example, if you are repeatedly skipping out on 7-9 hours of sleep, always taking on too much work (so much so, it’s now cutting into your relaxation time), eating poor quality/processed or restaurant/takeout food more often than not because you’re too busy to make good food (plus heck, you deserve a treat!) and still faithfully busting your butt to get in every single workout session or run in – chances are your fight-or-flight response to stress is constantly turned on.
The right amount of cortisol is no longer circulating in your body. With chronic activation of this stress response now there is too much cortisol. And if it’s allowed to continue, eventually there will not be enough, as the mechanisms stop working as effectively. This is not good.
You might end up having trouble sleeping at night (even though you feel like you could fall asleep during the day) and often feel overly anxious, irritable or moody. You might crave sugary, fatty or salty foods, or feel like all of a sudden any exercise exhausts you. You might experience skin rashes and/or acne, have numbness or tingling in your arms and/or legs, or maybe experience tinnitus (ringing in the ears). And the list goes on. Not good at all.
This is, in fact, exactly what happened to me 6 months ago. Post 100-miler, I jumped right back into training and racing all the while eating far too many ‘treats’ and ignoring my green smoothies and tart cherry recovery shakes. What can I say – somehow I rationalized rewarding myself with all the wine and cinnamon buns (with icing I might add!) for having successfully trained for and completed my 100-miler of course. I was going to bed too late most nights yet still getting up with my 5:30am alarm. I took on a huge load of work as the New Year rolled around and ended up working many evenings instead of making dinner and enjoying time with my husband and our furkids.
My fight-or-flight response was constantly activated and I was giving my HPA axis zero support. So I crashed.
Amazingly it took only one month of hardcore personalized ‘eat2run’ eating and I felt like myself again. By the time I made it to my Naturopath appointment, she listened to my story and basically encouraged me to keep doing what was clearly working! However, she did also give me invaluable additional recommendations to use moving forward in the continued process of regaining my health and vitality.
Key Adaptogenic Stress-Protective Supplements
Today I prioritize sleep and am drinking my green smoothies and tart cherry juice again, along with eating in a (tried, tested and true!) manner I know works for me personally. I eat a few squares of 80-85% dark chocolate daily, because chocolate has been found in this 2014 study to reduced perceived stress in females. (Note, dark chocolate is good for guys too, just for other reasons!)
I’m also supplementing daily with key adaptogens – and I’d like to share the top three that can help down-regulate the negative effects of stress with you today. Adaptogens are defined as a “pharmacological group of herbal preparations that increase tolerance to mental exhaustion and enhance attention and mental endurance in situations of decreased performance”, according to this 2009 pubmed article published in the journal of Current Clinical Pharmacology.
In other words, adaptogens have the ability to make us more resistant to stress. This is good… Very good.
1. Schizandra (schisandra chinensis)
One of my favourite new supplements, introduced to me by my Naturopathic Doctor, schizandra is a berry that grows on a vine native to northern China and eastern Russia. It’s been used medicinally for centuries (over 2,000 years in Traditional Chinese Medicine) to slow aging, increase energy, combat fatigue, and enhance libido, according to this extensive article on schizandra here.
Schizandra helps us manage stress by reducing the levels of cortisol in the blood and saliva and positively affects blood cells, vessels and the central nervous system, according to this 2008 overview published in the Journal of Ethnopharmocology. This 2009 study published in the National Journal of Andrology showed schizandra to be helpful in protecting the adrenal cortex and lowering blood levels of cortisol and blood glucose following physical as well as psychological stress, reconfirmed with this 2015 study published in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine. And this 2015 study published in Cell Biology and Biophysics showed schizandra to be helpful in lessening the damaging effects of oxidative stress.
There are many additional published studies on schizandra, including this 2013 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showing that it may also enhance exercise capacity by lowering lactate accumulation.
You can find schizandra in a power form, or in capsule format. I prefer the powder form as it’s not a case of remembering to pop a pill daily – instead I just add a quarter teaspoon to my cherry berry recovery shake (you could add it to any fruit smoothie). Or I’ll whisk it into 1-2 Tbsp of tart cherry juice concentrate for an anti-inflammatory stress busting shooter!
2. Ashwagandha (withania somnifera)
Another supplement I’d never taken before a few months ago, ashwagandha is also known as “Indian Winter Cherry” or “Indian Ginseng”, as outlined in this overview of the herb. Native to India, the root of this bush been used for thousands of years in Ayurveda, the traditional system of medicine in India as their most prominent adaptogen / anti-stress agent. On top of being a powerful adaptogen, it also boosts immunity, improves memory and protects against cellular damage caused by free radicals.
Ashwagandha decreases stress and anxiety in adults, as shown by this 2012 study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, where this herb safety and effectively improved resistance towards stress and improved quality of life. And it’s been shown (in this 2014 review) to result in significantly less anxiety or stress than placebos.
Interestingly this 2015 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed ashwagandha supplementation may also be used as an athletic ergogenic aid as it resulted in significant increases in muscle mass and strength alongside a resistance training program.
You can find ashwagandha most commonly in capsule form, but also as tinctures or in a powdered form. You might also find it in capsule form mixed with other adaptogens such as Licorice root (glycyrrhiza glare), Siberian ginseng (eleutherococcus senticosus) and Rhodiola (rhodiola rosea) – which is how I take mine.
3. Chaga (inonotus obliquus)
I’d been using chaga here and there for a couple of years, very irregularly, but in the past few months it’s become a daily habit. Chaga, also known as “black gold”, is a medicinal mushroom that grows on birch trees mostly in northern Canada and the US, as well as Russia and the Nordic countries, in harsh and cold conditions.
Chaga is also classified as a powerful adaptogen, helping your body adapt to both psychological and physical stressors. It’s also known to strongly support the immune system and has been shown to be one of nature’s most potent cancer-fighting agents.
This 2013 study published in the International Journal of Biological Macromolecules showed that chaga works to alleviate oxidative stress. However, aside from a number of studies supporting its anti-cancer benefits, there aren’t any readily available studies on chagas adaptogenic qualities. Yet according to this article Chaga: The Facts, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist but instead offer stress buffering assistance by normalizing immune function.
Chaga is rich in beta-glucans and other components that help the body maintain balance through supporting the immune system, which is constantly under attack from stress. It boosts the immune system when it’s suppressed but also slows it down when it’s overactive. Beta-glucans also normalize cholesterol levels and blood sugar.
You can find chaga in capsule form, but my favourite is in powdered form, mixed with other ingredients to form an elixir. I personally use Four Stigmatic’s chaga elixir mix. It’s used by some as a coffee substitute! Just be sure the one you get is duel extracted. Other great medicinal mushrooms include cordyceps (energizing), lions mane (boosts memory and focus) and reishi (relaxing) – I’ll often mix them into my chaga drink.
Many of our stressors aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The good news is you’ll have a much better chance of thriving in spite of this fact by providing your body the invaluable support of a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet coupled with a few key adaptogenic supplements.
To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,
Sarah J Cuff, RHN