Various factors can have a significant impact on your mood and mental health such as the recent pandemic, family, friends, work and lifestyle. A positive mood can help you to function better and improve the quality of your life. Certain dietary supplements can help to support your emotional wellbeing so that you can focus on achieving your daily life goals and not have a constant stress of worry and anxiety.
Any form of physical activity can act as a stress reliever, no matter how fit or unfit you are. Physical activity increases the release of endorphins which helps to enhance your sense of wellbeing. Activities such as walking, jogging, gardening, house cleaning, biking, swimming or weight lifting can help to refocus your mind on your body's movements providing a good stress reliever.
Eat a healthy diet:
Incorporating a variety of fruit and vegetables and whole grains in your diet will help to provide essential nutrients for your body to absorb and utilize to provide support in stressful situations.
Avoid unhealthy habits:
Unhealthy habits such as alcohol consumption, smoking, overeating and using illegal substances are habits that can harm your health and should not be used as a coping mechanism to deal with stress.
Meditation can help to restore a sense of peace, calm and balance to your mind and provide stress relief. Guided meditation, guided imagery and visualization are some of the forms of meditation that can be practiced anywhere. Deep breathing is often a technique used in meditation to bring a sense of relaxation.
A good sense of humour can lighten your mood and help you to feel better. Laughter aids in calming down your stress response and influencing positive changes within your body.
Connect with others:
Social connection with others can help to provide support and offer a distraction from current stressful issues. Being isolated when stressed is often the choice made but in the long term, this does not provide any benefit on your stress load.
Learning to say no and delegating work can help manage your stress load as it takes off the extra pressure of a busy schedule and allows you to plan better and prioritize your needs.
Yoga involves controlled breathing exercises, which helps to achieve peacefulness of body and mind and provides relief from stress and anxiety. Hatha yoga is a good stress reliever as it is slower pace with easier movements.
Get enough sleep:
The quality and amount of sleep you get can affect your mood, energy level, concentration and overall functioning. Although too much stress can make it difficult to sleep, it is important to create a good sleeping routine that can help you to relax.
Keep a journal:
By keeping a journal and writing down your thoughts, it can help to release any built up emotions and reflect on how you feel, therefore providing a form of stress relief and comfort.
Get musical and be creative:
Listening to or playing music is a good stress reliever because it can provide a mental distraction, reduce muscle tension and decrease stress hormones. Other hobbies such as gardening, sewing and sketching etc., can also provide another focus other than stress.
If stress becomes too overwhelming to cope with (excessive worrying, trouble carrying out daily routines or meeting responsibilities at work, home or school) and self-help tools are not working, it is recommended to seek help from a trained professional such as professional counsellors or therapists who can help you identify sources of your stress and learn new coping tools.
Research on exercise and reducing stress has mainly focused on aerobic exercises. It has been found that people feel calmer and more relaxed when completing 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise and this effect can last for several hours post exercise. Studies have shown that exercise improves the way the body handles stress because of changes in the hormone responses and neurotransmitters in the brain such as dopamine and serotonin that affect mood and behaviours. A recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise per week can improve the way the body handles stress. Breaking exercise into two 10-15 minute sessions can also help combat stress throughout the day. Although further research regarding resistance training still needs to be done to confirm if it has a positive effect on reducing stress levels, resistance exercise can offer a time out from one's stressors. The recommendation is 2 to 3 days of resistance exercise to target all of the major muscle groups performed at a moderate intensity of 8 to 12 repetitions.
When a person suffers from long term or chronic stress, this can result in wear and tear on the body causing physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms to develop.
Physical symptoms include:
- Aches and pains
- Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing
- Exhaustion or trouble sleeping
- Headaches, dizziness or shaking
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching
- Stomach or digestive problems
- Trouble having sex
- Weak immune system
Emotional symptoms include:
- Anxiety or irritability
- Panic attacks
Cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, is released when you are stressed. This hormone is responsible for regulating your metabolism and sends your body into fight-or-flight mode, temporarily pausing regular bodily functions and slowing your metabolism. High levels of cortisol can also cause cravings for sweet, fatty and salty foods making you more likely to snack on these high calorie foods which leads to weight gain. Excess cortisol levels also decrease testosterone production in the body which may cause a decrease in muscle mass and slow down the burning of calories.
Anxiety disorder is a type of mental health condition where a person may respond to certain situations with fear. An anxiety disorder goes beyond the normal nervousness and interferes with your ability to function. People with anxiety often overreact when something triggers their emotions and cannot control their responses to certain situations.
Physical signs experienced may include sweating and a pounding heart beat. Other symptoms may include the feeling of nervousness, panic and fear.
As the body is preparing for “fight or flight” mode, cortisol is released. The release of this hormone can cause physical symptoms such as difficulty breathing, tense muscles, rapid heart beat, trembling, pain and bloating in your abdomen.
A heart attack and panic attack may share similar symptoms but key differences need to be noted to distinguish between the two.
- Squeezing pain and pressure in the chest
- Sudden onset during or following physical activity (e.g. climbing the stairs)
- Pain that radiates to the arm, jaw or shoulder blades
- Pain and symptoms that get worse over time
- Shortness of breath
- Near fainting
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased or racing heart rate
- Sudden onset or onset during extreme stress or anxiety
- Pain that gets better over time
- Symptoms that resolve within 20 to 30 minutes
- Shortness of breath
- Tingling in the hands
It has been found that deep breathing helps to alleviate anxiety. Deep breathing is defined as the conscious act of taking slow, deep breaths. Inhaling air through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. When you breathe in, blood cells take up oxygen. As oxygen moves through the body, carbon dioxide is created and transported back to the lungs and released when you exhale. When people experience anxiety, they tend to breathe faster and this can affect the way oxygen and carbon dioxide is processed by the body. Increases in heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure may occur. Deep breathing can activate the body's parasympathetic response which prevents these increases and returns the body back to a relaxed state.
If a person's anxiety starts to impede their ability to enjoy life, interact at school, work or any social environment or causes problems at home, it is time to seek professional help. It is important to encourage the person experiencing anxiety to make an appointment with a mental health provider. Important signs to look out for are when the person experiencing anxiety becomes socially withdrawn or isolated, has persistent negative thinking, feeling fatigued and tense in the body, inability to to turn off thoughts leading to sleep issues, medicating with substance abuse and panic attacks.
Stress symptoms affect not only your body but your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Common physical stress symptoms include headaches, an upset stomach, high blood pressure, chest pain, problems with sex and sleep. Emotional stress symptoms include depression, panic attacks, anxiety and worry. Stress that is not dealt with can also lead to many serious medical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Common stressors that can lead to high levels of stress include high pressure work environment and jobs, financial difficulties, overcommitting to family and work related responsibilities, conflicts at home or work and not taking time out to relax.
Stress can be classified as short term or long term stress depending on what changes occur in your life. Short term stress can last for a period of minutes to hours, while long term stress or chronic stress persists for several hours per day for weeks or months.
The following risk factors may increase your risk of triggering anxiety:
Trauma: Children and adults who endure abuse or experience a traumatic event are at higher risk for triggering anxiety disorders.
Stress due to illness: Having a serious illness can trigger anxiety, especially if you are concerned about your treatment, future and financial burdens with hospitalization.
Stress buildup: A build up of a big event or smaller stressful situations can trigger anxiety such as a death in the family, work stress and financial worry.
Personality: People with certain personality types are more likely to be prone to anxiety such as perfectionists, having a timid nature and those who want to be in control.
Other mental disorders: It is often common for people who have other mental disorders such as depression to also have anxiety.
Having blood relatives with an anxiety disorder: Anxiety can be inherited from family members who have experienced this condition as well.
Drugs or alcohol: Frequent use, abuse or withdrawal of substances can cause or worsen the symptoms of anxiety.
Anxiety is classified as a type of mental health condition affecting up to 30% of adults at a point in time in their lives. Anxiety disorders are treatable and those suffering from this condition can still lead normal productive lives.
Feeling anxious sometimes is normal and part of life, however when these feelings are intense, persistent and there is constant worrying and fear about everyday situations, then this is more likely an anxiety disorder. This disorder often involves, repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reaches a peak within minutes. It's important to reach out to a mental health care provider to help confirm a diagnosis.
Extreme anxiety is not a clinical term or diagnosis, it is the way that people can describe the subjective experience of severe anxiety or an anxiety disorder. This includes extreme feelings of fear or anxiety that are out of proportion to the actual threat or irrational fear about different situations or objects.
Experiencing anxiety is common symptom during menopause and can make you feel tense and fearful. Anxiety can occur due to the estrogen and progesterone imbalance that occurs during perimenopause/menopause. This imbalance causes symptoms of anxiety, depression, irritability, mood swings, tense muscles and sleep disturbances.
The following foods should be avoided to reduce anxiety:
- Caffeine (coffee, tea and energy drinks)
- Sugary drinks and foods (cakes, chocolate and sweets)
- Processed foods (chips, biscuits, frozen foods and ready-made meals)
- Foods high in trans fats and saturated fats (fried foods, red meat, full cream dairy and baked goods)
Foods high in B vitamins which can help with the metabolism of cortisol (beef, chicken, eggs, fortified cereal and nutritional yeast).
Foods high in omega 3 which helps to reduce inflammation, therefore also lowering cortisol levels (anchovies, chia seeds, mackerel, salmon, sardines and fresh tuna).
Magnesium rich foods which help to relax the body and mind, reducing inflammation and metabolizing cortisol in the body (avocados, bananas, broccoli, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds and spinach).
Foods rich in protein contain amino acids that help produce key neurotransmitters in preventing and treating anxiety and depression (almonds, chicken breast, eggs, lean beef, lentils, peanuts, quinoa, tuna, salmon and shrimp).
It is believed that regulating the gut microbiome (good and bad bacteria in the gut) may ease anxiety as the brain and the gastrointestinal system are closely connected. Certain foods may help to regulate and promote good gut health (greek yoghurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut).
Ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub found in India, Africa and parts of the Middle East. This nutrient has been used in Ayurvedic medicine (traditional medicine system in India) to increase energy, reduce inflammation, pain and anxiety. Several clinical studies show that ashwagandha may help to relieve symptoms of stress, as it normalizes cortisol levels which decreases the stress response.
Fish oil is a dietary source of omega 3 fatty acids which your body needs for many functions from muscle activity to cell growth. Some studies have found that fish oil and omega-3 fatty acid supplements may lessen the effects of mental stress, such as increased heart rate and nervous activity.
Ginseng is a herb rich in antioxidants and effectively regulates the immune response and the hormonal changes due to stress, therefore maintaining homeostasis. It has also been found to prevent stress-associated physiological diseases.
Holy basil is a plant native to India and commonly used in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine system. Studies suggest that holy basil extract may help to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety, but more research is needed to determine if it is effective and safe for these conditions.
L-theanine, an amino acid found in black and green tea, may reduce stress responses without causing drowsiness according to a study. It has also been shown to reduce sleep quality problems and may be a suitable nutraceutical ingredient for improving mental conditions in a healthy population.
Passionflower and lemon balm act as anxiolytic herbs (a herb used to treat anxiety) and have been known to serve as a benefit for those suffering from insomnia. These herbs have a direct sedative effect on sleep and an additional benefit of reducing anxiety.
Research has revealed that the health of our gut and brain are intricately linked and approximately 90% of our serotonin (happy hormone) is produced in the gut. Our gut microbes play an important role in the production of serotonin. This is one connection between gut health and mood. Certain probiotics have been shown to lower levels of the "stress" hormone cortisol and measures of psychological distress such as depression and anger. The following probiotic strains found to support mood and wellbeing include Bifidobacterium longum 1714, Lactobacillus acidophilus Rosell-52, Bifidobacteria longum Rosell-175 and Lactobacillus casei Shirota. Studies have also shown that probiotics help to relieve psychological stress by alleviating negative emotions, reducing abnormal behaviours and improving cognitive function.
Ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub found in India, Africa and parts of the Middle East. This nutrient has been used in Ayurvedic medicine (traditional medicine system in India) to increase energy, reduce inflammation, pain and anxiety. This nutrient has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety mixed with depression and panic disorder.
Cannabidiol (CBD) oil is derived from the cannabis plant. Small studies and case reports suggest that CBD oil can reduce symptoms of anxiety and improve sleep in anxiety-related sleep disorders. However it must be noted that CBD has been reported to have a stimulating effect or worsen anxiety and insomnia in a small percentage of people.
Curcumin is an active component in turmeric, has powerful anti-inflammatory effects and is a very strong antioxidant. A small study in people already taking prescription medication for major depression found daily supplementation with curcumin significantly reduced depressive symptoms after four weeks. Curcumin has a low bioavailability due to its water insolubility, therefore it is important to consume a good quality supplement in the form that is better absorbed.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a hormone your body naturally produces in the adrenal gland. It helps to produce other hormones including testosterone and estrogen. DHEA levels tend to decline with age. According to studies, DHEA has been shown to be an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression.
Fish oil is a dietary source of omega 3 fatty acids which your body needs for many functions from muscle activity to cell growth. Fish oil has been found to have positive outcomes in the treatment of depression and anxiety. Supplementing with fish oil high in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety and improve symptoms in moderate and major depression.This nutrient may also help to improve the effectiveness of various antidepressant medications. However, it has been shown that supplementation with fish oil in people without depression does not appear to affect mood.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger in your brain) which is known for producing a calming effect and thought to play a major role in controlling nerve cell hyperactivity associated with anxiety, stress and fear. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it prevents or blocks chemical messages and decreases the stimulation of nerve cells in the brain.
L-methylfolate (B9) is the more active form of folate. When folic acid is taken, methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) (both a gene and an enzyme that is found throughout our body) converts folic acid to its active form, L-methylfolate. This process is critical for the body to have enough folate. L-methylfolate is the only form of folate that can cross the blood-brain barrier to help facilitate the synthesis of the neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine) associated with mood regulation. A deficiency in L-methylfolate has been linked to depression. Therefore, taking a supplement containing methylfolate can help fight against depression. Studies have found that high-dose methylfolate has been shown to increase the effectiveness of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs - antidepressants) in patients with major depressive disorder who do not respond well to SSRI therapy. This may have an adverse effect in some patients. Please note that this supplement needs to be used in conjunction with a healthcare practitioner. High doses of L-methylfolate above 500mcg are not considered schedule 0 according to the new SAHPRA guidelines.
5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a chemical that the body produces from tryptophan. After tryptophan is converted into 5-HTP, it is then converted into serotonin (neurotransmitter that is a natural mood stabilizer that controls wellbeing and happiness). 5-HTP supplements help to raise serotonin levels in the brain. This may have a positive effect on mood, sleep, anxiety and appetite.
L-theanine, an amino acid found in black and green tea, may reduce stress and anxiety responses without causing drowsiness according to a study. Research has also found that supplementation with L-theanine had beneficial effects on depressive symptoms, anxiety, sleep disturbance and cognitive impairments in patients with major depressive disorder (MDD).
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the body in response to darkness. It assists with the timing or your circadian rhythms (24-hour internal clock) and sleep. Studies have shown that melatonin is beneficial to promote sleep, leading to a good night's rest which can improve mood and decrease depressive symptoms. Some studies have also found that Melatonin may also have a side effect of short term depressive symptoms, but further research needs to be done to confirm this. According to the latest SAHPRA regulations, melatonin is now considered a schedule 3 medicine in SA and therefore not available on VitaGene. Please request a script from your doctor if this nutrient is required.
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is a precursor of L-cysteine and a powerful antioxidant. According to research, this nutrient shows promising results in the treatment of psychiatric disorders. NAC treats depression by lowering inflammation and glutamate levels. Glutamate is a chemical messenger in the body and high levels are associated with different mental health conditions. NAC has been shown to significantly reduce the anxiety-related compulsion to pull hair, known as trichotillomania.
Palmitoylethanolamide is a fatty acid amide belonging to the endocannabinoid system. This nutrient was first identified as a naturally occurring anti-inflammatory, analgesic and neuro-protective agent isolated from soy, egg yolks and peanuts. Research has shown that PEA has potential antidepressant properties and is effective, taken alone or in combination with other classes of antidepressants.
Research has revealed that the health of our gut and brain are intricately linked and approximately 90% of our serotonin (happy hormone) is produced in the gut. Our gut microbes play an important role in the production of serotonin. This is one connection between gut health and mood. Studies have found that certain strains of probiotics (Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum) have been found to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in people suffering from clinical depression.
Rhodiola rosea, also known as golden root or arctic root, is used in traditional medicine as an adaptogen (a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress). Rhodiola is used to promote good health, strength, endurance and physical and mental performance. This nutrient is generally taken as an antidepressant and also recommended for people with anxiety.
Saffron is a spice derived from a flower called Crocus Sativus. This nutrient contains compounds known as lepticrosalides, such as safranal and crocin, that may have an antidepressant effect by possibly inhibiting the reuptake of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.
S-adenosyl-methionine (SAMe) is a naturally occurring compound found in the body. It plays a vital role in the immune system, maintains cell membranes and helps to produce and break down chemicals (serotonin, melatonin and dopamine). Some research suggests that SAMe may be effective in depression when people use it in combination with an antidepressant. This nutrient may work against depression by affecting certain chemicals in the brain. It may increase the turnover of serotonin in the brain and increase dopamine activity, which are both neurotransmitters playing a role in depression.
St. John’s wort is a flowering shrub native to Europe. The flowers and leaves of this nutrient contain active ingredients such as hyperforin. Several studies support the therapeutic benefit of St. John’s wort in treating mild to moderate depression, however the benefit in severe depression needs more research. Due to the many interactions with medication, caution needs to be implemented when taking this nutrient with prescription drugs.
B vitamins assist many enzymes to complete important functions, ranging from releasing energy from carbohydrates and fat to breaking down amino acids and transporting oxygen and energy-containing nutrients around the body. Studies have shown that a deficiency in niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6), folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12) may cause depression and some studies show that supplementation with these nutrients may help with depression among those who are deficient.
Magnesium is an essential mineral found in the body. It is present in many foods (wholegrains, dark, leafy vegetables, legumes and nuts) and also as a dietary supplement. Magnesium serves as a cofactor in more than 300 enzymatic reactions. Having a deficiency of magnesium and having a low intake of magnesium from foods are also each associated with an increased risk of depression. A clinical study suggests magnesium supplementation may help reduce symptoms of depression.
Magnesium L-threonate is a synthesized form of magnesium. The body can easily absorb this nutrient and research has shown that it may be the most effective type for increasing magnesium concentrations in brain cells. It is the best form of magnesium that can cross the blood brain barrier. This nutrient is often used for its beneficial effects on various brain processes and may help regulate mood and memory function and manage certain brain disorders, such as depression and age-related memory loss.
Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin and is found in animal food sources such as salmon, herring, sardines, cod liver oil, canned tuna and egg yolks. Plant based sources of vitamin D include mushrooms which can synthesize vitamin D2 when exposed to UV light. It has been found that a deficiency of vitamin D is associated with a higher risk and severity of depression. A study found that supplementation with high-dose vitamin D significantly improved mood in women with type 2 diabetes who had serious depressive symptoms.
It is important to note that some supplements that have been shown to increase the effectiveness of serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) antidepressants, such as SAMe and high-dose methylfolate, have been reported to cause adverse effects in some people. If you are taking prescription medications to treat depression or anxiety, consult your healthcare practitioner before taking any of the supplements mentioned in this section as there could be a risk of drug interactions. Always consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner for any serious symptoms of anxiety or depression.