8 things to bear in mind about supplements for stress

It's tempting to turn to over-the-counter supplements for stress, but are they a waste of money that could do more harm than good?

1. The evidence for supplements for stress

Researchers have tested numerous supplements for stress, including herbal remedies, vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients, but have found little evidence to support them. This is often because the trials are small and poorly conducted.

Because many supplements are based on products that occur naturally, they cannot be patented, and there is little money to be made from them. This lack of financial incentive means there is often a dearth of scientific evidence to support many popular supplements for stress.

2. The link between diet, health and stress

Many supplements exist to top up levels of essential nutrients in our diet, often vital if we are not eating well.

Living with many of today’s serious chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers and obesity can all be stressful and are associated with unhealthy eating; they are also a major cause of stress. Some studies have also suggested a link between mental health problems and poor nutrition.

There is no doubt that what we eat affects our brain and nervous system, which rule our stress response. That, however, is not the same as saying that supplements for stress will definitely work.

3. Try the “rainbow diet”

If you eat a varied diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, fish, lean meats and whole grains, and stay away from foods high in saturated fat and sugar, you’re unlikely to need supplements for stress.

One easy way to ensure you’re eating well is to follow the “rainbow diet”. Simply include lots of different coloured foods to get the widest possible variety of nutrients.

4. The case for multivitamins and fish oil

Sadly, we now consume fewer vegetables and less fish than 20 to 30 years ago. We’ve swapped these healthy foods for more salty, fatty foods like crisps and fries. We also eat a lot more sugar, with much of this coming from soft drinks, juices and alcohol. If that sounds like your diet, an all-round multivitamin could be a good idea. Many also find probiotics helpful, especially for gut problems.

If you hate fish, you may not be getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain function. Try a high-strength fish-oil supplement, for which there is a strong evidence base (though not specifically as a supplement for stress). Flaxseed or walnuts – both good sources of omega-3 – are alternatives if you are vegetarian or vegan.

Feeling stressed results from feeling out of control in challenging situations, so just taking steps to get back on top of things, like buying some supplements, can help in itself. In most cases, supplements for stress are unlikely to cause you any harm. And if some offer genuine health benefits too, why not?

5. A nutritionist could help

If you think your diet might be affecting your mood, it could be worth consulting a nutritionist or dietician for expert advice. Make sure you find someone well qualified and experienced, and be wary if they try to sell you fancy-sounding pills, potions or vitamins for stress; it’s how a lot of them make their money.

Nutritionists can also help with common symptoms of stress like loss of appetite, indigestion, nausea, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and cravings that lead to binge eating or drinking.

6. Supplements for a good night’s sleep

Problems getting off or back to sleep are common symptoms of stress, and the resulting tiredness and irritability can make it harder to cope with the pressures that are making you stressed in the first place.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has tentatively suggested that supplements that seem to work on gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA), a chemical in the brain linked to anxiety, could help with sleep and stress problems. These include melatonin and supplements derived from the plants valerian, hops, passiflora and chamomile. Putting a few drops of lavender oil on your pillow or in a bath can also help if you’re having trouble sleeping.

Alternatively, there are plenty of therapies that can help you relax and get off to sleep, and you can take our stress tests to find out which ones could suit you.

Often, combining drug-based treatment with psychological therapy works well. Many GPs now prescribe patients suffering from insomnia a short course of sleeping pills combined with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

7. A few words of warning

Just because many supplements for stress are “natural” doesn’t mean they are always harmless. They may have active ingredients that have a chemical effect on your body. Some rules to follow are to:

Always buy from a reputable supplier and avoid unknown sellers on the internet, which is not subject to regulation.

Be aware that some supplements can be harmful in excess, so make sure that you are not exceeding the recommended daily amount (this is shown on labels, often abbreviated to “RDA”).

Understand that some supplements may interact badly with prescription drugs. If you are on regular medication, you should check with your doctor before taking any supplements.

8. What to avoid

Caffeine is a stimulant that causes our heart and breathing rate to increase. Several studies have linked caffeine intake to increased anxiety, and it is best to avoid caffeine and other stimulants if you are feeling stressed.

Caffeine is found in varying quantities in coffee, tea and colas. Many energy drinks – even those marketed specifically as healthy alternatives to other soft drinks – contain large amounts of caffeine. The best way of ensuring you avoid caffeine is to read the labels of any drinks or supplements you are taking; you’ll often be surprised.

You can read more about the link between caffeine and stress in this article.

Hilly Janes

About Hilly Janes

Hilly Janes is an award-winning former health editor at The Times. She has 20 years' experience on national newspapers and magazines and is the author of Latte or Cappuccino? 125 Decisions That Will Change Your Life (Michael O’Mara Books, 2012).

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