We don’t always recognize we are under stress because it can manifest through symptoms that don’t always seem related, nutritionist Nonie De Long says in her weekly column.
I’m finding this pandemic difficult. My partner lost his job and I work in a health-care facility. He’s isolating and I am working long hours in contact with people with the virus regularly. I’m always worried I’m bringing it home to our family. The hours are demanding and I haven’t been eating right.
My partner is great with the kids and he is even cleaning (thank God) but he can’t cook anything but mac and cheese and grilled cheese so you can imagine what we’ve been living off of. The problem is I can’t sleep from the stress and I can’t get up to prepare my food for the day because I’m so tired! My feet are always aching now and I feel like I’m just spinning! I’m usually a person who has her ducks in a row, but right now I’m starting to feel unglued. I’ve tried anxiety meds before and they trigger depression and insomnia in me so I don’t dare do that now. I don’t want to use sleeping pills!
I’ve followed your column for a while and gone to your website and I know you specialize in mental health care. I know diet is important but I just don’t have the energy or time at present to turn that around much. Is there anything natural I can take to help with the nerves and the sleep so I can get the energy to turn my diet around? I’m sure this will help many other people out there too.
Thank you for writing to me. I’m happy to do what I can to help you. First I want to thank you for what you’re doing for our community at this time. All of us are indebted to our health-care workers and first responders during this crisis. I can only imagine the stress of not knowing if you’re bringing the virus home to your children and how that must weigh on you as a parent. And we really don’t know how long this is going to continue or how much it is going to escalate before it’s over.
But the good news is that yes, you can use a variety of natural products to help incredibly with anxiety due to overwork and stress. The products work by boosting your nutrient reserves and strengthening and regulating the affected organ systems. And these same supplements and herbal remedies can help with regulating sleep and recovery without sedating you. I’m also going to address those aching feet and some nutrition advice that even the busiest person can use for extra energy and nutrients without extra work. I’m just going to touch on stress first because we don’t always recognize it. It can manifest through symptoms that don’t always seem related: regular or chronic headaches, low energy and fatigue, malaise, lack of focus, memory problems, sleep irregularities, bowel problems, outbursts and anger, irritability, digestive issues, changes in appetite, excessive cravings for carbs and sweets, and lack of sex drive. When these symptoms are addressed by prescriptions, the underlying cause really isn’t addressed and over time the body will find new and louder ways to speak about the underlying problem. So, while in the short term it’s understandable that we may need some help getting through a tough time with a prescription from our doctor, in the long term it’s not the best solution. These medications all have side effects and can be habit forming even at low doses, or very difficult for some people to come off of. Jordan Peterson is a good example of this. It’s really better to address the underlying reason our bodies aren’t coping with the stress.
Other holistic health-care practitioners have put out many articles on how to minimize stress so there is an abundance of that info online for anyone seeking it. I will instead focus on the therapies that target the systems that are depleted or imbalanced during times of stress. I will focus on things you can implement without a lot of energy or hassle, especially herbs, as they are particularly gentle, well tolerated, and effective for stress and anxiety.
Epsom salts: Soak in epsom salts. This works because magnesium is depleted during times of stress and it’s absorbed through your skin. Everything is, but we won’t get into that right now. If you find you get muscle cramps, stiff muscles, aching muscles (your feet), twitches, headaches, tension in the neck or shoulders, back aches, jaw troubles, teeth grinding, hyperactivity, racing thoughts, restlessness, sleeplessness, inability to unwind, or other muscle or energy issues from stress you need to do this nightly. For more info on Mg, read my article here. You don’t have to sit in a tub, just make a warm foot bath for yourself with at least a cup of salts and soak for an hour while you watch some tele or read a book or whatever you do to unwind. Unscented epsom salts are best. The scented ones can be highly perfumed, rather than using true essential oils.
Adaptogens: Drink adaptogen and immune modulating teas or tinctures daily. Adaptogens are a class of herbs that regulate the nervous system. They help your body unwind if it’s having trouble unwinding while also boosting energy. They do this by nourishing and toning the nervous system, rather than sedating it. You can buy teas that are made from one adaptogenic herb, but in my experience blends are the most potent. These are usually gotten through herbalists or someone who compounds herbs (as I do). There is a great adaptogen tea blend online here. The tinctures I would use for the type of acute stress and immune threat you described are a blend of Astragalus (adaptogenic, immune strengthening, inflammation, infection, stress, fatigue), Holy Basil (adaptogenic, anxiety, fatigue, stress, sleeplessness), and Reishi (immune strengthening, adaptogenic, depression and fatigue). I would put 15 drops of each in water 3x a day. There is also a great tea herbalists use for lung, breathing, and congestion issues if you have weak lungs and should need it here. As a general rule, be sure you are not known to be sensitive to any of the ingredients in herbal remedies and check the contraindications closely before using.
Mushroom Coffee: Replace one of your morning cups of coffee with mushroom coffee. This is especially good for those who get jitters or crashes or aching joints from caffeine. It sounds odd, but there are certain mushrooms that are esteemed to be highly medicinal by herbalists and Chinese medical doctors. They work specifically on the nervous and immune systems as modulators (adaptogens as above) and contain nutrients that help with chronic stress. The best ones are made with a blend of organic/ wildcrafted mushrooms or with ganoderma. It comes like an instant coffee, sometimes loose and sometimes in packets. There are some I’ve had good results with here and here and here and here. Note: these are contraindicated for those with autoimmune disorders or on immunosuppressive therapies, as are all potent immune stimulants.
B Complex: Take a good B complex supplement daily. You may find you need 2 of these per day, in divided doses during periods of high stress. A good B complex should contain a broad spectrum of B vitamins, including B1, niacin, B6, folate, and B12. Ideally you want to know if you need the methylated form of B12 and folate, for which you need to see someone like myself to guide you. But if you don’t know, try the methylated form first. These go by the names methylcobalamin and 5-MTHF OR L-5-MTHF. Only get a small bottle at first and try these every morning or morning and night for a minimum of 2 weeks. If you don’t notice improved energy and reduced stress, try the non-methylated form. It’s best to get a blend that has different amounts of the different nutrients, vs a 50 or 100 across the board. For B vitamins I recommend professional brands only. I carry them in my online dispensary, which you can access for free by sending me an email request.
Melatonin: Take melatonin at night, about a half hour before bed. I prefer the dissolvable tablets. It’s best to start with only 3-5mg and then go up if needed, after 2 weeks. It can take 2-4 weeks to fully notice any benefit of taking melatonin. It doesn’t always help people sleep better, but it helps regulate sleep/ wake cycles to help adrenaline shut down at the end of the day. It also helps the body rejuvenate as you sleep, as melatonin is a potent antioxidant that recycles other antioxidants and gets into the mitochondria. This is unique and makes it essential during times of stress.
Herbal sleep teas: Try a herbal combination specifically for sleep to help your body wind down and help strained nerves relax. I recommend the herbs passion flower, chamomile, lavender, rosemary, catnip, hops, and valerian for sleeplessness. But some people do not tolerate valerian well. In a few folk, this herb does the exact opposite and winds them up, so I recommend getting valerian on its own as a capsule or tea (it smells like feet so be warned!) to add to your other herbal sleep tea. When it’s tolerated well, valerian is incredibly sedative and soothing to the overstressed body. You can get some nice herbal tea blends here and here. You can get one with valerian here.
Probiotics: Take probiotics daily during times of stress, as they are often disrupted by stress reactions in the body. Studies show stress changes the microbiome adversely. A healthy gut biome regulates digestion, mood, stress responses, and immunity so you can see why it’s important! Most of us understand what a nervous tummy or stressed out bowel feels like. If stress hits your digestive system, be sure to be eating fermented foods or taking quality, professional grade probiotic supplements. I provide direction for these via my dispensary for anyone who asks.
The dietary recommendations I give for periods of stress are super simple and can be incorporated rather easily:
Don’t skip meals: When you’re under stress you need more nutrients than usual. This does not mean you need meals plus snacks, which is an early sign of insulin resistance and for which you should see a nutrition professional. It means 3 meals a day, around roughly the same time every day.
Make sure meals focus on complete protein. When under stress meals should be up to 50 per cent protein to ensure your neurotransmitters and muscles have all the fuel they need to keep you going. Our need for protein increases with stress and age, so adjust accordingly.
Prep. Get groceries on the weekends and just prep your veggies by cutting them up and putting in portion sized baggies. Or buy them pre cut if this is too much. Fruit can be cut up, too, if you like, or kept whole. The salads for sandwiches or bean salads can be made once or twice a week all at once then stored for the remainder of the week. This makes lunch prep super quick and easy.If you don’t have a lot of time, this meal plan can be further simplified by giving yourself a template to follow that meets your nutritional needs. Choose one for each meal.
Breakfast: 2-3 boiled eggs, a sugar free protein shake, nut butter on ezekiel muffins, or a low carb protein bar.
Lunch: a sandwich of egg or tuna or salmon salad or of leftover meat and cheese. You can also just eat these out of a container or over a salad mix, to avoid the carbs. Vegetarians can do a cheese and veg sandwich. Canned beans also give a lot of energy if you like them and can whip up a bean salad on weekends. This can be accompanied by a sugar free high fat yogurt and a piece of fruit or your favourite cheese and a piece of fruit and/ or some veggie sticks and hummus.
Supper: meat and veggies or meat and bit of carbs. Side salad optional - use one out of the bad for convenience. Avoid too many carbs with supper. They will keep you up later and make your energy lower the next day. Having a designated meal each night of the week helps with predictable grocery costs, fewer recipes to keep track of, and getting kids to help. Something like Monday night meatloaf, Tuesday night tacos, Wednesday night wings, Thursday night fajitas, Friday night finger foods, Saturday night BBQ, Sunday night roast can reduce the workload substantially and is something we employ in our home. I never have to guess what my grocery list is going to be!
Amy, I hope this makes your life a bit easier during this stressful time! I’m certain it will help with your body’s ability to handle stress. As always, if readers have their own health questions, I welcome them. Just send me an email. And if you’re looking for more specific health information check out my website and sign up for my free newsletter or a nutrition webinar at nonienutritionista.com.
Namaste! Nonie Nutritionista