Linda Ohr

Linda Milo Ohr

Stress from work, family, life events, or relationships can take its toll in a variety of forms: headaches, anxiety, irritability, sleeplessness, poor work performance, or increased susceptibility to illness. Logical solutions to alleviating stress would be to ensure proper nutrition, get adequate sleep, eliminate or decrease contact with the stressor, and just relax. But this is always easier said than done.

Dietary supplements that boast to help relieve the body from stress or provide relaxation in times of stress are hitting the shelves. The majority of these products contain B vitamins or botanicals. However, new anti-stress ingredients are being introduced, including a novel milk hydrolyzate. While some of these anti-stressors function as adaptogens (see below), others work by promoting a state of relaxation. Here is a closer look at some of these reported stress fighters.

B Vitamins
B vitamins are present in stress-fighting products like Celestial Seasonings’ Tension Tamer ExtraWellness Tea. The vitamins are thought to help with stress through their normal functions of converting carbohydrates and fat to energy and their role in maintaining the nervous system.

Niacin helps the body derive energy in the metabolism of carbohydrates. It also plays a role in controlling blood sugar and maintaining proper nervous system function.

Pantothenic acid forms part of coenzyme A, which plays a role in carbohydrate and fat metabolism.

Riboflavin forms coenzymes that participate in cellular metabolic pathways, including the breakdown of fatty acids for energy.

Thiamin is essential for converting carbohydrates in foods into energy, while also playing a role in nerve function.

Vitamin B-12 helps in maintaining the myelin sheaths that insulate nerve fibers from each other.

Vitamin B-6 is needed for the activity of enzymes involved in carbohydrate, protein, and fat metabolism. The vitamin B-6 coenzyme is also required for the synthesis of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and gamma amino butyric acid.

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Botanically Stress Free
Botanicals related to relieving stress include ashwagandha, chamomile, and eleuthero (Siberian ginseng). Arizona Beverages’ RX Stress Tea, for example, contains panax ginseng, and chamomile and valerian extracts. Celestial Seasonings’ Tension Tamer ExtraWellness Tea contains eleuthero, tilia, and chamomile, which according to the company, has been “used for centuries in relieving stress.”

While most botanicals function as adaptogens in relieving stress, others have specific functions, such as having calming or sedative effects. “Traditionally, adaptogens are defined as substances which demonstrate a nonspecific effect, such as increasing resistance to physical or biological stressors; possess a normalizing influence on the body; and do not disturb body functions within their normal levels,” says Suzanne McNeary, President of NutraGenesis, Brattleboro, Vt.

“When we experience stress, the body responds by releasing a number of stress hormones and chemicals. These include cortisol and adrenaline, which are produced in the adrenal glands. Cortisol levels increase when the pituitary gland releases another hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Stress excites the adrenals to release ACTH, which in turn prompts the adrenals to release greater amounts of cortisol and adrenaline.” Adaptogens are thought to help bring ACTH and cortisol levels back to normal.

• Ashwagandha is one botanical that has reported adaptogenic activity, which results in an anti-stress effect. It elicits anti-convulsant activity via the gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors that are involved in sedation, explains Roy Upton, Registered Herbalist and Executive Director, American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, Scotts Valley, Calif.

NutraGenesis offers a unique ashwagandha extract, Essentra™, which is affirmed as Generally Recognized As Safe. Its mechanism of action is primarily related to its effects on the neuroendocrine-immunologic axis that makes up the stress system, says McNeary. The active constituents in their patented ratios exert their anti-stress and adaptogenic activity on the body by returning the circulating ACTH and the concurrent increase in blood corticosterone levels to normal levels. Supporting research includes in-vitro, controlled in-vivo rodent studies, and controlled human clinical trials.

Suggested Essentra daily intake levels range from 50 to 125 mg. It is sold exclusively as a functional food and beverage ingredient and is available in two different powder types: water soluble for beverages and other applications that require water solubility, and oil soluble for baked goods applications.

• Kava contains kavalactones, which play a role in specific inhibition of voltage-dependent sodium and calcium channels resulting in muscle relaxation, and modulatory effects on GABA receptors, says Upton. “The most important findings suggest that kava and its preparations possess anxiolytic, anti-convulsive, neuroprotective, sedative, and local anesthetic effects.”

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• Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) has reported mild sedative and calmative properties, according to information from the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), Silver Spring, Md.

• Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) has adaptogenic effects that are believed to help modulate stress and improve performance under a variety of stressful conditions, according to information from the American Botanical Council, Austin, Tex.

• Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) has been used for centuries in teas as a mild, relaxing sleep aid; treatment for fevers, colds, and stomach ailments; and an anti-inflammatory.

Green Tea’s Stress Solution
L-theanine is an amino acid present in green tea that has been reported to have a relaxation effect and improve sleep quality. Suntheanine®, a patented, pure form of L-theanine offered by Taiyo International, Minneapolis, Minn., has been shown to promote an alert state of relaxation without drowsiness.

According to the company, an experiment conducted at the Laboratory of Nutritional Biochemistry in Shizuoka, Japan, determined that dopamine concentrations in the brain increased significantly after the administration of Ltheanine. Dopamine, one of the brain’s neurotransmitters, is said to affect human emotion. L-theanine has also been shown to increase GABA levels in the brain, which leads to a feeling of well-being.

Generation of alpha waves in the brain is considered to be an index of relaxation. In human volunteers, alpha waves were generated on the occipital and parietal regions of the brain surface within 40 min after the oral administration of 50–200 mg of L-theanine, signifying relaxation without causing drowsiness, according to the company.

Researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health in Japan found that taking Suntheanine before bed produced a significant improvement in sleep quality. The researchers had 22 young men take 200 mg of Suntheanine or a placebo 1 hr before bedtime for six consecutive days. After subjects completed this first blinded supplementation phase, they were then “crossed over” to receive the opposite treatment. Subjects’ sleep performance was assessed by interviews upon awakening, self-reported questionnaires, and a wrist actigraph, which recorded bodily movement during sleep.

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The entire group reported a statistically significant absence of “feeling exhausted” and a reduced need for sleep during the L-theanine administration period.

Seven of the ten collegiate males showed a statistically significant improvement in sleep efficiency, an index of actual sleep time enjoyed between the time of falling asleep and the final morning awakening. These subjects also reported a superior mental state prior to falling asleep and a decreased occurrence of nightmares during the L-theanine phase but not during the placebo.

Stress Relief from Milk
A novel stress management ingredient was introduced under a new name last year. Lactium®, a patented milk casein hydrolyzate offered by the French ingredient company Ingredia, won the Bronze Award at last year’s Health Ingredients Europe show.

According to the company, study results suggested that the ingredient is effective in reducing stress symptoms. In a double-blind crossover placebo-controlled study, 63 female volunteers showing at least one symptom of stress received 150 mg/day of the hydrolyzate or a placebo for 30 days. The group taking the hydrolyzate showed a greater percentage improvement in five areas where stress symptoms occurred: digestive health, cardiovascular health, intellectual state, emotional health, and social skill.

The ingredient is the result of 12 years of research investigating the relationship between milk consumption and its calming effect on babies. The company uses a well-known digestive enzyme to develop the milk casein hydrolyzate.

Contributing Editor, Chicago, Ill.
[email protected]

About the Author

Linda Milo Ohr is a food scientist and writer based in Highlands Ranch, Colo. ([email protected]).
Linda Ohr