THE STRESS PRODUCT INDUSTRY – MORE THAN JUST A MONEYSPINNER?
It's not news that stress products are a big-money industry, and stress supplements are at the forefront. Go into any pharmacy or health-food shop, browse the vitamin shelves, and you'll be guaranteed to find at least one product per range dedicated to the relief of stress. The herbal section will also often offer 'stress capsules', 'stress tinctures' and 'stress teas'. But how useful (and how safe) are these products? How are they supposed to help us manage stress? Do they work, or are they just a way of parting people from their hard-earned cash?
GENERAL THOUGHTS ON SUPPLEMENTING
There are two schools of thought when it comes to supplements. One is that if we eat a healthy diet – one rich in raw fruits, vegetables and whole foods, and low in processed additive-laden fare – we'd have no need for supplements. Our bodies, this theory suggests, have evolved to eat food. Not pills, not extracts, not single-nutrients-in-a-bottle, but actual real foods that used to be alive. Therefore, supplements are at best a placebo to waste our money, and at worst, a quick way to unbalance our bodies (too much of some nutrients will block the absorption of others; while too much of others can actually be toxic to our systems)
The second school of thought holds that this view is naive. Firstly, our bodies have to cope with environmental demands today well in excess of what they've evolved to do, which means foods that used to give us sufficient nutrients simply aren't enough any more. Secondly, the food quality today is far lower than it used to be. Nutrient quality has dropped due to use of chemical fertilizers & pesticides, short-term farming practices, and the transport & storage induced time-lags between harvesting, and point-of-sale in stores. Because of the gap between what our bodies now need to cope, and what our food can now provide us with, the only way we can meet our nutritional needs is to supplement an already-healthy diet (note that very few experts will recommend supplementation instead of eating well, and most of those that do are trying to sell a particular product!)
STRESS AND NUTRIENT LEVELS
I'm not a nutritionist, so can't offer any definitive answer as to which school above is right. If you're interested in making your own decision, there are a number of resources on line – try typing 'nutrition & supplements' into a search engine and see what you come up with. Both schools agree, however, that to keep functioning optimally (even when we're not under stress), our bodies need a minimum level of a vast number of nutrients. And when we start to experience stress responses, our need for many of those nutrients skyrockets.
Entire papers have been written on the biochemical effects of stress on our bodies. The release of stress hormones causes a number of physiological changes which directly chew through some of the nutrients in our bodies, and leach others from our system. Further nutrients are used up after the stress response passes, healing the damage it caused. The stronger (or more frequent) the stress response, the greater the toll it takes on our systems.
Most stress supplement products will therefore be based around one of two perspectives (or a combination of both). Either they contain some combination of nutrients the stress response has depleted from our bodies (giving them more resources to minimize or repair any damage caused); or they contain herbs or extracts that relax the body, thus fooling it into believing it's not actually as stressed as it thinks it is. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other (often, combining both works better than either individually); and it depends on the person in question as to which is more appropriate in a given situation.
Before we start discussing specific herbal and nutritional supplements, however, I'd be remiss if I didn't offer an important reminder. However good a supplement might be, it's no substitute for actively managing the stress in your life. Just as any vitamins should be taken in addition to a healthy diet, a stress supplement (if you choose to take one), should be a small part of an overall stress management strategy, rather than an alternative to one.
The remaining articles in this series explore in more detail the topics we've briefly introduced in this one; with Part 2 addressing specific nutritional stress supplements, Part 3 addressing herbs that are known to help with stress relief, and Part 4 tying it all together and offering suggestions about where to go from here. I hope you've found this introduction to the vast field of stress and supplementation informative – if you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact me. Otherwise, may every day bring you closer to your Optimum Life.
By Tanja Gardner
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Biography: Optimum Life's Tanja Gardner is a Personal Trainer and Stress Management Coach whose articles on holistic health and relaxation have appeared in various media since 1999.
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