Guide to The Most Effective Vitamins and Supplements to Combat Stress

Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

IN BRIEF

In today’s highly stressful world, it is more important than ever to learn to optimize ourselves and find what diet, supplementation, lifestyle, and meditations are most useful for each of us to become more resilient. i.e., What vitamins are good for stress?

In today’s highly stressful world, it is more important than ever to learn to optimize ourselves and find what diet, supplementation, lifestyle, and meditations are most useful for each of us to become more resilient. i.e., What vitamins are good for stress?  

As each person is unique, each has unique needs. What works for one person may or may not work very well for another.  This subject is very complex and filled with countless claims. So, here is some important information to help you decide which vitamins are good for stress relief for you.  

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Each person has unique nutritional needs
  • Each person has unique genetics and physiology
  • Once you have determined your exact needs, then the next challenge is to find
    • High-quality vitamins and supplements that work
    • The right dose that works for you
  • Many of the vitamins and herbs on the following lists are very safe and have been taken by millions of people. They have been prescribed by practitioners, herbalists, and physicians for many years, decades, or in some cases centuries. 

Now, on to the topic of stress.

Did You Know?

Stress is considered to be a contributing factor to over 90% of all medical office visits.  

Stress can contribute to these well-known symptoms as either the primary driving factor or a variable that makes them worse.  

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Nervousness
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Binge eating
  • Weight gain
  • Insomnia

Here are the best vitamins and supplements to manage and combat stress based on the latest research in functional medicine.  The following vitamins and supplements have evidence that they improve the above manifestations of stress. 

1. Pregnenolone: Our Rejuvenating Stress Relief Hormone

Pregnenolone is actually a hormone produced by our bodies that can be taken as a supplement for both stress and anxiousness. It can be used by our body to produce other hormones including progesterone, estrogen, testosterone, cortisol, and DHEA.

Pregnenolone is critical to stress management. Your body can potentially use the pregnenolone consumed to make more hormones that help to manage stress, especially cortisol, aldosterone, and DHEA.  

In addition, Pregnenolone is abundant in our brain where it is necessary for memory.  

Pregnenolone is often called the “memory” hormone and the “happy” hormone as it converts into hormonal derivatives that:

  • Improves memory
  • Improves mood
  • Improves fatigue and exhaustion
  • Supports your body’s immune and adrenal systems during times of stress
  • Reduces PMS
  • Reduces inflammation

How Does Pregnenolone Combat Stress?

When we are under chronic stress most of the Pregnenolone in our bodies is converted to cortisol, the stress hormone.  Cortisol then helps us in our day to day ability to keep our blood sugar and blood pressure stable, have energy in the face of mounting stressors, and more. 

Supplementing with the bio-identical hormone pregnenolone will support you in acquiring more energy, improving vitality, and reducing inflammation.

Side effects of pregnenolone are limited to mild drowsiness and fatigue if an excessive dose is taken.  

Positive benefits of pregnenolone include:

  • Improved sleep
  • Reduced feelings of stress and anxiety
  • Improved mood
  • Improved immunity/ reduced number of colds and cases of flu 
  • Improved energy/reduced fatigue
  • Improved mental acuity
  • Improved ability to handle stress
  • Improved PMS symptoms

Pregnenolone Studies

Pregnenolone with Theanine for Anxiety

This study on schizophrenic patients with extreme anxiety combined pregnenolone with theanine and found an improvement that was ”significantly associated with a reduction of anxiety scores such as anxious mood, tension, and cardiovascular symptoms.”

Pregnenolone Levels Decreased in Those With Generalized Anxiety

In this limited study, 8 subjects with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) were shown to have low blood levels of pregnenolone

What is the best form of Pregnenolone to take?

Pregnenolone is available in two forms: oral pills or liquid form.  Many functional medicine physicians recommend the liquid version that can be absorbed under the tongue. Using this method, the pregnenolone is absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream and avoids metabolism by the liver.  Similarly, pregnenolone can be obtained via prescription from a compounding pharmacist who can make a liquid or topical form.  

Pregnenolone in the oral form is readily available and inexpensive, however, most people report that the liquid or topical form is quite superior.

Who Might Potentially Benefit From Pregnenolone?

Not everyone needs pregnenolone. It is most beneficial for those with

  • Chronic inflammation
  • Low cortisol (Can be tested in blood, urine, or salivary tests)
  • Low adrenal function
  • Age-related memory and cognitive decline

Conclusion

Pregnenolone is actually a precursor hormone that is the “king of the hill,” Pregnenolone is well-tolerated, very safe, and very effective in a liquid or topical form. 

2. Magnesium: The Most Common Mineral Deficiency in Stressed and Anxious People

Magnesium is the most common mineral deficiency in the US with some estimates that greater than 80% of adults are deficient in this essential mineral. As we have increased stress and anxiety, our needs for magnesium increase.

The Most Common Symptoms of Magnesium Deficiency Include:

  • Weight gain and insulin resistance
  • Anxiety
  • Palpitations
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Muscle cramping
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Insomnia
  • Pre-menstrual syndrome

Notice many of those symptoms are not only associated with increased stress but also are often much worse as stress levels increase.

Magnesium and Depression

Magnesium has been found to be an effective treatment option with few side effects for those with treatment-resistant depression. It has been found to be as effective as tricyclic antidepressant medications.

The authors of this study which compares the rate of depression to blood levels of Magnesium conclude:

“For adults seen in primary care, lower serum magnesium levels are associated with depressive symptoms, supporting the use of supplemental magnesium as therapy. Serum magnesium may help identify the biological mechanism of depressive symptoms and identify patients likely to respond to magnesium supplementation.”

Magnesium and Anxiety

This novel study looks at the relationship between low levels of anxiety and magnesium.  

Overall, the present findings demonstrate the robustness and validity of the Mg(2+) deficiency model as a mouse model of enhanced anxiety, showing sensitivity to treatment with anxiolytics (anxiety-reducing medications) and antidepressants. 

Magnesium and Premenstrual Syndrome

This clinical trial on humans from 2010 shows that either magnesium or magnesium combined with Vitamin B6 lowered PMS Symptoms dramatically in a group of women in Iran.

Migraine Headaches

Magnesium food deficiency has been linked to migraine headaches. A study published in Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics found that taking 300 milligrams of magnesium twice a day reduced the frequency of migraine headaches.

What are the Best Foods Sources of Magnesium?

Magnesium levels are highest in green leafy vegetables.  Here are our favorite recommended sources of magnesium:

  1. Spinach — 1 cup: 157 milligrams (40% DV)
  2. Chard — 1 cup: 154 milligrams (38% DV)
  3. Pumpkin seeds — 1/8 cup: 92 milligrams (23% DV)
  4. Yogurt or kefir — 1 cup: 50 milligrams (13% DV)
  5. Black Beans — ½ cup: 60 milligrams (15% DV)
  6. Avocado — 1 medium: 58 milligrams  (15% DV)

The Best Types of Magnesium to Take in Supplement Form for Stress?

  • Magnesium Glycinate
  • Magnesium Threonate
  • Magnesium Malate  

These forms are highly absorbed and therefore get into your bloodstream at high levels.

Other forms such as magnesium citrate are good for constipation. However, they work for constipation because they are not absorbed well. They cause water to enter your colon, thus relieving your constipation. Since the magnesium stays in the colon, it just exits your body with your feces (now that becomes what we call, expensive poop!)

What About Topical Magnesium for Stress Relief?

Alternatively, topical forms of magnesium work very well for those who prefer that application. There are many magnesium oils and gels that work well. The simple addition of Epsom salts to a hot bath is also a topical form of magnesium. They are magnesium salts and work very well for acute stress.

Who Benefits Most From Magnesium?

  • Anyone who doesn’t eat at least 3 servings of green vegetables per day.
  • Anyone with a low RBC magnesium test (ask your doctor to order).
  • Anyone with PMS, fatigue, or fibromyalgia-like symptoms

Conclusion

Magnesium is essential for life. It is necessary for over 350 chemical reactions in our bodies.  Without magnesium, many people experience fatigue, insomnia, and a reduced ability to handle stress. It is one of the most important nutrients that everyone needs when under stress.

3. Methylcobalamin/Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is a critical nutrient for the proper functioning of our brain and nervous system. It is often used as supportive therapy for those with stress as it is needed in increased amounts to alleviate stress.  

B12 is known to help with the following symptoms that are associated with increased stress.  

  • Improve energy levels
  • Improve brain cognitive skills, i.e. memory, focus, etc. 
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Reduce anxiety and nervousness
  • Increase motivation

B12 is a very common deficiency because humans are unable to produce it so it must be ingested through other sources. 

What Foods Contain Vitamin B12?

B12 is found in animal products such as meat, cheese, milk, shellfish, and eggs. As a result, vegetarians and vegans who don’t eat any animal products are at a risk for having low B-12 levels. B12 is absorbed in the gut and often people either do not absorb it well or they do not absorb enough to have optimal levels. In fact, according to the Institute of Medicine the ability to absorb naturally occurring vitamin B-12 from food decreases with age. They advise people over the age of 51 to consume B-12 fortified foods or supplements. The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition recommends 6 micrograms a day for people above the age of 4.

Who Could Benefit the Most from Vitamin B12?

  • Vegans
  • Vegetarians
  • People over 50
  • Anyone with a serum B12 below 500 (ask your physician to order this test for you). 

Conclusion

Vitamin B12 is a very safe and inexpensive vitamin to take when under increased stress with few side effects and a lot of research.

4. Theanine

What are the Potential Benefits of L-theanine?

L-theanine has been found to promote:

  • Relaxation
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Immune system function
  • Reduced cardiovascular risk
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Improved sleep

How Does Theanine Work in the Brain?

Animal Studies suggest that theanine boosts the following key neurotransmitters via affinities for AMPA, kainate and NMDA receptors.

  • Serotonin
  • Dopamine
  • GABA

What Foods are High in Theanine?

That list is quite small! Theanine is found in green and black tea. It is more abundant in green tea.

How does Theanine Alleviate the Symptoms of Stress?

Theanine boosts the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and GABA. GABA is the critical chemical in our brain that calms us down when we are over-excited. Theanine helps boost GABA, calming us, and inducing calm, yet focused brain waves.

Stress and Cognition, Including Anxiety and Depression

This study from Japan, though only limited to 30 healthy adult participants and this study of 20 patients with major depression showed the following for theanine supplementation:

  • Reduced depression scores
  • Reduced anxiety scores
  • Improved sleep scores
  • Improved cognition scores, especially verbal fluency.  

These studies are far from conclusive due to the limited number of participants and the type of study (nonrandomized).  However, the results are promising and should be repeated on a larger scale.    

What are the Best Forms of Theanine to Take?

Theanine can be taken in its natural form in green tea, or as an oral supplement. It is often combined with GABA, or used as a topical cream.  

Who Should Take Theanine?

Theanine works best for those who are mildly stressed but need to remain focused and calm. Theanine also works well when used with GABA for people who need help falling asleep.

Conclusion

Theanine is a very safe and very well researched amino acid that is often very well tolerated. It is great for those who want to relax and still be able to focus.

5. Mulungu

Mulungu is a tree from the Amazon that is known as the coral tree due to the beautiful coral colored flowers that flower on it each year. The bark of the mulungu has been used for thousands of years for the following symptoms that are often associated with stress. 

  • Anxiousness
  • Pain
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability

Mulungu is traditionally used as a:

  • Sedative
  • Hypnotic
  • Anti-Stress Adaptogen

How Does Mulungu Work?

Mulungu works on the same GABA Receptors that many prescription meds work on, but without the addictive side effects. In fact, Mulungu has been studied by two pharmaceutical companies as a treatment for tobacco cessation.

Is Mulungu Safe?

Toxicology studies report that mulungu is a relatively safe remedy. Acute oral toxicity (LD50) of aqueous extract of stem bark was found to 425 mg/kg in mice.

Mulungu as a Sedative and Anxiolytic

In animal studies, the researchers found that mulungu has a profile of action similar to diazepam (Valium) without the addictive or negative side effects. 

“The above-described profile of effects is similar to that of diazepam, a classic benzodiazepine drug, which presents, among other effects, anticonvulsant and sedative properties when given at high doses (>10 mg/kg), and anxiolytic and amnesic effects at low doses (<4 mg/kg) (Bennett et al., 1990)”

These researchers found similar results that, “The present observations suggest that chronic EM (Erythrina mulungu) exerts anxiolytic-like effects in defensive behaviors related to generalized anxiety and panic disorder.”

Mulungu Used as an Anxiolytic During Dental Surgery

In Brazil, researchers performed a randomized, double-blind crossover study on 30 volunteers who were undergoing dental surgery.  They found that mulungu significantly lowered the anxiety scores of those undergoing the surgery. 

What are the Active Ingredients in Mulungu?

The active ingredients in Mulungu are believed to be the numerous alkaloids present in the bark of the tree including:

  • Flavanones
  • Flavonols
  • Chalcones
  • Cinnamoylphenols
  • Stilbenoids
  • Isoflavones
  • Pterocarpans

Who Would Benefit From Mulungu?

Mulungu is most beneficial for those who have racing thoughts, anxiousness, and difficulty sleeping due to stress and traumas. 

Conclusion

Mulungu is a relatively new herb to the North American market as a treatment for stress and stress-related conditions, but the research on it is promising. At a low dose, it seems to work as an anxiolytic and at high doses as a sedative.

6. Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha has been used in India for thousands of years as one of the best supplements to combat stress and anxiety.    

Ashwagandha, scientific name Withania somnifera, is an important herb in Ayurvedic medicine because it benefits many body systems, including the immune, neurological, endocrine, and reproductive systems.

Currently, There have been hundreds of studies on ashwagandha. This Aryuvedic herb has been shown to:

  • Treat adrenal fatigue and lower stress
  • Support thyroid gland function
  • Reduce anxiety and depression
  • Improve stamina and endurance
  • Prevent and treat cancer
  • Reduce brain cell death
  • Maintain healthy blood sugar levels
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Boost immune system

Safety: Ashwagandha is exceedingly safe to use. It has very few side effects. 

Properties in Ayurvedic medicine: Ashwagandha is a bit warming, and can therefore exacerbate symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, etc. If you are experiencing those symptoms, you may want to avoid Ashwagandha.

Who Might Potentially Benefit From Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha often works best for those who do not experience hot flashes or night sweats in general. Ashwagandha often works well for those with mild sleep disturbances.

Conclusion

Ashwagandha is a very powerful and effective herb that has been used in India for millennia.  It is tolerated well by most individuals and is used in many cases for sleep disturbances. It is best to avoid ashwagandha if you have hot flashes or night sweats, as it may make them worse.

7. Schisandra

Schisandra is a berry that has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for many centuries and is used by countless acupuncturists and herbalists each day.  Even though it is less well known in the US, it is considered to be one of the most important supplements for stress, specifically for improving sleep quality related to stress.  

Schisandra has been used in many formulas for its adaptogenic effects and is used mostly in the treatment of those with:

  • Insomnia
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Adrenal Fatigue

The most important active constituents of schisandra include: 

  • schizandrin
  • deoxyschizandrin
  • schisanheno
  • schizandrol
  • sesquicarene
  • citral
  • stigmasterol

Research shows that schisandra works by raising the levels of GABA in the brain. It seems to increase the amount of GABA A Receptors. The active component that does this is called Schisandrin B.

In this animal study, schisandra was shown to lower the negative effect of sleep deprivation as well as the depression induced from sleep deprivation.

Who Might Potentially Benefit from Schisandra?

Schisandra is known as “the happy herb” and is often used for those who are feeling down, depressed, and overwhelmed with stress.

What are the Side Effects of Schisandra?

  • Sedation
  • Stomach Distress
  • Diarrhea

Conclusion

Schisandra has a track record of successfully treating stress-related conditions for thousands of years in TCM.  It is very safe, effective, and well-tolerated.

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About Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

Dr. Morgan is an expert in Functional and Integrative Medicine with a Strong Emphasis in stress related illnesses like anxiety and insomnia. In addition to his 20 years of work in Functional Medicine, he has expanded his practice to include work on the deeper aspects of our being that point to the root cause of our illnesses working with Mind Body Wellness, Energy Medicine, and Healing with Consciousness.
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