Simple Ways to Reduce Stress Naturally

There are times when I feel really stressed. I know; it happens to everyone, even those of us with a generally calm demeanor. Life has a way of throwing a lot of little challenges at us, and unfortunately, sometimes some bigger ones. Stress can add up, so managing it in small doses before symptoms spiral out of control is a smart thing to do.

With the holidays approaching, stress is an especially timely topic. People seem to get crazy around this time, but I don’t think it has to be this way. Some simple strategies can help you cope.

You do have time to manage stress

Maybe you’re thinking that adding a stress management strategy to your routine is just one more thing to do. And your to-do list is what’s causing the stress to begin with, right? Remember this: A step in the right direction is better than taking no action at all. And once you take one step, you’re likely to take another.

You don’t have to have a perfect plan that guarantees you will never feel stressed, but the more tools you have in place the better, even if you don’t use all of them all of the time.

So what are some simple ways to manage stress effectively (without a trip to your doctor for a prescription)?

Choose stress-relieving nutrients

Different kinds of foods affect your body and your stress response in different ways. The trick to managing stress with nutrition is to choose foods that are calming, nourishing and soothing over those that will give you a jolt or make your blood sugar sore. Three simple nutrients to start with are vitamin B6, potassium, and magnesium.

Vitamin B6 helps create serotonin, the “feel good” chemical that quickly gets depleted when you’re stressed. You can increase the amount of B6 in your diet by eating leafy greens, seeds, beans, egg yolks, and fish.

Potassium and magnesium help relax muscles that tend to get tense when you feel frazzled. You can get potassium from whole grains, potatoes, and bananas, while spinach, nuts, beans, and chocolate are good sources of magnesium. (If you opt for chocolate, don’t overdo it; sugar counteracts the relaxing qualities of magnesium.)

Try some calming herbs

Herbs that can help you stay calm include chamomile, valerian, passionflower, and lemon balm. There are capsules and tinctures you can take as supplements, or you can brew a nice cup of herbal tea. Be sure to choose a high quality product so you can truly experience the herb’s anti-stress properties.

Stay active

If you don’t exercise regularly, ask yourself why that’s the case. You will never regret finding time to get up and move your body. You don’t need to work out for an hour or spend a lot of money to do this. Ten minutes three times a day will do if that’s all the time you have.

If you have time for a coffee or internet break, you have time for a quick, brisk walk, some light weight lifting, or simple stretching. If you do have more time, do more. Join a gym or sign up for tennis lessons. Or turn on some music and dance! Do whatever works for you as long as you’re moving.

Practice yoga and meditation

While yoga can come under the heading of exercise, it is really so much more. Combined with meditation, it’s the ultimate antidote to stress. The physical yoga postures help tone and strengthen the body and get blood flowing throughout your body, even to your brain, where you’ll need it to deal with all the things life throws your way. You can do all kinds of yoga, from the most passive, restorative poses, to all-out power yoga. Again, do whatever works for you.

No matter what kind of physical yoga practice you choose, keep in mind one of the most important goals of yoga is to prepare your body for meditation. If you can cultivate a regular meditation practice, whether for 5 minutes, 30 minutes or even an hour or more each day, you’ll be amazed at what a powerful stress-management tool it is. And it doesn’t have to be a formal meditation practice. Even paying attention to how you’re breathing while you scurry about doing all those tasks can count as meditation.

Surround yourself with relaxing aromas

Did you know your brain processes emotions and scents in the same area? That’s why aromatherapy is so effective. So, if you want to feel calm, fill the air with relaxing aromas from high quality essential oils. Some pacifying scents include sandalwood, lavender, geranium, cedarwood, jasmine, and lemongrass. Use a diffuser, or add essential oils to bath water or unscented body lotion.

Stress does not have to get the best of you

Chances are at least one of the tools on this list will work for you, so why not start there? If you need more, try another. As you get more skilled at stress management and develop your own set of strategies, you’ll uncover the power of calm.

Want Better Sleep? Here’s Help!

sleep remedies

I’m finding more and more information about the relationship between sleep and overall health. According to experts on the subject, people who sleep well live longer, live better, and have fewer chronic diseases.

So what do you do if, like me, you find yourself wide awake at 3 am more often than you’d like?

Get on a schedule

The general consensus is you should go to sleep at the same time each night and wake up at the same time in the morning (including your days off). Sleep experts seem to agree that 10 pm is the sleep “sweet spot.” Apparently, that’s because our bodies produce melatonin between 10 pm and 2 am, and we need melatonin to relax and get to sleep. Most of us need seven or eight hours of quality sleep each night.

Go into sleep mode

If you’re involved in some kind of stimulating activity just before 10 pm, chances are slim you’ll be sleeping during those prime melatonin-producing hours. So instead of watching TV, having a heated debate with a family member, or getting some work (or homework) done after 9 pm, try something relaxing instead. Doing a bit of restorative yoga, listening to calming music, and meditating are good things to try.

Sleep in the dark

This may seem obvious, but many of us do not do it. In order for your body to create melatonin, you need to sleep in as near to pitch black darkness as possible. That means the light from streetlights streaming through windows, glowing clocks, cell phones and nightlights or a television kept on while you’re trying to get to sleep no-nos.

And it’s not just while you’re trying to fall asleep that you’ll need darkness if you want to sleep well. You’ll need it for at least two hours before you fall asleep.

Of course, if you’re like most people, turning the TV or computer off before bed is not going to happen every night. But it turns out if you’re stubborn about flipping the TV off early, there are a couple of ways around it.

If you’re going to watch TV or surf  the net at night, wear sunglasses while you do it.  I learned this seemingly odd tip from the Dr. Oz Show, tried it the next night, and to my pleasant surprise it actually did help! According to Dr. Oz, the sunglass remedy works because certain dark lenses block out the blue light that prevents the body from producing melatonin.

Wear a sleep mask. (It’s a lot more comfortable than trying to sleep with your sunglasses on.) This may be the single best thing I ever added to my sleep routine. Credit for this tip goes to my brother!

Get help from herbs

Herbs like chamomile and valerian root can also help improve sleep. You can take them in capsule form or drink a cup of tea containing calming herbal ingredients before you go to bed. (If you drink tea, brew it well and drink only a few ounces so you won’t wake up to go to the bathroom!) When I’m feeling sleep deprived or worried I’m going to have a restless night, I take valerian root capsules to help me stay relaxed.

Try aromatherapy

Aromatherapy works wonders for sleep-challenged folks. This simple practice is my favorite trick for getting a better night’s sleep. I’m in awe of the tools nature has provided in the essential oils of plants.

Science has shown the aromas from essential oils have many remarkable properties. Oils that can calm the mind, relax the body, and promote sleep include lavender and ylang ylang, as well as blends created just for sleep.

You can use aromatherapy oils in a diffuser that fills your bedroom with the scent through the night, or, if you don’t have a diffuser, simply dab some oil on a piece of cotton or even inside the rim of your lower nostrils.

Sweet dreams!

I’ve tried all these remedies, and they work for me most of the time (which is great, considering at one point I was lucky if I slept through the night once a week).

If you have trouble sleeping and these or other natural solutions don’t work for you, it might be worth visiting your doctor to see if you have a more serious sleep disorder.

Valerian Root: The Sleepy Time Herb

I write a lot about herbal supplements, mostly for clients. Obviously I can’t try every supplement I write about, but one I have used myself is Valerian root. I use it for sleep, but I’m told it’s also good for stress and anxiety.

What is Valerian Root?

Valerian is a perennial plant that has a long history of use as an herbal remedy. Ancient Greeks used it to treat digestive problems. Valerian has also been used for centuries as a nervous system tonic and a sleep aid.

The active ingredients in Valerian root are valerenic acid and isovaleric acid, which is produced as the plant ages. Both compounds are volatile oils said to work by relaxing the central nervous system and promoting sleep. Double blind studies suggest Valerian root may decrease the amount of time it takes for people with mild insomnia to fall asleep.

Valerian root is a sedative, so it is also used to treat anxiety and stress. Some people find it helpful for muscle aches and tension headaches because it acts as a muscle relaxant.

Valerian Root Side Effects and Dosage

Valerian root has few side effects. It doesn’t cause the grogginess you might get from a prescription sleep aid or even some over the counter remedies. You can take it in capsules, tablets, tinctures or liquid extracts.

The maximum recommended intake of Valerian is 15 grams of plant material, which is usually about 15 to 20 drops of tincture several times daily or 450 to 500 mg of concentrated, standardized extract. Standardized extracts should contain between .5 % and 1% volatile oils.

You can also make Valerian tea by steeping 1 teaspoon of the dried root in a cup of hot water for ten minutes. There are time-release formulas of Valerian you can use for a sustained feeling of relaxation throughout the day. If you take Valerian for sleep, take it an hour or so before bedtime.

Of course, you should use this herb conservatively. If you have serious anxiety or insomnia, you may need to talk to your doctor, especially if you’re already on any kind of prescription medication.

Using Essential Oils as Herbal Remedies: What I Learned from ACHS

I’ve been interested in therapeutic uses of essential oils for a while, so I was happy to have the opportunity to sign up for a free webinar on the topic. Dorene Peterson, a trained naturopath from New Zealand and current president of the American College of Healthcare Sciences (ACHS), led the event.

I discovered ACHS  recently while searching for places to learn about essential oils. The school in Oregon and offers accredited training in herbal medicine, holistic nutrition, aromatherapy, and other wellness modalities.

The webinar was titled “Harnessing the Herbal Powers of Essential Oils.” At first, I wasn’t sure about the phrase “herbal powers” in relation to oils. I’ve always thought of herbs as stems and leaves of plants. But essential oils are also derived from plants, and they have therapeutic properties like other plant constituents.

The therapeutic herbal properties of essential oils

I was happy to learn there are many studies to back up claims about the therapeutic uses of essential oils. Of course, there’s also a lot of anecdotal evidence. I’ve personally experienced a number of therapeutic benefits from using essential oils; ylang ylang, lime, lemongrass, frankincense, and lavender are among my favorites.

Lavender, I was not surprised to learn, is the most popular essential oil by far. If you’ve used essential oils for any purpose, you’ve probably had some experience with lavender. I’ve used it as a sleep remedy, to de-stress, and even to help reduce swelling.

Peterson went on to discuss four of the most popular oils. In addition to lavender, we learned about peppermint, frankincense, and eucalyptus. Here’s a rundown on the uses of each:

Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)

• reduces pain
• reduces anxiety
• improves sleep/reduces insomnia
• antimicrobial
• antibacterial
• antifungal

Peppermint (Mentha piperita)

• anti-carcinogenic
• helps with nausea
• reduces mental fatigue (uplifting)
• antibacterial
• antifungal

Frankincense (Boswellia carterii)

• anti-inflammatory (great for arthritis and IBS, among other conditions)
• helps enhance memory

Eucalyptus (globulus & E. smithii)

• antimicrobial
• antibacterial
• enhances absorption and penetration of topical remedies

Choosing essential oils for their herbal properties

Peterson pointed out there are a lot of essential oils on the market, but for an oil to be therapeutically effective, it must meet certain quality standards.

Some oils have interesting labels like “therapeutic grade” and “all natural,” but, according to Peterson, these labels are mostly marketing tools. The terms themselves are not regulated. That doesn’t mean the products that use these labels are ineffective; it just means the labels themselves don’t distinguish one product from another in any meaningful way.

So, I asked, what should you look for when choosing an essential oil for therapeutic use? As it turns out, there’s no simple answer to that question. The only way to ensure the quality of an essential oil is to research the product and make a decision about its quality after gathering as much information as possible.

Here are some tips recommended by ACHS:

1. Find out if the oil was tested for purity (and what the results were).

Gas chromatography and mass spectrometry are the methods used to test essential oils for purity. While they are somewhat expensive tests, they provide essential (no pun intended) evidence that an oil is pure (or not).

You can contact a manufacturer or distributor and ask about gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. Some companies provide this information on their website or as part of their marketing materials.

2. Look for the product’s Latin name and know what it means.

You don’t have to be fluent in Latin to know which oils are therapeutically useful, but it’s important to understand that many oils have more than one variety, and the one you choose may make a significant difference in the oil’s effectiveness.

For example, many lavender products are made with lavandin (Lavenula intermedia), which, according to ACHS, is not as effective as true lavender (Lavendula agustifolia).

When you read or hear about a study about an essential oil’s effectiveness in treating a certain condition, make sure you know which variety of the oil was used in the study.

3. Remember that most of the time, you get what you pay for.

We all love to save money, and it’s certainly possible to purchase good quality essential oils without emptying your wallet, but don’t expect to buy safe and effective products at bargain basement prices.

Remember quality oils must be tested; the process costs money. In addition, pure oils cost more than oils with additives and extenders. Spending a bit more for products that work can be a wise investment. In the long run, it will be a lot less expensive than prescription drugs and visits to a doctor.

The bottom line is that most inexpensive essential oils have little use beyond the pleasant fragrance they may provide, so if you’re interested in health benefits, you’ll probably need to invest a bit more money.

But before you choose the most expensive product on the market, do some research; compare prices and ask for recommendations from health care providers who have experience with these products, and perhaps be wary of any company that claims to have the only oils worth buying.

4. Find a supplier or practitioner you trust.

Once you find a supplier that meets the criteria for quality, you can return to that source for all your essential oil needs. Many companies have rewards programs or offer free products and other incentives to regular customers, which can be a benefit of having a go-to company.

Just be sure to choose a company based on the quality of its products, not the cleverness of its marketing campaign. If you’re not sure you can do this on your own, ask someone trained in aromatherapy or contact an aromatherapy school for recommendations.

Essential oils are a true gift of nature, and there are many ways to incorporate them into your healthy, happy life. They can be used to calm the mind, help you sleep, heal the body, sanitize your home, and even to improve the health of your pets!

But don’t take my word for it. First, spend some time learning for yourself. Find out as much as possible about the science behind essential oils from experienced people who know the facts so you can be sure you’re choosing products carefully and using them safely.

Are Your Supplements Safe and Effective? Practical Tips For Your Health and Your Wallet

When I first became interested in complementary and alternative medicine, the general belief was the Food and Drug Administration did not care much about supplements. It’s true that the government does little to regulate the use of dietary supplements. The reason for this is dietary supplements are classified as foods, not drugs.

I learned very little about supplements in my college classes when I studied nutrition a few decades ago, and I suppose there was a good reason for that. It was not until 1994 that Congress decided on a definition of dietary supplement with a law known as the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA).

Dietary supplements are products that contain ingredients such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, and amino acids. They may also contain enzymes, organ tissue, glandulars, and metabolites. They come in tablets, softgels, liquids, and powders. You probably used one or more at some point.

Not Drugs or Foods

It’s important to note that DSHEA puts dietary supplements in a special category. They are not considered drugs, but they are not conventional foods either. They do fall under the umbrella of foods, but they must be specifically labeled as dietary supplements.

What’s new?

DSHEA also distinguishes between a “dietary ingredient” and a “new dietary ingredient.” This is important because the only time a manufacturer needs to inform the FDA about a new product is when the product contains a “new” dietary ingredient, that is, any ingredient that was not already being sold as a dietary supplement before October 15, 1994.

In other words, a company that makes vitamin C tablets does not need to get approval from the FDA before it makes this product. Since there’s no definitive list of “old” dietary supplements, it’s up to the manufacturer to determine whether an ingredient is new. (To use an extreme example, if you decided to market shredded paper as a dietary supplement, you’d have to clear it with the FDA first.)

Does the FDA regulate dietary supplements?

As long as there are no “new dietary ingredients” in a supplement, manufacturers do not need approval from the FDA to make and sell a product. However, firms do have to register with the FDA before they can legally manufacture and market dietary supplements.

For the most part, it’s up to the company that makes a supplement to do the necessary research to ensure that a product is safe and effective. Equally important is the responsibility of individual consumers to be aware of the ingredients in the products they are using and to learn as much as possible about the safety and efficacy of these ingredients.

Good practices

In 2007, the FDA published guidelines for companies to use when creating dietary supplements. According to the FDA website, “These regulations focus on practices that ensure the identity, purity, quality, strength and composition of dietary supplements.”

So if you want to know how reliable and safe a product is, find out if the company follows Current Good Manufacturing Practices (sometimes abbreviated CGMP or GMP) as dictated by the FDA.

How must supplements be labeled?

The FDA requires the following information to appear on all dietary supplement labels:

  • the name of the supplement, which must include a statement that it is a supplement
  • the name and address of the manufacturer, packer or  distributor
  • the net contents of the product
  • a “Supplement Facts” nutrition label that lists all ingredients in the product

All ingredients in the product must be listed either on the “Supplement Facts” panel or below the panel under the heading “other ingredients.”

Who ensures the safety of dietary supplements?

US law states that manufacturers are responsible for determining the safety of their products. Since supplement companies do not need approval from the FDA to sell most products, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you trust a particular brand and product. (Before you decide whether or not this is a good thing, consider that the FDA does approve prescription drugs, and some would say it’s not a stretch to say the drugs it approves are not always safe.)

So the bottom line is it’s up to you to find out what you’re taking, whether it’s safe, and whether it’s effective for the reason that you’re taking it. You should also be aware that while the FDA does not approve supplements, it can ban the sale of supplements shown to be unsafe.

Supplement manufacturers are required to submit reports of adverse side effects to the FDA, but it’s much more likely that health care providers and you, the consumer, will be the ones responsible for alerting the government when there is a problem with a product. You can do this by filing a report with FDA yourself.

How to choose supplements

Before you get the idea that I’m discouraging the use of supplements or that I think the FDA always has everyone’s interests in mind, let me say neither of these is necessarily the case.

I do think many supplements have tremendous value. And there are many more that are useless and a waste of money. Hopefully, there are not too many that are downright dangerous.

Supplements which have been on the market for a long time are probably safe (though this doesn’t mean they’re effective). Newer supplements may not have been around long enough to determine whether or not they’re safe. However, even if you’re buying something as common as calcium, it’s still a good idea to do some research and choose wisely. The FDA does have some commonsense tips on this:

  • Consider your overall diet before deciding that you need a supplement.
  • Talk to your doctor and get his or her input on the need, safety and efficacy of a supplement you want to use.
  • Find out if the supplement you are considering has any interactions with any prescription or over-the-counter medications you are taking.
  • Carefully evaluate the source of information you find on the web or in other places, and look for actual research studies that support any claim that a supplement manufacturer makes.
  • Think twice before accepting a claim that sounds too good to be true.
  • Don’t assume that “natural” necessarily means “safe.”
  • Contact the manufacturer for more information about a product if you have any remaining doubts about using it.

It’s up to you

When it comes to dietary supplements and your health, it’s up to you to decide what’s good for you and what’s not. That can mean finding someone you trust who has done the necessary research for you or taking the time to do it yourself. In most cases, it will probably mean a combination of both.

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