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October 6, 2008, last updated July 13, 2014
By Susan M. Callahan, Associate Editor
and Featured Columnist

If you occasionally feel stressed out, you certainly are not alone. Although it
is difficult to estimate the exact number of people who suffer from stress,
there have been surveys and studies that help us put brackets around the
enormous size of the problem.  Over 55 million Americans suffer from
anxiety or depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And,
according to a 2010 study led by researchers from the Global Neuroscience
Initiative Foundation, about 6.8 million Americans suffer from generalized
anxiety disorder.  In light of the enormity of the problems that untreated
stress can cause -- increased risk of stroke and heart attacks , sexual
dysfunction and impaired ability to concentrate, to name a few -- people
have turned to natural remedies such as foods, herbs or supplements to
combat stress and anxiety.  But are there effective natural remedies for
stress? Can herbs help to relieve stress. Just what are the best foods to eat
to relieve stress?  

We have scoured existing research to determine the foods and herbs that
have been proven effective in relieving stress.

Foods Rich in Omega-3  Fatty Acids Fight Stress

According to research,  salmon and other fish high in omega-3 fatty acids
top the list.

To see why omega-3 fish such as salmon are such a powerful anti-dote to
stress, you have to understand what stress is. "Stress" is your body's
reaction to danger.  

We humans developed the stress response many millions of years ago.
Stress came in handy at a time when we were roaming the earth fighting
with saber tooth tigers and man-eating reptiles.  The stress response
triggers the release of hormones which tell out body to get ready to fight or

This "fight or flight" reaction is different from any other reactions you have.  
When stress hormones flood our bodies, our blood is re-directed to our
muscles, literally pumping them up to increase our speed and strength.  
Cortisol, also known as glucocorticoid, releases sugar (in the form of
glucose) from the body reserves so that this essential fuel can be used to
power the muscles and the brain.

We do in fact become stronger.  Humans activated by the stress response
can do miraculous things.  There's a story from Atlanta about a mother who,
seeing her child under a car, was able to push the car off the child. The car
weighed some 2000 pounds.

The human body becomes this Hulk of a figure from the interaction of stress
of hormones with our pituitary gland and with the adrenal glands that sit on
top of your liver. Think of these two glands as covered baskets containing
magic potions.  The pituitary basket contains a potion called ACTH
(adrenocorticotropin).  The adrenal glands contain 3 magic potions,
adrenaline (also called epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine) and

When you see or experience something that makes you feel afraid, a part of
the brain called the hypothalmus triggers the release of a chemical (CRH or
cortico-releasing hormone) which opens the first basket in the pituitary.
Next, the pituitary sends hormones to your adrenal glands telling them to
"release the hounds", and the 3 stress hormones flood your blood stream,
pumping blood into your muscles, increasing your heart rate, and getting
you ready for the fight of your life.

Nature designed the stress hormones as a quick trigger to get us ready to
fight. Nature also designed these hormones to shut off just as quickly once
the fight was over, triggering an "off switch".

Normally, cortisol also exerts a feedback effect to shut down the stress
response after the threat has passed, acting upon the hypothalamus and
causing it to stop producing CRH.  

This stress circuit affects systems throughout the body. The hormones of the
HPA axis exert their effect on the autonomic nervous system, which controls
such vital functions as heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion.

So, as you can see, stress has its benefits when it gets us ready to fight or to
protect our loved ones from physical danger. But the problem is that our
bodies cannot tell the difference between the fear from a crouching saber-
tooth tiger and the stress we feel when we are behind on our mortgages or
we are afraid of losing our jobs. Or the general stress we increasingly feel
that we are somehow just not in control of our destinies anymore in a
dangerous and complicated world.

This pervasive, relentless low-grade stress causes our bodies to release an
almost continuous flood of cortisol and other stress hormones. We are
bathed in a continuous river of stress hormones.

The stress hormones flood our blood stream, pumping blood into our
muscles, increasing our heart rate, and getting us ready for the fight of our

We are on Red Alert, 24 hours a day in some cases, for many grinding years.
The delicate mechanisms that nature designed to turn off the spigot of stress
hormones after a quick fight with a tiger were not designed to deal with
continuous long-term pervasive threats against "enemies" we cannot fight
with our fists ---overdue mortgages, insecure jobs, crashing economies and
on and on.

The body never flips the "off switch".

Over time, as you can imagine, this takes a toll. The continuous release of
cortisol and other stress hormones damage our adrenal glands, and the
immune system, rendering us more vulnerable to chronic infection, auto-
immune diseases, heart disease and stroke and diabetes.

Where does salmon fit into all this? Well, salmon, and other foods with
omega-3 fatty acids appear to inhibit the release of the
stress hormone
cortisol. (Read more about
stress hormones and habits that help to block
their release.)

In a 2003 study and in a number of clinical tests, fish oil has been shown to
reduce cardiovascular risk in women and men. Fish oil appears to help
individuals cope with psychological stress by reducing their cortisol levels. In
a study published in 2003, researchers gave seven study volunteers 7.2
grams per day of fish oil for three weeks and then subjected them to a
battery of mental stress tests. Blood tests showed that these psychological
stressors elicited changes in the subjects’ heart rate, blood pressure, and
cortisol levels.

After three weeks of fish oil supplementation, however, the rise in cortisol
levels secondary to stress testing was significantly blunted, leading the
authors to conclude that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids from fish
oil “inhibits the adrenal activation elicited by a mental stress, presumably
through effects exerted at the level of the central nervous system."

The amount of salmon recommended to achieve a reduction in or to
significantly inhibit the release of cortisol has not been established
definitively by research.

But, for general health, aim to eat 3 to 6 servings of salmon or other fish
with omega-3 fatty acids per week. (Read more about
krill oil, which has an
even more effective form of omega-3 than fish oil.)

Magnesium Can Help to Combat Stress

Continue reading  page 1  page 2

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Salmon, rich in omega-3  fatty acids, can help you lower your
stress levels.