By Dr. Mercola
While the holiday season can be a wonderful time of celebration and connection, few of us get through it without experiencing some level of stress. Emotions can run high around the holidays and expectations higher still. You may feel pressure to entertain, cook a big meal and shop for gifts for family and friends, whether you can afford it or not. In addition, there are many holiday-oriented activities and special events to attend.
All of those taking place in a short window of time can send your stress levels spiraling out of control, making you vulnerable to emotional and physical illness. Unlike the stress you likely deal with on a regular basis throughout the year, there is something unique about holiday stress — perhaps because you may feel pressure to have everything turn out “just right,” but it seldom does.
When it comes to holidays, there are countless variables to consider, and unfortunately, you have very little control over most of them. That said, you can take proactive steps to manage stress this holiday season. Below are seven supplements I would like to bring to your attention based on my belief they will help you not only survive, but also thrive, during this festive time of year.
No. 1: Magnesium
Holidays or not, magnesium is important to the heath of nearly every one of your cells, playing a daily role in hundreds of bodily reactions. Because it is the fourth most abundant mineral in your body, being deficient in magnesium can have wide-ranging consequences for your health.
Given the fact researchers1 have detected more than 3,750 magnesium-binding sites on human proteins underscores the importance this mineral has for your body’s optimal functioning, particularly during times of stress. You may be suffering from magnesium insufficiency if you experience:
- Eye twitches, muscle spasms — especially "charley horses" or spasms in your calf muscle, numbness or tingling in your extremities and seizures
- Headaches and/or migraines
- High blood pressure, heart arrhythmias and/or coronary spasms
- Low energy, fatigue and/or loss of appetite
On the other hand, the presence of sufficient magnesium is known to reduce your risk for heart disease, hypertension and migraines. This essential mineral also supports your muscle and nerve function, including the action of your heart muscle. Magnesium promotes better sleep, as well as mental and physical relaxation. It is thought to be an antidote to stress. About magnesium, Dr. Mark Hyman, director the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, says:2
“Think of magnesium as the relaxation mineral. Anything that is tight, irritable, crampy and stiff — whether it is a body part or an even a mood — is a sign of magnesium deficiency. This critical mineral is actually responsible for over 300 enzyme reactions and is found in all of your tissues — but mainly in your bones, muscles and brain. You must have it for your cells to make energy, for many different chemical pumps to work, to stabilize membranes and to help muscles relax.”
Hyman suggests half of Americans are deficient in magnesium but unaware of it,3 while others purport it may be as high as 75 percent.4 As of 2011 data,5 45 percent of American adults do not get the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of magnesium from their diet, which means an estimated 65 percent may have magnesium insufficiency or deficiency.
Teen statistics6 published in 2014 suggest nearly 92 percent of teens aged 14 to 18 do not meet the estimated average requirement for magnesium from food alone — likely because they do not eat fresh vegetables on a regular basis.
Magnesium deficiency can be a vicious cycle. If you are magnesium deficient, your feelings of stress and anxiety will likely be magnified, whereas unmitigated stress may actually deplete your magnesium stores. You can counteract these effects by eating more magnesium-rich foods, such as avocados, Brazil nuts, brown rice, cashews, dark leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard, oily fish, raw cacao, seaweed and seeds.
Adding a magnesium supplement to your diet can also help, especially during the holiday season. The RDA for adults is 400 milligrams (mg) of magnesium daily,7 but you may actually need far more than that. Because most of the world’s growing soils have become severely depleted of nutrients, some experts believe nearly everyone could benefit from a magnesium supplement. I take around 1 gram of magnesium each day, along with potassium bicarbonate.
Since there is no simple routine blood test to determine your magnesium level, it is best to get a magnesium RBC test, which can give you a reasonable estimate, while also carefully evaluating and tracking your symptoms. Dr. Carolyn Dean, who wrote “The Magnesium Miracle,” suggests a level of 6 to 6.5 mg/dL is a healthy range to be in.
No. 2: L-Theanine
L-theanine, a little-known, water-soluble amino acid, is found mainly in green tea. It is known for promoting relaxation and can also be useful in counteracting stress. Notably, L-theanine is able to cross your blood-brain barrier and increases generation of alpha waves in your brain, which are associated with alert relaxation.8,9
Though L-theanine is not common in most diets, it offers tremendous benefits to those who consume it on a regular basis. It not only helps you maintain a calm alertness during the day, but also contributes to a deeper sleep at night. About L-theanine, the Cleveland Clinic said:10
“Clinical trials have shown that l-theanine increases activity in your brain’s alpha wavelength. This wave … taps into your intuitive voice and encourages an attentive, relaxed, creative state. If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, or having trouble focusing, try sipping on green or black tea rather than coffee, and see if you notice a difference.”
Green tea doesn't contain enough L-theanine to significantly boost your REM sleep cycles, and too much tea consumption may result in nighttime trips to the bathroom. As such, the best way to get this beneficial amino acid is to purchase a pure, active L-theanine and take 50 to 200 mg at bedtime. Because some brands contain inactive forms of theanine that block its effectiveness, be sure to look for an active form.
A 2010 study11 suggests taking L-theanine and caffeine together helps improve cognitive performance and increases subjective alertness. Given the synergy between the two, if you supplement with L-theanine, your enjoyment of coffee and other caffeinated beverages during the holidays may actually provide some health benefit.
No. 3: Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is known as the energy vitamin, needed for blood formation, DNA synthesis, energy production and myelin formation. B12 is well-known for improving alertness, boosting attention span, sharpening concentration and bolstering memory. It also can help relieve stress.
You may be deficient in vitamin B12 if you are not eating enough of the foods containing it, or your body lacks the ability to absorb it properly. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 40 percent of the American population may have marginal vitamin B12 status12 — not low enough to qualify as a deficiency, but low enough to potentially invite neurological symptoms. Because the warning signs of a B12 deficiency are slow to manifest, you may be quite deficient by the time you recognize the symptoms, which include:
Poor concentration and memory problems
Tingling in the extremities
Vitamin B12 is present in its natural form only in animal sources of food, such as grass fed beef and beef liver, lamb, organic pastured eggs and poultry, venison and seafood, including salmon, scallops, shrimp and snapper. If you are a strict vegetarian or vegan or suffer from an immune disorder such as lupus, you are at increased risk of B12 deficiency.
While you can get some B12 from coconut oil, fortified coconut milk and nutritional yeast, you may need to take a daily supplement. Chronic long-term B12 deficiency can lead to serious conditions such as dementia, depression and fertility problems.
Because B12 does not absorb well, your best option is to supplement with a B12 spray, which is a better option than receiving painful injections from your doctor. Whether you choose animal foods or a high-quality spray, the RDA for B12 is 2.4 micrograms for anyone age 14 or older.13
No. 4: Potassium
Potassium is a mineral with innumerable advantages to keep your body functioning optimally. Found in almost every natural food, especially leafy greens, you need it in somewhat large amounts to maintain balance with respect to your body’s chemical and electrical processes. For example, potassium helps your muscles contract, regulates your body fluids, balances low blood sugar and transmits nerve impulses. It also lowers your blood pressure, as well as your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Low levels of potassium can throw your body off, causing mental fatigue, stress and anxiety.14 A study15 published in the British Journal of Nutrition involving 94 adults demonstrated a high-potassium diet may relieve symptoms of depression and tension, noting the diet “appeared to have a positive effect on overall mood.” To counteract holiday stress, eat a variety of whole foods with the goal of intaking the recommended 3,500 to 4,700 mg of potassium your body needs daily.16
While bananas are thought to be the best source of potassium, several other foods — some of which may even appear on your holiday menu — contain higher amounts. To get more potassium into your diet, try a 3.5-ounce/100 gram (g) serving of the following foods:17
|Food||Potassium per 100 g|
Beet greens, cooked
Sweet potato, baked
White potatoes, baked
No. 5: Vitamin D
Besides its well-known role in supporting the integrity of your bones, studies indicate vitamin D also plays a role in facilitating serotonin production. Serotonin, a brain hormone associated with mood elevation, rises with exposure to bright light and falls with decreased sun exposure. When your serotonin levels are low, you may be susceptible to anxiety, depression and stress.
The optimal vitamin D level for general health ranges between 40 to 60 nanograms per milliliter. While the ideal way to raise your vitamin D is by regularly and sensibly exposing large amounts of your skin to sunshine, that may not be possible where you live. If so, you will want to take an oral vitamin D3 supplement.
To maximize its effectiveness, be sure to take it in conjunction with vitamin K2 and magnesium. The best way to determine your ideal maintenance dose of vitamin D is by measuring your blood level. Ideally, check it twice a year, in winter and summer, when your levels will be at their lowest and highest.
As a general guideline, vitamin D experts recommend 4,000 IUs per day for adults, but only if you are already in the therapeutic range. If your levels are low, you may need 8,000 IUs or more per day. Particularly during the winter months, you’ll want to keep an eye on your levels. Lack of UV exposure can bring out the “winter blues,” leading to feelings of depression. If you notice your mood and energy levels are low, you may not be getting enough vitamin D.
Even if you live in an area receiving year-round sun, you are at risk of missing out on vitamin D from natural sun exposure if you spend most of your time indoors, use topical sunscreens or wear long clothing for religious reasons. In 2006, scientists evaluating the effects of vitamin D on the mental health of 80 elderly patients found those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to depression than those with higher amounts.18
No. 6: Ashwagandha
Originating in India, the popular herb ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for 3,000 years to counteract inflammation and stress. It is also known for boosting energy and stamina, as well as improving your libido and overall well-being, among other things.
Ashwagandha, sometimes referred to as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, literally translates to "odor of horse." The name fits because of the strong horse-like smell ashwagandha emits, leading some to believe this herb can impart the endurance and strength of a horse.
At the holidays, or any time of the year, ashwagandha can positively impact your immune and nervous systems, as well as your ability to deal with stress. When your body is stressed, it produces high amounts of cortisol that triggers your fight-or-flight response. Ashwagandha induces calmness and clarity by regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin, and reducing the production of the stress hormone cortisol.
In one study,19 anxiety test scores among 75 participants with moderate to severe anxiety of longer than six weeks’ duration were placed in two groups. Those taking 300 mg of ashwagandha twice daily were shown to have a "significant decrease in anxiety symptoms,” as opposed to those undergoing psychotherapy treatment. Significant improvements in secondary quality of life measures were also observed in the group taking ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha comes in various forms, and while there is no standard dose, the general recommendation is 3 to 6 g of ashwagandha powder daily. To receive the maximum health benefits this herb offers, make sure to use fresh, organic ashwagandha from a reputable source.
No. 7: Lavender Oil
Since its advent in the Mediterranean region more than 2,500 years ago, lavender has enjoyed a rich history and remained continuously popular.
While lavender essential oil is well-known as a stress reliever year-round, you may find its sweet floral scent particularly calming during the holiday season as a standalone oil, or in combination with other herbal oils such as frankincense, rose, vetiver or ylang ylang. In addition to its calming properties, lavender essential oil has long been regarded for its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antidepressant, antifungal, antimicrobial, antiseptic and antispasmodic properties.
Due to its many beneficial effects, it is one of the most well-known and commonly used essential oils in aromatherapy. According to the Natural Medicine Journal, “The efficacy of aromatherapy of lavender is thought to be due to the psychological effects of the fragrance combined with physiological effects of volatile oils in the limbic system”20 Among its many health benefits, lavender essential oil:21,22
- Promotes relaxation: Lavender oil is easily recognizable by its calming scent, which soothes frayed nerves and relieves anxiety. As such, it has been shown to be helpful in the treatment of depression, emotional stress, headaches, migraines and nervous tension.
- Induces sleep: Lavender oil is widely known as a nondrug alternative to treat insomnia and other sleep disorders. For calmer, more restful sleep, apply a few drops of lavender oil to your wrists or the bottom of your feet, or, combine an equal amount with water in a spray bottle and use it as a spritz for your bedding.
Additional Tips to Help You Deal With Holiday Stress
In addition to the supplements recommended above, I wanted to share a few tips you can apply right away to help you cope with holiday stress. The most important thing to remember around the holiday season is just that — it’s a season, and seasons come and go. Whatever you are facing is temporary, not permanent, and you always have options for self-care to get you through even the most stressful of situations. On a daily basis, as you go through the holidays, remember to:
• Breathe. Mindfully slowing your breathing helps you relax, which will naturally improve your heart rate, make your arteries more flexible and lower your blood pressure.
• Relax. Because stress has many negative effects on your body, such as triggering your "fight or flight" hormones, relaxation is vital to your health and longevity. In the video above, Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to use the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) for holiday stress, and there are other natural methods to calm and soothe your mind.
• Moderate your alcohol, caffeine and sugar consumption. While these three are among the most overused substances during the holiday season, they do very little to promote health or relieve stress. While alcohol, caffeine and sugar may temporarily “take the edge off,” the after effects of overindulging in them is hardly worth any temporary pleasure they may provide.
• Exercise regularly. Exercise of any kind can boost your mental and physical health during the holidays. Some of my personal favorites are: core training, high-intensity cardio, peak fitness, strength training and stretching. Even a brisk walk around the block will help you cope with stressful people and situations, so keep your coat handy and don’t be afraid to excuse yourself from the festivities if needed.
• Set limits. One of the best ways to set limits is by using the simple word “No.” By declining certain invitations and offers, you can retain a bit of sanity during what can otherwise be an insanely busy and stressful time of year. Remember, you are not obligated to buy gifts, cook, decorate or entertain — those are choices you make.
Sift through all of the unrealistic expectations and set limits around the activities known to make the season most enjoyable for you and your family. While saying “no” may feel uncomfortable in the short term, you won’t regret the freedom and peace it can provide in the long run.