Another supplement that has been shown to be useful in combating the deleterious effects of stress is phosphatidylserine. This phospholipid (any of a variety of phosphorous-containing fats) constitutes an essential part of the cellular membrane. Beginning in the 1990s, studies showed that phosphatidylserine can cut elevated cortisol levels induced by mental and physical stress. In one early study, 800 mg per day given to healthy men significantly blunted the rise in cortisol caused by physical stress. Another article reported that even small amounts of supplemental phosphatidylserine (50-75 mg administered intravenously) could reduce the amount of cortisol responding to the physical stressors. In that study, eight healthy men had their blood drawn before and after physical stress induced by riding a bicycle ergometer (a stationary bike). While all subjects showed increased cortisol levels, pretreatment with the 50- or 75-mg dose of phosphatidylserine significantly diminished the cortisol response to the physical stressor.
Finally, a study published in 2004 examined phosphatidylserine’s effects on endocrine and psychological responses to mental stress, using the Trier Social Stress Test described earlier. This double-blind study followed 40 men and 40 women, aged 20-45, for three weeks. The subjects were given either phosphatidylserine (either 400 or 600 mg daily) or a placebo before taking the Trier Social Stress Test. Phosphatidylserine was effective in blunting the cortisol response to stressors, with those taking 400 mg daily (but not, surprisingly, 600 mg) of phosphatidylserine showing a significantly decreased cortisol response. The authors concluded that phosphatidylserine helped dampen the effects of stress on the pituitary-adrenal axis and may have a role in managing stress-related disorders. Recommended dosage: 300-800 mg per day.
While cortisol levels stay the same or even increase as we age, levels of another vitally important hormone, DHEA, decrease with each passing year. This relationship between cortisol and DHEA has led some to suggest that these adrenal hormones may play a significant role in the aging process and its associated negative health effects. A recent paper in the European Journal of Endocrinology examined age-related changes in the HPA axis. The authors showed that the cortisol-to-DHEA ratio increases significantly as people age and is even higher in elderly patients who suffer from dementia. Supplemental DHEA, however, enhances the brain’s resistance to stress-mediated changes, maintains functional abilities, and protects against age-related diseases. The authors concluded, “The changes of the hormonal balance [between cortisol and DHEA] occurring in aging may contribute to the onset and progression of the aging-associated neurogenerative diseases.” Recommended dosage: 25-50 mg per day. Any hormone supplementation should be monitored by your physician; it is best to consult your physician before adding supplemental DHEA to your regimen to make sure that it is right for you.
Adapting with Herbal Adaptogens
Plant-derived adaptogens can be very useful in combating the mental and physical rigors of our modern lifestyle. Adaptogens work by modulating the levels and activity of hormones and brain neurochemicals that affect everything from cardiac activity to pain perception. The following three adaptogens have proven to be particularly effective stress relievers:
• Rhodiola rosea: This herb, also known as golden root and Arctic root, has been used for centuries in traditional Asian and European medicine and is revered for its ability to increase resistance to a variety of chemical, biological, and physical stressors. It remains a popular plant today in traditional medical systems in eastern Europe and Asia but is lesser known in the United States.
Studies in cell cultures, animals, and humans have revealed Rhodiola’s many remarkable benefits: It fights fatigue and stress, it enhances immunity and protects against cancer, and it even protects against the damaging effects of oxygen deprivation.
Rhodiola rosea seed heads
Multiple studies from the former Soviet Union have demonstrated Rhodiola’s effectiveness in combating both physically and psychologically stressful conditions. One study in particular demonstrated Rhodiola’s amazing ability to significantly reduce stress in a single dose. This study was unique in that it examined the effects of a single-dose application of adaptogens for use in situations that require a rapid response to tension or to a stressful situation. They found that Rhodiola was extremely effective in controlling stress generated by the part of the stress system known as the sympathoadrenal system. This is significant because, as the study points out, the traditional stimulant drugs used for controlling this stress have the potential to become addictive. Users often develop a tolerance, making it necessary for them to take larger and larger doses of the drug. This behavior can easily lead to unintentional drug abuse, have a negative effect on sleep structure, and cause rebound hypersomnolence or come-down effects. Not only does Rhodiola produce no negative side effects, but it also effectively increases both mental and physical performance.
Put simply, Rhodiola prevents adrenal burnout and all of the negative ramifications that arise from adrenal depletion, which can occur from excessive long-term stress, insufficient sleep, insufficient consumption of protein, insufficient consumption of vitamin C, overuse of caffeine and other stimulants, high intake of sugary or starchy foods, chronic illness, and so on. Chronic stress is the worst culprit in adrenal depletion.
Many studies indicate that Rhodiola is useful as a therapy in conditions such as decline in work performance, sleep disturbances, poor appetite, irritability, hypertension, headaches, and fatigue resulting from intense physical or intellectual strain, influenza and other viruses, and other illness. Recommended dosage: one 250-mg capsule of Rhodiola rosea root extract, standardized to 3% rosavins (7.5 mg) and 1% salidrosides (2.5 mg).
• Ginseng: This herb has also been used throughout Asia since antiquity. It is important to note that ginseng is the name given to three different plants used as adaptogens. The most widely used is Panax ginseng, also known as Korean, Chinese, or Asian ginseng. Panax quinquefolium—or American ginseng—is also considered a “true” ginseng. However, Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), while commonly referred to as ginseng, is not a true ginseng but a closely related plant. Yet no matter what the genus or species, all three of these plants have experimental evidence backing their adaptogenic claims. Animal studies have shown that ginsenosides, bioactive compounds in ginsengs, improve the sensitivity of the HPA axis to cortisol. In addition, studies suggest that all three plants provide protection against both physical and psychological stresses.
• Ginkgo biloba: For the last 5,000 years, leaves of the ginkgo tree have been used to treat various medical conditions. While ginkgo is currently used to help combat the debilitating effects of memory decline and dementia, emerging evidence suggests that it may be useful in treating the impact of stress and elevated cortisol levels. A recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology examined ginkgo’s effects in modulating cortisol and blood pressure levels in 70 healthy male and female subjects. When subjected to physical and mental stressors, subjects who were given 120 mg per day of a standardized ginkgo extract saw smaller increases in their cortisol levels and blood pressure than did their counterparts who were given a placebo.
Exercising Stress Away
In addition to its influence on cellular rejuvenation and the mind-body balance, we now know about the powerful protective effect that exercise exerts over the stress hormones that threaten us with cellular degeneration.
Two forces are at work against us when we don’t get enough exercise. First is the fact that human beings were built to be in motion. We evolved as hunter-gatherers, not as couch-sitting television watchers. Our systems were meant to be used by a physically active body. When that body is constantly sedentary, our systems do not perform at peak capacity, and waste products are not eliminated as efficiently as they should be.
The second force that is at work against us is our body’s natural fight-or-flight response. Our stress hormones were designed to help us defeat stressors in the form of physical threats to our safety or else run away from them. Today, our stressors are more often psychological than physical—but the production of stress hormones remains the same. They are not dissipated through fighting or fleeing; instead, they continue to circulate through the body, wreaking havoc on our cells.
Regular exercise is the best way to remove these toxic by-products of the stress response. As long as it is not overdone, exercise relieves everyday stress, enhances immune system function, boosts circulation, and improves our ability to get a good night’s rest (of primary importance, since we know that most cellular repair takes place while we sleep). One other note on sleep: a fascinating study has recently been completed showing the importance of sleeping in total darkness for many health reasons, including breast cancer reduction. It was found that women who worked night shifts, such as nurses and flight attendants, had a 60% higher rate of breast cancer. The research, conducted at the National Cancer Institute and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, revealed a disquieting finding: Exposure to light during the hours of sleep appears to aggressively promote breast cancer by shutting off the production of melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland. This hormone, which is naturally produced by the body during the hours of darkness, is known to be a strong immune system booster. Its presence also impedes the growth of cancer tumors by as much as 80%, according to research findings.
We Have the Power
One of the truly positive aspects of growing older is the wisdom and serenity it can bring to our lives. And with that wisdom and serenity comes the power and knowledge to ensure that the choices we make have our best interests at heart. When we are young we are reckless, taking our health for granted, burning the candle at both ends and making decisions that we later come to regret. We also feel that we have all the time in the world. By the time we reach our thirties, forties, and beyond, we realize that time is both precious and finite. We are now ready to take better control of our lives and focus on meaningful goals that are beneficial and for the long term.
Stress is very physical in its many manifestations, and what is described here is no doubt just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. We have learned just how “holistic” stress and negative emotion are—leaving no part of the body untouched. But we are not helpless, defenseless beings, subject to the whims and caprices of the world, slaves to mental and emotional stress. We have many teachers willing to provide the tools we need to maximize our physical and mental potential. Most of all, we need to realize and accept that we are powerful entities with great abilities to both create and destroy ourselves, our realities, and our universe. If the negative states of mind can do this much harm, might not learning how to de-stress and concentrate on positive thoughts and emotions be capable of producing great benefits? If this is true, and it is, then it stands to reason that reducing stress and learning to focus on positive emotion must hold the key to a brighter, happier, and healthier future for us all. It is up to us to light the way for the generations following in our footsteps.
Nicholas Perricone, MD, is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Perricone Weight-Loss Diet, The Wrinkle Cure, The Perricone Prescription, and The Perricone Promise. He is a board-certified dermatologist, award-winning inventor, research scientist, and internationally renowned anti-aging expert. Visit the author’s website at www.nvperriconemd.com.