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Beat stress by nourishing your brain

6 min read

Stress impacts all of us in our day to day lives, it's impossible not to feel it at some point and to be unaffected by it. Rather than popping pills to deal with the side effects of stress it might be wiser to tackle the route cause by nourishing the part of the brain where stress originates.

The adrenal system is a system that produces hormones including adrenaline and steroids called aldosterone and cortisol which are produced during times of stress. Food plays a very important role in our health therefore it makes sense that eating foods and supplements that nourish the adrenal system will help to reduce signs of stress.

Stress can lead to a whole host of health issues involving the immune system, nervous system, and respiratory system to name a few. The problem is prolonged stress keeps your body in a flight or fight response where stress hormones remain in the body, this can put a strain on the body as it increases blood pressure and insulin resistance, it alters immune responses, and suppresses the digestive system. This ultimately puts the body at a predisposition for other diseases.

An example of dealing with a symptom of stress rather than helping matters at route level is popping a paracetamol for a stress headache. This will in fact make things worse as the drug is a stimulant and has a negative effect on the adrenal system which is already under strain.

Natural alternatives such as herbal remedies are better for us in this sense but it's still important to highlight that people need to get to the route of the issue.

If the daily diet nourishes the adrenal system then it allows the body to create the right amount of neuro-transmitters and will move the body into a state where it's more resilient to the effects of stress.


Magnesium is sometimes referred to as a natural 'chill pill', it seems to act on many levels to improve the body’s response to stress and help reduce or eliminate its adverse effects. Magnesium has been shown to control the activity of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, which is considered to be the main stress response system.

It's important to be aware that stress itself depletes the body of magnesium, which means a downward spiral can be created as a lack of magnesium magnifies stress. This is because when you are under stress, your body creates stress hormones, causing a cascade of physical effects, all of which consume magnesium. If you don’t rest or replace your magnesium between stressful episodes, your magnesium stores become depleted. This in turn means that when you experience the next bout of stress, the body can't activate its magnesium reserves to calm the effects of stress hormones in the body (adrenaline and cortisol). Without the calming effects of magnesium, adrenaline increases heart rate, bloody pressure and tenses muscles in a fight or flight reaction.

One thing to understand about stress is that it comes in many forms - physical, mental, emotional and environmental. So that overnight flight with little or no sleep, that busy day that lead to meals being skipped, environmental toxins, drinking too much alcohol. Even that particularly grueling gym session! It all equals stress for the body and therefore the need for more magnesium.

Good food sources of magnesium include spinach, pumpkin seeds, almonds and cashews. If you're thinking of supplementing then magnesium citrate is the most commonly used form in supplements. Additional bioavailable forms include glycinate or bisglycinate, malate, taurate, orotate, and threonate. “Chelated” magnesium means the mineral has been combined with an amino acid, rendering it easier to absorb.

Rhodiola and Ashwagandha

Rhodiola and Ashwagandha are adaptogenic herbs or “adaptogens”. This class of herb has been used for centuries to help the body “adapt” to stress and have a long history of use in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.

Adaptogenic herbs support a more balanced response to ongoing stress, regulating stress hormone and cortisol production in order to prevent adrenal fatigue and HPA axis dysfunction. Adaptogens also help modulate cellular sensitivity to stress hormones, thereby encouraging a healthier response to stress overall. 

Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, helps the body cope with stress by boosting adrenal function. It is widely used to balance stress hormones, relieve anxiety, and increase energy in those suffering from adrenal fatigue.

Rhodiola is an adaptogen that has been proven to reduce the secretion of cortisol during stressful situations. Research has also shown that rhodiola can increase energy and enhance concentration in those with adrenal fatigue.


L-theanine is a potent amino acid known to support the limbic system (the brain), once consumed it can make you feel considerably calmer and more focused, so say scientific studies

L-theanine is naturally found in high amounts in tea leaves, a cup of black tea contains about 20mg of L-theanine. You would need more than this to see the therapeutic benefits so supplementing would provide an easy and convenient way to consume sufficient amounts.

Research that shows it stimulates alpha waves in the brain, which are associated with a relaxed, focused, but awake state of mind. In other words it can calm the body without compromising mental clarity.

Research has also shown that L-theanine works in as little as 30–60 minutes, so seriously if you're stressed out take a chill pill!


In addition to damaging your body, chronic stress also rewires your brain. Stress hormones tell the brain to focus, feel less and get ready. Unfortunately, when this message is never turned off, your brain will make changes to tune out the message.

Scientists are still figuring out the many layers of changes that take place in response to chronic stress but they include both the brain’s structure and chemistry. Certain regions of the brain become hyperactive, while others deteriorate, and levels of neurotransmitters (like serotonin, dopamine and endocannabinoids) and their receptors also change.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that CBD works to treat anxiety. Even though most research has been done in rodents, a recent review discusses 32 different studies that tested CBD’s effects on anxiety and only one didn’t see useful results. 

So how does it work? Studies currently suggest that CBD counters anxiety by stimulating neurotransmitter systems and neural regeneration:

Serotonin - role of this neurotransmitter is very complex, and its effects depend on where it is and what it binds to. Serotonin has at least 14 different receptors, but CBD specifically binds to 5-HT1A which is thought to have the strongest role in anxiety disorders. The anti-anxiety drug buspirone also binds to this particular receptor, which explains the anti-anxiety effects of CBD on rats exposed to stressful situations.

Endocannabinoids - your body naturally produces cannabinoids, which are used throughout your body and brain in the endocannabinoid system. This system can become dysregulated under chronic stress. However, CBD could help restore balance to the endocannabinoid system by preventing overstimulation of your CB1 receptors and by boosting your body’s production of endocannabinoids.

Neural regeneration - chronic stress can damage neurons and even shrink brains, however certain areas of the brain are still capable of regeneration. Throughout life we continue to form new neurons, make new neural connections, and grow our brains. It seems that CBD boosts this process. This means that CBD could help to counterbalance the brain damage caused by chronic stress. Numerous studies have proved that CBD encourages neural regeneration, particularly in the hippocampus. In fact, its ability to reduce anxiety in chronically-stressed mice comes from CBD’s power to stimulate the growth of new neurons.

If chronic stress and anxiety have rewired your brain, it will take work and time to undo the damage. Eventually, you can change your habitual mind patterns, but you might get there even faster if you actively help your brain neurons grow and rebuild.

Its fairly plain to see how destructive stress is to the body, and unfortunately it's one of those things that can easily be forgotten about or just accepted as part and parcel of living but if you tune into it and take action to combat it you can really improve your overall quality of life.

A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.