It's the paradox of youth: As a twenty- or thirtysomething, you're working hard to establish your career, build relationships, pay the bills, and maybe start a family. You should be having fun, but instead you're constantly stressed.
Chances are your nervous system—the body's master command center that regulates stress hormones and moods through chemicals called neurotransmitters—is out of whack, leaving you vulnerable to depression, panic attacks, and heart disease. The good news?
It's easy to nurture your neurotransmitters with mood-boosting foods, anxiety-squelching supplements, and simple strategies that bring calm to your day. Start building a baseline of emotional and physical wellness now, and set yourself up for optimal health later in life.
"How we choose to handle stress is up to each of us individually. I consciously choose to pick my battles carefully. I've learned that most things give way to simple resolutions if you are patient and give it a little time." —Lisa Chirico, 38, Lone Tree, Colorado
Opt for fat-packed protein
"A good diet equals a good mood," says Julia Ross, MA, director of Recovery Systems, a holistic clinic in Mill Valley, California, and author of The Mood Cure (Penguin, 2004). Composed of 22 amino acids, protein is the only nutrient that replenishes serotonin, the brain's primary mood- and sleep-enhancing chemical, which helps regulate depression, aggression, and anxiety. It's also crucial for the production of endorphins—neurotransmitters that convey feelings of pleasure. Terrific protein sources, wild salmon and sardines pack omega-3 essential fatty acids, which help boost your brain's production of the antidepressant dopamine, says Ross. In a 2005 study at Israel's Bar Ilan University, a mixture of omega-3 and omega-6 was associated with lowered levels of cortisol, a stress-coping hormone that can go into overdrive when you're under prolonged pressure, causing you—ironically—to feel more anxious ( Nutritional Neuroscience, 2005, vol. 8, no. 4).
Bolster your Bs
Your brain needs B6 to produce serotonin, and B5 is crucial to maintaining your adrenals—triangular glands above the kidneys that manage the stress response by producing cortisol and adrenaline. When you're under pressure, your body burns through these vitamins, leaving you susceptible to symptoms of adrenal fatigue, including lethargy, mild depression, and scatterbrained concentration. If you're stressed out, chances are you're chronically deficient in vitamin Bs. So staff your dietary team with star players, such as avocados, bananas, sunflower seeds, oats, and turkey. Eat in moderation, though: Too many bananas can cause your blood sugar to spike and your good mood to crash.
Maximize your minerals
Your brain and bones need ample amounts of calming minerals, such as magnesium and calcium, which cortisol leaches from your bone matrix during chronic stress, says Ross. Your food fix: figs, which are high in calcium and offer blood pressure–regulating potassium. Or eat cottage cheese to benefit from dairy's high calcium content and endorphin-boosting proteins.
Herbs & Supplements
Build on the basics
A good multivitamin is the MVP of your supplement stash, but, according to Ross, not all multis are created equal. Look for one with at least 50 mg of B6 and 50 mg of vitamin B5. For maximum benefit, Ross suggests spreading your daily intake across four to six doses. And because your adrenals utilize 90 percent of the vitamin C you consume, she suggests taking an additional supplement containing 1,000 mg of vitamin C.
Cultivate everyday calm
To counterbalance stress at work, Ross recommends 100 mg daily of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)—a chewable amino-acid tablet that neutralizes adrenaline and helps you stay sane when faced with a raging boss or missed deadline. "Our clients use it right before they go into a stressful meeting or even during the meeting," says Ross. "It goes right into your brain, so you can feel relaxed right away without losing mental sharpness."
Beat the blues
Herbal adaptogens such as roseroot (Rhodiola rosea) and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) can smooth out jangled nerves and ease panic and anxiety. Take 200 to 600 mg roseroot and 300 to 400 mg of ginseng. To treat chronic stress and mild depression, Ross recommends restocking your body with serotonin-fueling amino acids, such as 5HTP and L-tryptophan. For the best daily results, take 50 to 200 mg and 500 to 2,000 mg, respectively.
Meditation, especially Transcendental, is an obvious choice for creating quiet because it can lower blood pressure, ease a racing heart, and even reduce pain response ( NeuroReport, 2006, vol. 17, no. 12). Take it Outside
Not only can being in nature put personal problems in perspective, but the vitamin D in sunshine also raises serotonin levels, says Robyn Benson, doctor of Oriental medicine. She suggests spending 15 to 20 minutes up to five times per week outside, sans SPF. Too much sun is risky, though, so time your outings for early morning or late afternoon when UV rays are at their weakest.
Positive thinking is another shortcut to tranquility. For instance, participants in a 2005 University of California study who affirmed their personal values prior to completing a stressful task showed significantly lower cortisol levels (Psychological Science, 2005, vol. 16, no. 11). "Your brain only knows what you tell it, so as soon as you feel stress, repeat a mantra or visualize a place where you feel loved and calm," says Kathleen Hall, PhD, founder and director of the Atlanta-based Stress Institute and author of A Life in Balance (American Management Association, 2006). Or simply reflect on what makes you thankful. "It's impossible to experience gratitude and the stress response at the same time," says Hall.
Surround yourself with allies
"Friends are the essence of a long life," says Hall, who suggests making time to e-mail and phone pals, and sharing a weekly meal together. "We get endorphins and serotonin just by talking to a friend, but be in her physical presence and your brain produces the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which is very good for the body."
Don't overdo it
It's no secret that moderate exercise is a powerful natural antidepressant, releasing endorphins and regulating blood sugar. But too much activity can trigger the brain's stress response, releasing cortisol and adrenaline. Balance long runs with easy hikes, and factor in at least one day of recovery per week. "We're all about yin and yang," says Robyn Benson, DOM, founder of Santa Fe Soul natural health and healing center in New Mexico. "If you're the type of person who puts all her energy out there through exercise, you need to find ways to build yourself back up, whether it's yoga, tai chi, or low-key walking."
Katie Arnold lives and writes in Santa Fe, New Mexico.