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Nutrients that can help beat stress
Eating a healthy diet is key to coping with stress. Here’s what you should know and whether a supplement might help too.
Caring for kids or aging parents? Juggling a busy job? There’s no doubt that life can get stressful. And while you already know that a heathy diet is great for you in so many ways, here’s another reason to eat right: A nutrient-rich diet can help you feel better and manage stress and anxiety.
That’s because your body needs certain nutrients to function normally. In fact, a balanced diet boosts your immune system and gives you the energy you need to deal with stress, according to the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
Do you need to take a supplement for stress? Not necessarily. “I always recommend taking a multivitamin and then working more nutrients into your diet with food,” says Scott Krakower, DO. He’s a psychiatrist at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York.
Here are some nutrients and supplements that may help reduce stress. If you do decide to try a supplement, you should always talk to your doctor first.
Omega-3 fatty acids
These nutrients are found in walnuts, flaxseed and fatty fish like salmon and canned sardines. They play a big part in your well-being. People who don’t get enough of them have a higher risk of developing mental health disorders. So adding more of them to your diet can be a good way to help you manage stress, says Kelly Jackson. She’s a registered dietitian with the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness at the University of Arizona.
Can omega-3 supplements help, too? Maybe. A recent large-scale review published in the Global Health Journal found mixed results. But one study showed that people with mild-to-moderate depression experienced significant improvements when they took omega-3 supplements.
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This herb is used in traditional Indian medicine. It can reduce stress, anxiety and fatigue. A small study published in 2019 found that participants who took ashwagandha supplements for 8 weeks had significantly lower levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. That was compared to those who took a placebo.
“It tends to help people on an ongoing basis to have a little less stress reaction in their body, and it can be calming,” says Kathryn Boling, MD. She’s a family medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. One important note of caution: Never take ashwagandha if you’re pregnant.
Melatonin is not a nutrient you get through food. Rather, it’s a hormone that your body makes naturally to regulate your sleep-wake cycles. Taking a melatonin supplement may help in the short-term with sleep problems related to stress.
But since everybody’s cycle is a little different, the right timing — and the correct dose — can be a bit tricky, says Jackson. Your best bet: practicing good sleep hygiene for a good night’s rest, which can reduce anxiety.
But with your doctor’s OK, melatonin may help you nod off, Dr. Krakower explains. And a good night’s sleep leads to a better mood the next day. There’s a wide variety of effective melatonin supplements, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. So be sure to speak with your doctor for the right recommendation.
Quercetin is an antioxidant — a substance that helps repair your cells and protect them from future damage. Quercetin is found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, apples and broccoli. It seems to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
One of its superpowers: A 2022 review of studies showed that in addition to helping reduce inflammation, quercetin may also have an antidepressant effect. Dr. Boling sometimes recommends it to her patients to help with stress.
There’s nothing like a cup of tea to calm your nerves. That’s because green and black tea contain a chemical called L-theanine, which can relax you and help to lower your feelings of stress and anxiety. It may work by affecting your levels of neurotransmitters — your brain’s chemical messengers.
A soothing sip may be best, but a theanine supplement can help, too. A recent study found that after 4 weeks, people who took theanine supplements had lower levels of stress, depression and anxiety — and better sleep — than those who took a sugar pill.
Dr. Boling says that some of her patients find that taking supplements of L-theanine helps them with anxiety. Though more studies are needed, talk to your doctor to see if drinking tea (or taking a theanine supplement) is a good idea for you.
Valerian is an herbal supplement. In a review of studies published in 2020, researchers found that valerian could be a safe and effective herb to treat sleep problems, anxiety and other mood disorders. While it’s effective for adults in the short term, experts aren’t certain about its long-term safety. So more research is needed.
“Taken in tea, valerian root can be calming,” Dr. Boling says. “Valerian also comes in capsules, and when patients are feeling stressed, it may help.”
Other ways to reduce stress
Getting the right balance of nutrients in your diet is super important for a healthy, happy life. But it’s not the only strategy. Try these tips to help manage the big and little stresses that come your way:
Breathe. A few deep, calming breaths can help to de-stress your body. Take a few minutes to calm yourself down by breathing in deeply, then letting the air out slowly.
Move. Stay active: Try dancing, yoga, hiking or walking. Doing activities you enjoy relieves stress and may also lower your blood pressure, says Jackson.
Slow down.“You get up early, stay up late, push yourself and get upset when you don’t do your best,” says Linda Sapadin, a psychologist and author based in Valley Stream, New York. “Remind yourself that life is not about getting it all done and that more isn’t always better.”
Talk. Connect with people you trust and let them know how you’re doing. Or talk with your doctor about connecting with a mental health professional, online or in person. Community-based organizations can help, too.
Prioritize. Feeling overwhelmed can bring on stress, so it’s smart to break big jobs into small, manageable tasks. When you finish one task, give yourself a high-five and move on to the next one. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, just say no to too many commitments.
Nutrients and stress: Harvard School of Public Health (n.d.). “Stress and health”
Melatonin: American Academy of Sleep Medicine (2017). "Study finds melatonin content varies widely"
Quercitin study: Frontiers in Psychology (2022). “Antidepressant Potential of Quercetin and its Glycoside Derivatives: A Comprehensive Review and Update”
L-theanine study: Nutrients (2019).“Effect of L-theanine administration on Stress Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults”
Valerian study: Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine (2020). “Valerian Root in Treating Sleep Problems and Associated Disorders’