We’ve all heard it before: Stress pretty much destroys our health, both body and mind.
As a busy physician, I always thought that working hard and scheduling things back-to-back-to-back would make me feel more successful. What I didn’t realize, however, was that it would also leave me feeling incredibly stressed.
So, in true physician fashion, I did my homework—and discovered a number of research-backed ways to manage stress naturally.
I use the following four tools—along with healthy eating and plenty of time outside—to ease my stress naturally. Hopefully, they’ll be helpful for you, too!
(Note: Check with your physician to make sure these strategies don’t conflict with anything in your health care plan—and that you’re not using them to mask a bigger health issue.)
1. Sync With Your Circadian Rhythm
Now that we know every cell in our body contains a circadian clock (which controls our sleep-wake cycles), our circadian rhythm has become a huge area of research and interest. In fact, the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a group of American scientists for their discoveries about these circadian rhythm-controlling molecular mechanisms.
Why should you care? Increasing evidence shows that the disruption of our sleep, wake, and eating cycles triggers a stress response. This stress not only makes us tired, but can also make us sick. In fact, we’ve seen this in people who have chronically altered eating and sleeping patterns (like night-shift workers).
Related: 3 Physical Signs You’re Way Too Stressed
A recent American Journal of Preventative Medicine study, for example, found that nurses who worked the night shift for more than five years were 38 percent more likely to die of heart disease than their day shift-working counterparts.
Optimize Your Nighttime Routine
Even if you don’t work night shifts, blue light exposure, late-night eating, and poor sleep can dramatically increase your body’s stress response.
When your circadian rhythm works properly, your body produces the stress hormone cortisol in the morning to get you up and running. As the day wears on, though, levels peter out. When you stay up late, sleep poorly, or are exposed to blue light in the evening, though, you produce more cortisol. As a result, you feel amped up, have trouble sleeping, and throw off your inner rhythm.
To better sync up with your natural circadian rhythm, eliminate blue light (yes, that means phones and television) at least an hour or two before bedtime. I also recommend getting some sunlight before 10 a.m. and finishing your last meal by 8 p.m. In bed by 11 p.m., no exceptions!
2. Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve, which runs from your neck to your abdomen, is in charge of turning off your sympathetic nervous system (a.k.a. ’fight or flight’ mode) and activating your parasympathetic nervous system (a.k.a. your ‘rest and digest’ mode). Basically, this nerve helps lower your heart rate and blood pressure so your body can relax and restore.
Research suggests that stimulating your vagus nerve offers a lot of potential health benefits. In fact, it’s even been used to help treat diseases like alcohol addiction.
Luckily, it’s pretty easy to stimulate your vagus nerve. Try a few minutes of simple breath work (inhaling and exhaling for five seconds each) when you start feeling stressed. Getting a reflexology massage can do the trick, too.
3. Supplement With Adaptogens
Super-buzzy these days, adaptogens are botanical substances that help the body ‘adapt’ to emotional, mental, and physical stressors. In animal and small human studies, adaptogens have been shown to help ease stress and improve both energy and memory.
Two exceptionally popular adaptogens: ashwagandha (an ancient Ayurvedic herb) and rhodiola.
The exact way adaptogens work still isn’t completely clear—and they should not be thought of as magical solutions for stress. However, these botanicals can be hugely helpful when used in conjunction with clean eating, good sleep hygiene, and a healthy exercise routine.
I personally love ashwagandha, rhodiola, and amla.
If you want to give them a try, check with your doctor to make sure they don’t interact with any medications you take. If you get the go-ahead, select the lowest dose of each you can find. Take just one adaptogen for at least three days and monitor how you feel. Then, you can add a second or third, if desired.
Since some adaptogens—particularly ashwagandha—can have a stimulating effect, take them in the morning.
4. Support Sleep With Valerian Root
The herb Valerian root (native to Asia and Europe) has long been used to support relaxation and sleep.
Active compounds in this herb interact with a neurotransmitter called GABA, which helps regulate nerve impulses in our brain and nervous system, hence the benefits.
Related: Exactly What To Do At Night To Sleep Better
Although Valerian is considered safe for most adults, we don’t know a lot about the effects of taking it long-term. I recommend using it only as needed, until you have a better handle on your stress. Just make sure to take Valerian at night; it can make you feel sluggish when taken in the morning!
I personally love the combination of Valerian root and natural flowers in Genexa’s homeopathic Stress Relief formula.
Dr. Amy Shah, M.D., is a double board-certified physician with training from Cornell, Columbia, and Harvard Universities. With extensive training in health and nutrition, she advises on increasing energy levels, fixing gut issues, managing allergies, and boosting the immune system. Dr. Shah was recently named one of MindBodyGreen’s Top 100 Women in Wellness to Watch and is a member of Genexa‘s Medical Advisory Board.