For too many of us, feeling stressed and spent during the day, yet unable to unwind and enjoy refreshing sleep at night, has become the norm. Thankfully, there’s plenty of help to be found at natural products stores, and once tired, stressed-out customers consult with a healthcare practitioner, they’re likely to come to you for natural relief.

Helping customers choose a stress supplement can be difficult. Cheryl Myers, chief of scientific affairs and education at Wisconsin-based EuroPharma/Terry Naturally, notes that, as often as you get customers willing to unload all their struggles, you’ll get customers who aren’t willing to do that. “That is why it’s important to have a lot of signs, posters, and educational literature available, so that customers can find answers even if they don’t want to verbally ask the questions.” She also recommends educational events, educational literature, and use of endcaps, to show off what you’ve got.

When customers do come to you, Trisha Sugarek MacDonald, sr. director of R&D/national educator at Bluebonnet Nutrition Corporation, suggests asking:
  • Are there allergies to take into consideration?
  • What delivery system works best?
  • What type of stress is the customer experiencing—chronic, acute? Is it routine or situational?
  • What has and hasn’t worked in the past?
  • Is there a preference for a certain type of raw material?
You also may want to discuss the customer’s expectations. There’s nothing any supplement can do to reduce the stressors in a person’s life. Rather, Myers says that “a good stress supplement interrupts our habitual, and often unhelpful, responses to stress. For example, cannabinoids like CBD or cannabinoid-like compounds such as alkamides preserve our own natural endocannabinoid compounds. Adaptogens, while often positioned for stress relief, actually help our minds and bodies build resilience in the face of stress. Formulas like our Adaptra, which combines clinically studied, full-dose ashwagandha and rhodiola, help a person adapt to stressful conditions, rather than feel drained by them.” She notes that anyone who feels “overbooked, overwhelmed, and under-equipped to deal with it” might want something like Terry Naturally’s Hemp Select + Curcumin, which doubles down on the adaptogens and aids the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

While there are plenty of oldies-but-goodies in terms of stress/sleep aids, the buzziest category now is anything that activates or interacts with the ECS. “The endocannabinoid system is a system of receptors that interact with cannabinoids. It plays a role in homeostasis, or in balancing your body’s natural rhythms,” says Laura Fuentes, CEO and co-founder of Green Roads. “It’s a relatively recent discovery. New research is emerging all the time about the effects of supporting it with cannabinoids like CBD, and what happens when the system is not operating at 100%.”

Jade Beutler, CEO at Emerald Health Bioceuticals, calls the ECS the “true star.” “When supported and activated,” he says, “the ECS works tirelessly to promote balance in every cell, tissue and organ. It intrinsically helps the body and mind to better deal with stress and mood by providing a safety net, or cushion, for the nervous system, so you can handle whatever life throws your way in a healthier manner.”

Dr. Aimée Shunney, naturopathic physician and advisor to PlusCBD Oil by CV Sciences, explains how it works: “Adequate levels of endocannabinoids, the cannabis-like compounds that we make ourselves, limit the amount of stress hormones like cortisol that we make in response to stress and promote faster recovery. We call this stress resilience, and people who have it report less anxiety, better sleep, and better response to the stress in their lives.”

How to support the ECS and build stress resilience? “Lifestyle behaviors like exercising, practicing yoga, meditating, eating a whole foods diet, and spending time in nature can all support this critical system,” says Beutler.

For those who need an extra assist, supplements can help. CBD is the most buzzed-about of these. “CBD supports optimal production of those all-important endocannabinoids and impacts serotonin and GABA receptors to enhance mood and encourage a sense of calm,” says Dr. Shunney. Whether it’s raw, distilled, or activated, she says, doesn’t matter much. “It really depends on the person, their unique circumstances, and, of course, their endocannabinoid tone. I find the PlusCBD Oil Raw Formula to be a super snack for the ECS. I might recommend PlusCBD Oil’s Total Plant Complex Sprays for additional support, or the more distilled Gold Softgels if there is pain, inflammation, or a deeper, more chronic imbalance.”

The difference between raw and heated cannabinoids, according to Grace Kaucic, digital marketing specialist at Bluebird Botanicals, is clearest in THC and CBD: “In their original state, these two cannabinoids exist almost entirely in the acid form and are known as THCA and CBDA. When these acidic cannabinoids are heated, a chemical reaction takes place called ‘decarboxylation,’ also known as ‘activation.’ The cannabinoids change form to become THC and CBD. Raw and heated cannabinoids interact with different receptors and enzymes in the body. Raw cannabinoids don’t cross the blood-brain barrier, which means they hang out a bit longer and interact differently with the body.” It’s the active form of THC, Kaucic explains, that binds to the cannabinoid receptors and causes users to feel “high.”

Delivery system also makes a difference. “Oils offer the user a high bioavailability,” says Fuentes. “Gummies have to reach your liver before they are processed, but the effects last longer.” Green Roads’ Relax Bears, therefore, aren’t for someone with an acute need, but would help a customer looking for a longer-term effect.

Your customers may also be considering different terpenes—as the word makes it into public awareness, they may be curious as to how it affects hemp-derived CBD. Smart Organics makes an Advanced CBD Oil Calm with Beta Caryophyllene, a terpene that binds to cannabinoid receptors expressed predominantly on white blood cells. CBD receptors have been shown to support healthy nervous system function and to have soothing and relaxing effects. Smart Organics’ Advanced CBD Oil Slumber with Linalool will be sought by those who have seen the research showing that linalool may be able to activate the body’s parasympathetic—or “rest and digest”—response, or the study suggesting that linalool reduces the signaling strength of acetylcholine, the chemical the brain uses for muscle contraction (2).

Hemp and CBD are also great in formulae, wherein your customers can get benefits from multiple sources. Consider a hemp company like Uleva, which makes a sleep supplement with melatonin, and a stress supplement with ashwagandha. Beyond CBD, Beutler adds, “Many customers are unaware that there are other plants containing phytocannabinoids, besides cannabis and hemp, that can activate and support the ECS just as effectively.” Emerald’s PhytoCann Complex (“A potent blend of cannabis-free herbs and botanicals including clove, echinacea, sichuan pepper, peony, ginger, and magnolia”) specifically targets the ECS.

The ECS doesn’t function in isolation. According to Myers: “Our ECS uses omega-3 fatty acids as a kind of ‘scaffold.’ So, if a person’s level of omega-3s is low, their mind and body is going to have a tough time facing stressors.” It might be a good idea, then, to pair an omega-3 supplement with one like Terry Naturally’s AnxioCalm: “It features a clinically studied, specialized extract of Echinacea angustifolia,” says Myers. “Various species of echinacea contain plant compounds called alkamides that have the potential to attach to brain cannabinoid receptors for more targeted results. The echinacea used in AnxioCalm has the best alkamide profile and was shown in initial laboratory testing to be the most effective.” In one study, she says, participants saw significant benefits within three days.

Another biggie in the stress/sleep world is magnesium—and understandably so. “Magnesium is like a massage you can swallow,” says Patrick Sullivan Jr., chief entertainment officer at Jigsaw Health. “It’s like yoga in a bottle.” Why? “Under stress,” Sullivan explains, “the body’s ‘magnesium burn rate’ increases.” He cites Dr. Emily Deans’ explanation that “Magnesium can suppress the ability of the hippocampus to stimulate the ultimate release of stress hormones, it can reduce the release of ACTH (the hormone that tells your adrenal glands to get in gear and pump out that cortisol and adrenaline), and it can reduce the responsiveness of the adrenal glands to ACTH. It can act at the blood brain barrier to prevent the entrance of stress hormones into the brain” (3).

Andreas Koch, marketing director at Pure Essence, has a different analogy: “Magnesium is like a Swiss army knife,” he says. “It’s vital for GABA function and serotonin production. It can help quiet a racing mind, relax muscles, and help your heart rate. It helps relax muscles within the digestive tract, including the intestinal wall. It activates ATP; without magnesium, you don’t have the energy you need, and fatigue can result.”

Sugarek MacDonald notes that “up to 60-70% of adults in the U.S. may have inadequate intake of magnesium.” Subclinical magnesium deficiency, she says, “has been associated with chronic inflammatory stress conditions, which may contribute to obesity, atherosclerosis, hypertension, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancers. Signs of subclinical deficiency include: muscle cramps, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, fatigue or weakness, and depression, anxiety and/or insomnia.”

The form of magnesium matters. Koch recommends magnesium carbonate. ”It’s a compound in which magnesium ions are bound to carbonate,” he says. “Effervescent magnesium powders combine magnesium carbonate with citrate. The effervescence that occurs when magnesium carbonate and citrate are mixed with water breaks the bond between the magnesium ions and the carbonate. The carbon bubbles up and exits the water, which is now saturated with freed magnesium ions. Minerals can be absorbed into the body through active protein transport or passive diffusion. Free mineral ions can use either pathway, making free ions likely to be absorbed more efficiently.” Pure Essence’s Magnesium Plus includes several nutrients, which aid in absorption.

When it comes to powder form, Sugarek MacDonald suggests, “Look for sweeteners like organic stevia. It should have no artificial flavors, colors, or artificial sweeteners.” She also recommends a powder that’s Kosher-certified, which “validates the quality, integrity and purity of the ingredients in the formula.” Non-GMO is a plus, and your magnesium supplements should be free of common allergens. Bluebonnet’s Simply Calm Magnesium is an effervescent powder with all of these attributes.

Another thing to think about? Sustained release. Sullivan says that Jigsaw’s MagSRT, a time-release magnesium supplement, “slows down the release of magnesium so it’s spread out over eight hours, which allows your body to absorb the maximum it needs to start feeling your best, and avoids the digestive discomfort that a high dose can cause.” Those customers looking for a high dosage of magnesium would therefore do best with a time release pill, or a drink ingested over the course of a day.

In addition to magnesium, the whole line of minerals is important, says Dr. Darrin Starkey, director of education at Trace Minerals Research. “Show me a seed, grain, nut, fruit that just has one isolated ingredient. Trace minerals help balance macro minerals in our body. One without the other won’t work.”

Dr. Starkey notes that whether a customer takes a blend of minerals instead of a concentrated supplement may depend on where their foods are being grown and what kind of water they drink: “If fruits and vegetables are not grown in good soil, then minerals don’t end up in the foods, and don’t end up in our body. We are meant,” he adds, “to drink water from rivers and streams—water with minerals. Instead, we’re drinking bottled, distilled, or filtered water, with no minerals.” And when that happens, he says, our bodies “rob our cells, tissues, even our bones, just to maintain balance within the body.” To that end, when a customer comes in looking for an isolate, offer them a multi like Trace Minerals’ Electro-Vita-Min Daily 5 as well—or just their Stress-X, a supplement that already contains magnesium and other trace minerals. Consider a sign: “Did You Know? Minerals like magnesium and calcium need trace amounts of other minerals for better absorption. Pick up a multi-mineral today!” Or: “Boost your magnesium and calcium absorption. Add a multi-mineral to your supplement regimen!”

Ashwagandha is another biggie. John Nowicki, N.D., medical writer at Ayush Herbs, calls ashwagandha “one of the most highly regarded and widely used Ayurvedic herbs.” Why? “It is believed to promote energy, support the activity of the immune system, provide brain support, and support thyroid function,” he says. “Ashwagandha is most effective during occasional stress, when you need a boost in cognitive and brain function and for immune system enhancement.” Ayush Herbs’ ashwagandha—and the other herbs the company sells—are processed at an ISO, GMP, and Kosher-certified facility in India.

Bruce Brown, president of Natreon Inc., shares more good news on the herb. “Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, which means that once it enters the body it will ‘adapt’ to specific needs, such as sleep/calming or energy/boosting, without harming already healthy levels in the body.” To be more specific: “Adaptogens will downregulate hormone levels if they are too high, and upregulate hormone levels if they are too low. Sensoril ashwagandha can help to naturally regulate cortisol levels in the body, which are responsible for stress, sleep and mood without causing certain side effects.”

Moreover, Brown notes, Sensoril contains both roots and leaves. “Initial scientific and commercial endeavors have focused only on the root, excluding the benefits from the powerhouse of health benefits, the ashwagandha leaf. Recent research has focused on both the root and the leaf, because both plant parts contribute to a variety of health benefits. The leaves from the Ashwagandha plant contain bioactives, which are shown to support improvement in cognition, sleep and oxidative stress as well as a healthy immune response. The roots from ashwagandha are most commonly used to promote longevity, enhance vitality and support a healthy immune system. Sensoril ashwagandha uses a unique combination of leaves and roots, to deliver a comprehensive extract with increased levels of withanolide glycosides and superior performance.”

Those who feel that their stress is exhausting them may want to turn to Tongkat ali. As Annie Eng, CEO of HP Ingredients, explains, “LJ100 Tongkat ali helps endogenously manage stress by promoting a favorable anabolic hormonal state, characterized by low levels of cortisol and high levels of testosterone, as opposed to a catabolic state, characterized by elevated cortisol and suppressed testosterone.” She cites a 2007 study that found that participants taking LJ100 saw a decrease in cortisol and improvement in global mood profile. Another study, she says, saw statistically significant improvements in tension, anger, and confusion among participants taking LJ100. “The higher testosterone level also contributes to higher energy levels and reduced fatigue,” she notes, and adds that it helps prevent dieters from binge eating.

There are other supplements that aren’t necessarily as trendy—but are equally important. L-theanine, for instance, “increases alpha-wave activity, which helps promote an alert, yet relaxed mental state,” according to Dr. Michael Lelah, Ph.D., chief science officer, NutriScience Innovations, LLC. NutriScience’s Suntheanine, by extension, “helps people wind down and prepare for sleep, so when they fall asleep, they experience better sleep quality.” Dr. Lelah adds that “Suntheanine has been scientifically shown to improve sleep efficiency and recovery from fatigue, which are both markers of sleep quality—while reducing theta-wave activity, leading to relaxation without drowsiness.”

And for any formulators out there: “Chocolate contains caffeine, which has a synergistic benefit when combined with Suntheanine,” says Dr. Lelah. “Suntheanine has been shown to ameliorate the negative side effects of caffeine, while maintaining the thermogenic and weight loss properties of caffeine. Chocolate and Suntheanine combination products are sold in Japan. They represent an opportunity for the North American market.”

For customers who have been experiencing stress long-term, or for those who get sick when they get stressed, a supplement like Wakunaga’s Kyolic 101 Stress & Fatigue Relief, which contains aged garlic extract (AGE) and GABA, may be useful. Jay Levy, director of sales at Wakunaga of America, notes that “AGE doesn’t directly reduce stress. Instead, studies suggest that it can speed the recovery from chronic stress and help prevent the negative physiological impact of stress. What’s more, in one study performed on mice, those taking AGE had normal natural killer cell activity compared to the non-treated mice. The researchers concluded that AGE can play a significant role in preventing stress-related immune suppression.” Combined with GABA, an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter, and several B vitamins, this supplement is a powerhouse. “One study,” Levy adds, “published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, found that eating chocolate containing GABA reduced stress in participants performing a problem-solving task. B vitamins,” he continues, “are essential to support a healthy nervous system. They can help boost your brain chemistry and balance out neurotransmitters for optimum brain function and mood regulation. Supplementing with the B vitamins supports relaxation, reduces anxiety, increases alertness, and fosters a sense of wellbeing.”

One compound, known as pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ), has been tossed around as a potential B vitamin. Some companies, like Twinlab, are already putting it in sleep supplements—and taking advantage of its extra benefits. Gene Bruno, professor of nutraceutical science at Huntington University of Health Sciences and sr. director of product innovation at Twinlab, says PQQ “is a cofactor in enzymes of several organisms, as well as being essential for the growth of some microorganisms. PQQ participates in a range of biological functions with apparent survival benefits. It may also provide benefits related to cognitive, energy metabolism, immune, and antioxidant functions, as well as help protect against cardiac and neurological ischemic events.” All of this lends itself to better sleep and a more alert waking state.

Phosphatidylserine (PS) is another one that might not get the love it deserves. “It’s a natural lipid essential to proper cell function and signaling,” says Dr. Nowicki. “It promotes cognitive function, supports adrenal health, and fights against the stress-induced activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis when faced with a physical or mental stressor. Multiple studies show that phosphatidylserine can ameliorate spikes in ACTH and cortisol in chronically stressed individuals faced with an acute stressor.”

Those of you looking to create a private label stress supplement using this brain-boosting ingredient might want to look into Soft Gel Technologies—their PS performs well in shelf-life studies, and they offer it made with soy or sunflower oil.

One more ingredient that deserves special mention is lemon balm. Myers calls it out for a clinical study that found that “lemon balm reduced feelings of agitation and tension by 18%, reduced stress-related symptoms like muscle tightness and headache by 15%, and reduced initial insomnia by 42%. Additionally, 70% noted a full remission from stress, 85% from insomnia, and 70% from both. Lemon balm extract helps us retain appropriate levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that we rely on to stop anxiety and sleeplessness, and puts the natural relaxing and sleeping process in balance again.”

For generalized anxiety and stress reduction, there are a few formulae that may help. Sugarek MacDonald recommends Bluebonnet’s Targeted Choice Stress Relief Vegetable Capsules, which, like Bluebonnet’s Simply Calm, can help all day long—and it “contains scientifically relevant/meaningful quantities of each complementary ingredient supported by science to help the body cope with emotional and physical stress and support an overall sense of relaxation.” Myers suggests something like Terry Naturally’s AnxioCalm, which “is great for stress or anxiety whether it is a regular feature of someone’s day, or just something they feel before doing a presentation at work.”

For stress that’s been going on a little longer, customers who have spoken to licensed healthcare practitioners might look to something like Pure Essence’s StressSupport, which contains ingredients ranging from magnolia bark—Jery Cochern, founder and president of R&D at Pure Essence, explains that it’s used in TCM to decrease nervous tension—to spirulina, which, he says, isn’t actually a stress ingredient. “Pure Essence formulates holistically, meaning that we address the whole body rather than a single part. Stress, of course, undermines the health of the entire body, and spirulina is a whole body tonic. Therefore, it’s an excellent adjunct in a holistic stress supplement.”

Extra Ahhh from Essential Oils

Did you know that lemon can actually help ward off blue moods? Or that clary sage has been shown to have hormone-balancing effects? Check out Dr. Michelle Schoffro Cook’s blog, 5 Essential Oils for Stress and Mood, for information on using these much-loved answers to chronic stress.
Moving on to improving sleep specifically, it’s worth noting that sleep can be a tricky thing to pin down. Dr. Lelah notes: “Internal factors include changes in the structure and function of the brain over time, and obviously stress and medical conditions, especially those that cause pain and discomfort. External factors include light, blue light from computer screens, jet lag, shift work, medications, caffeine, and, of course, alcohol. Solutions for sleep troubles are, as you would expect, complex.” Some of these, clearly, you can’t help—“Chronic sleeplessness,” notes Sugarek MacDonald, “is usually tied to an underlying psychological or medical issue.” However, stress is obviously connected to lack of sleep, making that one area where you can lend a helping hand.

Sugarek MacDonald points out that, when helping customers choose a sleep supplement, a questionnaire similar to that used for stress supplements may be useful: Do they have allergies? What delivery system do they prefer? What has worked in the past, and what hasn’t? What is interfering with the customer’s sleep quality—stress, travel, an overactive mind? There’s plenty to choose from. “Whole food nutrients such as tart cherry, amino acids like tryptophan, theanine and 5-HTP, and even herbal extracts like valerian root can help promote a restful sleep for those affected by occasional sleeplessness,” says Sugarek MacDonald. “Bluebonnet’s Targeted Choice Sleep Support is a vegan, non-GMO, kosher-certified formula that provides a complementary blend of valerian root extract, free-form L-theanine from green tea extract, 5-HTP from Griffonia seed extract, tart cherry fruit extract, passionflower whole herb extract and chamomile—all of which help to support a deep 8-hour sleep.”

For something more targeted, Myers suggests Terrific Zzzz, which helps people relax before bed. It can be used every night, she says, but also “as a corrective combination that helps people get back into the cycle of healthy sleep.”

Another area where you can assist: circadian rhythm, generally aided by the melatonin—which is, however, more complicated than previously thought, according to Michael Smith, M.D., director of education for Life Extension. The circadian rhythm is based on two clocks: the central clock and peripheral clocks. The central clock, located in the brain, syncs with clocks in every cell, Dr. Smith told WholeFoods. This means it regulates energy, digestion, hormones, the immune system—“A healthy circadian rhythm is the body’s foundation,” he said. Melatonin restores the central clock, which is useful—but, he said, researchers are discovering that nobiletin, an extract from citrus peel, is vital to promote healthy peripheral clocks. If any of these clocks are off, your customers may find themselves up too late and exhausted all day—the result of a circadian rhythm in severe need of resetting. Life Extension’s Circadian Sleep product contains both melatonin and nobiletin for a full-body reset.

Beyond supplements: “Exercise helps reset some of the natural chemistry in the body and mind that builds neural pathways and improves resilience in the face of stress,” says Myers. “Yoga, meditation, or simply working outside in your garden can all be ways of reducing anxiety and stress. Some people keep a gratitude journal, listing 10 things that they are grateful for each day. Developing this mindset can work as a counterweight to the circular, obsessive thoughts that dominate our thinking during periods of stress.” It can also help people slow down enough to sleep. (For more on meditation, read Barbara Ancona’s blog Meditation: My Key to Calm.) Consider stocking small journals or diaries by the cash register, where customers can snag them on the way out, for themselves or as a last-minute gift for an overstressed loved one. WF
  1. Damian Rodriguez, “Beta-Caryophyllene,” Accessed 7/1/19.
  2. Josh Kaplan, “What Is Linalool & What Are the Effects of This Cannabis Terpene?” Posted 4/23/18. Accessed 7/1/19.
  3. Emily Deans, “Magnesium and the Brain: The original Chill Pill,” www. Posted 6/12/11. Accessed 7/1/19.