Stress in its many forms – physical, environmental or emotional – increases the body’s requirement for nutrients, as vitamins and minerals get used up quickly in stressful situations.
Four of the most important nutrients that get used up quickly during acute or prolonged stress are vitamin C, B-complex, zinc and magnesium. A prolonged stress response both depletes nutrients and suppresses the immune system.
Chronic stress is a serious phenomenon in modern society, where incoming stressful triggers are commonly persistent, unlike the fleeting stress triggers of the past. This stress can lead to anxiety, depression and other preventable chronic diseases.
The figures are staggering – a massive 74% of UK adults say that they have felt so stressed that they were unable to cope at some point in the last year. Sadly, 29% of 18-24-year-olds said that they had self-harmed due to stress.
Clearly we need to become more aware of how our emotions affect our health and take measures to improve the situation. In this article, we intend to summarise the primary anti-stress nutrients, as well as the best food sources of them.
Modern Lifestyles Reduce Nutrient Intake
Modern sedentary lifestyles (led by many in the West) have a decreased requirement for energy.
What’s more, many people often consume nutrient-poor “processed foods”. The act of processing foods in and of itself heavily reduces the nutrient density of the end product.
For example, white bread used to be a healthy food. Modern processes of creating GMO seeds that resist pesticides strip the bread of healthy omega-3s, which leaves a stodgy resemblance of a food product that used to be healthy.
1) Vitamin C
High levels of antioxidant vitamin C are required to protect our brain and central nervous system. Vitamin C facilitates the removal of free radicals in our bodies. Free radicals are the toxins that can cause disease.
Vitamin C also assists in many bodily processes including repairing body tissues after exercise or extreme conditions. Vitamin C aids in the synthesis of adrenaline, which is produced in high amounts during a fight-or-flight stress response.
When we understand how vitamin C plays a key role in the creation of a healthy brain, body tissue (like skin and muscle) and protects our central nervous system, it becomes apparent how important vitamin C truly is.
Which Foods are Rich in Vitamin C?
Below are the top six foods that are rich in vitamin C.
- Guava. 1 fruit: 377 mg (over 628% DV)
- Blackcurrant. 1 cup: 203 mg (over 338% DV)
- Red pepper. 1 cup raw: 190 mg (over 317% DV)
- Kiwi. 1 piece: 164 mg (273% DV)
- Green peppers. 1 cup chopped, raw: 120 mg (200% DV)
- Orange. 1 large: 82 mg (over 163% DV)
Environmental Extremes Can Cause Stress
Humans are not meant to face extremes of climate and therefore, when they do encounter especially hot, cold or high altitudes our bodies go into overdrive to try to create a renewed state of balance.
During times of increased energy expenditure (like environmental extremes or stress) we have a heightened requirement for B-vitamins.
Fuel up with B-vitamins and also other essential nutrients like vitamin C and…
Iron is used in higher amounts during stressful or high altitude environments, especially in women.
Planning a skiing trip? Make sure to optimise your nutrient intake both prior and during to mitigate the effects of high altitude and cold weather.
This study on the “effects of psychological stress on serum iron” is well worth a read. While it concluded that the topic warrants further investigation, it gives an insight into how stress influences our iron stores.
Stress Tolerance Varies from Person to Person
The amount of stress we can handle is called our “stress tolerance”. Our stress tolerance is, in effect, our ability to stay relaxed and composed when faced with difficulties.
We can all tolerate a different amount of stress before excreting additional adrenal hormones.
To reduce stress and better manage our ability to adapt to stressors, we must consume adequate amounts of carbohydrates, proteins (tryptophan, phenylalanine and tyrosine, theanine) vitamin C, iron, vitamin B, magnesium and selenium.
Exercise is another effective way to boost your tolerance to stress. Even moderate exercise has been shown to help people cope with anxiety and stress for an extended period of time post-workout.
Stress and Eating
Often people change their eating habits due to acute or chronic stress.
This varies from person to person, resulting in emotional eating or completely avoiding eating. Ongoing or prolonged stress can have devastating effects on our overall health due to our bodies being in a continuous state of arousal.
A stressor does not have to be a “real threat”: even a “perceived threat” can create the same intense stress response.
To ensure that our bodies are kept in a state of balance, we must also take note of how our mind is processing events. A strong connection with yourself and your environment is essential for wellbeing.
Management of Stress with Nutrients
Under the influence of stress, people often consume high amounts of food that encourage a depletion of nutrients, particularly iron, magnesium, B-complex vitamins and vitamin C.
Our emotional mechanisms are impacted heavily during times of stress, which increases the requirement for a variety of amino acids (proteins).
3) Complex carbohydrates
Complex carbohydrates in fruits and vegetables boost the production of serotonin (5- hydroxytryptamin or 5-HT) and help to calm us down.
Foods rich in tryptophan boost the amount of serotonin that the body produces – in turn, improving overall mood.
The efficacy of complex carbohydrates where stress is concerned is perhaps best illustrated by evidence showing that green vegetables reduce stress levels.
The study of 60,000 Australians showed that every extra vegetable you add to your plate lowers your overall stress levels by 5%.
Dubious? Then try it for yourself. What do you have to lose?
4) Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids, alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are essential in the production of nerve and brain cells.
ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA somewhat inefficiently, in the liver. It’s estimated that just 0.5-5% of ALA is converted into EPA and far less into DHA.
DHA is a very important part of the cell membranes (especially in our brains). DHA also helps turn on the genes that make serotonin in our guts, and reduces oxidative stress which protects the brain from free radical damage.
There is compelling evidence supporting the administration of high-EPA fish oil for anxiety, depression and ADHD.
The take-home? Consume a combination of omega-3 fatty acids to tamp down stress levels.
Too much protein can inhibit the uptake of tryptophan (an amino acid) that synthesises the production of serotonin.
To increase the uptake of tryptophan and therefore increase the production of serotonin in our bodies, we should eat a high plant-based diet.
If there is not enough tryptophan, B6, niacin and magnesium – then the brain may limit the amount of serotonin produced.
The most tryptophan-rich food is pumpkin seeds, with one cup providing 265% of your DV.
6 & 7) Phenylalanine and Tyrosine
These essential amino acids work to promote a healthy mood, by producing dopamine and norepinephrine. Vitamin C is needed to metabolise phenylalanine and tyrosine to produce the antidepressants, dopamine and norepinephrine.
Bananas, avocados, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and almonds are great sources of phenylalanine and tyrosine.
Phenylalanine – pumpkin seeds: 1 cup (256% DV)
Tyrosine – pumpkin seeds: 1 cup (161% DV)
There are many other nutrients that play a key role in our ability to fight stress such as folic acid, vitamin E, L-theanine, selenium and magnesium.
Taking a daily multi-vitamin and supplementing with vitamin C and omega-3 can have a tremendous impact in our ability to cope with stress.
Magnesium is widely known as nature’s chill pill. Magnesium plays a key role in the HPA-axis (stress response system of the body). So if we get overly stressed, magnesium will become depleted.
One study published in 2018 indicated the superiority of magnesium and vitamin B6 over magnesium alone on severe stress in healthy but magnesium-deficient adults.
We have written extensively about magnesium, so do take a look at our blog to find out more.
9) B Vitamins
B vitamins help to maintain a healthy central nervous system (CNS). Strengthening the CNS is a great way to protect the body from harmful effects of stress.
Vitamin B for stress relief is not a new topic. In one 2010 study, men who were treated with a high-dose B-complex with vitamin C enjoyed improvements in general mental health and stress levels.
A separate study of young people found that supplementing with a multivitamin comprised of B vitamins reduced both stress and mental fatigue.
Keen to learn more? Take a look at our article What is Vitamin B?
Stress is something that we all have to deal with, and it affects everyone differently. However, it’s clear that lifestyle factors and dietary choices can play a massive role in reducing the negative effects that stress can have on our bodies.
Ultimately, it’s about avoiding eating foods that feed stress while consuming wholesome, nutritious alternatives which protect against the common stresses of everyday life.
Commit to making the right daily choices and you’re sure to keep stress at bay.
Written by best-selling author and integrative nutrition health coach Rowanna Watson, who has a passion for natural health. Rowanna is an expert in all areas of holistic health, plant-based nutrition, detoxification and personal development.
Complex carbohydrates in fruits and vegetables boost the production of serotonin.