Sugar cravings are one well-known effect of stress, and there’s a lot of research into the biology that underlies them. But most of the research revolves around macronutrients: protein, carbs, and fat. There are studies showing that eating sugar or refined carbs really does alleviate the stress response (that’s why it’s so hard to resist: it works). There are other studies on protein and specific amino acids (like tryptophan) on brain chemistry and how that affects mood.
But what about the micronutrients? Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals – they don’t add any caloric value to the diet, but they’re clearly still important. Stress actually depletes several important micronutrients, and other nutrients are particularly important for managing and recovering from stress.
Here’s a quote from one study on nutrition and stress:
Stress creates greater physiologic demands. More energy, oxygen, circulation, and therefore more metabolic cofactors are needed (eg, vitamins and minerals). The irony of stress is that people suffering stress need a more nutritionally dense diet but often opt for comfort foods lacking in the necessary nutrients, consequently inducing a situation of nutrient depletion that further compromises the metabolic systems.
Antioxidants, B vitamins, and Omega-3 fats are particularly important nutrients for people under stress: here’s a look at some research, and some suggestions for how to get more of them.
Stress and Micronutrient Depletion
Stress depletes some important micronutrients. For example, B vitamins are used in the metabolic reactions that get turned up during stress. So stress increases demand for B vitamins.
Stress is also dangerous to gut health – it affects the gut flora, and it also increases intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”). Unfortunately, your gut is also your nutrient-absorbing mechanism, so gut problems often lead to nutrient absorption problems. You might be eating the same amount of nutrients as ever, and that amount might be perfectly adequate, but if they’re not getting absorbed they’re not helping you.
Diseases that involve intestinal permeability, like Celiac Disease and IBD are also associated with all kinds of nutrient absorption problems (notably B vitamins and iron).
Important Micronutrients for Stress Management
Some micronutrients get actively depleted during stress. Other nutrients are just more important during stress, or your body could use some extra to manage the stress. In either case, several studies have shown a benefit from nutrient supplements (with supplements in this case being a useful tool to isolate one particular nutrient, not necessarily a sign that supplements are better than foods). Here’s a look at some of them.
Antioxidant supplements don’t generally improve the health of people who are already healthy. But under conditions of chronic stress, some studies have found them helpful:
- This study found that in rats, antioxidants from green tea helped reduce the stress response.
- This study found that Vitamins C and E (both antioxidants) reduced liver damage caused by psychological stress.
- This study found that Vitamin C helped reduce symptoms of anxiety in high school students, and this one found the same thing in patients with diabetes.
B Vitamins and Multivitamin Supplements
This study used a multivitamin (Vitamin C, several different B vitamins, calcium, and magnesium). The group that got the supplement had significantly lower scores for overall stress at the end of the study than the group that got the placebo. This study used a similar supplement (B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, and zinc) and found that the supplement improved self-reported stress in healthy men.
For B vitamins specifically, this study found that a B vitamin complex was specifically effective for helping people manage stress in the aftermath of a natural disaster (a flood, in this case). This was a follow-up to another study in New Zealand after an earthquake, which found that people taking a B complex supplement coped better with the shock and had fewer PTSD symptoms afterwards. B vitamins also help with workplace stress.
This study also found that multivitamins or minerals in general were effective for reducing stress and anxiety.
This study found that, in rats, Omega-3 deficiency increased stress (as measured by how much sugar the rats wanted to eat to self-medicate). The rats who were both stressed and Omega-3 deficient had a much stronger stress response than either condition individually. And yes, Omega-3 fats are technically a macronutrient and not a micronutrient. But they’re in here because they’re so rarely discussed when we talk about stress and the brain; usually it’s all about the protein and the carbs.
Managing Absorption: a Critical Step
Of course, eating more nutrients (in food or in supplement form) isn’t going to help if gut absorption is impaired. This study suggested that glutamine might help defend the gut against intestinal permeability under stress.
Stress Management: Foods and Recipes
People don’t eat magnesium; they eat spinach. People don’t eat B vitamins; they eat a beef roast. So here’s a look at some foods and recipes that help provide the important nutrients discussed above (and then some!)
Liver is probably the most potent source of B vitamins that you’ll ever eat. It’s basically a supplement in food form. Here’s how to hide a little bit of liver in recipes you already know, like chili, curries, and burgers. Because it’s such a rich source of these vitamins, you don’t need a huge amount to get the benefits.
Salmon Florentine: salmon and spinach are both rich in B vitamins, and salmon also provides Omega-3 fats.
Soup made with real bone broth: a great source of gut-healing glutamine, and very comforting. Need ideas? Try curried acorn squash soup (bonus: B vitamins and Vitamin C, magnesium, and calcium), cream of chicken, or tomato soup (bonus: Vitamin C and other antioxidants).
Any fruits or vegetables will provide Vitamin C and antioxidants, so there’s no need to list them all. Just fill up your plate with all different colors and go to town.
Summing it Up
The ideal situation would be to avoid chronic stress in the first place. That’s Plan A through C. But in the real world, it’s just not always possible. (And by the way, listing all the negative effects of stress isn’t intended as a moral judgement of people under stress. Most people aren’t stressed because they’re stupid or careless. Very often, it’s unavoidable. Discussing the negative effects is a tool to help people understand it and mange it, not a way of shaming them for experiencing it.)
Vitamins and minerals are important for making sure stress does as little damage to your body as possible. Some research shows that under stressful conditions, antioxidants and antioxidant vitamins may be helpful. B vitamins are also very important for mood and stress management, with several studies showing real-world effects on actual humans under stress.
Taking care of gut health can also help, because it helps absorb the nutrients that you’re getting from your food (and/or supplements).
It’s true that macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) are also very important, but if you’re going through a stressful time, don’t neglect micronutrients as part of your management plan!
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