We all lead busy lives, which affects our physical and mental health. Increasing demands on our energy and time all create a build-up of stress. When we are chronically stressed, it can lead to anxiety.
Getting enough nutrients in our diet supports the optimal functioning of the neuroendocrine system, which in turn helps us deal with stress. When we become nutritionally deficient, the neuroendocrine system cannot operate at its best, leading to heightened stress and anxiety.
This article explores the relationship between nutrients (vitamins, amino acids, and substances found in herbs) and the body’s ability to manage stress and anxiety.
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Mood, appetite, and cognitive abilities are controlled by neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain), such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, as well as our hormones.
The production of these substances depends on the availability of various nutrients,¹ including tryptophan, vitamins B6 and B12, folate, phenylalanine, tyrosine, histidine, choline, and glutamic acid.
When our body responds to stress, a series of cascading reactions happen. This causes changes in our behavior, autonomic nervous system functioning, and the secretion of hormones such as adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’), catecholamines, oxytocin, prolactin, and renin.
These hormones help the body survive perceived threats by directing energy and blood to the brain, heart, and skeletal muscles.
They do this by hyper-focusing on the threat, altering the immune system function, increasing the cardiac output and blood pressure, decreasing sexual desire, and decreasing appetite.
When these functions occur, they demand an increase in our body’s resources, requiring greater amounts of energy, oxygen, and circulation. Therefore, if we have low reserves of these nutrients to start with, it can impact the production of neurotransmitters and hormones and impair critical bodily functions.
When stressed, we are more likely to consume comfort foods, such as sugary or salty treats to relieve stress. Although these are calorie-dense, they are nutrient-poor. It is important to consume nutrient-rich foods to meet your metabolic requirements.
Nutrients that the body runs low on when stressed and anxious
Vitamins Bs, C, and D
Magnesium, zinc, and iron
Amino acids, such as gamma-aminobutyric acids, L-theanine, phenylalanine
Omega-3 fatty acids, such as from fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds
Our bodies rely on vitamins and minerals to maintain optimal functioning, but this is more difficult when these nutrient reserves run low.
If you’re deficient in some key vitamins and minerals, you may be showing some of the following symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression:
An impending sense of doom
Memory and cognition problems
Heightened irritability and frustration
Physical aches, pains, and changes to the gastrointestinal system
Changes in appetite and weight
Feelings of hopelessness
Lack of interest in things that would usually bring you joy
Vitamin B5,² or pantothenic acid, is essential for producing adrenal hormones. Vitamin B5, together with coenzyme-A, helps your body produce serotonin, acetylcholine, and epinephrine, which are important neurotransmitters.
Having adequate supplies of vitamin B5 regulates cortisol secretion. Because of this, vitamin B5 is vital for mood maintenance, memory, and cognition. When depleted, it can lead to chronic nerve pain, low mood, inhibited memory, and cognitive decline (confusion).
Also called pyridoxine, vitamin B6 facilitates the synthesis of the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. It is also vital for synthesizing dopamine (the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter), gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and serotonin. Adequate synthesis of these neurotransmitters helps to regulate stress and anxiety.
Folic acid (folate)
Otherwise known as B9, folate³ is thought to play a role in relieving stress and the anxiety, panic, and depression that stress can cause. A deficiency in folic acid is associated with increased mental illness.
Niacin³ is a vitamin made from tryptophan and is involved in tissue respiration and glucose oxidation. If you have a niacin deficiency, you may develop a condition called pellagra which has a range of symptoms, including skin and mucosal membrane problems, low mood, and cognitive decline.
Vitamin C³ is fundamental to our ability to withstand the body’s stress response and recover more quickly. It supports the adrenal glands that produce cortisol, the main stress hormone.
Physical and emotional stress depletes the body’s vitamin C reserves, which reduces your ability to tolerate the stress response and makes you more vulnerable to infection and disease.
Vitamin C helps the body recover more quickly from stress and promotes the rapid reduction of cortisol levels. This was shown in a study⁴ where participants who had to speak publicly were given vitamin C supplements versus a control group who received a placebo. The supplemented group experienced less stage fright during the speech, and cortisol levels returned to normal more quickly afterward.
Magnesium³ is a vital component in fatty acid synthesis, synthesizing new cells, regulating cardiac function, and helping muscles relax and recover. When the body and mind are under stress, magnesium is excreted from cells and eliminated through the urinary system.
When the body is stressed, the depletion of magnesium leads to compromised cardiac function, the inability of muscles to relax and recover, and a decreased ability to generate new cells.
Selenium³ plays a part in the release of cellular energy. If you are deficient in selenium, you are likely to experience fatigue. Selenium is also needed for optimal adrenal gland function.
Zinc has an indirect role⁵ in managing stress and anxiety as it supports vitamin B6 and serotonin production.
Tryptophan³ is needed to synthesize serotonin in conjunction with vitamin B6, niacin, and magnesium. Because of this, low levels of tryptophan can lead to low serotonin levels, potentially resulting in the development of anxiety and depression. Tryptophan can be added to your diet by eating complex carbohydrates with minimal protein.
Phenylalanine and tyrosine
These two amino acids³ are vital for maintaining alertness and increasing the brain’s ability to produce dopamine and norepinephrine, which function as antidepressants. The metabolism of phenylalanine and tyrosine is aided by having adequate levels of vitamin C.
This is a relaxant protein that helps put the brain’s activity into the alpha frequency band, which relaxes you without making you feel drowsy. Theanine³ has long been studied for its benefits in reducing psychological and physical stress.
Herbs that help to manage stress and anxiety
There are many herbal supplements and tonics that help alleviate the feelings and symptoms associated with stress and anxiety. Certain medicinal herbs that are particularly effective at helping the body cope with stress are called adaptogens.
These herbs help regulate the hormones released during the stress response by helping your body adapt and enhance its resistance to the negative effects of stress.
The three most common adaptogens are:
This is used in traditional Indian medicine to support the nervous system and improve cognition. It has calming, tranquilizing effects that can be extremely beneficial to ease the feelings of stress and anxiety and promote healthy and restorative sleep.
The specific compounds in ashwagandha that affect the nervous system are called withanolides. These mimic the action of GABA in the brain, which is a neurotransmitter that inhibits excessive neuron activity (a characteristic of stress and anxiety).
Studies have shown that when ashwagandha was given to participants, they reported a 44%⁶ reduction in stress symptoms and approximately 70%⁶ in symptoms related to anxiety and depression. Blood tests also revealed a 27.9%⁶ reduction in circulating cortisol in participants taking ashwagandha.
The active compounds in rhodiola (rosavin and salidroside) are involved in the creation of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine (the ‘antidepressant’ hormones).
Because of this, rhodiola may improve mood and energy levels. For this reason, it’s considered a stimulating adaptogen, but it doesn’t cause hyperactivity or burnout as a side effect of taking it.
Studies have shown that when doctors take rhodiola after working night shifts, they report less fatigue and enhanced cognitive abilities,⁷ including associative thinking, memory, concentration and focus, and audiovisual perception.
Camellia sinensis (green tea)
Green tea⁸ has been shown to contain powerful antioxidants which have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and anti-neurodegenerative effects when consumed. Since stress induces oxidative stress pathways, green tea’s benefits may come from its ability to counter this oxidative stress.
L-theanine is also found in green tea, which has tranquilizing effects on the brain by stimulating alpha-brain waves.
Many of the essential vitamins and nutrients we need to consume can be conveniently found in a range of readily available foods. Although supplements are beneficial, your focus should be on eating a healthy, balanced, nutrient-dense diet.
Oranges are a great source of vitamin C. Stress results in an increased production of free radicals, which vitamin C can tackle, allowing the body to heal and repair. Vitamin C also reduces cortisol⁹ which subsequently lowers blood pressure. Eating orange slices or drinking natural orange juice are good ways to ensure you get a healthy dose of folic acid. Folic acid supports dopamine production, which helps you feel more relaxed.
Spinach is often touted as a wonder vegetable, as it’s packed full of magnesium, vitamin C, and vitamin B9 (folic acid). It keeps blood pressure stable and lowers circulating cortisol, reducing stress symptoms.
Dark chocolate contains antioxidants to fight free radicals and tryptophan, which promotes serotonin production. As a result, dark chocolate offers both physiological and emotional benefits to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety.
These contain high concentrations of antioxidants and vitamin C, which prevent or reduce the damage caused by free radicals. They are also very high in fiber, which helps regulate blood glucose and further reduces stress levels.
Broccoli contains both B6 and B9 vitamins, which help elevate your mood and ward off depression.
Fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, cod, and herring, are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are used to produce serotonin. Serotonin is vital to enhance your mood. Many types of fish are also a source of B6 and B12, which improve cognitive function and mood.
Bananas contain vitamins A, B6, and C, which play an important role in reducing stress and anxiety. They’re also high in fiber, tryptophan, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and protein. These nutrients promote healthy blood glucose levels, fight fatigue, maintain energy, and produce serotonin.
Eggs are also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and vitamin D, as well as providing at least 20% of your daily tryptophan requirement. This makes them an excellent food to include in your diet, and they are convenient and easy to prepare.
Vitamins, minerals, and certain amino acids play a vital role in supporting our body’s optimal metabolic functioning, particularly when responding to stress.
These nutritional compounds can be easily supplemented or found in medicinal herbs prescribed by a healthcare professional. They can also be found in a multitude of healthy foods that can easily be obtained and consumed. To reduce stress and anxiety, it is important to include these healthy foods in your regular diet to reap the benefits.
Nutrient and stress management | Academia.edu
A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults (2012)
Rhodiola rosea in stress induced fatigue — A double blind cross-over study of a standardized extract SHR-5 with a repeated low-dose regimen on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty (2000)
Vitamin C: Stress buster | Psychology Today