Stress affects our physical and mental health in many different ways. It impacts our ability to sleep, properly digest our food, reduces immune function and affects our mood. You may think to yourself, “I’m not stressed” – however, we are now exposed to low-grade stressors all of the time – think: working a full-time job, taking care of children and trying our best to be a great friend, wife, girlfriend, daughter, sister, etc. When we are subjected to constant low-grade stressors our body responds the same way it would if we had something traumatic occur.
Research has repeatedly shown that dietary deficiencies in several micronutrients have been associated with increased levels of stress and psychiatric symptoms in otherwise healthy individuals.
Supplementation with micronutrients to overcome these dietary deficiencies has been observed to improve perceived stress, mild psychiatric symptoms, and some aspects of everyday mood in a recent meta-analysis of studies examining short-term multivitamin supplementation. (Lewis et al, 2013)
So which came first – the stress or the nutrient deficiency?
That we don’t really entirely know. However research has shown that supplementation with a multivitamin once a person is already stressed decreases markers of anxiety and stress including blood pressure and cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
Schlebusch and colleagues used a well-designed protocol, and screened for a highly stressed sample. After 30 days of supplementation, significant treatment effects were evident, with the multivitamin reducing the level of anxiety and stress and improving psychological well-being. (Lewis et al, 2013)
Now, before we all rush out to pick up any multivitamin on the drug store shelves, let’s look a little closer at the nutrients that appear to have the biggest impact on markers of mood, anxiety and stress – B vitamins and vitamin C.
Let’s start with vitamin C
Studies show that when people are asked to perform psychological challenges, individuals who have high levels of vitamin C do not show the physical and mental signs of stress that are displayed by people with low levels of vitamin C. Additionally, people with higher levels of vitamin C in their blood bounce back from stress more quickly than people with low levels of vitamin C.
In one particular study, researchers subjected 120 people to a stressful task that included public speaking while solving math problems. Half of the study participants were given 1,000 mg of vitamin C. The signs of stress that were measured included levels of the stress hormone cortisol, blood pressure and self-reported stress. These markers were significantly higher in the study participants who were not given the vitamin supplement.
Additional studies have shown that treatment of 1,000 mg of vitamin C three times per day for 14 days decreased cortisol levels, blood pressure and perceived levels of psychological stress
This consistent link between vitamin C levels and stress has led to researchers suggesting that vitamin C be used as an integral component of stress management.
Because I like the “food first” approach, let’s look at where we can get vitamin C from our food.
|Age in Years||Aim for an intake of
|Males 19 and older||90||2000|
|Females 19 and older||75||2000|
|Pregnant women 19 and older||85||2000|
|Breastfeeding women 19 and older||120||2000|
It’s important to note that some research suggests that the above number of milligrams suggested daily is simply enough to prevent the development of scurvy (a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency, characterized by swollen bleeding gums and the opening of previously healed wounds) rather than an amount to aim for.
Some of the most nutrient dense food sources of vitamin C (in descending order) include:
- Guava (206 mg/ 1 fruit)
- Peppers (raw) (101-144 mg/ ½ cup)
- Papaya (94 mg/ ½ fruit)
- Kiwi (84 mg/ 1 large fruit)
- Orange (42 mg/ ½ fruit)
- Broccoli/Cabbage (54 mg/½ cup)
- Strawberries (52 mg/ ½ cup)
- Brussels Sprouts (38-52 mg/ 4 sprouts)
*Keep in mind – vitamin C is destroyed by heat. So it is best to consume vitamin C-rich foods raw if possible
If you’re choosing a supplemental form of vitamin C, it’s best to go with a time-released supplement since vitamin C is rapid and short acting. Alternatively, you can break up the dose throughout the day (for example, 500 mg in the morning and 500 mg in the afternoon or evening) to provide a similar effect.
In summary – most fruits and vegetables contain some vitamin C. Shoot for 4 cups of vegetables per day (keeping in mind that some of the vitamin C content may be altered by heat) and 2 servings of fruit per day. If you’re feeling overly stressed, it would not hurt to try a supplement.
Next up is B vitamins
The superstar B vitamins we will talk about here are: vitamin B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12 and folate.
The importance of vitamin B6, B12 and folate is linked to their ability to lower blood levels of homocystine. Homocysteine is an amino acid and is released into the blood when protein is broken down. When homocystiene is present in high concentrations (normal range is 5 to 15µmol/L) it has been linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. High levels of homocysteine are also linked to Alzheimer’s, dementia, declining memory, poor concentration and lowered mood.
One double blind, randomized placebo-controlled study (the gold standard for all scientific studies) showed improvements in anxiety, depression and overall mental health in subjects after 60 day treatment with a vitamin B complex supplement containing whole-food nutrients.
Now that we know how useful these B vitamins can be, let’s take a look at where we can get them in our diet.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamin)
|Age in Years||Aim for an intake of mg/day||Stay below|
|Men 19 and older||1.2||A safe upper limit has not be established|
|Women 19 and older||1.1|
|Pregnant women 19 and older||1.4|
|Breastfeeding women 19 and older||1.4|
Some of the most nutrient dense food sources of vitamin B1 (in descending order) include:
- Pork, various cuts, cooked (0.36-1.05 mg/2 ½ oz)
- Tuna, yellowfin/albacore, cooked (0.38 mg/2 ½ oz)
- Trout, (0.11-0.32 mg/ 2 ½ oz)
- Lentils, cooked (0.25-0.28 mg/ ¾ cup)
- Salmon, cooked (0.21-0.26 mg/ 2 ½ oz)
- Green peas, cooked (0.22-0.24 mg/ ½ cup)
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
|Age in Years||Aim for an intake of mg/day||Stay below|
|Men 19 and older||1.1||A safe upper limit has not be established|
|Women 19 and older||1.3|
|Pregnant women 19 and older||1.4|
|Breastfeeding women 19 and older||1.6|
Some of the most nutrient dense food sources of vitamin B2 (in descending order) include:
- Liver (chicken, turkey, pork, beef), cooked (1.6-2.7 mg/2 ½ oz)
- Mushrooms (white, portabello, crimini), raw or cooked (0.2-0.6 mg/ ½ cup)
- Egg, cooked (0.4-0.5/ 2 large)
- Milk (0.4-0.5 mg/1 cup)
- Cottage cheese (0.4-0.5 mg/1 cup)
- Salmon, cooked (0.4 mg/ 2 ½ oz)
- Mackerel, cooked (0.3-0.4 mg/2 ½ oz)
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
|Age in Years||Aim for an intake of Niacin Equivalents (NE/day)||Stay below|
|Men 19 and older||16||35|
|Women 19 and older||14||35|
|Pregnant women 19 and older||18||35|
|Breastfeeding women 19 and older||17||35|
Some of the most nutrient dense food sources of vitamin B3 (in descending order) include:
- Salmon, cooked or canned (11-17 NE/2 ½ oz)
- Liver (beef, pork, chicken, turkey), cooked (10-17 NE/2 ½ oz)
- Tuna, cooked or canned (12-18 NE/2 ½ oz)
- Chicken (various cuts), cooked (8-15 NE/2 ½ oz)
- Mackerel, cooked (7-12 NE/2 ½ oz)
- Pork, beef, lamb, various cuts (6-14 NE/2 ½ oz)
- Turkey, various cuts, cooked (6-9 NE/2 ½ oz)
- Mushroom, portabello (6 NE/ ½ cup)
- Cottage cheese (5-6 NE/1 cup)
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid)
As a dietary supplement, 5-10 mg pantothenic acid has been used.
|Age||Recommended Daily Intake (mg/day)||Stay below|
|Infants 0-6 months||1.7||Amounts up to 10 grams have been ingested without significant adverse effects|
|Infants 7-12 months||1.8|
|Children 1-3 years||2 mg|
|Children 4-8 years||3 mg|
|Children 9-13 years||4 mg|
|Men and women 14 and older||5 mg|
|Pregnant women||6 mg|
|Lactating women||7 mg|
Limited data is available on the pantothenic acid content of foods, but chicken, beef, potatoes, tomato products, liver, kidney, egg yolk, and broccoli are reported to be among the major nutrient dense sources.
Various processing methods, including freezing and canning of vegetables, fish, meat and dairy products, as well as refining of grains, have been reported to reduce the pantothenic acid content of foods.
|Age in Years||Aim for an intake of mg/day||Stay below (mg/day)|
|Women 51 and older||1.5||100|
|Men 51 and older||1.7||100|
|Pregnant women 19 and older||1.9||100|
|Breastfeeding women 19 and older||2.0||100|
Some of the most nutrient dense food sources of vitamin B6 (in descending order) include:
- Chickpeas, cooked (0.84 mg/ ¾ cup)
- Organ meats (liver, kidney, giblets) (12-64 mg/ 2 ½ oz)
- Salmon, wild, cooked (0.61-0.71 mg/2 ½ oz)
- Potato, cooked with skin (0.37-0.60 mg/ 1 medium)
- Pork, cooked (0.24-0.5 mg/2 ½ oz)
- Chicken, cooked (0.25-0.48 mg/ 2 ½ oz)
- Sweet potato, cooked with skin (0.33 mg/ 1 medium)
|Age in Years||Aim for an intake of micrograms (mcg/day)||Stay below (mcg/day)|
|Men and women 19 and older||2.4||An upper limit has not been established|
|Pregnant women 19 and older||2.6|
|Breastfeeding women 19 and older||2.8|
Some of the most nutrient dense food sources of vitamin B12 (in descending order) include:
- Organ meats (liver, kidney, giblets) (12.6-64.3 mcg/2 ½ oz)
- Mackerel (13.5-14.3 mcg/2 ½ oz)
- Tuna, Bluefin (8.2-9.3 mcg/2 ½ oz)
- Salmon, sockeye (4.4 mcg/2 ½ oz)
- Ground beef, cooked (2.4-2.7 mcg/2 ½ oz)
- Egg (1.5-1.6 mcg/2 large)
- Milk (1.2-1.4 mcg/1 cup)
- Pork, various cuts (0.8-1.1 mcg/2 ½ oz)
|Age in Years||Aim for an intake of (mcg/day)||Stay below (mcg/day)|
|Men and women 19 and older||400||1000|
|Pregnant women 19 and older||600||1000|
|Breastfeeding women 19 and older||500||1000|
Some of the most nutrient dense food sources of folate (in descending order) include:
- Organ meats, liver, cooked (122-518 mcg/ 2 ½ oz)
- Lentils, cooked (265 mcg/ ¾ cup)
- Peas (chickpeas, black-eyed) cooked (138-263 mcg/ ¾ cup)
- Beans (pink, pinto, navy, black, white, kidney, great northern), cooked (157-218 mcg/ ¾ cup)
- Spinach, cooked (121-139 mcg/ ½ cup)
- Artichoke, cooked (79-106 mcg/ ½ cup)
- Broccoli, cooked (89 mcg/ ½ cup)
In summary – organ meat is a nutritional powerhouse. However, organ meat may not be the most popular food choice in your home. So, a close runner up is salmon! To get those B vitamins in and an extra punch of omega 3 fats (we will talk more about these later) try eating wild Pacific sockeye salmon at least 3-4 times per week.
So how exactly can we apply what we’ve learned to our daily lives? The next time we are feeling stressed or anticipate a stressful week or month, instead of reaching for that cliché pint of Ben & Jerry’s or a Xanax, whip up a delicious anti-stress meal full of these powerful vitamins.
Food as Medicine Quick Anti-Stress Lunch
5 ounces cooked wild Pacific Sockeye Salmon, chopped into small pieces
1 cup of sliced peppers, diced
¼ cup of shelled sunflower seeds
3 cups of fresh spinach
½ cup of balsamic vinegar
¼ cup of maple syrup
2 teaspoons of Dijon mustard
1 cup of extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Blend all ingredients for dressing in a blender or with a whisk.
Combine peppers and spinach in a large bowl and top with salmon and sunflower seeds.
Add 2 tablespoons of prepared dressing and toss the salad.
Eat and be merry
Yours in health,
Food Sources of Folate. (2015) Available at: http://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Vitamins/Food-Sources-of-Folate.aspx
Food Sources of Niacin. Available at: http://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Vitamins/Food-Sources-of-Niacin.aspx
Food Sources of Thiamin. Available at: http://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Vitamins/Food-Sources-of-Thiamin-(Vitamin-B1).aspx
Food Sources of Vitamin B6. Available at: http://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Vitamins/Food-Sources-of-Vitamin-B6-(Pyridoxine).aspx
Food Sources of Vitamin B12. (2015) Available at: http://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Vitamins/Food-Sources-of-Vitamin-B12.aspx
Lewis et al. (2013). The Effect of Methylated Vitamin B Complex on Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms and Quality of Life in Adults with Depression. ISRN Psychiatry.
Oliveira et al. (2015). Effects of oral vitamin C supplementation on anxiety in students: a double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled trial. Pakistan Journal of Biological Sciences. 18(1) 11-18.
Pantothenic acid and biotic. Available at: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002410.htm
Weil, Andrew (2015). Elevated Homocysteine. Available at: http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART03423/Elevated-Homocysteine.html