It’s safe to say that we all have more stress than we would like. Problems certainly don’t discriminate by gender, but it is reasonable to argue that the pressures of daily life are often distinctive within the sexes, with women and men experiencing different struggles. This translates into unique nutritional requirements for women who want to overcome anxiety or stress so that they can perform at their best.
For example, research that examines gender differences in relation to work- and home-based stress reveals that women’s levels of stress remain high after work compared to men’s. Women have a slower level of “unwinding” in the evening compared to men, which translates into sustained activation of their stress response system. Researchers theorize this is at least partly due to how women feel responsible for taking care of their families and often have continued daily tasks at home throughout the evening.
Studies also show that the burden of depression may be as much as 50 percent higher for women than in men. Women are more susceptible than men to depression, anxiety disorders, and insomnia and experience higher cortisol levels when they are depressed.
There are many theories and treatments for anxiety and depression, but one area that has shown promising research is nutrition. When we think about diet, we are often most concerned with body composition, energy levels, and physical performance. But the brain is actually a very “hungry” organ, requiring a variety of micronutrients for proper function. One liter of blood enters the brain every minute, supplying oxygen and nutrients, and carrying away waste products. This equals 60 liters of blood passing through the brain per hour, so you can see how nutrition can have a powerful impact on mental function and well being.
Here is a quick summary of how vitamins and minerals are used in keeping your brain healthy and anxiety free:
They synthesize enzymes involved in neurotransmitter production and metabolism.
Neurotransmitters regulate mood, mental outlook, energy levels, wakefulness, well being, and reward pathways.
They help with cell receptor function. Cell receptors allow for the binding of hormones and neurotransmitters so that they can exert actions in the body.
They alter membrane fluidity, allowing for proper entry and protection so that the correct molecules are entering and leaving cells.
They affect neuron growth and repair. Neurons are brain cells, and when something goes wrong with them they will either repair or die (apoptosis). The more healthy brain cells you have, the better everything up there will work!
They reverse or prevent oxidative damage to the central nervous system, which leads to accelerated aging, cognitive decline, and dementia.
What all this comes down to is that your brain requires sufficient levels of a variety of nutritional components for proper function. Studies support this approach from both directions:
Research indicates that higher nutrient intakes are associated with better mental health and
Improving diet quality, either from supplementation or dietary intervention, can reduce anxiety and support mental health.
In this article, we will look at specific nutrients that can help overcome anxiety and stress, but it’s critical that you always look at the big picture and strive for a higher quality diet overall. This is important because one way many people cope with stress is through “comfort eating.”
At first glance, comfort eating works: It lowers the cortisol response to stress and improves mood by increasing release of dopamine and serotonin, which are neurotransmitter that make you feel good. Unfortunately, comfort eating has a lot of drawbacks:
It is associated with weight gain and obesity.
It results in a nutritionally poor diet. This has the effect of depleting the body of nutrients that are needed to combat stress, exacerbating the feeling that you want to tear your hair out.
It may lead to binge eating or other harmful eating patterns such as night eating in which people eat the majority of their calories late at night.
Interestingly, women may be more susceptible to the harmful effect of comfort eating.
Studies suggest that women often choose foods higher in fat and sugar (what we typically think of as junk food) when struggling to ease anxiety, whereas men often opt for lower-calorie and meat-based options.
For example, in one study, women’s top food choices to relieve stress were ice cream, chocolate, and cookies, whereas men chose steak, pizza/pasta, and soup. One noteworthy finding was that women choose prepared foods that require little preparation or clean up. Researchers theorize women don’t want to add to their list of responsibilities since having to cook and wash up will only compound their experience of stress.
Another important factor women need to consider when planning nutrition is whether their way of eating is deficient in nutrients the body needs to handle anxiety and stress. For example, vegan, vegetarian, and other restrictive diets won’t supply the high level of essential fatty acids and taurine necessary when you are burning through nutrients due to high anxiety and stress. Meat-based diets or even the typical American diet that is high in processed carbs and low in fruits and vegetables are unlikely to supply the vitamin C and possibly magnesium necessary for handling stress.
What follows is a list of nutrients that can help lower anxiety and stress in women.
#1: EPA & DHA Fish Oil
EPA and DHA are essential fatty acids abundant in fish. They are also available in wild and free-range animal products and some algae. Supplementation with fish oil has paid off in lowering cortisol and reducing ratings of stress and anxiety in a variety of populations. For women, fish oil has been shown to lower anxiety in a variety of populations: Pregnant women reported lower stress and improved mental outlook, particularly in relation to difficult life circumstances. Women going through menopause and those in the premenstrual phase of their cycles also reported lower anxiety after fish oil supplementation.
How It Helps: We know that cells are made up of an outside fatty lipid bilayer. The type of fat that makes up the bilayer affects the metabolism and function of the cell. This is one reason fish oil can help treat insulin resistance: Having essential fatty acids in the cell layer improves insulin binding and entry of glucose into the cell for energy. The presence of EPA and DHA in cell membranes also improves oxygen and nutrient use, thereby facilitating cellular energy production, which is important for function of neurons.
#2: Vitamin C
We typically think of vitamin C as an immune nutrient, but it also plays an important role in our stress response. Supplementation with vitamin C can lower fatigue, stress, and anxiety in a variety of populations. A study of high school students found that giving them 500 mg a day of vitamin C lowered anxiety after 14 days of supplementation. A second trial found that taking a high-dose vitamin C supplement (1,000 mg) three times a day for 14 days lowered ratings of anxiety and lower blood pressure after a stressful test. There was also a faster cortisol recovery, indicating that the vitamin C may have helped the body metabolize and eliminate cortisol after the stressful experience. This is important because cortisol can be a life saver when we are faced with a physical or mental threat, but it only causes problems (triggering racing mind, causing inflammation and cellular damage, and degrading lean tissue) when it stays around in the blood related once the threat has passed.
How It Helps: Vitamin C has an important antioxidant role to play in the brain, helping to protect neurons from inflammation and neurodegenerations. It also helps metabolize stress hormones and the body uses it to in the production of adrenalin and neurotransmitters involved in anxiety and stress management.
Probably one of the best-known nutrients for countering stress and lowering anxiety, magnesium calms the central nervous system and lowers cortisol release. A review of 18 studies found that magnesium supplementation lowered anxious thoughts in people with chronic anxiety. Another study found that supplementing with magnesium may lower depression and anxiety in women suffering PMS. Combining magnesium with vitamin B6 may have a synergistic effect. One study of women with PMS-related anxiety found that giving women 200 mg of B6 and 500 mg of magnesium daily produced decrease anxiety and stress.
How It Helps: Magnesium is necessary for proper function of brain neurons and it aids in the metabolism of cortisol. Magnesium also inhibits excessive cortisol synthesis, lowering release. Cortisol is the results of a complex synthesis via which cholesterol is used to make the hormone pregnenolone, which is converted to progesterone and finally to cortisol. Magnesium can inhibit the conversion from progesterone to cortisol.
#4: Methylated B Complex
The B Vitamins play an important role in cognition, mood, and brain health. Vitamin B6 affects release of serotonin and other neurotransmitters involved in mood and it impacts sleep patterns. Vitamin B9 (folate) and B12 are necessary for memory function and avoiding depression. Folate and B12 deficiency are both associated with low mood and reduced interest in social activity. Supplementation has shown mixed results with some studies showing lower stress and anxiety and others showing no effect. The reason may be due to genetic differences that make certain forms of B vitamins useless with specific genotypes. B vitamins that are methylated are a form that improves bioavailability and has been shown to lower stress and improve quality of life compared to a placebo.
How It Helps: Specific B vitamins are used as co-factors to synthesize serotonin and dopamine stress, which can boost mood and lower the experience of stress. Additionally, the Bs are used during the stress response in the synthesis of adrenaline.
If you have low taurine, your nervous system will be over-responsive to stress. For example, a rodent study found that a taurine treatment prior to an anxiety-inducing exercise test resulted in less anxious behavior and better performance compared to a placebo. Although there are no published randomized trials on using taurine for stress and anxiety in humans, functional medicine practitioners have used it with patients who could use a little more serenity in their lives. Taurine supplementation is particularly important for vegetarians since it is only available in animal products. Because women have a higher rate of vegetarianism, it’s important to spread the word that taurine may help avoid an over-stimulated nervous system.
How It Helps: Taurine calms the nervous system by facilitating the production of the neurotransmitter GABA. By raising GABA, you allow your body to manage anxiety so that your thoughts don’t go spiraling out of control and you don’t get the associated cortisol and adrenaline spikes that go with stress.
Final Words: Hopefully, fine tuning your nutrition can help infuse your life with serenity and relieve some of the anxiety that is only in your mind. For more information on this topic, check back in the coming weeks when we will be posting articles on nutrition and exercise for combatting stress and anxiety.