Feeling stressed? Welcome to the anxious club. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2020 survey reveals that the nation is faced with a multitude of stressful situations these days — which should be news to exactly no one.
Among the survey’s findings:
— 78% of Americans say the COVID-19 pandemic is a significant source of stress.
— 67% say they have experienced increased stress over the course of the pandemic.
— The majority of adults say health care (66%), mass shootings (62%) or climate change/global warming (55%) is a significant source of stress.
— Nearly 2 in 3 U.S. adults (65%) say the current amount of uncertainty in the nation causes them stress. Further, 60% say the number of issues America faces currently is overwhelming to them.
— 77% of U.S. adults say the future of the nation is a significant source of stress.
— 71% say this is the lowest point in the nation’s history that they can remember.
Since the first Stress in America survey in 2007, varying factors — economic downturns, racism, political conflict — have impacted stress levels, the APA says. “Our 2020 survey is different. It reveals that Americans have been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the external factors Americans have listed in previous years as significant sources of stress remain present and problematic. These compounding stressors are having real consequences on our minds and bodies.”
You can’t control most outside stressors. But there are a number of proven stress-reduction strategies, including exercise, mindfulness practices and yoga, to help you deal with stress and reduce its harmful toll on your body and mind. Nutrition also plays a role, and your vitamin intake can help combat the effects of living in stressful times.
How Stress Harms Health
Some stress is normal, and even healthy. It serves as an alert to possible danger, initiating the “fight or flight response” to address that danger. “However, too much stress can negatively impact the immune system and cause physical symptoms such as weight gain, acne and high blood pressure, due to excess cortisol, commonly known as the fight-or-flight hormone,” says Jerlyn Jones, a registered dietitian nutritionist, owner of The Lifestyle Dietitian and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“Stress causes a cascade of bodily reactions, including the stress hormone response and a general catabolic state, or state of breakdown,” says Melissa Majumdar, a registered dietitian and metabolic and bariatric coordinator with Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta and an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson.
Stress hormones include cortisol and adrenaline, which can slow down digestion, increase blood sugars and suppress immune and reproductive function. “In other words, our immune system cannot fight as hard if an illness or infection enters the body after prolonged stress,” Majumdar says. “Simply said, the state of heightened stress causes cellular damage.”
[Read: How to Handle Extreme Stress]
How Vitamins Can Help
Vitamins and minerals are important for many aspects of health, including mental and emotional health. Specific nutrients called antioxidants, like vitamin A, C, E and selenium, can help fight cellular damage. “The word antioxidants means anti-oxidative damage, which is the damage caused by free radicals, the end result of oxidative stress caused by environmental stressors,” Majumdar says. Think of it something like how oxygen can rust metal; here, free radicals — reactive chemical compounds — “rust” cells.
There is a pretty easy way to tell which foods are loaded with these important vitamins, Majumdar says: “Foods that are bright and rich in color tend to be high in antioxidants.” Her list includes the entire visible light spectrum:
— Red (red peppers, beets, pomegranate, cherries).
— Orange (sweet potato, butternut squash, oranges, carrots).
— Yellow (squash, lemons, melon).
— Green (dark leafy greens, lettuces, kiwi, broccoli).
— Purple (red cabbage, purple potatoes, red onion).
“Aiming to make half the plate fruits and vegetables and choosing from a variety of colorful produce can help meet the body’s vitamin needs and help protect against cellular damage,” Majumdar says.
In addition, plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, beans, lentils and whole grains also are healthful. “We know that these foods are protective against heart disease, especially when eaten in place of red or processed meat. Heart disease specifically is impacted by stress levels,” Jones says.
Do You Need a Vitamin Supplement?
Not necessarily. If you eat a sound, well-balanced diet, you are likely getting all the vitamins and minerals you need.
“Before taking a supplement and expecting a pill to, one, solve high stress levels and, two, reduce the impact stress has on the body, do a personal inventory of diet quality and stress management techniques,” Majumdar suggests. “Taking vitamins separately from foods is not as effective as eating the whole food. Whole foods also contain other benefits such as fiber and can be less expensive than vitamins. Furthermore, by adding more fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods, we tend to eat less of foods that cause stress to the body: saturated fat, added sugars and red or processed meat.”
If you think you may still need supplements, here are some to look into.
Ashwagandha. A study in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that 600 mg of this supplement taken for 60 days improved stress levels in chronically stressed adults. It was found to be safe and well tolerated, Jones says.
B vitamins. These vitamins are important for brain health. A review of 11 studies suggest high doses of B vitamins improve mood and energy levels by lowering blood levels of homocysteine, a chemical linked with stress and an increased risk of several health conditions, including heart disease, dementia and colorectal cancer, Jones says. Food sources of B vitamins include bulgur, fish, beef, chickpeas, banana, eggs, dairy products and leafy greens.
Inositol. This nutrient, naturally found in foods like cereal, corn, meat, citrus and legumes, may help reduce panic disorder but has not been shown to be effective for anxiety. “People with diabetes should speak to their health care provider before trying inositol,” Majumdar says.
Melatonin. The “sleep hormone” may help specifically with sleep challenges related to stress. “Melatonin has been shown to decrease the time it takes to fall asleep by seven to 12 minutes, and one study shows taking melatonin prior to a laboratory-induced stressful situation may improve memory,” Majumdar says. “One study does not prove effectiveness, but many people find melatonin helpful for sleep, especially when switching time zones or sleep schedules.”
Magnesium. This “calming” mineral may affect brain functions that lower stress and anxiety, Jones says: “It works by helping your body settle into the ‘rest and digest’ state — the opposite of feeling stress.” You can get adequate levels of magnesium from whole grains, legumes, nuts and green leafy vegetables such as chard, collard greens and spinach.
What Else Can Help?
“Good nutrition is an important stress management tool,” Jones states. Here are a few of her tips for stress reduction and long-term health:
— Eat regularly throughout the day. Don’t skip meals.
— Add a high-fiber food to your meals, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
— Choose heart-healthy fats found in walnuts, fish, avocado and extra virgin olive oil.
Also remember that eating healthy alone cannot fully protect us against stress. “Healthy sleep habits, regular exercise, self-care and relaxation and an overall focus on body and mental health are important,” Majumdar says.
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Update 04/27/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.