In 2010, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand. Through the rubble, observers noticed the survivors who used micronutrient supplements reduced and prevented the mental health problems typically associated with the stress of living through such a disaster.
It also gave researchers an idea: Perhaps if we give disaster victims much-needed nutritional support, they will better cope with stress.
That disaster came in June 2013, when a devastating spring flood hit Albert, Canada, and caused more than 100,000 residents to evacuate. In the midst of the flooding and evacuation, researchers contacted residents through social media to participate in a trial on the potential benefits of nutritional supplements to reduce anxiety and stress. Fifty-six men and women–whose homes were damaged by the flood–agreed to participate. They ranged in age from 22 to 66 years old.
They received either 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily, a vitamin B-complex daily, or a daily broad-spectrum multi-vitamin-mineral four times daily. The study continued for six weeks with a 93 percent compliance rate.
All participants selected scored at least one point higher than the standard limits on the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale. In other words, they all had to show marked symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. None of the participants had been on psychiatric medications for at least four weeks prior to the start of the study.
Over the six weeks, participants in all groups showed improvements in anxiety and stress levels. Those who took the daily B complex or the broad spectrum multi-vitamin-mineral experienced significantly greater improvements compared to those who took only 1,000 IU of vitamin D.
Of course, stress increases metabolic demands on the body. So it makes sense, biologically, that nutrients help people cope.
First and foremost, vitamins help support the cell mitochondria, the basic energy factories of the body. Mitochondria are actually present in all cells, where they produce ATP for metabolic energy. They also support all organ functions and the immune system. In the brain, they help neurons perform and help cope with stress to remain calm.
It’s a virtuous circle, really. Vitamins support mitochondria, so the body will have the extra physical and emotional energy to endure hardship and stress.
Of course, lab studies offer much better controlled conditions. (For example, it’s much more controlled to simulate stress in a lab than to observe human populations during and after natural disasters.) And lab studies consistently show well-nourished animals better withstand stress under experimental conditions.
A national spokesperson for the American Society of Nutrition commented on these findings. She noted that government and health officials typically think of supplying water and basic food items after a natural disaster. But they should also think about actual nutrition. Especially when you consider most people will have a poorer diet and further reduced nutrient intake following natural disasters. Plus, most people don’t have good nutritional status to begin with, according to many other studies.
According to the new study’s author, Bonnie J. Kaplan, Ph.D., “It is so cheap to give people extra supplements after a hurricane or whatever, to strengthen their ability to cope with the stressors–and so expensive to treat them all as psychiatric patients.”
It’s unlikely FEMA or the Red Cross will start thinking about dietary supplements for disaster victims any time soon. But if they do, there are four important lessons to note.
First, in the Alberta study, researchers gave participants broad-spectrum multi-vitamin supplements four times per day–not “once a day.” Evidence shows you can’t get sufficient doses of any nutrient in the broad “kitchen sink” mix of popular “one-a-day” multi-vitamins.
Second, it certainly makes sense that a B-vitamin complex would show benefits as seen in the Alberta study. The B vitamins, specifically, support the nervous system and would be expected to help with anxiety, depression and stress. But always make sure you take a high-quality B complex that contains at least 12 mcg of B12 and 55 mg of B6.
Third, you need more vitamin D. In the study, participants received 1,000 IU of this critical nutrient. But it didn’t have as strong an effect as the B vitamins. And I’m not surprised. The dose of vitamin D they used is 10 times lower than what adults really need normally for optimal health. And under unusual stress, they would need even more.
Fourth, if supplements can help people cope with stress after disasters, they can also help you cope with every day stress. Something to remember in the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Through earthquake, fire and flood, supplements–in the right doses–are well worth their weight for coping with stress.
Here’s a good lesson for every day–but not just “once-a-day.”
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if I had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
–Robert Frost (1874 – 1969)
Since it’s now September, you may consider this Dispatch your “first Frost” of the season.
- “A randomized trial of nutrient supplements to minimize psychological stress after a natural disaster,” Psychiatry Research (2015),