5 key nutrients to protect your brain from stress
While we all have different coping mechanisms to get us through tough times, there isn’t a single person out there who doesn’t experience stress. Some amount is normal and actually important - it keeps us alert and prompts us to take quick action in necessary situations. The problems arise when the stress, whether physical, emotional, mental or spiritual, is overwhelming and ongoing. We tend to think of its damaging effects on the body while ignoring how much our brain is suffering at the same time.
“At any age, from childhood into old age, exposure to extreme or prolonged stress can reduce neural plasticity, interfering with the formation and strengthening of synapses that are essential for learning and memory.” - Aileen Burford-Mason, The Healthy Brain
Mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are strongly tied to heightened levels of stress, as are the neurodegenerative diseases Dementia and Alzheimer’s. The brain is highly reactive to stress as the more it’s used to problem solve, ruminate on worries, or finding ways to cope, the more nourishment it requires from the body. This highlights the need for continuous and effective food intake that can support both the body and the brain. Deficiencies of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fats are common and have immediate and long-term effects on the functioning of the brain. Our brain can quickly “stall”, causing an inability to recall memories or the vocabulary necessary to communicate thoughts. When the nutrients needed for daily repair and maintenance are regularly under-supplied, permanent brain tissue damage can result.
There are particular vitamins and minerals that our brain needs - some that it can manufacture on it’s own, and some that must come from our diet.
Tyrosine is an amino acid used to make a number of critical molecules in the body, positioning it as a highly-demanded and easily-depleted nutrient. Most relevant to brain health is the fact that tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in brain function. It has been shown to improve creative thinking, counteract the reduction in working memory and information processing during the fight-or-flight response, and for word recall. Athletes use it to increase stamina, focus, and concentration. Anyone experiencing a traumatic event will benefit from a tyrosine supplement!
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that protects the brain from free radical damage. Like tyrosine, vitamin C is needed to make dopamine and also serotonin, the “happy” neurotransmitter. We need extra vitamin C during stressful times in order to keep up with the demand from both the body and the brain. Some studies have shown that when given high doses of vitamin C, patients experiencing stress will have lower levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in the blood than people not taking vitamin C.
In order to convert tyrosine to dopamine, adequate magnesium must be present in the diet. Magnesium is absolutely essential for our response to stress. Without it, we cannot make neurotransmitters or use necessary hormones for repair and maintenance. Glucose metabolism, energy production, digestion, heart function and blood pressure are all dependant on magnesium. When stress hormones are released, magnesium is excreted by the urine - so if we’re already deficient, this becomes a compounding problem. When our tissues are saturated with magnesium, they are smoother and less likely to tense up, causing us to feel relaxed. Many studies have proven that the typical western diet simply doesn’t provide enough magnesium, so supplementation is often necessary.
Did you know the brain is at least 60% pure fat? Studies in recent years have proven that fatty acids are among the most crucial molecules that determine the brain's integrity and ability to perform. Because our body cannot synthesize its own essential fatty acids (EFAs), we must obtain them from our diet. That means that the food you eat literally determines the quality of your brain tissue. Omega-3s fats are needed to build healthy cell membranes, reduce inflammation, promote new cell formation, form important brain chemicals, and improve nerve transmission. While consuming these fats, found in flaxseed, walnut and fish oils, are important for regular health, they can be especially helpful to supplement during stressful periods.
This group of vitamins are vital to a properly functioning nervous system and will help combat the effects of anxiety and stress that have become part of everyday life for many people. They are integral to energy production and bodily functions that allow us to react, respond, and move through stress in an appropriate manner. Because they work so intimately together, it is suggested to take a B-complex supplement versus singular B vitamins.
It’s important to note that supplementing should only be undertaken while under the care of a healthcare professional! While these substances are natural and from the earth, they are powerful and can have contraindications with other nutrients, herbs, or medications. Here at hiley, we love to identify when and where supplementation is needed - reach out for your free 15 minute consult here!