When it comes to stress-induced psychiatric disorders, anxiety and depression are the most common. I see this often in my practice. We know that stressful life events can produce a state of vulnerability to depression and anxiety in some people. The mechanisms that contribute to vulnerability of mental illness is an area which needs further study. Although promising research has been done in the past few years that indicates that there are biochemical changes that occur in the body as a result of stress that can be addressed. For patients suffering from stress-induced psychiatric disorders, it is essential to understand the role of antioxidants on stress-induced psychiatric disorders so a plan can be created and implemented to help cope with the effects of stress.
Stress and Nutrition
Research has shown that stress places a demand on the body in terms of nutrition. During a period of stress, it has been discovered that there is an increase in adrenal production and mobilization. There is also an increase in vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium, and micronutrients, This further accelerates the metabolism of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates which produces quick energy that is needed to overcome the stress response.
Antioxidants and Stress
To combat the biochemical changes which occur as a result of stress, there is something researchers call “antioxidant defence” in the biological system. The research on this states that “primary defence is by enzymatic antioxidants such as superoxide dimutase, glutathione peroxidase, catalase, nicotanamide adenine diphosphate, glutathione transferase and glutathione reductase, while secondary defence is by the non-enzymatic antioxidants such as vitamin E (alphatocopherol), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), β-carotene, minerals, and trace elements like zinc.” This indicates that stress and vitamins are related and we need to replace any vitamins that are depleted in order to maintain healthy functioning.
What Are Antioxidants?
The term “antioxidant” was originally used to refer to a chemical which prevented the consumption of oxygen. We now use the term “antioxidant” to describe small molecules that interact with free radicals and neutralize them ensuring proper function of all physiological functions of the body. Free radicals and oxidants can play a dual role as both beneficial as well as toxic compounds. As such, they can either have a helpful or harmful effect on the body. Free radicals are continuously generated by our bodies through internal processes, exposure to different external pathogens or stress. The best sources of antioxidants come from richly colored fruits and vegetables. Different colors characterize different types of antioxidants.
Brightly colored green vegetables such as kale, broccoli, peas, zucchini celery, collard greens, asparagus, Brussel sprouts, and spinach are rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidant nutrients deposited in the retinas of your eyes. It is believed that eating an adequate amount of these green vegetables can help prevent the vision loss caused by macular degeneration.
Carotenoids are yellow and orange vegetables and fruit, such as butternut squash, carrots, pumpkin, yellow and orange bell peppers, and sweet potatoes. The body converts carotenoids to the nutrient vitamin A which benefits your skin, bones, immune system, vision, bones, and heart.
Red vegetables also contain flavonoids called anthocyanins, which have properties of antioxidants and may help your memory, boost immunity, protect urinary tract and reduce your risk of disease. These include vegetables such as radishes, beets, red onions, and tomatoes. Many foods with natural red pigments also contain lycopene, which is an antioxidant phytonutrient which may help protect against cancer of the prostate.
Purple and Blue Vegetables
Purple and blue vegetables such as purple cabbage, purple onions, eggplant, purple peppers, and purple potatoes contain phenolic flavanoids and ellagic acid which are anti-inflammatory compounds. Eating these color vegetables may improve cognitive function, prevent some types of cancer, and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Oxidative Stress, Free Radicals and Illness
Researchers believe that a balance must be maintained between free radicals and antioxidants within the body for healthy functioning. If this balance is not maintained, the free radicals may exceed the body’s ability to neutralize them, which can change different proteins, molecules, DNA, lipids, and carbohydrates, resulting in illness. Antioxidants must be present in the body in order to stabilize the reaction by-products (free radicals), otherwise, it is believed that they damage the cellular tissue.
We get these needed antioxidants from our food. We know that if we eat a diet which is lacking proper nutrients our mitochondria cannot properly process glucose. This results in free radical by-products which can cause ongoing damage to cells and proteins. This, in turn, may accelerate the aging process, increase the risk of auto-immune diseases, degenerative diseases, cancer, and other illnesses.
The term of oxidative stress refers to this imbalance between the free radicals that become excessive to the antioxidants defenses, resulting in molecular changes and eventually illness.
Oxidative Stress and Mental Health
Oxidative stress has been shown to be an important contributor to inflammatory conditions, and in recent years has been implicated in the underlying mechanisms that result in depression and anxiety. One of the proposed pathway in developing depression has been the increased oxidative stress which pairs up with inflammatory mechanism leading to cellular aging, and possibly depression and anxiety. Studies that look at the common factors that underlie depression, cellular aging, cancer and dementing illnesses seem to find the oxidative stress a common denominator.
Alternative Treatment and Depression
There is an ongoing research in finding “out of the box” modalities to help in the treatment of depression, and most of the alternatives to the traditional pharmacological treatment try to address the inflammation through moderate exercise and a noninflammatory diet. A diet that has anti-inflammatory properties is rich in flavonoids or ‘nutraceuticals. ’ These seem to have good antioxidative properties, and are primarily found in brightly-colored fruits and vegetables. Others kinds are also found in food, the vitamins such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid), Vitamin E (tocopherols), or B carotenes.
Research On Antioxidants, Anxiety and Depression
In a study exploring the role of antioxidants in generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and depression, it was observed that patients with GAD and depression had significantly lower levels of vitamins A, C, and E in comparison to healthy controls. The study results reported that after dietary supplementation of these vitamins for a period of 6 weeks, a significant reduction in anxiety and depression scores of patients was observed (P<0.001). A significant increase in the blood levels of antioxidants was observed in patients (P<0.05) except that of vitamin E in the group of depressed patients.
The Reality of Diets
We know that while the amount of antioxidants needed could be obtained through good nutrition, it would be necessary to eat between 6-10 servings of fruits and or vegetables daily. Oftentimes, that is not possible. Therefore, we recommend supplementing with good multivitamin/antioxidants called nutraceuticals which gives you a better chance of ensuring that you are getting enough antioxidants and helps with good absorption and bioavailability.
Diet and Illness
Although further study on the effects of nutrition is needed to maximize the potential of nutrition on health, the research, to date, demonstrates clearly that diet can play a huge role in preventing or ameliorating illness. As can be seen from the research detailed above- having a diet rich in different colored vegetables, and supplementing with nutraceuticals can be a great start in getting the antioxidants your body needs.
Below is a list of references that can help you in your journey to feeling good both physically and mentally. Click here to schedule a mental health consultation.
Role of antioxidants in generalised anxiety disorder and depression.
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Indian J Psychiatry. 2012 Jul;54(3):244-7.
“Minding My Mitochondria: How I overcame secondary progressive multiple sclerosis” By Terry Wahls, MD
Dr Wahls’ super-nutrient paleo diet, that reversed her Multiple Sclerosis
Phytochemical and Pharmacological Profile: A Review. … Lobo, V., A. Patil, A. Phatak, and N. Chandra. 2010. “Free Radicals, Antioxidants and Functional Foods: Impact on Human Health.” Pharmacognosy Reviews 4 (8): 118–126.
Free radicals, antioxidants in disease and health.
Pham-Huy LA1, He H, Pham-Huy C.
Int J Biomed Sci. 2008 Jun;4(2):89-96.
Depressive and Anxiety Disorders Showing Robust, but Non-Dynamic, 6-Year Longitudinal Association With Short Leukocyte Telomere Length.
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Am J Psychiatry. 2016 Jun 1;173(6):617-24. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.15070887. Epub 2016 Mar 4.
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