Nutrient Supplements Ease Anxiety, Stress Due to Disasters

Megan Brooks

July 15, 2015

Taking micronutrient supplements can help minimize psychological stress following a natural disaster, a new study confirms.

"In my opinion, the combined literature now of three studies showing that people benefit mentally/emotionally from nutrient supplementation after earthquakes and floods has really important population health implications," Bonnie J. Kaplan, PhD, of Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, University of Calgary, in Canada, told Medscape Medical News.

"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," she noted.

The study was published online June 27 in Psychiatry Research.

Large Effect Sizes

After a devastating flood hit the southern Alberta, Canada, in June 2013, causing more than 100,000 residents to evacuate their homes, Dr Kaplan's group used social media to invite residents to participate in a randomized trial in which the researchers tested the potential benefit of nutrient supplements on anxiety and stress. They enrolled 56 adults aged 23 to 66 years whose homes were damaged by the flood.

Seventeen participants were randomly assigned to receive vitamin D supplementation (1000 IU in one capsule daily); 21 were assigned to a regimen with "few nutrients" consisting of a vitamin B–complex supplement containing B6, B12, thiamine, riboflavin, folate, d-pantothenic acid, intrinsic factor, biotin, and niacin (one capsule daily); and 18 received a broad-spectrum mineral and vitamin (BSMV) formula (four capsules daily). Overall compliance with the nutrient supplements during the 6-week study period was high in all three groups (roughly 93%).

All participants scored at least 1 point above the cutoffs of the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale. They had to have a score >10 for depression, >7 for anxiety, or >14 for stress. None were receiving psychiatric medications for at least 4 weeks prior to the study.

According to the researchers, throughout the 6 weeks, all groups showed substantial decreases on all measures, but those taking the B-complex or the BSMV formulas showed significantly greater improvement in stress and anxiety levels relative to those taking only vitamin D, with "large" effect sizes (Cohen's d range, 0.76 - 1.08). There were no group differences between those consuming the B-complex and BSMV.

The small sample size and the lack of a placebo group are limitations of the study, the researchers point out.

They note, however, that their findings replicate those of a similar study conducted in Christchurch, New Zealand, after the magnitude 7.1 earthquake of 2010 and suggest the "possibility that micronutrients could be useful for the reduction and prevention of mental health problems following natural disasters and that a greater spectrum of nutrients is more effective than one nutrient alone."

Biologically Plausible

Why do nutrients help people cope with stress? "Biologically, they optimize mitochondrial function, which results in ideal amounts of ATP production, the energy molecule that helps all our organs work, helps us fight inflammation, helps our brain cells perform their best, and so helps us remain calm and cope with stress," said Dr Kaplan.

"From the animal literature, we know that a well-nourished animal is always better able to withstand stress than a poorly nourished animal. And from human clinical research, we know that nutrient supplementation helps decrease anxiety and strengthens our ability to deal with stressful situations," she added.

Commenting on the findings for Medscape Medical News, Mary Ann Johnson, PhD, University of Georgia, in Athens, and national spokesperson for the American Society of Nutrition, noted that typically after a disaster, nutritionists and public health officials think more in terms of food rather than dietary supplements.

"It's likely people would have a poor diet and lower nutrient intake after a natural disaster such as a flood, and many nutrients do influence the nervous system, which would be linked to depression, anxiety, and stress," she said.

"One of the things that has been a challenge in trying to prove that vitamins and minerals might improve aspects of mental health is we need to start with a population that may be suboptimal in the nutrients of interest. Typically, people who show up for our research studies are pretty motivated and take pretty good care of themselves, so it's the more stressful situations, like after a disaster, where you see it's more biologically and nutritionally plausible," she said.

The study was funded by a University of Calgary private donor fund. Douglas Laboratories donated the vitamin D and B-complex supplements, and Truehope Nutritional Support supplied the BSMV formula. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Psychiatry Res. Published online June 27, 2015. Abstract

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