Does vitamin B reduce stress?

Monday, July 24, 2006
Stress is like air these days, it's everywhere. Work, money, relationships — if you're not careful, it can really get the better of you.

We've all felt it. Your blood pressure rises, your heart beats faster, you start to sweat, and there's that overwhelming feeling that you just can't cope. One in 10 Australians suffer anxiety disorders, so what's the best way to deal with stress?

Michael Slater takes a look at the solutions.

A simple way to help cope with stress, that's worth testing out, is vitamin B — it's not just one vitamin, it's a group of eight. They're essential to our health, especially our nervous system. There's plenty in Vegemite, as well as cereals, meat, fish and some fruit and vegies.

But is it a stress buster?

Michael is going to put vitamin B and stress to the test. But first he needs to find out more about what it does in our body.

Jacques Duff is a behavioural psychologist in Melbourne who studies the impact of what diet can have on our moods.

He says that vitamin B is "used in the stress response, hence the perception that vitamin B reduces stress."

So during stress your body burns B vitamins, but if you've got more, will you cope better?

Michael has brought along a couple of stressed friends to help find out. Both these blokes have got a bag full of worries.

What makes these guys so stressed?

Simon Overall: "I've got a thesis to write. I have a research trip to plan and I just don't have enough money..."

Ghil'ad Zuckermann: "I grind my teeth at night and I suffer a little bit from high blood pressure."

To get our experiment started, Jacques is going to measure their baseline stress levels.

Firstly Simon is wired up: "I put a temperature sensor, skin conductors and now we're going to look at his pulse rate," says Jacques.

Simon's sweat response, heart rate and temperature should increase when he recalls something stressful.

Jacques asks Simon to think about something that caused him a lot of distress recently. "Just imagine the feeling that you had at the time, try and visualise as much as possible…"

The first thing to note is that Simon's heart rate increases dramatically. Our body's stress response is an in-built survival instinct. In danger, we either fight back or flee, it's called 'fight or flight' response. We feel it as 'stress'.

"Anxiety raises your arousal level in the body and that itself uses quite a number of nutrients to service that arousal level, which is part of the stress response," says Jacques.

Will taking extra vitamin B replace those nutrients, and help us cope better with stress? Simon and Ghil'ad have agreed to take B vitamin tablets every morning, for the next month.

Then we'll find out if these little pills are really super stress busters.

After taking B vitamins for a month, Simon and Ghil'ad are back with psychologist Jacques Duff, to see if it's lowered their stress levels.

Have either of the men noticed any difference in their ability to cope with stress?

Simon: "I wouldn't want to say that I feel they've helped me. I don't feel a lot different."

Ghil'ad: "I did feel slightly more relaxed, but I'm not sure it is because of that."

That doesn't sound too promising, but their stress levels are tested again to find out for sure.

The machine is a bit like a lie detector: measuring skin conductance, sweat and temperature. If B vitamins have reduced the boys' stress, then their responses to stressful thoughts should be calmer this time around.

However, there's no change at all.

Simon had slightly less stress, but nothing significant.

So there you have it. Vitamin B is not the be all and end all. Sure it might help you cope a little better at times, but it won't cure your stress.

Biologically you can take some vitamins to help replenish those nutrients that are being depleted. But to handle the stress itself, you need to be able to think differently, to be on top of things.

Professionals are seeing more and more people who need help dealing with stress.

Sue Cleland runs anxiety recovery programs at her Brisbane clinic, Anxiety and Stress Management Service of Australia.

"Stress is a physiological response in your body that is created through a perception of fear. So that includes things like trembling shaking, heat rate, breathing, feeling agitated," she says.

Sue used to suffer extreme anxiety herself, but she learned techniques to cope.

"And I now teach those techniques to others to help them deal with stress in their lives," says Sue.

It sounds simple but one of Sue's golden rules for staying on top of stress is to breathe deeply.

Sue shows her clients how to breathe with their diaphragms: "it teaches people to actually take a breath in and breathe towards their diaphragm, which actually ensures that the levels of CO2 and oxygen remain balanced and that keeps a person in a nice calm relaxed state."

Yoga is another great way to cope with stress and its popularity is on the rise. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says that more than 300,000 Australians do yoga — that's more than the amount who participate in Aussie Rules football!

So if you're a fan of vitamin B, don't give up on our account. It's good for your body. But there are better ways to lower your stress, including good old commonsense.

"Ensuring that you're eating well, wholesome balanced meals, trying the breathing technique, relaxation techniques, doing some physical exercise like going for a walk. Or go for a bike ride. And ensure that you get enough rest at night. They're all important to maintaining a real nice balanced mind and body," says Sue.

  • When it comes to triggering severe stress, some life events are worse than others. But what are the five biggest causes of stress? Top of the list is the death of a spouse, divorce is next, followed closely by marital separation, going to jail is number four, while the fifth most stressful event in our lives is the death of a close family member.

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