Marmite to the Rescue for Stress and Anxiety

marmite for stress and anxiety

Story at-a-glance -

  • New research offers the first scientific proof that Marmite, a yeast-based spread (YBS), contains compounds that may help relieve stress, anxiety and possibly depression
  • Marmite and other YBSs provide protein, iron and selenium, as well as magnesium, potassium and B vitamins, the latter of which relate unique and specific benefits for your nervous system and brain
  • Adequate levels of B vitamins such as those found in Marmite support normal brain development, function and mood, and optimize your signaling systems for most of your body’s vital functions
  • Marmite is fortified with vitamin B12, a crucial nutrient, as it helps build up gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels; deficiencies in B vitamins can result in serious health conditions, especially for unborn babies

By Dr. Mercola

Marmite, the savory British staple for spreading on toast, has a decidedly peculiar taste to some who try it the first time, but to (arguably) the majority of the U.K. and plenty of others besides, it's a prerequisite for a proper tea.

Described as a sticky, salty, mahogany-colored food paste with a uniquely potent flavor, the concentrated yeast-based spread (YBS) may be an acquired taste, but new research published in the Journal of Functional Foods1 reveals that Marmite contains compounds that help relieve stress, anxiety and possibly depression.

The study authors say their research offers the first scientific proof that Marmite and other YBSs can improve anxiety and stress, due mostly to the condiment's combination of B vitamins, also found in the Australian versions, Vegemite, AussieMite and Promite, the latter of which is sweeter, darker and has a softer, more spreadable texture.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Victoria in Australia and involved 520 participants who were surveyed regarding their consumption of yeast-based products, then assessed to find out how it affected their stress, anxiety and depression levels. U.K.-based Men's Health2 reported that while there didn't seem to be much difference in peoples' depression, there was a "significant improvement" in the participants' levels of anxiety and stress.

The study also noted that while supplementing with B vitamins appears to be a good way to improve those problems, a deficiency is associated with poor mental health that surfaces in various ways. According to lead study author Vasso Apostolopoulos, yeast-based spreads like Marmite are some of the richest sources of B vitamins, which are vital for regulating your nervous system and providing necessary energy, and called Marmite a "cheap and efficient way" to increase your intake.

What Yeast-Based Spreads Provide in Nutrients

According to Nutrition Data,3 Marmite and other YBSs provide good amounts of protein, iron and selenium, as well as the minerals magnesium and potassium, along with vitamin B. Vitamin B is more than just one vitamin, which is why it's often referred to as "B vitamins," denoting more than one, with unique benefits for each. As mentioned earlier, it's the vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B6 and folate that makes the case for eating Marmite for brain health

In fact, a single teaspoon of Marmite provides 50 percent of the recommended daily reference intake (DRI) of vitamin B2, 39 percent of vitamin B1 and 29 percent of vitamin B3. Vitamin B6 fights unwanted germs, strengthens your immune system and even protects against the damaging effects of air pollution. It's also involved in normal brain development, function and mood, as well as your brain's neurotransmitters, or signaling system for most of your body's vital functions.

A teaspoon of Marmite also supplies 15 percent of your DRI in vitamin B9 (folate), which helps repair tissues and aids in cell metabolism and immune support. A deficiency in folate (the synthetic version being folic acid) has been shown to play a role in a number of neurological disorders. In fact, low folate during the first trimester of pregnancy is a risk factor for neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly.4

Conversely, moms-to-be who get adequate folate intake around the time of conception may reduce their babies' pesticide-related autism risk.5 Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, a powerful cold- and flu-fighting nutrient, is particularly high in Marmite, since most YSBs are fortified with it. As the featured study notes, B12 is the main reason for the calming, stress-relieving effects of the savory spread. According to Independent.ie:

"Vitamins B6, B9 and B12 were cited as particularly beneficial, as they can help regulate neurotransmitters in the brain that control our mood and prevent the production of homocysteine in the blood, which can lead to stress and anxiety."6

Marmite Can Help With Anxiety and Stress, Boost Brain Function

Perhaps more than any other factor, the compounds in Marmite and its close cousins that have the ability to increase your brain's neurotransmitters is why the savory condiment has caused scientists to sit up and take notice.

In an earlier study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology,7 researchers found that, again, 1 teaspoon of Marmite taken daily for a month decreased the neural responses to visual stimuli in study participants, an indication that levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) were increased in the brain. MedicalNewsToday explains:

"GABA is a neurotransmitter responsible for inhibiting the excitability of brain cells, helping to restore the optimal balance of neuronal activity required for healthy brain functioning. Put simply, GABA 'calms' the brain."8

Significantly, the reduction in visual stimuli responses linked to eating Marmite persisted for about eight weeks after the end of the study. People with low GABA levels have exhibited an array of alarming health disorders ranging from mental to neurological problems. Besides anxiety, stress and depression, there also can be more serious conditions, such as autism and epilepsy. Not surprisingly, scientists have been working on finding ways to build up GABA levels in the brain to decrease these problems.

One of the easiest ways to boost any type of vitamin, mineral or healthy nutrient is through food, the scientists observed, so the researchers found the brain-boosting implications associated with Marmite intake encouraging. The authors wrote that the reduced neural response to visual stimuli after eating a YBS was an indication that "… The balance of excitation and inhibition in the brain can be influenced by dietary interventions, suggesting possible clinical benefits in conditions (e.g., epilepsy) where inhibition is abnormal."9

What Happens When You Have a Vitamin B12 Deficiency?

A PLoS One study conducted in 2010 noted that B vitamins help slow brain shrinkage, usually age-related, as they have a homocysteine-lowering effect, which will naturally decrease your odds of developing a cognitive function disorder such as Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia.10 On the other hand, deficiencies in any of the B vitamins can produce symptoms associated with neuropsychiatric disorders.

An example is Pellagra, a condition caused by niacin deficiency, often evidenced by delirium and dementia and mimicking schizophrenia. Interestingly, Pellagra starts in your gut. Research indicates that long-term use of antacids and drugs designed to treat acid reflux, which are some of the most commonly used drugs in the U.S., has been linked to a vitamin B12 deficiency. The JAMA study that broke this news explained that the implications of a B12 deficiency can be extremely serious:

"Vitamin B12 deficiency is relatively common, especially among older adults; it has potentially serious medical complications if undiagnosed. Left untreated, vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to dementia, neurologic damage, anemia and other complications, which may be irreversible."11

Vitamin B12 comes largely from animal foods, such as raw milk and eggs (which should be both organic and pastured), meats such as beef, lamb and venison (all of which should also be organic and grass fed, not grain fed), and wild-caught Alaskan salmon.

B12 is found in other types of meat and fish, as well, but problems with concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, and widespread use of antibiotics and high levels of disease contamination make your typical store-bought meat less than desirable in terms of your health and the environment's. Vegans, who eat no animal products, would do well to supplement with vitamin B12, and vegetarians, who may eat fish and eggs, should as well.

Nutritional Yeast: A Major Source of B Vitamins

As noted, YBS is a concentrated yeast extract. What ways can nutritional yeast be beneficial? There are some differences you should be aware of, but perhaps the most important is that nutritional yeast is a high-quality source of protein, B vitamins and numerous additional vitamins and minerals. It's another option for vegans and vegetarians, as nutritional yeast provides a non-animal source of protein that contains all nine essential amino acids, obtainable only through your diet, and almost always from animal protein sources.

Yeast extract also contains glutamates, forms of an amino acid naturally found in some foods. However, yeast extract can also be added to products in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG). 

Nutritional yeast is different from most other foods in that it's not from a plant or animal; it's a fungus. But it's good to know what it is, as well as what it's not. First of all, while nutritional yeast and brewer's yeast come from the same source, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (S. cerevisiae), nutritional yeast is often fortified with vitamin B12 while brewer's yeast is not.

Nutritional yeast contains 14 minerals and 17 vitamins, as well as phosphorus, chromium and other nutrients to support healthy immune function, and even has antiviral and antibacterial properties. According to "The Importance of Saccharomyces cerevisiae," the preparation contains, "Glutathione, trace minerals, beta-glucans, GABA, amino acids, lipoic acid, polysaccharides, B complex vitamins, minerals including GTF chromium, and over 40 proteolytic enzymes."12

So Where Did Marmite Come From?

Marmite was invented by accident when German scientist Justus von Liebig discovered in the late 19th century that brewer's yeast, which was readily available through Staffordshire, England, local brewers, could be concentrated and made into a condiment, the Alternative Daily13 notes. Staffordshire is where Marmite was first manufactured, and although for a time there was another plant in London, it closed in 1967, ostensibly because of the "disgusting" smell. According to the BBC:

"The original recipe contained salt, spices and celery. Later folic acid, vitamin B12, thiamin and riboflavin — vitamins which occur naturally in some foods [folate in the case of folic acid] — were added in high concentrations."14

The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration banned the sale of Marmite in 2004, and then it was only available with a license as of 2011 because it contained added vitamin B12 and other nutrients, a practice that is illegal under Dutch law. According to The New York Times:

"What is odd in Denmark is that the government, perhaps alone anywhere, is suspicious of foods that are fortified with vitamins or minerals. Manufacturers must apply for approval, which is granted if the vitamin or mineral enrichment is within levels set by the law. Essentially, the Danes believe that if you're eating a balanced diet, enriching food with vitamin or mineral additives can be harmful."15

The Times article explained that Danish citizens, not just government officials, believe that enriching food with vitamin or mineral additives can be harmful. In fact, Jens Therkel Jensen, deputy head of the division for nutrition at the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, asserted in 2011 that "It's quite well documented that most vitamins are toxic, depending on the amount taken in."

But as early as the 1930s, an English scientist named Lucy Wills discovered how beneficial and even crucial Marmite was for unborn babies. In fact, it was her research that led to the discovery of folic acid.16 Folic acid is a synthetic type of B vitamin used in supplements and fortified foods, while folate is the natural form found in foods.

Controversy Over High Salt and Added Vitamins

High salt was thought to be another alarming factor in the sale, distribution and widespread consumption of Marmite and its Australian counterparts, but scientists have been accepting, albeit slowly, that, rather than being the "killer" it's been made out to be, natural salt is actually vital to your health.

What's important is balancing sodium with your potassium intake, which protects your heart health far better than cutting salt from your diet, as many medical practitioners advise. Food sources of potassium include Swiss chard, winter squash, spinach and avocado, but perhaps another good way to balance your salt intake with the needed potassium is to keep a jar of Marmite at the ready so you can eat them together and get both.