Stress and Nutrition: Is There a Connection?
One of my clients is a military veteran and we got to talking about Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the havoc it wreaks among so many members of the military. She expressed that she would like to see nutrition addressed to a greater degree when it comes to targeted methods of intervention for PTSD in the military. This started me thinking . . . although in my practice I place a pretty big emphasis on the inner workings of stress and how that relates to nutrition, I had not given much thought to the significant role diet and supplementation can play for those who are suffering from such a severe stress response as PTSD. Needless to say, our discussion prompted me to write this post about the physiology of stress and the nutrient interventions that could very well help no matter what the severity.
We all experience it, perhaps to varying degrees, but there is no doubt that stress is present in everyone’s life. Stress can be real or perceived, emotional or physical. The interesting thing is that each type of stress elicits the same physiological response – the “Fight or Flight” response. The following example illustrates how this works: Say you are being chased by a hungry wild animal. It’s drooling. It wants to eat you. Your body does not want this to happen so it shuts down or slows any non-essential processes like digestion and immune function – those things that aren’t necessary for survival right then and there. Blood rushes to the muscles so you have the power to run fast with your heart pumping. Pupils dilate so you can focus. The lungs fill with oxygen for efficient breathing, and the liver conserves its energy for potential use elsewhere. Fatty acids and glucose (sugar) are moved out of storage and into the bloodstream for immediate fuel.
Isn’t the body brilliant? What an incredible survival mechanism in the face of imminent danger. But there is a problem . . . almost EVERYTHING is perceived to be “imminent danger” in today’s world!!! What I mean is that, even though we are rarely chased by wild animals anymore (if you are, I suggest you relocate!!), the body perceives common occurrences in daily life as threats to survival. Emotional stressors such as finances, school or work deadlines, traffic, overbooked schedules . . . the list could go on and on. And then there are physical stressors like obesity, malnourishment, various toxins including pollution, chemicals and hormones in our food, and medications which also prompt the “fight or flight” reaction by the body. This can be termed “chronic stress” and it is very detrimental to our health. In fact, it may very well be the #1 culprit when it comes to chronic illness, disease and hormone imbalance. So let’s dig a bit deeper . . .
How is this “fight or flight” response triggered in the first place?
Not surprisingly, it all begins in the brain. You see, a potential threat to survival is first perceived in the region of the brain called the Hypothalamus. It reacts by sending a chemical signal to another region of the brain called the Pituitary Gland. The Pituitary then sends chemical signals to the Adrenal Glands, the stress-hormone-manufacturing glands that sit atop the kidneys, triggering them to make a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for initiating many of the physiological changes mentioned above that allow us to quickly and efficiently cope with an emergency. Together these interconnected areas involved with stress response are termed the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (or HPA Axis). This system was set up perfectly when it comes to handling acute bouts of stress, meaning stress that comes and goes and is followed by some recovery time. But serious problems can arise when this HPA axis is constantly activated in the case of chronic, or ongoing, stress. For instance, when the body is stressed blood sugar naturally rises so that the body has plenty of fuel for immediate energy. If this is ongoing, it sets the stage for insulin resistance and ultimately diabetes. High blood pressure is another concern arising from a continued elevation of stress hormones, as are depression and anxiety, to name only a few. When these “symptoms” begin to manifest, it is a signal that the stress-handling system is beginning to break down.
Chronic stress = breakdown of the stress-handling system = all sorts of problems
There was a man named Hans Selye in the 1930s who studied how stress affects the behavior of animals. Through his studies he concluded that there are actually 3 stages the body goes through when dealing with stress: the Alarm Stage, the Resistance Stage, and the Exhaustion Stage. The Alarm Stage refers to that initial rush feeling (fight or flight) that you get if you’re startled by something. Very normal. It comes and goes rather quickly. The Resistance Stage on the other hand, is when you have that alarm-stage feeling for a prolonged time period. Physiological changes begin to occur, similar to those that I pointed out above, like high blood pressure. Finally, the Exhaustion Stage is when the HPA Axis is becoming less sensitive. The body has been stressed for so long that stress hormone production is now inadequate to support a healthy response which may result in chronic fatigue, depression and anxiety, not to mention a wide range of hormone imbalances. This stage can be likened to pushing down on the gas pedal of a car with the parking brake still on. The car is going nowhere, but the engine is racing. Not a good thing.
Too stressed out for your own good? Listen to your body.
There are some things to look for when it comes to an unhealthy response to stress. Fatigue, problems waking in the morning regardless of sleep quality, a need for stimulants like caffeine to keep you going, depression, anxiety, mental fog, sugar or salt cravings …
Okay by now you’re probably thinking “who doesn’t experience those symptoms?” You have a point there. There can be many contributors to these things. The best advice I can give is to listen to your body and slow down when you feel the need to slow down. Also, I often recommend Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis to clients who show signs of chronic stress. Not only does this non-invasive test (get more information here) shed light on what minerals the body is or is not absorbing properly, but it will also provide information on cellular metabolic rate – basically, how efficiently the body handles stress. Stress burns through trace minerals and that will show itself in certain levels and ratios of these substances in your hair!
So can we de-activate the HPA Axis so that we don’t fall prey to the chronic-stress-induced health issues and deterioration?
We can’t de-activate it, nor would we want to. After all, it offers us protection at the most basic level. What we can do is provide the body with nutrients that will help support a healthy stress response. Vitamin C and Vitamin B5, for example, are critical for adrenal health because they assist in the production of cortisol. Similarly, the minerals zinc and copper must be present in the body in the proper ratio in order to avoid sub-optimal functioning of the adrenals. The same is true of fatty acid balance – a diet too high in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3’s will impair your body’s ability to handle stress. So diet and supplementation really do play a huge role in the way we handle stress. Also, the elimination of as much of the “toxic load” from the body as you can is important for stress-handling. In fact, you can check out my previous posts on the importance of eliminating toxins and liver support for more on these very important pieces of the healthy-stress-response puzzle.
Nutritional Support for Stress Management
First, no matter what your level of stress, B Vitamins offer excellent support. Some folks find these to be a bit stimulating, so watch for that. But typically a high-quality B-Complex vitamin or a multi-vitamin that includes the B Vitamins will be very helpful. Keep in mind, too, that stress depletes the B vitamins, so the more stressed you are, the likelier it is that you are deficient (which, in turn, makes you feel more stressed!! <<< vicious cycle).
When we’re talking about stress management, we can’t forget about Vitamin C. Did you know that the highest content of Vitamin C in the body is in the adrenal glands? Most mammals make this vitamin in their bodies at the rate of about 4,000 mg per day and even more when they’re in stressful situations. The human body doesn’t have this capability so it is very important to get plenty of C in your diet or from supplementation. I recommend 1,000 mg of a buffered (easy on the tummy) Vitamin C 2-3 times per day with meals. Back down the dose a bit if you experience loose stools.
And we certainly can’t leave out Magnesium. My clients all know this ranks right up in my short list of “you can’t go wrong” supplements!!! Magnesium is a calming mineral. Most of us are deficient due to overfarmed soils, time from farm to table, processed food diet. This mineral is critical in over 350 essential biochemical reactions in the body including digestion, energy production, muscle function, bone formation, creation of new cells, activation of B vitamins, and muscle relaxation. It assists in the proper functioning of the kidneys, heart, adrenal glands, nervous system and brain and is involved in the uptake and metabolism of glucose. My absolute favorite way to supplement with Magnesium is Natural Calm Magnesium Powder (a variety of stevia-sweetened flavors or just plain unsweetened) by Natural Vitality or Epsom Salt baths (1 cup of Epsom salts mixed in a tub of bathwater.) Soak for 15 minutes. Feel the stress melt away!!
There are also a couple of herbs that are excellent stress-supporters:
- Rhodiola: This is an “adaptogenic” herb, meaning that it adapts to what your specific body needs in order to provide balance and increase resistance to stress, without disturbing normal biological functions. Try 250-500 mg daily of standardized extract and take that early in the day.
- Ashwagandha: This is an Ayurvedic herb known to have mood-stabilizing properties. Recent studies suggest it activates the HPA axis, influencing the production of hormones based on what is needed at the time (which means it, too, functions as an “adaptogen” – adjusting to and meeting the body’s fluctuating needs). 125-250 mg daily as a standardized extract.
And for sleep . . .
- Melatonin: This is a hormone that promotes health circadian rhythms. It is released by the pineal gland, reaching its peak at night to help maintain cell health throughout the body. Secretion of melatonin declines significantly with age, as the pineal gland becomes calcified. Jet lag, shift work, and poor vision can also disrupt melatonin cycles. Not only does this hormone work to maintain cell health, it appears to regulate a system of self-repair and regeneration as it also has strong antioxidant properties. Keep in mind that “less is more” applies to this hormone, in that a smaller dose may work more effectively than a larger dose. 300 mcg timed-release melatonin taken 30-60 minutes prior to bedtime has worked well in my experience.
- Valerian Root: This herb supports sleep and provides relief from the high stress and tension of anxiety. By relaxing the mind and body, valerian is essentially able to give people the “break” from anxiety they need to effectively cope. Valerian has no known side effects, though it is strongly recommended that you do not take valerian with alcohol, other sleep drugs or supplements, or even other anxiety supplements like kava, because of the depressant qualities of valerian. Start with half of a 650 mg tablet before bedtime, working up to a whole tablet as needed.
Please understand that I have only brushed the surface here. There are many variables that enter into how your nervous system responds to stimuli around you that I have not addressed in this post. Still, I can’t emphasize enough the critical nature of nutrient deficiencies to this area of functioning. Whether due to diet, digestive absorption issues, medications that rob the body of certain nutrients, or an already overstressed lifestyle, if we find a way to effectively replenish what has been used up, there’s a good chance that this will at least remove a portion of the burden from our mind, body and spirit.
Schmid, Kira, ND. The Life Extension Foundation’s Disease Prevention and Treatment: Scientific Protocols That Integrate Mainstream and Alternative Medicine. 5th ed. Hollywood, FL: Life Extension Media, 2013. Print.
Ballentine, Rudolph, MD. Diet and Nutrition: A Holistic Approach. Honesdale, PA: Himalayan Institute, 2007. Print.
Wilson, Lawrence, MD. Nutritional Balancing and Hair Mineral Analysis. 4th ed. Prescott, AZ: Center for Development, 2014. Print.
Balch, Phyllis A, CNC. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. 5th ed. New York: Penguin Group, 2010. Print.
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