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Stress and Nutrition

Stress is the body’s natural response to a threat. Whether the stressful situation is physical or psychological, the body undergoes a dramatic reaction that readies it for “fight or flight” from the danger. A flood of hormones enters the bloodstream and blood pressure rises. Proteins are quickly converted to sugars to provide readily accessible energy which may give us a surge of unusual strength. This stress response was critical thousands of years ago for the survival of our ancestors. Although threats are subtler and slower these days, our bodies still react as they did in the long past.

In today’s world we are too often bombarded with situations that trigger stress responses. A series of stressful, though minor, events can cause our bodies to build up a response that is as strong as a reaction to a serious threat. These repeated responses to stress leave us feeling exhausted. This feeling of perpetual exhaustion may eventually become chronic and bring on a variety of other disturbing symptoms. Numerous studies have proven a link between stress and disease and we now know that there are a number of conditions that can be caused or aggravated by stress.

Potential Damages of Stress

When our bodies fight illness or injury, they deplete their own stores of nutrients. Although there is no conclusive evidence that stress also increases our bodies demand for nutrients, many experts believe that it does rob our body. When we undergo severe stress for prolonged periods such nutrients as protein, vitamin C, calcium, potassium, magnesium and zinc become depleted. And because it seems increasingly likely that the body also uses vitamin A, certain B vitamins, vitamin E as well as linoleic acid during the stress response, many nutritionists recommend getting extra amounts of these nutrients to protect us from the damage caused by stress.

Even though we are not yet absolutely sure whether stress really depletes our stores of vitamins and minerals, we can say with certainty that it does deplete protein. During stress our body converts protein to sugar (used as fuel) at an accelerated rate. Therefore, it is not surprising that amino acids, the building blocks of protein, can be found in so many stress-relieving dietary supplements. However, there is no convincing scientific proof that they actually make a difference.

Yet another issue linked to stress is the release of certain chemicals during stress response which leads to the production of free radicals that can damage key structures within the cell. Evidence is mounting that free radicals are linked to the aging process and certain forms of cancer. Numerous studies suggest that the vitamins and minerals known as antioxidants, such as vitamins C, E, some B vitamins, zinc, selenium and copper, can help eliminate the damage caused by free radicals.

Still, there is no dietary prescription for countering the damage that stress can do, as there is no known way to calculate its negative impact on our nutritional status. One thing we know with certainty, though, is that in long periods of severe stress it makes sense to pay special attention to our diet.

Diet and Stress

A healthy diet is usually the first casualty of severe stress. In difficult times, it is common to skip meals, eat fast food and fill up on salty or sweet snacks. But in times of stress, a healthy diet is more important than ever, because eating incorrectly can intensify the level of emotional stress you currently experience. Anyone under prolonged and excessive stress should in the first place avoid crash diets, extreme overeating, alcohol consumption, replacing breakfast with sugary pastries and donuts and skipping meals, especially breakfast and lunch.

Cadmium and Oxidative Stress

Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal that accumulates in human body throughout life. It has been found in high concentrations in the liver and kidneys of adult animals and in smaller concentrations in tobacco and various plants. Cadmium can increase the risk of developing lung, prostate and testicular cancer and kidney disease. Vitamin E has been found to reduce cadmium-induced biochemical reactions and some researchers believe that it might be used to help protect against oxidative damage caused by this heavy metal.

Caffeine and Stress

Caffeine happens to be the most commonly consumed psychoactive drug in the world. Studies show that it improves performance by increasing reaction speed and improving concentration and accuracy and it may also increase athletic endurance. When it comes to stress, however, it sounds perfectly logical that people already overstimulated by stress should better avoid the extra stimulation of caffeine. Although for most people, caffeine in moderation seems absolutely harmless, some individuals are caffeine-sensitive and can feel shaky, nervous or overstimulated after drinking just one cup of coffee. Hence, anyone suffering from elevated stress, insomnia or high blood pressure should think twice about their caffeine intake.

Using Supplements

Pharmacies and health stores are jammed with anti-stress vitamin combinations, herbal preparations and amino acid concoctions claiming to prevent, cure or repair the damage of stress. If the claims of their manufacturers were true, no one would have to suffer the adverse effects of stress any more. Though there may be good reasons to take some of these supplements, bear in mind that none of them can banish the source of stress from your life. A supplement may only help you to reduce the negative health consequences of excessive stress.

Vitamin Supplements

Many scientists are not yet convinced of the stress-relieving benefits of extra doses of vitamins and minerals. But people, who for any reason fail to eat a well-balanced diet, can suffer nutrient deficiency, which can amplify the ill effects of stress. In that case, taking a well-balanced vitamin supplement ensures that your daily nutritional requirements will be adequately met.

However, research shows that megadosing on vitamins to relieve the symptoms of stress is not only needless but probably also unhealthy. When nutrients are taken in very high amounts and yet in isolation, the effects of other valuable nutrients can be altered. For example, taking more than 1,000 mg of vitamin C per day can reduce the availability of selenium and copper. Another example is taking extra doses of copper and iron together. These two minerals compete for absorption, with copper being absorbed first and iron left accumulating in the colon. There it becomes a food for bacteria which thrive on it and the result is the loss of water and minerals.

Amino Acid Supplements

Amino acids are major ingredients of mood-modifying neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. The amino acid tyrosine is a precursor to norepinephrine and dopamine, whereas another amino acid, tryptophan, increases levels of serotonin. The best source of most amino acids is our diet. Tyrosine can be obtained from a variety of foods including cheese, milk, yogurt soybeans, beef, lamb, pork, fish, seafood, chicken, turkey, seeds, nuts, eggs, beans, lentils, bananas and whole grains. However, eating foods containing tryptophan does not increase levels of serotonin in the brain, while consuming purified tryptophan does so. Despite that you should be careful when using amino acid supplements as no safe levels have been established and large doses of amino acids can lead to harmful imbalances and cause side effects.

Stress-Fighting Diet

The goal of the stress-fighting diet is to ensure the supply of nutrients that can best deal with the ravages of stress. Aim for a low sugar, low-fat mixture of foods or go even further with a Mediterranean-style diet that practically eliminates red meat and saturated fat. Many dieticians recommend getting at least two-thirds of daily calories from complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, vegetables and fruits.

However, just eating the right foods is not enough to counteract the ill effects of stress. It also matters when you eat, how much you eat and how you combine food. Rather than eating three large meals a day, it may be better to eat three smaller meals, supplemented by one or two power snacks. Power snacks are complex carbohydrates like whole grain pastries and cereals, vegetables and fruits but also yogurt. This eating strategy is considered to be an effective stress fighter because it helps to maintain a constant blood sugar level. In addition, eating smaller meals enables you to digest food properly even though your stomach is upset due to severe stress to the point where eating a larger meal produces discomfort. Hence, aim for foods that are easy to digest yet provide the energizing nutrients you need. Good choices are foods that are dense in essential nutrients and fiber, do not cause toxic build-up in the bowel and vascular systems and leave little residue for the liver to detoxify.