We hear a lot in the news about stress and how it affects our health. It is a well-accepted fact that chronic stress leads to disease. Setting aside the psychological aspect of stress, stress also affects the nutritional status of the body, such that we fall prey to various stress-related illnesses. Supplementing our diet with those nutrients depleted due to stress will not only reduce the risk of stress-related illnesses, but also give us more energy and vitality, such that we are able to cope more effectively with stress.
First, it affects the way our physiology, increasing our nutritional needs.
Second, it affects our eating habits which alters our nutrient intake.
When we are under stress, our body mobilizes its resources to defend itself (fight or flight). It increases heart rate, raises blood pressure, and redistributes blood from the internal organs (stomach) to the muscles in preparation for physical activity. There are increases in blood fats and sugars (for muscle fuel) and increases in specific brain neurotransmitters to sharpen our reflexes.
Meanwhile, other bodily functions are put on hold: Tissue repair is postponed, digestion is slowed and the immune system delays its activities as well. While this is an appropriate short-term response, chronic stress eventually leads to exhaustion. This is like leaving your car parked in neutral with the engine racing. Chances are your car engine won’t last very long if you run it this way, and likewise your body won’t last very long if you don’t supply it with high-grade “racing fuel” As I’ll explain below, this heightened state of arousal causes certain nutrients to be depleted while increasing the need for other specific nutrients.
However, as if to compound the problem, a stressed person often changes their eating habits that further exacerbate their nutrient status. We tend to skip meals, and eat “fast food”, which is high in fat, sugar and salt. Stress causes us to exercise less (lack of time) and consume more stimulants like coffee, alcohol and tobacco. These habits further deplete vital nutrients.
How can we enhance our nutrient intake?
1. Stress raises our metabolism and decreases our nutritional status, depleting our body of water- soluble vitamins and minerals. Therefore we must increase intake of the water-soluble vitamins, B and C. A deficiency of B vitamins leaves you feeling tired and lethargic, yet more reactive to stress. Minerals, particularly potassium, magnesium and zinc are also depleted during stress. A basic multi-vitamin supplementation program is essential. There are many “stress” formulations available on the market. The best formulas are made from whole-foods not synthetic pharmaceutical blends. Choose wisely.
2. Stress causes an elevation in free radicals, thus anti-oxidants become extremely important in reducing oxidative damage throughout the body and particularly in the brain where stress contributes to brain damage and premature aging. Colorful fruits and vegetables contain the super anti-oxidant factors known as carotenoids and flavonoids. We need to eat the recommended 5-8 servings of fruits and vegetables every day to keep ourselves supplied with these powerful antioxidants.
3. Stress activates the adrenal glands and over time will lead to adrenal exhaustion. The essential fatty acids, present in whole grains, will provide the raw materials to make the hormones necessary to keep the adrenal glands operating at maximum efficiency. Adrenal exhaustion may also contribute to chronic fatigue syndrome.
4. Since the immune system is depressed while under stress, various factors will boost immune system function. These include the essential fatty acids and especially the omega-3 essential fatty acids. Carotenoids and flavonoids have also been shown to dramatically enhance immune system function.
5. Poor dietary habits, consuming foods high in fat and sugar, and increased caffeine and alcohol intake, will cause marked changes in blood sugar, with associated changes in mood, behavior and energy levels. A protein supplement which is easily digested will aid in stabilizing blood sugar and provide the amino acids necessary to repair and replace cells damaged from stress.
6. Finally, stress affects digestion of our food, decreasing our ability to extract the essential nutrients from the food we do eat. We may need to add digestive supplements to enhance digestion for more complete absorption and assimilation of essential nutrients.
The above supplemental strategies will provide our bodies with specific nutrients depleted when stressed. This will make a person less reactive to stress and also reduce the risk of illness and other stress-related diseases.
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