Focusing on Stress
May 14th is the beginning of National Mental Health Awareness week. Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, this year the focus is stress. Tackling stress early is crucial for good health because ongoing stress can lead to depression and anxiety, and is also linked to physical diseases such as heart disease and immune problems.
The stress response is actually a healthy response to threat or danger. It is designed to give us a quick boost of energy to fuel our fight or flight response. When stress becomes an everyday experience, however, the body struggles to cope. Blood pressure rises, inflammation is triggered and hormone levels are disrupted. Experts call this ‘allostatic overload’ and it can result in anxiety, depression and insomnia.
Several key nutrients have been found to help deal with stress and support the organs that are involved in the stress reaction. Taking time to nourish the body in this way can therefore offer protection against the effects of stress.
The ‘Fighting Five’
Nutritionist Ian Marber emphasises five key nutrients – which he calls the ‘fighting five’ – needed to support the body under stress (1). These are vitamins A, C and E, and the minerals zinc and selenium.
Each of these nutrients helps in disarming the free radicals produced when the body is under stress. Free radicals are molecules that harm cells in the body through oxidative damage. They have been linked to diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and accelerated ageing.
The ‘fighting five’ antioxidants help by neutralising these free radicals, helping to prevent the cell damage caused by stress. While antioxidant supplements can help to ensure a good intake of these nutrients, it is recommended that dietary sources should be included every day. The best sources of these valuable antioxidants include plums, tomatoes, dark green vegetables, pumpkin and sesame seeds, and seafood.
Cortisol and Stress
Another hazard associated with stress is elevated levels of cortisol. When the body is under stress, the adrenal glands begin to pump out higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that powers the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Over time, elevated levels of cortisol can become a problem, leading to anxiety and depression, as well as weight gain and breakdown of muscle and bone. Early signs of high cortisol include sleep problems, weight gain, raised blood pressure and difficulty concentrating.
Several nutrients have been found in studies to be effective in lowering cortisol levels. The most effective of these include the herb ashwaganda root extract, and the nutrient phosphatidyl serine. Both of these nutrients have been found to improve mood and lower feelings of stress and anxiety (2, 3 & 4).
Finally, protecting the health of the adrenals is particularly important for anybody experiencing ongoing stress. The key nutrients required by the adrenal glands are vitamin B5, vitamin C and magnesium.
Because our body cannot store vitamin C, it is important to provide it with a regular daily supply, particularly when stress levels are high. The adrenal gland requires higher levels of vitamin C during times of stress. The richest sources are black and red berries, citrus fruits and red peppers. Similarly, vitamin B5 cannot be stored by the body, and so including wholegrains and green leafy vegetables daily would be a sensible measure to help protect the body from the effects of stress.
The mineral magnesium is crucial to the health of the adrenals, and requirements for magnesium increase when the body is under stress (5). Stressed individuals may therefore benefit from supplementing around 300mg magnesium each day. Good dietary sources include leafy greens, wheatgerm, almonds, cod and mackerel.
While we may not be able to influence everyday stressors, such as commuting, financial worries or workload, we can certainly give the body the fuel it needs to cope with the stress response. Taking early measures to protect the body from the effects of stress is a sensible way to safeguard long term health and wellbeing.
1. Marber & Edgson (1990) The Food Doctor. USA: Collins and Brown.
2. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012 Jul-Sep; 34(3): 255–262.
3. Lipids Health Dis. 2014 Jul 31;13:121.
4. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2008 Jul 28;5:11.
5. Tarasov et al (2015) Magnesium deficiency and stress: Issues of their relationship, diagnostic tests, and approaches to therapy. Ter Arkh 87(9):114-122