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stress

Mental Health Awareness Week: Stress Busters

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).

Adrenal Health

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.

References
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

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Pomegranate: the heart-healthy fruit

A new study, published in the Journal of Nutritional Science, has found that pomegranate juice can reduce key cardiovascular risk factors in overweight adults (1). While the fruit’s impressive antioxidant content has been credited with its success, this study reveals that there might be another secret to the fruit’s benefits.

pomegranate
Pomegranate can help to reduce insulin levels and blood pressure.

Pomegranate juice has already been shown to have some remarkable health benefits with clinical studies showing it can reduce blood pressure, improve blood sugar control and even reduce the thickness of arteries. These studies have attributed the heart-healthy effects of pomegranate to its extraordinarily high antioxidant value (2), which is certainly a huge benefit. However, this study looked at the effects of pomegranate juice on cortisol levels.

Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal gland in response to stress. Excessive levels of cortisol are linked to both high blood pressure and insulin resistance (3,4).

In addition to measuring cortisol levels, the researchers also measured several markers of heart disease, including blood pressure, arterial elasticity, insulin resistance and blood sugar levels.

The study was a randomised cross-over design, meaning that each volunteer essentially serves as his or her own ‘control’ making the study results more reliable. In this case, the male and female volunteers were randomly assigned to receive pomegranate juice or a placebo drink for 4 weeks. After a 1-week break, the groups were then swapped, so that everybody had been tested with both the pomegranate and the placebo drink.

At the end of the study, it was found that the pomegranate juice was linked with a significant reduction in blood pressure, as well as a decrease in insulin levels and insulin resistance. Interestingly, there was also a reduction in the cortisol levels of the juice drinkers, and an increase in levels of cortisone, which is the inactivated form of cortisol. It appears that pomegranate juice might actually boost health by preventing cortisone from being converted to active cortisol.

In short, the study suggests that the benefits of pomegranate juice and not simply a result of its impressive antioxidant content. It also appears to lower cortisol levels, which in turn has a direct effect on the heart and blood vessels.

Cardiovascular disease remains the UK’s biggest killer. According to the British Heart Foundation, this disease is responsible for one third of deaths of both men and women in Britain.

One of the biggest concerns about cardiovascular disease is that it can go undetected for many years, causing the illness to be labelled a ‘silent killer’. In fact, often the first symptom is a stroke or a heart attack meaning that sufferers may then face invasive but necessary treatments such as bypass surgery or angioplasty.

For this reason, small and simple measures to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease are invaluable. As positive results have been found by drinking as little as 2 ounces of pomegranate juice daily (5), a daily serving of pomegranate juice might just be a change worth making.

Written by Nadia Mason, BSc MBANT NTCC CNHC.

References

1. Catherine Tsang, Nacer F. Smail, S. Almoosawi, I. Davidson and Emad A. S. Al-Dujaili. (2012) Intake of polyphenol-rich pomegranate pure juice influences urinary glucocorticoids, blood pressure and homeostasis model assessment of insulin resistance in human volunteers.  J Nutr Sci, 1:9

2. Seeram NP, Aviram M, Zhang Y, et al. (2008) Comparison of antioxidant potency of commonly consumed polyphenol-rich beverages in the United States. J Agric Food Chem 56, 1415–1422

3. Duclos M, Pereira PM, Barat P, et al. (2005) Increased cortisol bioavailability, abdominal obesity and the metabolic syndrome in obese women. Obes Res 13, 1157–1166.

4. Kidambi S, Kitchen JM, Grim CE, et al. (2007) Association of adrenal steroids with hypertension and the metabolic syndrome in blacks. Hypertension 49, 704–711.

5. 8. Aviram M, Dornfeld L. Pomegranate juice consumption inhibits serum angiotensin converting enzyme activity and reduces systolic blood pressure. Atherosclerosis. 2001 Sep;158(1):195-8.

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