Nutrition for Stress
We all experience stressful periods in life. How well you cope with stress depends on factors like activity level, sleep quality, and yes, what you eat. In this article, we will dive into how stress affects your nutrition status and how your nutrition affects your ability to get through stressful times successfully.
How Does Stress Affect Your Nutritional Status?
Some stress is good, even healthy. It helps you to respond quickly to perceived dangers and can motivate you to perform well. Prolonged stress, however, can be detrimental to your body.
When you are stressed, you put a greater demand on your body, especially when that stress is persistent. This type of stress increases your body’s metabolic needs, changes the way your body uses nutrients, and can leave your body with suboptimal nutrient levels. Let’s look at what can happen.
Increased mineral loss
Stress often leaves you feeling exhausted. That’s because stress depletes your body of nutrients by rapidly using up some of your nutrients to support your stress response.
Your stress response was designed to rapidly respond to stress and then return your body to a balanced state. However, modern times surround us with chronic stressors making the balance more challenging to achieve.
A literature review explored the effects of psychological and environmental stress on nutrient levels. Researchers found that stress often leads to nutrient depletion. Some of the review’s major takeaways include a change in the following minerals:
Magnesium is essential to over 300 chemical reactions in your body, many of these in the stress response or the subsequent return to balance.
Whether acute or chronic, stress can reduce magnesium levels and make your kidneys eliminate more magnesium in your urine.
Like magnesium, zinc is critical to over 300 chemical reactions in your body. While there are limited human studies, results show a clear depletion of zinc during times of stress.
You need iron to carry oxygen throughout your body and support metabolic processes. Overall, stress can reduce your iron levels. This should be of particular concern for menstruating women due to their increased need for iron.
Stress during pregnancy can even affect your infant’s iron levels. Women with greater stress during pregnancy have a lower amount of cord blood iron, and their infants are more likely to have an iron deficiency even at one year old.
Beyond building your bones and teeth, you need adequate calcium to support the following:
- Muscle contractions
- Heart regulation and blood clotting
- Healthy neural signaling
The literature review shows mixed effects on calcium from stress, but those who experience chronic stress are more likely to have reduced calcium levels. Not surprisingly, those who experience stress are also more likely to have a lower bone density.
While researchers found an overall trend showing a decrease in the above minerals due to stress, they noted that it is unclear precisely what types of stress —physical or psychological— mineral levels the most. Either way, when your mineral levels decrease, you can put your body at greater risk of health issues.
Sodium and potassium
Both sodium and potassium are essential minerals to your body. While sodium is critical for your blood and muscles, potassium is critical for all your body’s tissues. While stress generally decreases potassium, its effect on sodium levels is a bit more complicated.
When you feel stressed, you also experience increased adrenaline release. This increase in adrenaline reduces your potassium levels. A study of pre-operative patients found this to be accurate, particularly in people with extreme preoperative anxiety.
A study of 211 healthy adults explored the effect of mental stress, particularly on sodium levels. How you respond is pretty individual, and while some individuals experienced increased sodium excretion via their urine, others retained more sodium. Either case is not ideal and could lead to issues with blood pressure.
Depletes vitamins B, C, and E
Minerals aren’t the only things that can be depleted when stressed. Essential vitamins like B, C, and E can be too.
B vitamins are critical to your central nervous system functions, and support your mental health and well-being. Your body uses B vitamins to help support organs responsible for the stress response and their role in supporting your body through stressful times.
As part of your stress response, your adrenal glands produce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Vitamin C plays an important role in the production of cortisol and is also released when cortisol levels get too high. When stress continues beyond an acute response, your body continues to use and release vitamin C, leaving you depleted.
Vitamin E plays a significant antioxidant role in your stress response and protects your body from cell and tissue damage and inflammation. When stress doesn’t end quickly, your body uses vitamin E to prevent further damage.
Your body cannot produce the vitamins discussed above on its own. That means that you have to get them through your diet or supplements. The problem is that stress can change how you digest and absorb nutrients from food.
When stress triggers your fight-or-flight response, it has to preserve your energy to prepare for whatever is coming. To do this, your central nervous system shuts down digestion. On top of needing more vitamins, you also absorb fewer of them from food, which can worsen the deficiency.
Increased blood sugar
As you experience stress, your stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol mobilize your energy stores, allowing you to respond quickly. Glucose is the primary energy source for your entire body, and when a quick response is necessary, your body needs enough energy to make it happen.
These stress hormones break down the carbohydrate stores in your liver, muscles, and kidneys and turn those stores into glucose. You then experience increased blood sugar and the energy to work on whatever problem needs solving, such as running from a predator.
While this is great for short-term stress response, long-term increased blood sugar levels can contribute to poor blood sugar regulation. This is especially true for people who never return to homeostasis or are inactive, such as when stuck in traffic.
A study examining the effects of stress on blood glucose levels focused on the civilian population of southern Israel experiencing rocket fire and alert sirens daily. Individuals closer to the conflict had higher glucose levels than those in more remote locations.
Glucose levels were also higher for those who experienced the prolonged military operations lasting 40 days, compared to those who experienced shorter operations.
Worse yet, many high-sugar comfort foods such as pastries and donuts tend to cause major blood sugar fluctuations. These fluctuations are bad for the brain and very stressful to your body, and can make anxiety worse. So, it’s even more important to eat properly during stressful times to protect your mental and physical health and maintain your performance.
What to Eat During Stressful Times
Stress often leads us to gravitate towards unhealthy food options or overeat. Research confirms that while acute stress suppresses your appetite, chronic stress makes you more likely to reach for highly processed comfort foods that are high in fat and sugar, and low in micronutrients.
Processed foods are not only low in nutrition, but they are also pro-inflammatory and bad for blood sugar control. When you eat these foods, you increase the amount of cortisol pumping through your body, which is precisely the opposite of what you should aim for.
Junk food is not the way to support your body properly, so what should you eat? Easy-to-digest, well-rounded, blood sugar-balancing, and nutritious meals.
We talked about how your digestion can suffer when you’re stressed, so start by choosing foods that are easier for your body to break down. Fruits are a great, nutrient-rich option that’s easy to grab. Foods that already cause digestive issues may only worsen them, so avoid your food triggers.
An excellent place to start is by choosing well-cooked meals. Also, ensure that they are low in gut irritants. Avoid the following:
- Spicy food – Capsaicin is a no-go if you want to avoid gut inflammation from food.
- Greasy and fried foods – These commonly lead to heartburn and other digestive discomforts that tend to get worse with stress.
- Gas-producing foods like beans, dairy, onions, and garlic.
- Alcohol – Can increase heartburn and reflux while also causing intestinal inflammation.
- Acidic fruits like tomatoes and citrus fruits can irritate the lining of your stomach.
While salads are commonly on the list of foods that are hard to digest, this may only be true for some. Do what is best for you.
We’ve covered what it means for a meal to be easy to digest, but what is a well-rounded nutritious meal during stressful times? Here are some main components:
Low saturated fat, high protein
A literature review focused on the effects of diet on stress. Researchers determined that individuals experience better moods when limiting foods high in saturated fat and increasing protein. This is likely because fats interfere with serotonin production, the “feel-good chemical,” while protein supports serotonin production.
Omega-3 fatty acids
The same literature review explored the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and mood. Overall, studies show they are a great option for stressful times as they support a balanced inflammatory response. Some of the best sources include:
- Fatty fish such as sardines, mackerel, salmon, and herring
- Chia seeds
- Olive oil
Lots of vegetables, less sodium
Loading your diet with vegetables not only gives you loads of nutrients to help prevent nutrient deficiencies, but can also help lower cortisol levels.
In an 8-week study of women, participants consumed either a typical American diet or a diet based on the 2010 dietary guidelines, which included more vegetables and lower sodium than the American diet. Those who increased their veggies and decreased sodium experienced significantly lower amounts of stress and cortisol levels.
The response to salt intake can be individual, as some people genetically don’t have increased blood pressure with more salt intake. Some people feel and perform better consuming more salt during stressful periods, especially if they eat a low-carb diet or one low in processed foods.
Increasing the amount of delicious fermented foods in your diet can support your body during stressful times.
A controlled study of 45 adults explored the effects of consuming fermented foods on stress. Participants ate a diet rich in fermented foods for four weeks and rated their stress levels. Compared to the control group, individuals who ate fermented foods reported feeling less stress.
Some tasty options to try are:
- Yogurt (with cultures added after pasteurization)
If you cannot cook, order in from healthy food caterers.
Finding the time to cook or even have the patience to put in the effort may be difficult. No problem, just make other healthy meal plans. Find healthy catering or food delivery near you, and make smart menu choices based on the above guidelines.
Whatever you decide to eat, do so while eating mindfully. This can help counteract the effects of stress on your digestion and minimize emotional eating. Here’s the strategy:
- Unless you’re intermittently fasting, try not to skip meals. This allows you the opportunity to do the next step more easily…
- Eat slowly. Take breaks between each bite and chew thoroughly.
- Take the time to appreciate your food.
- Use your senses. Note the color and texture of your food and the sights and sounds surrounding you.
- Take small bites. This makes it easier to savor each bite.
Even with all this information in mind, you might still slip up and eat some junk food. Or you might want to (no judgment here). That’s okay. Try to fill up with healthy foods first, and make sure to use some digestive support to help your body manage what you’re giving it. We’ll talk more about that in the next section.
Nutrition Support During Stress
Beyond making wise food choices, there are other ways to ensure you are fully supported nutritionally. Taking supplements can give you a leg up against the adverse effects of stress on your body. Keep in mind, though, while supplements are helpful, they don’t replace good stress management practices, a healthy diet, exercise, and nightly quality sleep.
An estimated 50% of the US population is magnesium deficient. Add stress on top of that, and it’s a recipe for trouble. While you can get magnesium through your diet, boosting your intake with a magnesium supplement may be just what your body needs.
A literature review of 18 studies explored the effects of magnesium supplements on stress in subjects already vulnerable to stress. Overall, individuals taking the magnesium supplement experienced a positive effect on stress.
Combining magnesium with vitamin B6 may be even more beneficial than taking magnesium alone for very stressful situations. In a study of 264 healthy adults, subjects took either magnesium and B6 supplements or magnesium alone. The results of the study showed:
- The effectiveness of the combination depended on the severity of the stress.
- Magnesium alone or combined with vitamin B6 effectively balanced the stress response in people experiencing low to moderate stress.
- Those with severe or extremely severe stress experience more stress relief with the magnesium and B6 combination.
BiOptimizers has you covered when it comes to your magnesium needs with Magnesium Breakthrough. It contains all seven forms of magnesium to ensure that you’ve got the right type of magnesium for all its roles in your body.
To reap the greatest benefits from your magnesium, check out How to Maximize Magnesium Absorption and The Best Time to Take Magnesium Supplements.
Not only is vitamin C a powerful antioxidant and immune booster, but it’s also an essential vitamin to help combat stress. Vitamin C can help reduce cortisol levels after experiencing a physical or psychological stressor and help return you to a balanced state.
In a literature review examining the effects of vitamin C on stress, researchers determined that taking a vitamin C supplement can reduce stress symptoms.
Just 500 mg per day may help keep your stress at bay. A study of 45 healthy young adults tested the effects of vitamin C on stress while preparing and presenting at a public speaking event.
Researchers measured stress by increased heart rate, dry mouth, feelings of anxiety, and gastrointestinal cramps. Half of the participants took 500 mg of vitamin C for one week before the presentation, while the others did not. Those who took vitamin C experienced less stress and a significant decrease in stress symptoms.
Taking vitamin C has a bonus because it can also prevent you from becoming iron deficient due to stress by helping make it more bioavailable when taken with iron-filled foods.
Being in fight or flight mode inevitably reduces digestive function in everyone. You can experience stress-related indigestion or other gut discomforts, but you can take steps to ease and possibly prevent your discomfort and the loss of nutrients. Here are some great supplements to support your digestion.
Digestive enzymes help you break down your food and absorb more nutrients. They can also help ease any post-meal discomfort like gas and bloating.
MassZymes is an excellent source of digestive enzymes designed to work with a range of stomach acidities ensuring support throughout your gut. It contains highly concentrated enzymes to help you break down:
Stress can also lower stomach acid, making it harder for your digestive enzymes to do their job. Taking a betaine hydrochloride supplement with meals can help restore healthy stomach acid levels and support digestion and absorption.
A pilot study of six healthy volunteers examined the effectiveness of betaine HCL to re-acidify the stomach. Subjects took 1500 mg of betaine HCL and underwent monitoring for 2 hours. All subjects experienced rapid stomach re-acidification in about six minutes with no complaints of discomfort.
You’ll find a great source of all-natural, plant-based betaine hydrochloride in HCL Breakthrough.
While these supplements are a great place to start, check out our other article for all the information you will need on How to Fix Stress-Related Indigestion and Digestive Problems.
When times get stressful, it’s easy to grab whatever is quick and possibly unhealthy to eat. It’s these times when nutrition becomes even more critical to help prevent nutrient depletion and maintain the energy to deal with your stressors. A great place to start is by:
- Eating easy-to-digest, well-rounded, nutritious meals low in gut irritants
- Loading up on your veggies and omega-3s
- Taking Magnesium Breakthrough and vitamin C supplements
- Supporting your digestion with MassZymes and HCL Breakthrough to improve digestion and nutrient absorption
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