How can stress affect your nutrition?
It’s no secret that stress can take a real toll on your body bringing about a variety of unpleasant symptoms: poor sleep, high blood pressure and skin outbreaks are just a few of the problems that can occur both during and following a bout of stress but today I’m going to focus on how stress can affect your stores of various nutrients. I’ll cover which nutrients are particularly at risk in a minute but first I want to discuss how stress can have this effect.
- 1. Stress uses up different nutrients: Short term survival is the name of the game when your stress response kicks in and this means that your body is going to prioritise certain areas over others – your heart, lungs and muscles are of real importance here so any nutrients that can support these places, such as magnesium, B vitamins and vitamin C, are going to be redirected here. You also have to consider that your adrenal glands will be working overtime to produce stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol so will be utilising plenty of vitamin C to make sure this is getting done properly
- 2. Stress influences your digestive processes: As I’ve mentioned, your short-term survival is imperative to your nervous system when you experience stress. This means that digesting food ceases to be of primary importance and what happens is that your body will either immediately try to get rid of any undigested food, spurring on an episode of diarrhoea, or your digestive processes start to slow down, causing constipation. In either case, your ability to absorb nutrients may be affected or you will find yourself losing nutrients through waste products such as urine
- 3. Stress weakens your gastric secretions: When it comes to breaking down your food efficiently, your stomach relies on a variety of strong gastric secretions. These secretions help to break down your food, making it easier for your body to process in the small and large intestine but these secretions also help your body to absorb certain nutrients. Unfortunately, in cases of stress, your gastric secretions can become weakened, which not only means that undigested food enters your intestines, but also that your ability to absorb some nutrients is restricted
- 4. Stress encourages unhealthy habits: Do you ever find yourself reaching for a bar of chocolate or craving a stodgy meal when stress strikes? Unfortunately, stress can encourage a variety of unhappy habits from binge eating, to skipping meals to increasing our consumption of caffeinated drinks and alcohol. All of these can play a role in depleting your stores of particular nutrients or even hindering their absorption completely.
Okay, so these are just a few of the ways stress can affect your stores of certain nutrients but which nutrients, in particular, are at risk here? Well, in general, nutrients that cannot easily be stored in the first place are vulnerable – your water-soluble vitamins and certain minerals come to mind here. However, you also have to consider how easily these nutrients are absorbed in the first place – if your body already finds them difficult to retain, then a bout of stress can make a real impact here.
The 4 nutrients you need to watch out for…
Iron is an extremely important mineral for your body as you need it to make oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Unfortunately, iron deficiency is all too common here in the UK and, while diet can play a role, absorption can also be a factor worth considering. You see, iron comes in two different forms: heme iron and non-heme iron. Meat, especially red meat, generally contains a combination of heme and non-heme iron while plant-based foods are predominantly rich in non-heme iron, which can sometimes be problematic.
This is because non-heme iron isn’t always very well absorbed by your body. When stress strikes this issue can be exacerbated which can lead to low iron levels and the appearance of certain symptoms, such as:
- Pale skin
- Brittle nails
- Thin hair
Women may be particularly vulnerable here as their body’s demand for iron can increase during the menopause and menstruation. If you feel as though stress could be eating away at your iron levels, it might be time to consider a gentle liquid iron supplement which is generally well absorbed by the body. You could also try including more iron-rich foods in your diet such as spinach, broccoli, lentils, pumpkin seeds and quinoa.
Want to learn more? Check out our Nutritionist Emma’s blog ‘What happens when you are low on iron?’
Magnesium, just like iron, is one of the most pivotal nutrients for your body and is believed to be involved in over 300 chemical processes and reactions: it helps to support your muscles and joints, creates new enzymes and can actually play a role in preventing stress by increasing your levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that helps to reduce feelings of fear and anxiety.
It’s ironic then, that this stress-busting nutrient is often depleted by stress. Magnesium is one of the minerals that your body tries to utilise during your stress response because it is important for your muscles and joints; however, if it isn’t utilised then often it is excreted from the body in urine. This can then create more problems as one of the primary symptoms of having low levels of magnesium is low mood, further perpetuating a vicious cycle.
Fortunately, sources of magnesium are easy to find in your diet – you can find magnesium in fruits like bananas, figs and raspberries, green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale or wholegrain foods, nuts, seeds and even dark chocolate! Below I’ve included a few of my favourite magnesium-rich recipes if you need some inspiration!
My favourite magnesium recipes
Coconut, Spinach and Red Lentil Dhal
Healthy Banana Oat Cookies
3. B vitamins
B vitamins can refer to a range of B complex vitamins that perform a variety of roles throughout your body, from supporting your nervous system to helping your body absorb the energy from your food properly. They can even help to produce feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, helping to enhance your mood and enabling your body to cope better in times of stress. That’s one of the reasons why our AvenaCalm remedy is so efficient – it’s made using the extract of the oatflower herb, a potent source of B vitamins
Unfortunately, though, B vitamins are water-soluble, which means that our body can’t store them for long periods of time. That’s why having a diet rich in B vitamins is so important but when stress comes into the picture it can create problems. While you may need B vitamins to help your body cope with stress, chronic stress can deplete your stores of certain B vitamins thus creating a vicious cycle. This can easily contribute to deficiencies in certain B vitamins, such as vitamin B12, which is already difficult to source from your diet, especially if you’re vegan or vegetarian.
If you are going through a period of stress, B vitamins should be a real priority and, while they’re often found in wholegrain foods as well as sunflower seeds, almonds, avocados, bananas and sweet potatoes, supplementing vitamin B12 might be a good idea.
Want to learn more? Explore Emma’s blog ‘Struggling to stay awake? You could need vitamin B12!’
4. Vitamin C
Similar to magnesium, vitamin C is a multitalented nutrient that’s involved with a wide variety of functions throughout your body from assisting the production of collagen to supporting your blood vessels and arteries. Just like your B vitamins though, vitamin C is water-soluble which means that your body can’t store it efficiently for very long. Instead, your diet must do the heavy lifting when it comes to avoiding deficiencies and any associated symptoms.
In relation to stress, it’s been theorised that vitamin C could play a role in reducing your levels of cortisol; however, as is often the case, stress can also deplete your levels of vitamin C, especially when you consider that your adrenal glands need vitamin C to produce stress hormones in the first place. It also doesn’t help that while your adrenal glands are working overtime to produce these hormones, stress can also influence you towards habits that drain your levels of vitamin C further.
That’s why it’s so important to keep on top of your intake – oranges, kiwis, blueberries and bell peppers are all excellent options for boosting your consumption of vitamin C. We also offer a natural vitamin C supplement, Nature-C, which is a chewable tablet that contains a blend of extracts from several vitamin-C rich fruits.
Can a vitamin deficiency cause anxiety?
So, emotional upset such as stress and anxiety can deplete your stores of crucial nutrients but is the reverse also true? Can being deficient in certain vitamins and minerals negatively impact your mood? Well, I actually talk about this in a little bit more detail in my blog ‘Nutrient deficiencies that are making you more anxious’, so I would definitely recommend checking this blog out if you want to learn a little bit more about which nutrients can influence your mood and how you can incorporate more of them into your diet. n and healthy fats. It’s this nutritional content that perhaps contributes to their ability to strengthen your blood vessels, helping to lower your blood pressure in instances of stress.