Stress is the worst. And it’s really difficult to avoid when you’re expected to do it all - you’ve got work pressure, social commitments, and our phones never seem to stop beeping or buzzing. When you’re always “on”, that can start to take a real toll.
We tend to think of stress as a mental/emotional thing, but it has a very real physiological impact on our bodies.
Your adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys like two little hats (I always imagine mine as those beanies with the fuzzy ball on top). They produce essential hormones that we need, especially in times of stress.
Stress, whether physical, emotional, or psychological, triggers the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol (a long-term stress hormone) and adrenaline (a short-term stress hormone). Chronic stress results in an excess of any of these hormones, which causes damage in your body long after the stress signal has ended.
While there are certain lifestyle modifications you can and should make to manage stress [more on that in a different post, stay tuned], nutrition can also have a powerful impact on how well your body copes with the stress placed on it. A diet rich in fresh, whole foods will provide the nutrients needed by your body to combat stress.
Here are 3 of my key nutrients to help you karate chop stress right in the face:
B vitamins are key players when it comes to fighting stress, especially vitamins B5 and B6.
B5 (aka pantothenic acid, aka the “anti-stress vitamin”) helps regulate your production of the stress hormone cortisol when you’re under chronic stress. B5 generally keeps your adrenal glands functioning well, when it’s present in adequate amounts. If you’re deficient in B5, your adrenals have a hard time coping and it can be more difficult for them to help you recover from the effects of prolonged or chronic stress.
Get B5 from food:
- Sweet potato
- Beet greens
B6 (aka pyridoxine) is utilized in the synthesis of the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. What does that mean in English? Well when you’re stressing out, B6 is being used to make lots of the related hormones. If this keeps going or turns into prolonged stress, your body has less B6 available to use for other things, like the formation of our feel-good neurotransmitters:
- GABA: which is your calming, relaxing neurotransmitter
- Serotonin: your mood-stabilizing neurotransmitter
- Dopamine: which mediates pleasure in your brain
These neurotransmitters are responsible for many more functions than what’s listed above, but the takeaway is that you want to give your body what it needs to make plenty of all of them.
A pretty cool study conducted in Australia found that test subjects taking a B-complex were better able to cope with workplace stress. (Sure beats a coffee mug full of secret vodka at your desk.)
Get B6 from food:
- Bok Choy
- Bell Peppers
Get B Vitamins from supplements:
If you do choose to supplement over and above getting B vitamins from whole foods, I would recommend looking for one with higher levels of B5 and B6 for stress support [like this one].
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant which can induce an anti-inflammatory effect in response to prolonged stress and exercise, and can help combat your response to stress and the rise of cortisol .
In one study, German researchers gave subjects a public speaking task combined with math problems (that sounds terrible, btw). Half of those studied were given 1,000 mg of vitamin C. For those who did not get the vitamin C supplement, they experienced significantly greater signs of stress like elevated cortisol and blood pressure. Those who got vitamin C reported that they felt less stressed.
Get C from food:
- Bell peppers
- Brussels sprouts
Vitamin C can be destroyed by cooking and light, so eating fresh and raw (or lightly cooked) foods is the best way to get as much as of this vitamin as possible from your meal.
Magnesium is the best. Am I allowed to say that? It’s my blog, so I say yes! In layperson's terms, it’s a mineral that does all the things. In slightly more scientific terms, it’s essential for more than 300 different enzymatic processes in the body, including blood pressure regulation, muscle and nerve function, and blood sugar control. It’s also necessary for muscle relaxation, neuromuscular junction activity, protein synthesis, fat synthesis, and energy production - all critical to keep functioning during times of stress and fatigue.
Unfortunately, a majority of people are deficient. Why? Depleted soil, prescription meds, low-nutrient diets, alcohol, caffeine and, you guessed it, stress.
Stress can be a cause of magnesium deficiency, and a deficiency of magnesium can amplify the stress reaction, worsening the problem. It’s a pretty crappy cycle. In studies, adrenaline and cortisol, byproducts of the “fight or flight” reaction associated with stress and anxiety, were associated with decreased magnesium .
Because stressful conditions require more magnesium use by the body, those conditions may lead to deficiency, including both psychological and physical forms of stress.
Get magnesium from food:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Swiss chard
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Beet greens
Get magnesium from supplements:
There many different types of magnesium, each being helpful with specific situations. Two pretty general purpose ones that I like are magnesium glycinate [like this one] or magnesium citrate [like this one] -- Note: mag citrate can have a mild laxative effect, so start with a small dose and increase slowly to avoid disaster pants!
- Segala, M. (2003). The Life Extension Foundation's disease prevention and treatment: scientific protocols that integrate mainstream and alternative medicine. Hollywood, FL: Life Extension Media.
- Dean, Carolyn. Magnesium Miracle. Ballantine, 2017. Print.