Dr. Lee, the Healthy Professor

Eating for Stress

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Published in IMPACT Magazine1

Any good stress management program will tell you that all stress is perceived by conscious or sub-conscious mind. It is not an absolute but rather a relative response phenomena to our environment and is best defined by how we "choose" to react. Consequently, stress affects each of us in different ways and to different degrees.

The late Dr. Hans Selye, author of "The Stress of Life", made it clear that there is no such thing as a stress free life. In fact, no stress equals death, but some stress forms are better for you than others. An example is the contrast between the stress of a well planned 45 minute work-out versus the stress of running to exhaustion in 40 degree weather while being pursued by a Sabre Toothed Tiger. (The latter is not good stress)

A nutrition connection and stress can be intriguing because usually wise food choices are the last thing on our mind when we perceive stress but nutritional deficiencies are rarely the cause of the stress. We do know that our nutritional needs change when we are experiencing stress and we can help the body "cope" with stress by providing enough of the nutrients which are in greater demand or are more difficult to acquire when we perceive stress.

The two most significant issues underlying nutritional problems during stress are:
  • food selection
  • digestion

Food selection tends not to be at its best while we are stressed. We tend to choose "comfort" foods - those easily obtained, easily digested and sweet or flavorful (again - in our perception). They give us a temporary but quick lift but are rarely the most nutritious.

Poor digestion during stress is the result of the "fight or flight" reaction generated by our response to stress. Digestion is given very little priority by the hierarchy of body functions during these circumstances. This results in fewer digestive enzymes, less HCL acid and poor blood supply to the gut. (The blood finds the brain and muscles to be more important during this period). With poor digestion, even the best food choices will not result in adequate nutrients reaching important body parts like the brain. If you don't feed the brain, all of your stress management tools will be ignored and you will tend to react at the "stimulus/response" level (a level below rational thought). So you respond with anger, fear, nervousness, sleepless. depression, anxiety, lethargy etc.

Another major consequence of poor digestion/poor absorption of nutrients, particularly proteins and essential fats is one of self-cannibalism. Your body, in search of protein and fat will proceed to use it own muscle tissue to provide energy for the brain and other vital functions. (This can include deterioration of and muscle tissue including vital organs like liver, heart, kidneys, etc.) I am sure you have witnessed, maybe even experienced, the "wasting away" look of one under severe stress. They physically deteriorate and the immune system breaks down leading to opportunistic infections (flu, colds, pneumonia, viral invasions) and inflammatory conditions (arthritis, asthma, skin disorders etc). Immune deficiencies can lead to Heart Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and Cancer.

Increased nutrient requirements during stress that are well recognized (as recently published by Texas A&M University and by Elizabeth Somer, author of Nutrition for Women, The Complete Guide) and considered minimal if you are to help your body to cope with the demands of stress are calories, protein, anti oxidants (vitamins A, C & E) B complex, Essential Fatty Acids, Calcium, Magnesium and trace minerals. It is also important to understand that when digestion is challenged, even the best conventional food choices may not do the job. An alternative is to choose reputable food supplements, which are complete and known to digest easily.

  • Calories: Under severe physical stress, such as burns, trauma, fever or surgery requirements increase by 50 per cent or more.
  • Protein: With the increase in Calorie comes a corresponding increase in protein requirements. Part of this is due to the increased secretion of the adrenal hormone Cortisol (the bodies natural form of cortisone) which converts protein to carbohydrate to feed the brain.
  • Anti-oxidants: Vitamins A (or beta carotene), C and E plus selenium are all important in maintaining a healthy immune system. Stress related tissues such as the adrenal and pituitary glands show depletion of anti-oxidants during stress. Consequently, a cycle develops whereby stress depletes The anti-oxidants, which in turn reduces the body's resistance to infection and disease and increases the likelihood of further stress. The self-perpetuating spiral continues until dietary intervention reverses the cycle. Unless you have been living in a cave, you are also aware of the role of anti-oxidants in the prevention of heart disease and cancer.
  • B Vitamins: There are 8 recognized B vitamins which all play a role in the extraction of energy from food and maintenance of the nervous system. Deficiency in these vitamins is considered to be response for the typical stress symptoms of irritability, lethargy and depression.
  • Calcium & Magnesium: These to minerals go together and are required for every nerve impulse and muscle contraction in the body. Evidence shows an elevated loss of these nutrients during stress. Low calcium accounts for weakened muscles and muscle spasms. Low Magnesium increases the secretion of stress hormones which aggravates the stress responses. Deficiencies in both result in inability to relax and increase sensitivity to noise.

Some Solutions

Try to eat a diet with adequate digestible protein and essential fats. I am a fan to 40% carbohydrate (primarily from vegetable and fruits), 30 per cent high quality protein and 30 per cent high quality fat (not trans fats and low in saturated fat).

Make liberal use of high quality protein supplements as snacks, or part of your meals. (A modern solution to modern problems).

Understand that for good health, supplementation is not an option. Use quality multiple vitamins, anti-oxidants, essential fatty acids (lecithin, GLA, Flax oil etc), Calcium and magnesium.

Moderate exercise is not only essential for good health but is an excellent way to get a break from stress.


1. IMPACT Magazine is Canada's premium health and fitness magazine.