Is stress affecting how well you absorb nutrients in the food you eat? It could very well be.
A 2020 study by clinical psychologist and researcher Adrian Lopresti, Ph.D., suggests that excess or chronic psychological or environmental stress may have a negative effect on micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) concentrations. For example, magnesium, zinc, calcium, iron, and niacin may become depleted due to physical and emotional stress.
Micronutrients are essential for biochemical reactions that occur throughout the body, including in the brain, especially during times of stress.
“During times of stress, our digestion can be severely impacted, influencing what we absorb from what we eat. So, we may not be absorbing the nutrients from food,” said Lopresti. “Stress hormones such as catecholamines and cortisol can increase the excretion of certain nutrients. During stress, we may require more nutrients to help produce energy and various hormones, which can impact nutrient levels.”
Researchers studied survivors of disasters and published a study in 2019 in the journal Advances in Integrative Medicine. The study explained how the body directs vital resources away from normal physiological processes to cope with immediate threats to survival. These micronutrient-dependent fight or flight responses are protected at the cost of longer-term functions, such as cognitive processing and emotional regulation.
The study goes on to suggest that survivors’ stress response during and after a disaster may result in limited nutritional resources, as nutrients are directed to stress response. If stress continues, and nutrients remain depleted due to the body’s prioritization for short-term survival, over time, this can cause damage to DNA.
Bonnie Kaplan, Ph.D., research psychologist, semi-retired professor in the University of Calgary’s School of Medicine, and coauthor of the 2019 study points out that “if you’re constantly under stress, you are probably not getting as much nutrients into the various systems which are ongoing kinds of needs, like our ability to concentrate, or pay attention.”
Comfort Food Can Kick Off a Vicious Cycle
Although the body requires a nutrient-dense diet when it is stressed, it’s likely that comfort foods will be favoured over healthy food choices during difficult times, resulting in continued micronutrient depletion.
Dr. Elissa Epel, professor and vice chair at the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at The University of California, says there is a strong correlation between stress and the resulting craving for comfort food.
“Stress can spike our appetite,” said Epel. “For most people, stress leads us to crave what we call comfort food–food that stimulates the reward area of the brain, stimulating dopamine. This means sugary food, and if it’s laced with lots of fat, even better. Salt? Yes. These together create a good punch to the reward system. If it’s liquid sugar, like sugary sodas, we get the hit of dopamine even faster and that is even more addictive.”
Lopresti agrees that stressful times may cause people to make unhealthy food choices leading to decreased nutrition.
“During stress, we may eat unhealthier foods leading to nutrient depletion. Some people may also drink more alcohol or take medications during stress that can also affect nutrient levels.”
Reaching for comfort food can make us feel good in the moment but feel worse in the long term.
“Stress eating can become a vicious cycle, where we feel withdrawal from the short-term relief, feeling worse than before, and are driven to overeat comfort food again to get rid of the terrible feelings,” said Epel.
This comes with serious health consequences. “In the long run, this [comfort] doesn’t last and leads to a buildup of abdominal fat and in extreme cases, insulin resistance, the precursor to diabetes, and other chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer,” said Epel.
According to Epel, and a variety of studies, abdominal fat, insulin resistance, and risk of diabetes are strongly associated with the development of dementia in later life.
The study mentioned above demonstrated statistically and clinically significant reductions in psychological distress for survivors who consumed broad spectrum supplementation of vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) in the months following the traumatic event.
So, what does this mean for the average person suffering from acute or chronic stress? What specific micronutrients should we be consuming during times of stress?
Kaplan says that eating a nutritious diet, with a focus on increased fruit and vegetable consumption, is an important thing people can do.
“When people are well nourished, they are better able to allocate for the crisis and still have enough left over for residual kinds of issues.”
Lopresti also suggests that people experiencing stress (particularly chronic stress) may need to consume more nutrient-dense foods to help compensate for potential nutrient depletion. The American Heart Association defines nutrient-dense foods as being rich in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients and low in saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium.
In addition, Dr. Lopresti recommends that people should eat more mindfully, chew their food more, and sit down while eating to help with the breakdown of foods and nutrient absorption.
Lopresti’s study points out that micronutrient supplementation has the potential to prevent or reduce symptoms of depression and some diseases.
“It may be beneficial, particularly during times of stress, to take nutritional supplements to help compensate for losses. This could include a multivitamin, B-complex, magnesium, zinc, etc. These nutrients are essential for producing neurotransmitters and hormones associated with mood, sleep, and mental health.”
Kaplan agrees that supplements can be helpful, especially B-complex, and points to another study she co-authored. Following a devastating flood in Alberta, Canada in 2013, Kaplan and her fellow researchers studied the effects of single nutrient (vitamin D), broad spectrum vitamin/mineral supplements, and B-complex supplementation on depression, anxiety, and stress in flood survivors. The study showed that flood survivors who consumed B-complex for six weeks showed greater improvement in stress and anxiety compared with those consuming the single nutrient supplementation. The study also showed there were no differences in improvement between those taking B-complex and a broad-spectrum multivitamin.
“People have noticed for many, many years that those who take a B-complex once a day, usually after breakfast, are more resilient, meaning, they are better able to cope. Popping a B-complex after breakfast once a day helps some people. That is empirically supported.”
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