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Nutrition and Stress

by June Butlin(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 47 - December 1999

Did you know that there is an association between being attacked by a tiger and being made redundant? Well, there is, as both these stresses produce the same physiological response in the body. The response is known as the "flight or fight" mechanism, which primitive people used to defend themselves in stressful situations such as being chased by a tiger. Redundancy produces exactly the same bodily response, but instead of physically running away or attacking our boss we internalise the stress. If this mechanism is brought into action too often it can lead to poor health.

A stressful situation can be both happy (eustress) or sad (distress) and a healthy body has the ability to deal with stress, to a greater or lesser degree, depending upon the inherited adaptive capacity of our genes. However, constant adaptation, exceeding our genetic ability to cope, can deplete the body of large amounts of energy, leaving very little for the mechanisms that run our bodies. This is where the link lies between stress and physical symptoms such as weight changes, menstrual problems, poor sleep pattern, headaches and infections. Continuous stress leads to the more serious consequences of cardiovascular, neuromuscular, respiratory, dental, skin, immune, digestive and eliminative diseases.

As stress has such damaging consequences in the body, I would like to take a deeper look at how it actually affects the body. The brain is the first system to recognise the stressor and it responds by instructing the rest of the body to adjust by releasing the appropriate chemicals and hormones. Chronic stress will result in a continuous flow of these chemicals and hormones, which target, stimulate and detrimentally affect specific organs within the body.

The brain initially targets the adrenal glands which respond by releasing catecholamine hormones, adrenaline and norepinephrine, and glucocortisoid hormones, cortisol and cortisone. Adrenaline and norepinephrine cause increases in heart rate and breathing, constriction in the blood vessels, tension in the muscles, and blood clotting. An excess of these hormones can produce heart and immune problems. Cortisone can reduce lymph and immune cell function, raise blood pressure, increase gastric acid production, inhibit vitamin D activity, and cause the liver to overproduce glucose. An overabundance will result in lowered immunity, ulcers, heart problems, osteoporosis and an increased risk of diabetes. Cortisol causes increases in fats, cholesterol and stomach acid, loss of essential minerals such as potassium and magnesium, suppression of sex hormones and nerve loss. Excessive cortisol may result in obesity, heart attacks, depression, infertility, lack of libido, ageing and possibly has a role in the development and progression of Alzheimer's and other degenerative diseases

Other changes that take place under stress are the loss of endorphins (natural painkillers), which can result in migraine headaches, backache and arthritic pain. The five senses become more acute in the early stages of the stress response, but excessive stress can result in sight, hearing, taste, smell and sense being less efficient and can eventually lead to sensory burn out. And the thyroid gland overworks, giving rise to insomnia, shaky nerves, weight loss and exhaustion.

From a nutrition point of view I would like to take a look at the strategies that can help us to overcome the physiological effects of stress. As stress naturally increases cellular activity and reduces the effectiveness of the digestive system it will lead to nutritional deficiencies and therefore a diet full of nutrient dense foods needs to be followed. The recommendation is a 60-75% raw food diet, full of fresh fruit and vegetables, which not only supply valuable vitamins and minerals, but are also rich in compounds called flavonoids, which help to counteract stress. Fresh vegetable juices, particularly green juices containing chlorophyll, and home made soups are ideal, as well as alfalfa, garlic and ginger to support the immune system, and kelp, kombu and watercress to support the thyroid gland.

Lots of bottled or filtered water should be drunk to prevent dehydration. Kombucha tea is revitalising and detoxifying and helps to boost the immune system. Foods to avoid are processed foods, artificial sweeteners, carbonated soft drinks, chocolate, fried food, red meat, sugar, white flour products, preservatives and additives. Also, avoid alcohol as it increases adrenal output and interferes with normal brain chemistry, and caffeine, as it causes depression, nervousness and insomnia. Food should be eaten in small amounts at regular intervals to prevent acidic problems, aid digestion, and maintain blood glucose levels.

The key nutrients for stress are those that aid the adrenal glands which are the tranquillising mineral, magnesium (best taken in the evening) and all the B vitamins, in particular, vitamin B5 to prevent adrenal atrophy. Urinary excretion of vitamin C increases under stress so extra should be taken to support the cells and immune function. Other nutrients include DL-phenylalanine, an amino acid, that helps to elevate mood, vitamin E to counteract cholesterol damage, and coenzyme Q10 to protect the mitochondria against oxidative stress.

Herbs can be effective in controlling stress and those supporting the adrenal glands, are liquorice, uva ursi, ginger, astragalus and capsicum. Calming herbs to encourage sleep are valerian, skullcap and passion flower, and those that lift the spirit are St John's wort, gotu kola, black cohosh, skullcap and kava kava.

Ideally, to overcome stress we need to remove ourselves from the situation emotionally, mentally and physically and then re-approach the situation with a different attitude. This is very difficult to do and takes time, but in that time you can help yourself through an holistic approach. Nutrition alone can not solve the stress problem, and other areas need to be considered to prevent psychological difficulties such as anxiety and depression. Regular, gentle exercise helps as it increases circulation, oxygen and endorphins, relaxation rids the body of tension, aromatherapy oils deal with specific issues and positive self-talk and visualisation helps to raise self esteem. Most importantly, keep in contact with friends, walk in the sunshine and cultivate the art of laughter to lift your spirits.

Next Month: Case history on Severe Stress.


Hafen, Karren, Frandsen, Lee and Smith. Mind Body Health. Allyn and Bacon 1996. ISBN 0-205-17211-3
Westwood C. Aromatherapy Stress Management. Amberwood Publishers.1996. ISBN 0-951-7723-6-8
Rector-Page Linda. Stress Management. Healthy Healing Publications. 1995. ISBN 1-884-334-33-4


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About June Butlin

June M Butlin PhD is a trained teacher, nutritionist, kinesiologist, aromatherapist, fitness trainer and sports therapist. She is a writer, health researcher and lecturer and is committed to helping people achieve their optimum level of health and runs a private practice in Wiltshire. June can be contacted on 01225 869 284;

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