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Managing Stress with Nutrition

by Penny Crowther(more info)

listed in stress, originally published in issue 219 - January 2015

It’s easy to ignore stress, accept it as normal or not even be aware of it.  Yet of all the factors that impact health, it’s one of the most significant. Nutritional therapist Penny Crowther reminds us what stress actually is, how it affects health and provides some nutrition tips.

First of all, it is important to understand a wider definition of stress. Whilst divorce, bereavement or moving house are obviously stressful events, stress is actually any stimulus that triggers the nervous system to activate a ‘fight or flight’ response. This trigger can be physical, mental, psychological, or emotional. Thoughts and feelings produce as much stress as an actual threat. Anxiety, worry, negative thinking, low self-esteem, being trapped in an unhappy relationship or unfulfilling job are all stressors. This kind of stress can go unnoticed because it becomes a habitual way of living. Similarly another source of chronic stress can come from frequent consumption of stimulant foods such as sugar or caffeine or regularly eating foods that we are allergic to.

It would be impossible to live a totally stress free life and if the body adapts efficiently to stress, balance (homeostasis) is restored without undue damage. Good nutrition plays a vital role in this restoration of balance and in the prevention of stress associated health problems.

Penny Crowther

What Happens When we are Stressed?

The human body has an amazing in-built physiological stress response. When we are faced with a stressor, the brain activates the sympathetic division of the nervous system (responsible for the fight or flight response). Adrenaline and noradrenaline are discharged from the adrenal glands to enable immediate physical action. Cortisol is also released from the adrenal glands.

The stress response is a normal and helpful response as it keeps us alert and ready to deal with the threat. We start sweating, blood pressure and heart beat increase, muscles tense in anticipation of danger, digestion slows down to conserve energy, fat and sugar stores are mobilised. In short we are perfectly prepared in a state of emergency to cope with the threat.

8 Ways Stress Affects your Health

The problem comes when instead of being short-lived, the threat is ongoing and constant. If you are frequently in the stress response and your body is being run by the sympathetic nervous system, it is like repeatedly accelerating too hard in your car, which will reduce its life span. Healing cannot take place during the stress response. The body needs to be in parasympathetic nervous system mode which is the relaxation response, in order for the natural healing and repair mechanisms to work.

  1. The immune system is particularly adversely affected by stress.  Bacterial or viral infections are more likely. Stress plays a major role in the onset and course of auto immune conditions such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroiditis and in cancer;
  2. Digestive enzyme secretion is affected by stress, leading to bloating, gas and food intolerances. The stress hormone, cortisol thins the stomach lining, making it weak and vulnerable to ulceration;
  3. Cortisol blocks the uptake of progesterone, leading to imbalanced hormones and menstrual cycle irregularities;
  4. Cholesterol production will increase under stress because cholesterol is the raw material for making stress hormones. Cholesterol will test high after stressful events such as surgery;
  5. Stress produces a high amount of free radicals which cause oxidative damage, implicated in premature ageing and chronic disease;
  6. Other physical conditions which stress underlies are allergies, asthma, hayfever, ulcers, nervous system disorders, cardiovascular issues;
  7. Irritability, low mood, anxiety, insomnia or sleeping too much, a short fuse, feeling overwhelmed, poor memory and concentration, palpitations, sugar or salt cravings, feeling cold, aches and pains, headaches, frequent infections, weight gain or weight loss are all warning signs of stress;
  8. Finally and rather obviously, stress leads to fatigue and burnout.


Penny Crowther

Nutrition Solutions


The food you eat can have a profound effect on your blood sugar levels and therefore your stress levels and physical and mental wellbeing. Here are some tips:

  • Eat slow release (complex) carbohydrates which provide constant balanced energy. Examples are spelt bread and pasta, brown rice, quinoa, porridge oats, oatcakes, Ryvita. However you do not need these foods more than 2-3 times per day. Even though they are healthy carbohydrates, they will still affect blood sugar and insulin to some extent;
  • Always eat some protein with each meal. This slows down the rate of sugar release further and protein is required in larger amounts under stress. You can eat protein on its own, without carbohydrate (rice, pasta etc.).  2 animal proteins (such as poultry, fish, eggs, cheese) and one vegetable protein (e.g. tofu, nuts, beans, lentils) is the ideal daily balance. Make sure meat and fish portions are small i.e. around 100g, to avoid becoming over acid;
  • Eat 3 regular meals and a healthy snack. New research now suggests that constant grazing is not good for insulin balance and provided you don’t feel weak or very hungry fasting between meals is beneficial;
  • Always eat breakfast but it doesn’t have to be as soon as you get up if you don’t feel hungry then. Wait until you get to work if necessary;
  • Reduce stimulants such as tea, coffee, alcohol. If you do indulge, don’t do so on an empty stomach; have a healthy snack first;
  • Minimize sweet foods.  Do not add sugar to any food or drink.


When the body is under stress, demand for all nutrients increases and any deficiencies make the body less able to cope with the stress. Our nutrient ‘bank account’ can easily go into debt when there is drain on resources. Topping up with a few supplements, in addition to a healthy diet, for a temporary period will quickly boost up supplies.

Anti-Stress Nutrients

1. Antioxidants  quench free radicals, highly reactive molecules produced under stress, that attack all cells. Eat 8 portions of fruit and vegetables daily and top up with vegetable juice and green smoothies (in the case of thyroid problems, don’t emphasise the very high oxalic acid vegetables such as spinach);

2. B Complex Vitamins such as B12 and B5 are required in much great amounts when under prolonged stress. Vitamin B5 is needed for making the stress hormone cortisol and, together with vitamin C, is found in higher concentrations in adrenal tissue than any other body tissue. Vitamin B12 is needed for making adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone which is discharged in response to a stressor. B12 often becomes deficient under stress because it is dependent on the healthy function of the stomach lining (compromised by cortisol) for absorption. Vitamin B6 is required for making a calming neurotransmitter called GABA and for formation of other neurotransmitters, serotonin, dopamine and adrenalin. Food sources of B complex; meat, fish, eggs, cheese, whole grains, nuts;

3. Magnesium is an essential mineral for healthy nervous system support and for muscle relaxation. Increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system leads to magnesium depletion. Deficiency is relatively common (particularly in women with hormonal issues) because it is not abundantly available in foods. Food sources; almonds, green vegetables, seeds, kidney beans, quinoa;

4. Essential Fats are vital for a healthy nervous system. Remember the brain is 60 percent fat! Essential fatty acids (efas) pull oxygen into the body. This is important for all body tissue but particularly for the high level of chemical activity taking place in your brain and nervous system tissue which uses up a lot of oxygen. Efas also form electric charges which when activated produce tiny electrical currents that enable nerve cells to communicate with each other.  Found in oily fish (sardines, salmon, tuna and mackerel), leafy green vegetables and oils such as rapeseed and flax (linseed).

References and Further Reading

J F Sheridan, C Dobbs, D Brown, and B Zwilling. Psychoneuroimmunology: stress effects on pathogenesis and immunity during infection.Section of Oral Biology, Colleges of Dentistry, Ohio State University, Columbus. Clin Microbiol Rev. 7(2): 200–212. April 1994.

Rogers MP, Fozdar M. Psychoneuroimmunology of autoimmune disorders. Adv Neuroimmunol. 6(2):169-77. 1996.

Stough C, Scholey A, Lloyd J, Spong J, Myers S, Downey LA. The effect of 90 day administration of a high dose vitamin B-complex on work stress. Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Hum Psychopharmacol. 2011.

Murk H. Magnesium and affective disorders. Nutr Neuroscience. 5(6):375-80.Omega 3 DHA and EPA for cognition, behaviour and mood. 2002.

Kidd PM. Altern Med Rev.12(3);201-27. 2007.

Kuan-Pin Su. Biological mechanism of antidepressant effect of omega 3 fatty acids. Neurosignals:17:144-152. 2009.


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About Penny Crowther

Penny Crowther BANT CNHC qualified as a nutritional therapist in 1997 and has been in clinical practice ever since. She has seen several thousand clients over the years, at her practice in London and online. Penny now specializes in nutrition for women in their 40s and beyond, particularly around peri and post menopause. Mid Life for women can be a time when fluctuating hormones play havoc with your wellbeing. In the midst of all the publicity around HRT, it's easy to forget just how powerful diet and lifestyle changes can be when it comes to navigating the menopausal years.

Penny will guide and support you through specific changes to your diet, targeted to you specifically, in midlife. She provides practical, easy to follow menu plans with easy and delicious recipes. The food you eat affects every cell and system in your body. It optimizes how you look and feel, both mentally and physically.

To book an appointment view consultation options here >>

As well as being a regular columnist for Positive Health, Penny has written for Holland and Barrett, and contributed to articles for the Daily TelegraphThe Times Literary supplement, Pregnancy & Birth and Marie Claire. She has been featured in the Daily Express, Daily Mirror and on local radio.

Penny is a registered nutritional therapist with standards of training endorsed by BANT (British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy) and CNHC. This includes completing 30 hours of continuing professional development, annually.

Penny’s approach to health is holistic, and takes into account emotional, mental and environmental factors as well as nutrition. She has trained in coaching and studied many complementary therapies before qualifying as a nutritionist, which provides a broad foundation of knowledge in her nutrition practice. Penny may be contacted on Tel: 07761 768 754;

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