Stress Effects on Nutrition

by Dr. Vicki Griffin, Dr. Edwin Neblett and Evelyn Kissinger

You may be surprised to learn that you could be ignorantly bringing unnecessary stress into your life by your own lifestyle choices and habits. You may be even more surprised to learn that these same choices and habits make it more difficult to deal with the stressors that you can't escape!

In other words, not only does prolonged stress adversely affect nutritional status and needs, but your nutrition habits also affect how prone you are to stress, the intensity of your stress response, and your ability to cope with unavoidable stress!22 These facts illustrate how important it is to understand the relationship between nutrition and stress.

The better nourished you are, the better able you are to cope with stress. It is well known that changes take place in the levels of circulating hormones when stress occurs. The precise influence of a stress-altered metabolism on nutrient requirements is still being researched.23 Some researchers have stated that almost any form of stress may influence nutritional balance.24 This is because stress causes a general arousal that increases the body's metabolism, or the rate at which the body changes food supplies into energy.

"Eating right is just as important as managing stress
because vulnerability to stress increases with poor diet"

Philip Rice, Stress and Health. Moorhead State University

Simply put, the body uses energy at a faster rate when stressed. According to Deborah Kipp, Ph.D., R.D., from the College of Health Sciences and Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, " These changes, in turn, will influence the metabolism and, consequently, the requirements of nutrients."25 Simply put, just as a speeding car needs more gas, a stressed body requires the right kind of nutrient " fuel."

Prolonged stress increases the metabolic needs of the body because stress hormones tend to accelerate heart rate; increase muscle tension; elevate blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels; and cause a cascade of other
metabolic changes.26 These changes increase metabolism and accelerate your body's use of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. As that usage changes, there can be a resulting increase in blood sugar, free fatty acids, and protein loss (negative
nitrogen balance), respectively.27 The increased metabolism can also cause an increase in the use and excretion of many
nutrients such as vitamins A, C,D,E,K,and B complex, and minerals such as magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, chromium,
selenium, zinc, and potassium.28 But what happens if your body's "tank" is low on nutrition "fuel"?

While stress alters nutrient needs, if you are marginally deficient in a nutrient, stress can make that deficiency even worse! Bear in mind that poor nutrition or undernutrition is of itself a stress on the body. So when additional stress is imposed on the system, you will no longer have the same reserve capacity to adapt to the stress!

Vicious Stress Cycle

Unfortunately, it is often people who are the most easily stressed and in greatest need of a good diet, especially during times of extra stress, who make the worst food choices!

The effects of chronic stress may be exacerbated by a rich diet.

This led researcher Paul Rosch to comment, "A faulty diet can certainly be a source of stress. Conversely, stress can lead to poor dietary habits."29 Many people either stop eating almost entirely, or eat more frequently, shifting from well-planned, nourishing meals to junk food, fast food, alcohol, or stimulants such as caffeine or nicotine.

Researchers who reviewed the factors that affect the stress response noted that: "The effects of chronic stress may be exacerbated by a rich diet."30 Excess amounts of sugars and refined foods, for example, can diminish thiamine, niacin, B12, magnesium, and calcium.31 Low levels of these nutrients increase nervous-system reactivity, irritability, and nervousness.32 But even more serious is the realization that poor eating habits in general lead to low concentrations of nutrients in the blood, which can impair brain function.33

Many depressed people crave sugary and/or fatty foods during stress. Yet increased sugar and fat consumption may be associated with the development or maintenance of depression.3435 Another vicious cycle!

On the other hand, a high-fiber diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains provides greater appetite satisfaction over a longer period than processed, high-fat, and high-sugar snacks. But even more important, when you replace junk foods with fresh, high-fiber plant foods, you are more likely to consume greater amounts of vitamins A, B6, and C, and the B vitamins niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and folate. You will also have a higher intake of magnesium, iron, selenium, zinc, phosphorus, and calcium.36 These nutrients are all vital to a healthy metabolism and provide significant stress protection. One study of food and mood concluded that,"Overall, the results suggest that a dietary change can remediate the emotional stress exhibited by some individuals."37

In other words, improving your quality of food choices can help you to reduce stress effects!

Portions of the book, Diet and Stress, Simple Solutions used by permission. To obtain a copy of this book, go to

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