It is hard to escape stress in modern life, and a little stress can sometimes be a good thing, but prolonged periods of feeling stressed out and overwhelmed can have negative consequences for your physical and mental health.
Many of the physical consequences of stress are related to the fight-flight response whereby the body responds to adapt to what should be a short-term stressful situation (for example running from a predator in the caveman era).
Modern stress – whether physical or mental/emotional – elicits the exact same physiological response. However, when stress is prolonged and unresolved, it can lead to serious consequences for our bodies and mental health.
The connection between stress and depression is complex, however, prolonged stress can directly trigger depression in susceptible people.
Stress depletes essential nutrients
The two main nutrients lost during stressful periods are vitamin C and magnesium. This is because they are used to make stress hormones and support the stress response, leaving them unavailable for other vital processes.
A lack of vitamin C has been connected to depression, possibly due to its protective effect on the brain. Low magnesium is frequently linked to unstable mood due to its natural calming and regulating effects throughout the body.
TIP: Aim to eat plenty of vitamin C and magnesium-rich foods during stressful periods. Vitamin C can be found in foods such as citrus fruits, peppers, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. Magnesium is found in foods such as green-leafed vegetables, nuts, seeds, seafood, and cocoa.
Stress leads to weight gain and belly fat
Some people have tendencies to overeat, and some undereat during times of stress, however, stress is directly linked to weight gain regardless of food intake.
This is because stress causes the body to release stored energy reserves into the bloodstream to facilitate a physical fight-flight response from danger (e.g. running). However, we are usually not physically running from anything, and this energy doesn’t get used. Instead, it gets put back into storage in the form of fat, which is particularly attracted to redistributing around the tummy area. The redistribution of fat to the tummy during stressful periods is thought to partly be due to protecting vital organs from harm.
Many people experience low mood and self-esteem because of weight gain, which tends to get more problematic as we age because it is more difficult to shift.
TIP: Ensuring 7-9 hours of quality sleep a night is essential to help support metabolism. Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can lead to weight gain, particularly around the middle. You can read more about sleep and tips for a quality night’s sleep in my previous blog here.
Stress leads to a lowered immune system
Although short-term stress can temporarily boost the immune system (think back to priming for survival), long-term stress can cause the immune system to become suppressed. This is why we can become more prone to colds and flu and other bugs during stressful times.
The immune and nervous systems closely communicate with each other, and more recent theories of depression and anxiety have been linked to immune system dysfunction.
TIP: Vitamin D plays an essential role in regulating the immune system and it is important to ensure levels are adequate. The best source of vitamin D is sunlight; however, this is usually not possible during the winter months. Food sources include oily fish – (such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines), eggs, liver, fortified foods (such as breakfast cereals), and mushrooms (when grown under UV light).
You can read more about vitamin D, testing, and supplementing in my previous blog here.
Stress causes gut issues, such as constipation
When under stress, the body shuts down less important functions and diverts its resources to organs essential for the fight-flight response, such as the heart and lungs. Consequently, the digestive system slows, and prolonged stress can lead to digestive issues such as constipation.
Digestive issues are common in anxiety and depression, and they can severely impact mood & wellbeing. You can read more about the link between constipation and depression here.
TIP: Ensure adequate hydration by drinking 2 litres of water daily. Try to have a serving of whole grains (oats, brown rice, rye bread, buckwheat, wholemeal pasta) with each meal. Fibre helps bulk out stools which stimulate the colon and reduces constipation.
Stress causes inflammation:
Long term stress can cause a type of invisible inflammation in the body which can cause damage to tissues and organs if unaddressed. Again, it is a result of an intended short-term physiological response to protect the body from injury during fight-flight response during danger.
Inflammation is linked to depression and anxiety, partly because it lowers the production of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. Low serotonin is implicated in depression and is often the target of anti-depressant medications.
TIP: Eating a wide variety of colourful fruit and vegetables provides a plentiful supply of antioxidants, which are excellent at dampening down inflammation. Aim to eat 7 different portions a day (ideally 5 vegetables and 2 fruit).
As you can see, stress can have wide-reaching implications for the mind and body and I hope that was helpful.
If you would like more help or information, please do get in touch: email@example.com