What is Stress?
Stress is the nonspecific response of the body to any threat or difficulty that demands change. These responses are physical changes in the body and can include quickening of breathing, heart pounding, muscles tensing and increased sweating. Once the threat or difficultly is over, the physical changes tend to subside. However, for people that are highly stressed, their body remains in a state of high alert and can develop stress-related symptoms. The long-term effects of chronic stress impacts both psychological and physical health and is associated with an increased risk of mental and physical diseases.
There is evidence to suggest that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes changes in the brain that may contribute to addiction, anxiety and depression. Scientists also hypothesise that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity.
There are many situations that can evoke stress; from an environmental stress: such as a pending work deadline, or a psychological stress: such as worrying about losing a job. Unfortunately, we can also overreact to certain stressful events: such as traffic jams, family problems and pressure at work.
The Fight or Flight Response
The physical changes that occur to stress are known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, which has evolved as a survival mechanism to enable people to quickly react to potential life-threatening situations. Along with these physical changes, hormonal changes also occur allowing an individual to fight off the threat or to flee to safety.
Micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, are dietary components that are essential for optimal physical and mental health. As such, there is growing interest in the role of micronutrients in optimising both physical and mental health in order to prevent and treat an array of diseases, where a deficiency in micronutrients is associated.
Micronutrients are only required in small amounts and with increasing research studies, scientists are developing an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the biochemical functions of micronutrients and the role they play in stressful situations.
Can Micronutrients Help in a Stressful Situation?
Several studies have shown a benefit from micronutrient supplements during stress. Antioxidants, such as Vitamin C, may help to reduce the anxiety caused by a stressful situation. Vitamin C has been shown to reduce anxiety levels and may be an effective addition to the medical and psychological treatment of anxiety.
B Vitamins and multivitamin supplements have also been shown to help combat stress and also have potential as part of a treatment programme for stress-related symptoms at the recommended dose. For the B vitamins specifically, a study in Canada following a flood, showed significantly greater improvement in stress and anxiety in the group taking a Vitamin B complex. Hence there is the potential to use micronutrient formulas to minimise the stress associated with natural disasters.
Does Stress Play a Role on Micronutrient Concentration?
It is known that micronutrients can play a role in managing and recovering from stress; and it is now thought that stress actually depletes several important micronutrients, and the mechanism that relates to the effects of psychological and environmental stress on micronutrient concentrations is now being investigated. A review published in Advanced Nutrition has collated evidence on how stress may impact micronutrient concentration. The author, Lopresti was particularly interested in investigating the effects of psychological stress, sleep deprivation and physical exercise on micronutrient concentrations and excretion. Overall, the author concluded that evidence suggests stress can affect micronutrient concentrations, often leading to micronutrient depletion.
It is known that stress creates greater physiological demands on the body, which in turn has a requirement for more energy, oxygen and blood circulation. In turn, an increase in metabolic cofactors, such as micronutrients, are needed. However, it is also known that when someone is suffering from stress, even though there is a need for a more nutritionally rich diet, high in micronutrients, the tendency is to choose comfort food lacking in the necessary nutrients. This alone can result in a situation of micronutrient depletion and as such further research is required to determine whether it is the stress itself that is directly depleting the micronutrient concentrations, or whether the changes to the diet, indirectly caused by stress, are the reason for the depleted micronutrient concentrations. Hence, the medical, physical and psychological consequences of micronutrient changes caused by stress also need to be fully investigated.
To further understand the effects of stress on micronutrient concentrations there is a need for further investigations into the impact of different stressors, stress severity and acute versus chronic stress. In addition, the author surmises that investigations should also consider varying age, gender, premorbid health status and the durability of changes after a stressor is resolved.
Lopresti AL (2019). The Effects of Psychological and Environmental Stress on Micronutrient Concentrations in the Body: A Review of the Evidence. Adv Nutr. Aug 27
Kaplan BJ (2015). A randomised trial of nutrient supplements to minimise psychological stress after a natural disaster. Psychiatry Res. Aug 30;228(3):373-9
How to deal with stress: The NHS UK: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/understanding-stress/