Nutrition Effects on Stress
by Dr. Vicki Griffin, Dr. Edwin Neblett and Evelyn Kissinger
"The heaviest rains fall on the leaky house."
Lifestyle choices affect both mind 'and body. As early as 300 B.C. the
Greek surgeon and anatomist Herophilus wrote:"When health is absent, wisdom
cannot reveal itself, art cannot become manifest, strength cannot be
exerted, wealth is useless, and reason is powerless." Isn't it odd that
many people ruin their health the first half of their life trying to make
more money, and then spend the second half of their life spending money
trying to get their health back!
For many people, mealtime is fast, frenzied, and often "thawed-out" instead
For many Americans today, the basic four food groups are "nuked," canned,
boxed, and "fast." In short, it is unbalanced, unhealthful, unsatisfying,
and unnatural! Can good mental or physical health be the result of such
poor, haphazard choices?
"Increased daily ingestion of caffeine is associated with higher levels of
in both healthy and psychiatric patients."
Arc Gen Psychiatry 1985; 42:233-243
Are you chewing down on fat- and sugar-laden foods such as pizzas and
fries, pastries and pies, chips, chops, and lollipops, and turning away
from hundreds of power-packed, tasty, easy-to-fix fresh fruits, nuts,
vegetables, whole grains, and legumes? America is gulping down this
fiberless fare with a national daily ration of 33 million gallons of coffee
per day. That is the equivalent of 30 seconds full flow of water over
Niagara Falls! But all that coffee isn't quenching our thirst. Americans
drink an average of 547 cans of soda pop per person per year (643 in the
South), at a total cost of 47.3 billion dollars! And it's not just the cans
that are getting bigger—so are our problems! Is it possible that our
"revved-up" diet is contributing to a "stressed-out" America?
By conservative estimates, up to 30 percent of adult Americans have a daily
caffeine intake of more than 500 mg. Caffeine is a drug that temporarily
increases the sensation of alertness, but research has shown that over time
caffeine may increase stress-sensitivity, anxiety, and depression. It can
also encourage the loss of nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, and B
vitamins. But the most subtle and devastating long-term effect of caffeine
may be its slow erosion of vital nerve centers in the brain that balance
stress hormone levels. This can eventually affect memory and risk of
depression. How? Caffeine causes an elevation of a stress hormone called
cortisol. Cortisol can accumulate in a brain memory center called the
The hippocampus is essential for short-term memory and is also a key
player in regulation of your body's stress system.
When cortisol levels remain too high for too long from exposure to chronic
stress or chemical stimulation such as caffeine, cell death can occur in
the hippocampus, as well as other vital areas of the brain. The result can
include memory impairment, chronic depression, and chronic "dysregulation"
of the stress system.
Coffee, tea, and soft drink consumption tend to cause vitamin and mineral
loss and dehydration. According to the American Dietetic Association,
dehydration of as little as two percent loss of body weight can reduce your
mental and physical abilities. Plentiful water intake (about eight glasses
a day for a typical adult) reduces sluggishness by enhancing circulation
and enabling your blood to carry life and energy-giving nutrients to the
Carbohydrates are needed to increase the brains uptake of Tryptophan.
Tryptophan is essential for the production of serotonin, a hormone that
helps regulate mood, appetite, pain tolerance, food cravings, and sleep. It
has been suggested that many "sugar-holics" are actually self-medicating
due to the mood-elevating effects of increased serotonin. If so, there's a
lot of medicating going on, from babyhood up! Some experts estimate that
the average adult intake of refined sweeteners (sucrose and fructose) is
about 120 Lbs. per person per year. In analyzing the diets of 15,000
Americans aged two and older, it was found that table sugar and sweeteners
in processed foods account for nearly one-fifth, or 20 percent, of
American's carbohydrate intake.
In two- to five-year-olds, sugars, candy, and sweetened fruit drinks were
major sources of carbohydrates, followed by soft drinks. In the six to 11
age group, soft drinks, sweetened cereals, cakes, cookies, and sweetened
fruit drinks were the favorites. In teens, almost four-tenths, or 40
percent, of sugar calories came from soft drinks! Among 15-year-olds, the
United States ranked among the top three countries where kids eat sweets,
chocolate, and soft drinks every day!
The problem is, there is a down-side to the quick lift associated with
low-fiber, refined sweets. While it is true that simple carbohydrates
elevate serotonin levels, they elevate them only for a short time.
Repeated ingestion of quick "pick-me-up" snacks that are low in real
nutrition not only play havoc with hormones but also with blood sugar,
insulin, and blood nutrient levels. They are a real "downer" when it comes
to stress protection.
"In two- to five-year olds, sugars, candy, and sweetened fruit drinks
were major sources of carbohydrates, followed by soft drinks."
Your body needs carbohydrates for energy. But the best form of energy is
the slow-releasing carbohydrates found in whole grains such as whole wheat
bread, oats, whole grain pasta, beans, unrefined potatoes, unrefined
cereals, and brown rice. These provide sustained energy and hundreds of
phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals vital to physical and mental health.
In fact, complex carbohydrates or starch foods with natural fiber and
nutrient constituents result in longer, more sustained levels of brain
serotonin. It is no surprise, then, that those who consume breakfast
cereal regularly report better mental and physical health than those who
consume it infrequently.
Filled Out or Filled Up?
High-Fat, Low-Fiber Low-Fat, High-Fiber
• 1 8-oz. chocolate bar • 25 carrots
• 1 5-oz. chocolate bar • 3 pounds of apples
• 1 cheeseburger • 21 cups of popcorn
• 1 danish • apple, banana, orange and ½ cantaloupe
• 1 slice of chocolate cake • 7 slices of whole wheat bread
• 1 milkshake • 5 bananas
• 1 peanut butter parfait • 7 bananas
• 5-oz. steak • 5 baked potatoes
• 12 marshmallows • 60 stalks of celery
• 1/2 cup peanuts • 600 cucumber slices
• 6 small chocolate chip cookies • 20 green peppers, 3 ears of corn
Fills You OUT: Fills You UP!
Is There a Tiger in Your Tank?
As the proportion of meals eaten away from home has nearly doubled in the
last twenty years, meat and animal protein foods are taking a lion's share
of daily energy intake. Is the lion's alternately groggy then irritable
disposition the price tag for such "copycat" eating?
Very high protein diets are popular today, but while the benefits are
doubtful at best, they may increase stress sensitivity. According to one
study, individuals with high-stress proneness had more energy and lower
stress proneness after a meal high in carbohydrates and low in protein than
after a meal high in protein and low in carbohydrates. High-protein,
low-carbohydrate diets are associated with worse performance on mental
flexibility tasks and higher levels of irritability, anxiety, and
One reason may be that very high protein diets tend to be high in the amino
acid tyrosine. Tyrosine is necessary for the important brain hormones
dopamine and nor epinephrine, which help elevate mood and energy. But if
tyrosine levels are very high at every meal, then serotonin levels drop,
and low serotonin is associated with depression, eating disorders, and
insomnia, among other problems. We need protein in the diet, but excessive
amounts just may set your nerves on edge. The key word here is balance.
It is a popular notion that if you want to be alert, load up on protein,
and if you want to be calm, eat plenty of "carbs." While it is true that
these foods can have a short-term effect on mental alertness and perhaps
even mood, meals that are consistently balanced in their protein,
carbohydrates, and fat are the best overall plan for long-term stress
protection and consistent mental strength.
The long-term effects associated with diets high in meat and dairy products
are lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, elevated cholesterol, high
blood pressure, and Type II diabetes. It is interesting that these
diseases are also associated with cognitive impairment and an increased
risk for dementia. There are serious health consequences to dietary habits
that "stress" the metabolism over long periods of time.
The typical American diet, loaded with meats, cheeses, eggs, and other
animal protein, is no stress-reliever and can quickly rack up a daily
protein load of 120 grams or more! Less than half that much is all that is
needed for most adults (45 grams for women, and 55 grams for men). A day's
menu that includes just one chicken breast, an eight-ounce burger, two
ounces of cheese, and one cup of yogurt adds up to 120 grams of protein!
These inordinately high protein diets tend to deprive the brain of
carbohydrates and antioxidants, which are needed for proper function and
"Nuts, beans, legumes, soy, seeds, and whole grains are excellent sources
of plant-based protein
and are also rich sources of minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals."
This heavy protein load also tends to overwork the kidneys, leach calcium
from the bones, and create metabolic stress that promotes inflammatory
diseases and cardiovascular disease. Nuts, beans, legumes, soy, seeds, and
whole grains are excellent sources of plant-based protein, which are
metabolically more "user friendly" and are also rich sources of minerals,
vitamins, and phytochemicals.
A plant-based vegetarian diet, containing adequate calories and a good
variety of protein foods such as grains, beans, nuts, tofu, and legumes in
the menu for the week, will provide all the protein necessary for a
healthful, balanced diet, without tipping the protein scale on the wrong
side. Add to this delicious variety your choice of hearty, fiber-filled
complex carbohydrates such as potatoes, yams, squash, and plenty of fresh
fruits and leafy green vegetables. Include a little olive oil, some
avocado, olives, or nuts for healthful fats, and you have a balanced and
beautiful mix of foods that will calm your nerves while strengthening your
Portions of the book, Diet and Stress, Simple Solutions used by permission.
To obtain a copy of this book, go to www.lifestylematters.com
Nutrition Effects on Stress