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On Nutrition

Foods Rich in Protein, Vitamins Fight Stress

October 29, 2001|AMANDA URSELL | Amanda Ursell, a dietitian and nutritionist, is a London-based freelance journalist. Her column appears twice a month. She can be reached at

When confronted with stress, whether physical or emotional, the body reacts in an ancient and time-honored way--by pumping out adrenaline, a hormone that triggers a cascade of hormonal and nervous responses preparing us for "fight or flight."

Within less than a second of its release, adrenaline increases the heart rate, causes blood to be diverted to muscles and thickens the blood in anticipation of repairing wounds.

This physical response can obviously be very useful. But the stress currently experienced throughout the country requires no rapid physical action. And when stress is chronic, levels of adrenaline remain unnaturally high, increasing the body's need for certain nutrients.

Simply synthesizing--or absorbing--the increased adrenaline requires extra vitamin C. Although most animals can increase their own synthesis of this vitamin (goats can step up vitamin C production by 500%), humans have lost this ability and must rely entirely on dietary sources. Oranges, kiwi fruit, berries and papaya, plus peppers and broccoli, all burst with this vitamin. You should include them, or similar fruits and vegetables, on your daily menu, making a concerted attempt to have at least five servings a day.

If your vitamin C intake is low, the immune system is left wanting, diminishing the activity of macrophages, immune cells that literally eat invading bacteria and viruses.

With weakened macrophages, the body is more prone to outbreaks of colds, flu and cold sores.

You should also regularly consume foods rich in vitamin A, folic acid and zinc. Vitamin A is found in carrots, sweet potatoes and orange and green vegetables; folic acid in black-eyed peas, spinach, kale and enriched breads and cereals; and zinc in oysters, crab, wheat germ, liver, pumpkin seeds and red meat.

A body under stress needs all these nutrients in greater amounts than usual because the nervous system is using more of them, creating a general drain on the body. When this happens, the action of other immune system cells might be reduced.

These cells, called T-cells, make antibodies designed to fight off invading bacterial infections.

Keeping protein intake up is also important. Because the liver, kidneys, lungs and organs are working at full tilt, protein needs can increase by 60%. With the body furiously trying to regenerate itself during this time of metabolic stress, be sure to include foods like fish, chicken, turkey, lean red meats, eggs, milk, soy and other beans at each meal. Oily fish like salmon, trout, tuna and sardines make particularly good protein choices because they also supply essential fats capable of thinning blood, possibly counteracting the blood-thickening properties of adrenaline.

Eating to beat stress is not just about adding certain foods. It is also wise to limit those containing stimulants such as caffeine and guarana, which strain a nervous system already on red alert.

And go carefully on the alcohol. Even moderate amounts reduce levels of folic acid and other nutrients that boost the immune system.

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