The Health Costs of Chronic Stress
Even before COVID-19, Americans rated among the most stressed-out people in the world. Now, all of us have even more to worry about. We all stress out when things are beyond our control. It’s only human. We have faced months of separation from family members and friends. Some of us have loved ones who are in the hospital or dying alone. Those on the front lines of the pandemic – healthcare workers, essential workers, caregivers, first responders – daily experience risk, and trauma that can have long term consequences. Others face months of unemployment and financial stress, with no end in sight.
The costs of chronic stress are not “all in your head.” When you feel threatened, your body responds with fear. It shifts to fight-or-flight, flooding your body with chemical signals, and turning on the acute stress response. This is a good thing when you need it, in the short term. In the long term, it can weaken the immune system and compromise overall health.
How Chronic Stress Weakens the Immune System
When we are under threat, the body prioritizes its resources to fuel the acute stress response. Nutrients from our food and other metabolic precursors are taken away from long-term needs (like heart health and immune health) to prepare the body for fight-or-flight. The body releases cortisol and other stress hormones. If this goes on for a long time, it may lead to:
- Blood Sugar Instability – Cortisol increases blood sugar levels and suppresses insulin. Chronic stress can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain, type II diabetes, and other metabolic problems. Diabetes is linked to severe forms of COVID-19, so keeping blood sugar levels stable is more important than ever.
- Weakened Immune Response – as resources are prioritized for cortisol production over other metabolic pathways, it can weaken the body’s ability to fight off viruses and other pathogens.
- Uncontrolled Inflammatory Response – a balanced immune response both initiates and resolves inflammation. When the immune system is weakened by chronic stress, it may lose its ability to turn off the inflammatory cascade, leading to an excessive response and chronic inflammation.
Four Key Nutrients for Immune Support
While we may not be able to remove the life stressors we experience during the COVID-19 lockdown, we can support the immune system by making sure that it has the nutrients it needs to keep up with the added metabolic stress. Four nutrients at the top of the list are B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, and trace minerals. The best place to get all of these is from whole foods. Whole foods give your body everything it needs in the form that it needs – the complex of nutrients and cofactors needed for metabolism. If you do decide to supplement, use a high-quality whole-foods supplement, such as those from Standard Process. Avoid synthetic vitamin isolates.
- B complex vitamins have multiple functions for the immune and nervous system, as well as heart health. They are easily depleted under chronic stress. Your body can’t store most of them a well-long term, so you need a steady supply. And, yes, liver is packed full of B vitamins!
- Vitamin C has a crucial role in adrenal function and cortisol production, and it is easy to get from fresh greens and fruit. Don’t waste your money on ascorbic acid supplements.
- Magnesium is essential for managing stress. The body can only utilize so much at a time, so we need a continuous supply. Many of us are deficient in magnesium because modern soils are depleted in minerals, so it’s worth considering a plant-based supplement that provides multiple forms of magnesium, such as Standard Process EZ-Mag.
- Trace minerals are likewise essential for managing stress, relaxation, and sleep, but are often depleted in soils, so it is worth considering a supplement such as Standard Process Min-Tran.
Whole Body & Mind Support
While we can’t control all of the stressors impacting us in the world right now, we can help support body and mind by taking a holistic and preventative approach to our health. This should include healthy lifestyle habits, like exercise and meditation, as well as a balanced whole foods diet. For some people under extra stress, whole foods nutritional supplements are needed for adequate support. Consider a telehealth consult with a qualified healthcare professional to evaluate your health needs and develop a nutritional prescription for you.
Elizabeth Zenger, Ph.D., L.Ac. is a licensed acupuncturist, board-certified Chinese herbalist, and certified Autoimmune Paleo Coach. Call 503-227-2127 for more information or to schedule an appointment.