The nutritional biochemistry of stress and anxiety – and the dietary factors you need to consider

The nutritional biochemistry of stress and anxiety – and the dietary factors you need to consider

By Joshua Sutherland, Bachelor of Health Science (Nutritional Medicine)

When it comes to feeling anxious and stressed, diet is undoubtedly a double-edged sword. Diet possesses the ability to return the nervous system to a state of wellness, and the ability to send our bodies into a self-perpetuating cycle of stress, anxiety and even depression-like symptoms. Fortunately, there is a fundamental biochemical pathway that, when explained in a forthright manner, helps to put these complex issues in some perspective.

Before this biochemical pathway is discussed, however, it is necessary to explore the underlying evolutionary biology. Our bodies are amazingly well equipped to facilitate short-term stress responses. Unfortunately, these mechanisms begin to unravel in the face of long-term chronic ‘psychologically driven’ stress.

In essence, psychological stress is a relatively new phenomena that evolved when humans developed unprecedented levels of self-awareness. Once upon a time, the predatory lion was relegated to the plains of the Serengeti. Now, however, self-awareness brings abstracted threat into both our past and future lives. Put simply, humans are now running from predators – real or otherwise – on a perpetual basis, with our stress responses being subjected to potentially unending stimuli.

To make matters even more complicated, modernity offers a plethora of dietary factors that can hasten anxiety – namely a near unlimited supply of sugars. Refined carbohydrates constitute the great ‘stress catch-22’. In the aftermath of a stress response, our now depleted blood-sugar levels send the signal for sugar, whilst our reward system cries out for a hit of sweetening comfort. Unfortunately, satiating these demands is often overcompensated, resulting in the makings of an entirely new cascade of stress.

This brings us to perhaps the most fundamental nutritional biochemical pathway underlying stress-driven nervous-system dysfunction. There are three primary characters in this tale of dysfunction:

1. Sugar, the destructive antagonist
2. Magnesium, the defiant protagonist, and
3. Insulin, the innocent bystander.

In effect, magnesium is the great ally of the nervous system. When a stress response occurs, it is magnesium’s job to start catalysing a myriad of down-regulatory calming processes.

Meanwhile, insulin is a hormone that is released in response to sugar consumption, and helps our cells absorb sugar for energy. In times of chronic stress, however, excessive demand on this system may result in higher levels of insulin remaining in our systems for longer.

Regrettably for magnesium, overly high levels of insulin inadvertently play the role of kryptonite. Unfortunately, insulin also promotes the excretion of magnesium from the kidneys into urine. To add insult to injury, this sudden drop in magnesium will then deplete intracellular magnesium, where it plays a vital role in successful insulin signalling.

What follows is a cascade of dysregulation that ultimately results in the individual craving more and more sugar, whilst being less and less able to metabolise it, resulting in greater and greater loss of magnesium – with the individual becoming more and more stressed in the process!

Breaking through this catch-22 may seem like an impossible task, but as usual, knowledge and understanding come to the rescue. Both aspects of this article – the evolutionary biology and the nutritional biochemistry – help to shed light on how one might pull themselves back from stress induced anxiety.

The evolutionary biology demonstrates that we exist at a disadvantage. Our bodies, minds and environment are still in a complex struggle for equilibrium. Guilt over how we react to stress is only ever going to perpetuate the issue. Mindfulness techniques, however, are rising in popularity, and helping people navigate this aspect of the stress story.

Meanwhile, the nutritional biochemistry reveals that steering our nervous systems towards wellness, starts with systematically decreasing refined carbohydrates, whilst increasing magnesium rich foods. Discussing magnesium supplementation with a qualified healthcare professional could also assist in breaking the stress cycle in its initial stage.

Dietary factors that help stabilise insulin levels in times of stress include:

  • Starting your day with a high protein meal
  • Consume carbohydrates primarily in complex forms, such as sweet potatoes
  • If consuming grains, substitute to sorghum – a gluten free pseudo-grain that is low in defensive-plant-toxins (but be sure to soak grain to reduce anti-nutrients)
  • Substitute cauliflower rice for traditional rice
  • Increase magnesium rich foods, such as spinach, dark chocolate, goats’ milk / yoghurt / kefir, sprouted almonds, and bananas


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