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How vitamin C impacts your stress response

I’ve talked about Vitamin C as an immune boosting antioxidant before, but did you know that vitamin C can also help you handle stress better?

Your body needs Vitamin C to generate neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, and stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. It’s a vicious circle when you’re stressed: stress depletes vitamin C in the body and when you lack vitamin C, it increases feelings of stress and anxiety.

How does this work?

Your adrenals are two tiny (walnut-sized) glands located right above your kidneys. These glands manage stress and produce the hormone cortisol, which is also known as your “stress” hormone. The more stress you have (if you feel it or not), the more cortisol your adrenals will produce. The adrenals are also responsible for producing adrenaline (the hormone epinephrine), which will put you in alert mode by hitting the panic button in your brain. Your adrenal gland is also where your body stores vitamin C. Compared to animals, we humans are not able to produce our own Vitamin C, so we must consume it in our diet to have adequate levels. When your adrenals produce cortisol, epinephrine or norepinephrine, vitamin C is needed for output of these hormones. So you can imagine that your stores of vitamin C can become easily depleted when stressed.

In one really cool study, participants who took 3x1mg vitamin C supplements per day for just two weeks prior to being asked to perform mental arithmetic and public speaking had substantially better regulated stress responses—including lower cortisol release, blood pressure, and subjective feelings of stress. High dietary intake of vitamin C is known to reduce risk of stress-related disorders like depression and anxiety.

How does stress impact anxiety & your mood?

Anxiety & mood are impacted by high cortisol as it diminishes the output of serotonin which is your happy hormone or neurotransmitter. When serotonin levels are low, you get nervous and anxious.

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis represents the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands; it plays an important role in the stress response, but also regulates other body processes like digestion, the immune system, mood, emotions and sexuality. It’s a neuroendocrine system, meaning that it deals both with the brain and the hormones. It’s basically your brain instructign your adrenal glands to secrete hormones. If you are overusing it, your HPA axis can become dysfunctional, meaning that the communication will “off”, your adrenals can start to overproduce cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine and your body will go into a state of chronic stress and anxiety.

These hormones signal the brain that the body is stressed and in “survival” mode. This means that the other processes in the body shut down to focus on survival. For example, high levels of cortisol can decrease sexual arousal and libido, because the body is trying to preserve life rather than create new life. They will lower progesterone for the same reason.

High levels of cortisol are linked to

  • weight gain,

  • sleep disorders,

  • hormonal imbalances,

  • fertility issues

  • and anxiety

So, high levels of cortisol can basically diminish the levels of other hormones in the body.

Conditions and lifestyle factors that can affect our HPA axis:

  • Stress (and stress can cause all of the below)

  • Blood sugar imbalance

  • Dehydration

  • Nutrient depletion

  • Sleep disorders or poor sleep habits

  • Gut dysfunction or dysbiosis

  • Infection

  • Inflammation

  • Hormonal birth control or other medication

  • Thyroid disease

  • Autoimmune diseases

How does stress manifest in your body?

Your perception or your body’s interpretation of stress is what provokes your sympathetic nervous system - or your fight, flight, or freeze signals.

Our ancestors needed to be able to flee or be alert in order to protect themselves from threats around them.

The issue is that we are getting these signals all the time today, be it an email we receive from a colleague, client or our boss that’s putting us in alert mode, anger, or fire fighting mode. This is how our body is helping us get through this ‘threat’ . The issue is, we are not able to run off the pumped cortisol & adrenaline anymore to resolve it, we are actually sitting at a desk all day.

This is called an evolutionary mismatch. It means that our environment has changed faster than our body is able to adapt.

Today, our daily stressors come from paying bills, public speaking, worrying about our kids, or asking someone on a date. This stress is legitimate, but it’s often psychological stressors we put on ourselves. On top of that, most of us will be skipping meals, going to bed late, drinking alcohol & coffee (instead of going for a walk or doing yoga etc) to sabotage the “safe” signal to our body.

This confuses our brain. Our body is telling us we are in danger, but our brain can’t see the threat, so what does it do? It hits the panic button hard because what’s worse than life-threatening danger? Not knowing what the danger is or what you could possibly do about it.

Have you ever felt nervous or anxious but you weren’t sure why? You felt your heart racing and your palms sweating, but you couldn’t figure out why? You probably started to feel even more anxious as a result.

Your brain is responding to “misplaced anxiety” with more anxiety. This puts your body in “survival mode,” even though you don’t actually need to worry about survival when doing a presentation.

But that’s why getting up on stage can feel like a make or break moment. Your brain literally thinks that this stress can kill you based on evolutionary experience. It doesn’t have the capacity to separate out different types of anxiety.

So your Fight or flight response or “acute stress response” is the physiological reaction to some sort of stressor. It’s meant to last only short-term. Short stress can be great: increase cognition, energy… - can increase dopamine (reward), can make us addicted too!

Maybe you get stressed every time you sit in traffic. If you sit in rush hour traffic twice a day five days a week, you’re going through this “fight or flight” 10 times per week!

This puts your body into a long-term state of anxiety—whether or not you are conscious of the stressor.

So I want to invite you to have a good look at stressors in your life and see if there are any that you can eliminate?

In order to support your body to better manage stress, you also want to make sure that you are eating & sleeping well, hydrating, getting fresh air daily and especially take care of getting your:

Higher intakes of vitamin C are also linked to reduced risk of heart disease, some forms of cancer, type 2 diabetes, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and gout.

The daily value (DV) of vitamin C is 90 mg; but if you are stressed, have an infection, have an inflammatory condition, or are a smoker, you need even more vitamin C. If you fall into any of these categories, it can be tough to get enough vitamin C from whole food sources.

Vitamin C-rich foods: parsley, bell peppers, broccoli, lemon, lime, & green leafy veggies as much as possible to support your vitamin C levels. Include these in most of your meals and you can also drink warm lemon water which not only provides vitamin C but is also a great support for healthy digestion. Plus, the flavonoids in citrus fruits increase vitamin C bioavailability up to 8 times!

Don't overdo it though: long-term high dose oral vitamin C and E may interfere with the body’s natural anti-oxidant response and can lead to adverse effects such as diarrhea, stomach upset, and kidney stones.

Specific plants like rhodiola, ashwagandha, licorice and ginseng are also great to nourish your adrenals in times of stress.

Here is my ideal supplement list to support your adrenals - B-Vitamins, Magnesium, VitaminC and adaptogenic herbs to nourish your adrenals!


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