In these uncertain times, it’s normal to be feeling higher levels of stress. Vitamin C has been extensively studied for its immune supporting properties, as it is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from potentially harmful free radicals. The role of vitamin C in stress and adrenal health however, is far less well known. Steph Lowe, Nutritionist at Melrose Health and The Natural Nutritionist, explores what happens to your vitamin C level when you are stressed, and what you can do to support your health during these challenging times.
What is stress?
As humans we are designed to undergo stress. The right amount of stress helps you perform under pressure, motivates you to do your best and keeps you safe when danger arises. Chronic stress however, is problematic. Let’s take a deeper dive.
Stress & Vitamin C – The Link
The largest concentration of vitamin C in the body is stored in the adrenal glands, the location of stress hormone production. Cortisol in particular, requires the utilization of vitamin C which means a rapid depletion can occur with the overproduction of cortisol due to chronic stress. With longer term vitamin C depletion, your adrenal glands continue to release more cortisol which can cause impaired digestive health, hormonal balances, anxiety, the accumulation of belly fat, otherwise known as ‘the cortisol pouch, and more. Here’s why:
Digestive Health – Vitamin C is essential for the production of collagen which strengthens the integrity of your gut wall and prevents conditions such as increased intestinal permeability. It is important to also note than when stress activates the ‘flight or fight’ response, digestion significantly slows down because cortisol moves blood away from the digestive tract and towards the brain and muscle. This impairs transit time and therefore, the elimination of waste from the body. Furthermore, chronic stress has the ability to alter gut microbiota (the balance of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract) in an unfavourable manner, which wreaks havoc on digestion and systemic health.
Hormonal Imbalance – Chronic stress fundamentally alters the body’s hormone balance, taking our reproductive hormones off-line as a protective mechanism from an evolutionary stand-point. We must also consider the pregnenolone steal, as when cortisol levels are high for prolonged periods of time, pregnenolone converts immediately to cortisol instead of the intermediary progesterone. Amongst other things, low progesterone is a common cause of amenorrhea, or the absence of a menstrual cycle in females. As vitamin C can lower cortisol levels, it plays a very important part in the hormonal re-balancing puzzle.
Weight Gain – Have ever wondered why you can’t budge that lower belly fat no matter how many how hard you try? When under long term stress, both insulin and cortisol remain elevated in the blood which causes extra glucose to be stored as fat, mostly in the lower abdomen. Excess cortisol production has also been linked to sugar cravings, as poor blood sugar creates 3.30-itis and the associated food choices. Let’s be honest, when was the last time you craved broccoli when you were stressed?
Mental Health – Significantly, all of these detrimental health outcomes have disadvantageous effects on your mood and mental health, including a higher chance of experiencing anxiety and depression. Not only are low vitamin C levels linked to anxiety and depression, but vitamin C is an essential cofactor in the production of our happy hormones, the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine (noradrenalin). It makes senses why adequate vitamin C levels are essential for stress resilience and your ability to bounce back from stressful situations faster.
So what can you do?
As I always say, it’s not the presence of stress that’s necessarily the problem, but the absence of relaxation. Start by nourishing yourself with wholefoods, including vitamin C-rich broccoli, spinach, capsicum, strawberries and citrus fruit. From here, boost your dietary intake of vitamin C from a high quality supplement such as one from Australian brand, Melrose, practice meditation or mindfulness, and seek practitioner support if you need further assistance optimising your health.
About Steph Lowe:
Steph Lowe is a Sports Nutritionist, yogi and founder of The Natural Nutritionist, a hub for celebrating the importance of real food, and author of Low Carb Healthy Fat Nutrition. With a passion for spreading a positive message about real food and the incredible affect it has on performance, Steph launched The Natural Nutritionist in 2011 and is on a mission to inspire others to make health a priority in their lives. Along with running The Natural Nutritionist, Steph hosts the podcast, The Real Food Reel, is the resident Nutritionist for Melrose Health and has an online 12-week online program, LCHF Endurance.