A small amount of stress can be beneficial. Short-term stress can boost our energy to get a job done. It can motivate us when we have a big workload or a pressing deadline. Would we even get dressed without some form of end goal? Athletes use adrenalin and other stress hormones to help them endure tough challenges.
Ongoing or chronic stress is the bad boy. This can cause many problems. One of the negative effects of stress is that it can deplete our body of many vital nutrients. Zinc is one of these nutrients. It is a micro mineral that our body does not store. Falling levels can have a negative impact on our health. Depletion can affect immunity, digestive function, sleep and even our mood.
What are the symptoms of chronic stress?
Long-term or excessive stress levels may show in the following ways1:
- Mood - irritability, excessive or poor appetite, sleeping issues, social avoidance or substance abuse.
- Physically – headaches, muscle aches, digestive discomfort, a faster heartbeat or even sexual problems.
- Mentally – brain fog, indecision, feeling overwhelmed, worrying and being forgetful.
How does stress deplete zinc levels?
In order to understand chronic stress we must look at what happens when we get completely frazzled. Humans are designed to be able to perform well under duress. This is why we were not eaten by terrible monsters way back when. Survival of the fittest and all that. When we get stressed our caveman brains behave as if there is a ferocious beast lurking in the room.
The hormones adrenaline and cortisol flood the body. Any available sugar is snatched up quickly by the blood and sent to the muscles and the lungs. This is useful for an energy burst that we can use for shouting, stomping and waving our arms about. It also makes our heart race and gives us a big red face.
In the meantime, 'unnecessary' body functions like digestion are shut down. This stops the absorption of nutrients such as zinc. Every resource available is diverted away from the bones, gut and brain. This is all very well for emergency situations. It's an inappropriate response to small dramas.
Ongoing stress puts a lot of pressure on the nervous system. It stops our nutrients being absorbed from the food that we eat. When we are working hard and under pressure we need extra nutrients, not less of them. One study of athletes2 looked at the effects of prolonged or excessive exercise. It was found to increase the amount of zinc secreted. At the same time, the zinc they were able to make available from their food was depleted.
Another factor that can affect our zinc levels is our dietary choices. When tired and hassled, we tend to fall back on sugary foods and fast food. UK adults, particularly those in their twenties, do not get enough zinc in their diets3. This is thought to be because of a reliance on takeout and convenience foods. These tend to be low in nutritional value. Vegan diets have been finger-pointed too. Vegetarian and vegan foods can be lower in zinc than other foods. This means more zinc-rich food must be eaten to fulfil daily needs.
Why do we need zinc?
We need zinc for almost every chemical process in the body.
- It is needed for the production of digestive enzymes. Those are the fellas that break down our food into molecules that are small enough to be carried in the blood. Without enzymes, food will just pass on through without any nourishing benefit. We need those missed nutrients – like zinc. Stress depletes zinc. The lack then interferes with our ability to absorb it in the first place.
- Zinc is needed for neurotransmission, which is the fancy word for the way our nerves carry messages around the body. Low zinc levels have been linked to mood problems like depression and anxiety4. Stress depletes zinc. Low zinc then causes a poor ability to handle stress. Not fair, eh!
- Zinc depletion has been shown to affect sleep quality. Poor quality sleep will not help your stress levels. Another vicious circle.
How can we get more zinc in our food?
There are many good food sources of zinc.
- Meat sources like beef
- Shellfish, especially oysters
- Nuts, seeds and beans, such as almonds, pumpkin seeds and good old baked beans.
- Eggs are good.
- And lovely wheatgerm.
Here’s an example of a one day meal planner that includes plenty of zinc-rich food ideas.
I made it veggie but meat is a good source of zinc too. Feel free to bung some of that in too if you wish.
||Oats soaked overnight to make an overnight bircher muesli or yummy porridge. Top with pumpkin seeds and wheatgerm
||Dairy Free Fig & Caramel Overnight Oats
||Salted caramel bliss balls are delicious and full of zinc. Soaking your nuts and seeds before you use them will make this more nutritionally active.
||Salted Caramel Bliss Balls
||A hearty soup is easy to make and full of goodness. Serve it with a good wholewheat bread.
||Herby Mushroom & Puy Lentil Soup
||A tofu stirfry with wholewheat noodles is a tasty zinc booster. Wild rice can be substituted as an alternative to the noodles too
||Tofu & Vegetable Satay Stir-fry
How can we reduce all this stress in our lives?
Well let's start by making sure we are eating enough zinc-rich foods. Practice breathing exercises to induce calm. Sleeping well, drinking water and keeping active will all help.
Avena sativa is the Latin name for the oat plant. As is a herb that has many benefits, including lovely stress-relieving properties. It's been used to soothe the symptoms of emotional distress.
You can include oats in your diet or try taking a herbal remedy made with the oat plant, such as AvenaCalm, to support yourself through stressful times.