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Dr. Laura Pipher

Dr. Laura Pipher

The Importance of protein during stress

Are you stressed?

Chronic psychosocial stress has adverse effects on the physical and mental health of individuals. In the initial stages, stress is important to promote adaptation, maintenance of homeostasis, and survival. When stress becomes chronic, it can lead to unfortunate consequences that can promote and exacerbate illness. Research has found that people who are under prolonged psychological stress are at high risk for conditions such as burnout which is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment (1). 

The stress response starts in the brain, where a stressor causes the activation of our SAM axis (sympathetic-adrenal-medullary), which leads to the release of neurotransmitters epinephrine and epinephrine and cortisol. Consistent, chronic and long term activation of the SAM results in chronically high cortisol concentrations. Long term high levels of cortisol can lead to undesireable consequences including insulin resistance, weight gain and other metabolic consequences including blood pressure and cholesterol issues (1).

Studies have data to support the idea that those individuals who are more stressed are prone to getting sick more frequently and accumulation of stress has been associated with chronic immune suppression (7). Additionally, stress associated with family dysfunction has been reported to be significantly associated with increased incidence of upper respiratory tract infection and influenza (7). 

The relevance of protein during stress

Stress causes a number of changes to our body including increased urinary nitrogen loss, increased metabolic rate & increased requirement of nutrients (2,7). The reason this occurs is because during a stress response the body mobilizes amino acids and produces glucose to provide cells involved in the host immune response with energy (2). The main hormones involves in this include:  cortisol, catecholamines, and glucagon(2).  in response to these mechanisms, the body experiences a loss of adipose and lean body tissues. while with short term stress, these mechanisms are short lived and unlikely to cause an issue, if the stressor is intense and prolonged, a catabolic state with increased protein loss will occur (7). 

Research on changes in protein has been further evaluated in military personnel  who are exposed to many external stressors throughout their training which combine to cause muscle degradation (3).  In this population, an optimal protein intake, and in particular essential amino acids have been shown to be an integral ingredient in a restored anabolic response during the stress state (3). 

Protein catabolism is a normal response to stress and cannot be prevented, although an adequate intake can help to replenish the lost protein (7). Loss of nitrogen usually peaks five to ten days after the stressor occurs (7). 


Treatment with protein

Research has looked into supplementing with amino acids, vitamins and minerals for those experiencing stress(4).  One study showed that daily supplementation with amino acids and vitamins and minerals resulted in a significantly greater improvement in subjective perceived stress compared with the placebo group after the 12-week intervention (4). The findings from this study were consistent with results from previous studies. 


Specific Amino Acids: Tryptophan

Serotonin is one of the most powerful neurotransmitters, with widespread effects in behavioural and neuropsychological processes including mood, cognition, perception, stress responses, appetite, memory, and sleep/circadian rhythms. In the periphery, serotonin acts as a gastrointestinal regulating agent and a modulator of vasoconstriction/dilation. Serotonin inhibits stress, eating by controlling the alarm hormone serotonin and can be increased choosing tryptophan rich food. Protein supplies the body with the important amino acids needed for mental health 

The main determinant of central serotonin synthesis is the ratio of free L Tryptophan to the sum of CAA. This ratio represents the best indicator of brain serotonin synthesis (5).  

Tips for increasing your protein intake

The goal in a lot of the research for protein intake during times of stress is normally 1.1g per kg body weight. This means in an average 150lb adult the protein goal would be about 75g per day. Keep in mind it is important to speak to your naturopathic doctor to determine your individual protein needs. 

Below are some ways to increase protein in your day. 










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