Before Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye began his seminal research in the ’30s on stress, the word was just an engineering term. “The amount of stress on a bridge is the load it can carry before damage occurs, and it’s the same with our bodies: Only a certain amount can be tolerated before there is damage,” says Aileen Burford-Mason, Ph.D., an immunologist and former assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto. It’s a topic she explores in her new book, The Healthy Brain. “The brain uses nutrients at 10 times the rate of any other tissue,” she explains. “It’s the first place to wobble when under-supplied.”
How does stress affect mood?
“Think of stress as a vacuum hose that drains your dopamine— the ‘ happy hormone’ that keeps you upbeat and focused—to make the adrenalin you need to handle stress. As dopamine drops, you start to feel unfocused and unable to concentrate. Mood and energy levels slump.”
In the book, you point to studies that show that supplements, like tyrosine, B vitamins and magnesium, can help manage stress.
“All the essential nutrients interact together. There’s no one nutrient that you can say ‘Take this and it will wipe out the problem.’ Tyrosine [found in protein-rich foods] is the building block for dopamine, and it depends on many nutrients. Two key ones that are also drained by stress are vitamin C and magnesium. If you give people tyrosine and they don’t have the other basic nutrients, it won’t convert to dopamine, which needs vitamin C and magnesium to produce the adrenal hormones.”
What about adaptogens, like licorice root, that are said to be adrenal regulators?
“They’re useful, but they’re not my first choice. If I employed all the nutritional approaches—for example, correct diet, eating enough protein—and there was still room for improvement, then I might look at some of them to see where the research is.”
We hear the term “adrenal fatigue” used by alternativemedicine practitioners. What is your opinion?
“Under stress, the adrenal glands enlarge to make more hormones. If the stress continues relentlessly and nutrition isn’t provided, the glands atrophy. Adrenal fatigue as a diagnosis is very controversial and generally not accepted by mainstream medicine. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful. There are ways of coping with stress, like nutritional support, meditation, exercise, listening to music and massage therapy.”