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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.”

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