Joanne SmithStress is a normal physiological reaction. In short bursts, it is beneficial to our health and survival. However, studies demonstrate that people with disabilities tend to experience more stress due to chronic physical pain, financial strain, difficulties with activities of everyday living and inaccessible environments. Prolonged stress wreaks havoc on our body, often exacerbating other disability-related health conditions.

The detrimental effects of chronic stress are due to an overabundance of stress hormones. Our adrenal glands, located on top of our kidneys, produce and release stress hormones in response to any kind of physical, mental or emotional stress. Cortisol is the most damaging hormone to our health when over-secreted into our blood stream. So what does this have to with disability and nutrition? Lots.

Stress decreases our digestive function and our ability to break down and absorb nutrients. It lowers our production of stomach acid, which is critical to the breakdown and absorption of minerals and protein. Stress also makes our digestive enzymes less effective. These enzymes are required to help digest fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. However, cortisol can increase the acidification of our tissues, which in turn inhibits digestive enzyme activity, thus reducing enzymes’ effectiveness in digesting the nutrients we consume.

disability and stressMany people with conditions such as traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy have compromised digestive systems and tend to experience nutrient deficiencies. Stress worsens pre-existing weakened digestive function, further diminishing nutrient levels and ultimately putting individuals at greater risk of developing multiple secondary health conditions.

Stress hormones can cause nutrients in the body to be used up more quickly. For example, magnesium stored in muscle tissue and calcium stored in bones is depleted, putting individuals with osteoporosis at risk for further bone loss. Vitamin C, necessary for immune health and skin integrity, is used to make adrenal hormones, and therefore is not as readily available to protect individuals who may be vulnerable to pressure sores or have a high risk of respiratory infections. Additionally, B vitamins are diminished as they are also used to create adrenal hormones, therefore negatively impacting energy levels of people at risk for fatigue, such as those with any kind of neuromuscular disease.  Finally, nutrient deficiencies from stress contribute to weakening the immune system.

The good news is when you are under stress there are numerous nutritional strategies you can incorporate into your daily regime that can help combat its negative effects.

1. Increase intake of vitamin C. Foods like green/red peppers, kale, broccoli, and citrus fruits will help replenish what is lost through the production of stress hormones and support your immune system.

2. Increase intake of B vitamins. This will help replenish what is lost, support adrenal function and energy production. Try avocadoes, legumes, lentils and oats.

3. Reduce caffeine and alcohol, which stimulate your adrenal glands, contributing to adrenal stress/fatigue.

4. Increase intake of probiotics. These healthy bacteria play an important role in the digestion of food, facilitate the dissemination of nutrients and stimulate intestinal transit. Additionally, probiotics improve the absorption of B vitamins, help reduce the loss of vitamin C and strengthen your immune system. Try plain unsweetened yogurt, sauerkraut, fermented vegetables, miso and kombucha.

5. Take vitamin D supplements. It is well known that vitamin D plays a critical role in preventing osteoporosis, but research also reveals it plays an important role in supporting immune function.

Negative Effects of High Cortisol

Prolonged stress can contribute to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety, memory and concentration problems, arthritis, reduced sex drive, osteoporosis and reduced immune function/increased risk of infection.

High cortisol levels can also lead to weight gain, increased risk of blood clotting, elevated blood sugar, worse premenstrual and menopause symptoms, breakdown of bone mass, disrupted sleep, mood swings and high blood pressure, among other health concerns.

Anti-Stress Siberian Ginseng Tea*

This beneficial botanical is often referred to as “adaptogen” because it helps us adapt to, or cope with, stress. The anti-stress action is mediated by mechanisms that control the adrenal glands. Siberian ginseng delays the onset and reduces the severity of the “alarm phase” of the body’s short and long-term response to stress.

ginseng-tea1 large pinch raw
Siberian ginseng root
2 cups water
1 tea ball
Bring water to boil, pour in large mug. Place Siberian ginseng root in tea ball and put in mug. Steep for at least 10 minutes. Enjoy hot or cold!

*Do not consume if you are pregnant, on blood thinning medications or have high blood pressure.

Joanne Smith is a nutritionist and co-author of
Eat Well Live Well with SCI and Other Neurological Conditions. For more information on nutrition for neurological injuries, go to