Vitamins That Deplete Under Stress

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Stress is a threat to a person's well-being. Acute illness such as trauma, infection, inflammation, burns, surgery; chronic disease such as diabetes and heart disease; smoking; and exercise trigger stress. The body handles stress by means of an elaborate system involving enzymes and dietary compounds including antioxidant vitamins and minerals.

Antioxidant Vitamins

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Only two vitamins have documented antioxidant properties against stress: vitamin C or ascorbic acid, and vitamin E. An antioxidant is a substance that decreases the side effects of free radicals. Free radicals, or pro-oxidants, are highly unstable and reactive molecules that can undermine the body's ability to defend itself -- a process called oxidative stress.

Vitamin Depletion

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In healthy people, free radical production is minimized by the body's natural defense system and dietary anti-radical substances. Free radicals are natural byproducts of cell metabolism. However, under stress, pro-oxidant levels exceed antioxidant concentrations. To reestablish health and balance, vitamins C and E are mobilized from body stores to neutralize free radicals. Vitamin C fights free radicals in body tissues and blood plasma, while vitamin E protects fat-rich molecules, such as LDL and HDL cholesterol, and fat cells from oxidation. This effort results in the depletion of vitamin C and E in body stores.

Vitamin C and Infection

A study published in a 2005 issue of the "British Journal of Surgery" reports that acute infection results in lower plasma vitamin C levels. To determine the effect of severe infection -- acute pancreatitis -- on vitamin C stores, the authors recruited 30 healthy volunteers, 29 patients with acute pancreatitis and 27 patients with other abdominal illnesses. Results showed patients with acute pancreatitis had the lowest vitamin C levels, compared with patients with other abdominal crises. Healthy controls had normal vitamin C values. The authors concluded that abdominal stress reduces vitamin C levels.

Vitamin C and Smoking

Schetman and colleagues investigated the effect of smoking on the vitamin C status of 11,592 subjects. They found that people who smoked 20 cigarettes every day, had the lowest vitamin C levels, compared to subjects who smoked fewer than 19 cigarettes daily and non-smokers. The study was published in a 1989 issue of the "American Journal of Public Health."

Vitamin E and Smoking

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An investigation released in a news report in 2004 issue of the "Linus Pauling Research Institute" found that smoking causes rapid vitamin E depletion from the blood. Furthermore, vitamin E disappears faster when vitamin C levels are low.

Vitamin C and Exercise

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In a 2004 interview, Dr. Bruno of the Linus Pauling Research Institute stated that exercise-induced oxidative stress causes vitamin C exhaustion. However reductions in vitamin C levels are temporary in trained athletes, because vitamin C concentrations normalize after a few days.


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Eat a balanced diet with five to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables every day to obtain maximum levels of dietary antioxidants. To boost your vitamin E levels, include whole grains, nuts and seeds, egg yolks and vitamin E- fortified foods in your diet. Consult your doctor about vitamin supplementation.