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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

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

Foods for Poor Circulation

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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.

  • In healthy people, free radical production is minimized by the body's natural defense system and dietary anti-radical substances.

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 1. 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 1. Healthy controls had normal vitamin C values. The authors concluded that abdominal stress reduces vitamin C levels.

Vitamin C and Smoking

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Schetman and colleagues investigated the effect of smoking on the vitamin C status of 11,592 subjects 2. 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. 2"

Vitamin E and Smoking

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

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.


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.