Stress takes on many faces: hyperactivity, fatigue, anxiety, digestive complaints, headaches, nervousness, etcetera.  This blog looks at the internal biochemical causes of stress and related nutrient aspects that we can do something about. 




Internal Stress

Stress can get the betterment of us all and our children are no exemption.  Aside from external life stresses that kid’s face (academic demands, peer pressure, etcetera), their bodies can create profound internal stress, some secondary to external stress and some secondary to mineral deficiency which creates a biochemical/physiological imbalance.   


Cases of Mineral Deficient Stress in Young Girls

A study on school aged girls between 5-10 years old showed increased chronic stress in cases with low levels of zinc, magnesium, and calcium.  In this study, these minerals were assessed using hair tissue mineral analysis.  Chronic stress in this study was based on elevated hair cortisol (the body’s main stress hormone) levels. The Coddington Life Events Scale for Children, a scale that assesses the frequency and timing of positive/negative life events, was also used in this study.

This and several other studies not mentioned here suggest that mineral depletion is associated with childhood stress.  The most highly associated mineral depletions associated with stress in growing kids are magnesium and zinc.

Calcium depletion as mentioned in the above study is quite common in children as many kids have fast metabolisms that demand calcium.  Calcium is important for the development of bones, teeth, nerve, and muscle tissue.   Calcium has a natural sedating effect and can help especially in cases where kids have problems falling asleep.  Calcium uptake is hindered by foods/drinks containing phosphates (soft drinks, sausages, and processed cheese) and phytates (cereals and whole grains) and, by oxalic acid (in rhubarb) and excess fat intake.


Magnesium, Magnesium, Magnesium

Magnesium is one of the most depleted minerals in society.  In times of stress we release stress hormones (cortisol, glucocorticoids) but what few realize is that the body also releases magnesium which is then excreted in the urine and with continued stress propagates a viscous cycle of magnesium depletion.  Magnesium supplementation in such cases can reduce stress hormone release.

In young people, magnesium deficiency is associated with low blood pressure and poor circulation.  Magnesium is useful to alleviate early stage migraine headaches.  So-called ‘psychosomatic’ complaints are often related to magnesium deficiency because day-to-day changes in symptoms can occur easily with magnesium deficiency because it is involved in a variety of complaints; the various complaints include nausea, dizziness, impaired concentration, depression, anxiety, malaise, muscle cramps/spasms (common in kids and adults; also tingling, tetany, numbness), symptoms associated with stomach/intestine/bladder/uterus/gall duct/blood vessel cramping, and heart arrhythmias.  Muscle cramping often takes the form of calf cramps but in the hands and feet it can be painful and cause ‘paw-like’ hand contortions.

Athletic kids can lose magnesium quickly because magnesium is lost with perspiration, especially during intense physical exercise, and active muscles readily take up magnesium.  Some research shows that magnesium intake needs to start several days prior to athletic competition to build magnesium reserves adequately and, in such cases it can reduce muscle cramps and muscle strains.    

In growing kids there is a huge demand for magnesium.  Magnesium deficiency can start in infancy where with this huge demand it is difficult to maintain reserves with such a low body weight.  [Cramping in newborns is associated with magnesium deficiency.]  Kids that are magnesium deficient are often seen with nervousness, cramping, and increased muscle tone and tendon reflexes.  It should be noted that excess magnesium is associated with disturbed bone growth and therefore requires lab monitoring in cases of prolonged excessive use.

Magnesium as the central mineral ion of chlorophyll is found in all green plants so it’s no wonder why ‘eating your greens’ is so important.  Processed foods are lower in magnesium and we lose magnesium when we wash and cook food aggressively.  Modern artificial fertilizer is also devoid of magnesium so today’s agricultural products are accordingly lower in magnesium.  Hard water contains about 6 times more magnesium than soft water and magnesium is high in legumes, bananas, nuts, raisins, mushrooms, vegetables, and whole grains.  Magnesium is low in white bread, pasta, baked goods, sweets and high fat foods.  Magnesium uptake is enhanced with vitamin B6, B1, C, D, and E.


Kids at Risk for Magnesium Deficiency

Those kids at risk for magnesium deficiency are those that:

take excessive calcium supplementation (calcium opposes magnesium)

drink soft water in their home

consume low magnesium foods (the North American Diet), soda pop, or processed foods

take over the counter medications that deplete magnesium

do demanding athletic activities

have digestive disorders


Zinc, Zinc, Zinc

The demand for protein during stress is immense.  In today’s stressful world, kids have great demands for those proteins associated with the stress response such as acute phase proteins (released in response to stress or during illness).  Zinc is involved here because this mineral is intimately associated with the production of protein.  Note that vitamin B6 is also intimately associated with protein production and it is a key anti-stress vitamin.

Zinc is high in animal meat, eggs, dairy, potatoes and whole grains.  Whole grain products are high in zinc but phytate constituents diminish absorption (phytates also deter absorption of magnesium, calcium, and iron).  Zinc absorption is also diminished by high phosphate intake; phosphates are high in soft drinks, processed cheese, and sausages.

Zinc is involved in over 200 enzymatic processes.  Zinc is especially important to growing children where there is a huge demand for this mineral; it is important for physical, mental, and sexual development of children.  Zinc is also important for kids because it is involved in skin health, brain neurotransmitter production/metabolism, the perception of taste and smell, hair growth, immune defense, blood production, free radical protection, and more.  In childhood, the teens, and adulthood we see that zinc is important for learning, attention, memory, and concentration.  Zinc can hinder the absorption of heavy metals such as lead (associated with mental decline in kids) and cadmium.

Zinc is in its depletion mode if your child has poor food intake, perspires excessively (athletic demands for both zinc and magnesium), has diarrhea, or has wounds in the process of healing.

Kids also have great demands placed on their protein and zinc reserves after chronic or acute infection (especially viral infection) because antibodies that your body produces to fight the infections are protein complexes.

Low income status is associated with lower spending on animal products which are more costly but unfortunately the best source of zinc.


Cases of Zinc Depletion in Iran

In 1963, a complex of zinc deficiency symptoms was noted in the poor social class of Iranian children.  Symptoms included testicular atrophy, physical and mental developmental delay, liver/spleen enlargement, anemia, and skin disorders.  Zinc deficiency was deemed to result from low animal product intake, high phosphate/phytate foods, and excessive sweating (in tropical climate).  A few months of zinc supplementation was noted to profoundly alleviate/eradicate symptoms as many regained age-related sexual development, normal pubic hair growth, and accelerated average body growth in one year of 13cm.


Kids at Risk for Zinc Deficiency

Those kids at risk for zinc deficiency are those that:

eat a lot of ‘fast food’

have unbalanced diets or eat very little (note that zinc supplementation can help improve appetite)

are strict vegetarians (vegetarian diets, aside from the lack of meat, may be high in phytates)

are involved in extreme athleticism (excessive sweating)

have intestinal problems, skin conditions, diabetes, frequent or chronic infections, or tissue damage


The BodyMindLink series by Dr Ray Pataracchia ND provides insight on Naturopathic approaches that matter and have the potential to benefit general and mental health.   Clinical approaches discussed are implemented by the Naturopathic Medical Research Clinic (NMRC) in Toronto, Ontario.  Our clinic treats a wide array of health conditions.

Disclaimer: Information provided is not to be used for self-assessment, diagnosis or treatment.  We advise readers to discuss these topics with their health care provider or book an appointment with our Toronto clinic.