Nutrition Strategies for Stress and Pain Management

Research shows that certain foods may help our bodies fight the damaging effects of chronic stress and pain.

Stress and pain diminish quality of life for millions of Americans and cost billions in healthcare expenses and lost wages.

Surveys suggest most Americans feel they’re experiencing unhealthy levels of stress, and nearly 80% of adults say they’ve endured more stress in the past 5 years.Aboutone-thirdofadultssurveyed reported physical and mental complications from too much stress (APA 2013). Meanwhile, 1 in 3 Americans suffers from chronic pain—most commonly back pain and osteoarthritis—more than the number affected by heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined (IOM 2011). For many people, chronic stress and pain occur together.

What can diet do about a problem this large? As tempting as “comfort foods” may be, they are full of fat and sugar and counterproductive for dealing with stress and pain. Fortunately, researchers are finding that a few key nutrition habits may reduce the effects of stress and pain on the body.

Fighting Stress With Food

A little stress in our lives is beneficial (Aschbachar et al. 2013). However, feeling too much stress too often or for too long is clearly harmful. Stress tells the body to unleash its “fight-or-flight” response, prompting the release of stress hormones—including cortisol, noradrenaline and adrenaline—to prepare for a physical feat. The thing is, while this response worked well for our hunter-gatherer ancestors who really did have to fight or flee, it does not work well for modern-day emotional or psychological stress. Repeatedly triggering the stress response takes a toll in the form of high blood pressure, impaired relationships, anxiety, depression, addiction, obesity, and other conditions such as chronic pain.

Several strategies for alleviating stress have been well studied and documented. They include making a concerted effort to minimize stressors, engaging in meditation and physical activity, and nurturing strong social relationships. Unfortunately, too many people turn to a detrimental coping method—eating—which leaves them feeling lazy and sluggish, depressed about their bodies and disappointed in themselves. This outcome contributes to weight gain and an increased risk of obesity. Stressed-out people recognize what’s happening but still have a hard time breaking the cycle (APA 2013).

While it is generally a bad idea to eat for psychological reasons, there are beneficial ways to use food to manage or prevent complications from stress. An area of emerging interest and promise is applying healthful nutritional strategies not only to help beat stress but also to stay healthy in spite of chronic stress.

Promoting Our Happiness Hormones

Chronic stress can reduce levels of serotonin, the body’s “feel-good” hormone. Serotonin is thought to be a key moderator of mood, appetite, sleep and memory. Some foods that may increase serotonin contain high levels of tryptophan, an amino acid needed to produce this “happiness hormone.”

Incorporating tryptophan-rich foods into a daily nutrition strategy is often advised as a way of raising serotonin levels and countering stress and depression. Additionally, vitamin D may enable the body to convert tryptophan to serotonin more effectively (Fox 2015). Other amino acids—like tyrosine, methionine and phenylalanine—also serve as precursors to important neurotransmitters (dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA) that influence mental health. How well these amino acids can cross the blood-brain barrier to impact mental health is variable and an area of active investigation.

Nutritional strategies may also be aimed at decreasing the intensity or effects of stress-induced conditions like high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and insomnia. For example, potassium-rich foods can assist in lowering blood pressure. Some herbal substances, such as chamomile (Amsterdam et al. 2009), may lessen anxiety and depression, and there is some evidence that foods like tart cherries may improve sleep quality through production of melatonin (Howatson 2012).

Nutrition and Chronic-Pain Response

People who feel chronic stress are more susceptible to developing pain. This may be due at least in part to the body’s inability to regulate inflammation when stress keeps cortisol levels chronically elevated. The inflammation contributes to pain and other harmful effects such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Consuming foods that fight inflammation is one way to help blunt the pain response.

Omega-3 fatty acids are among the most studied and best-known nutrients with potent anti-inflammatory effects (Calder 2013). Incorporating these powerful agents into a regular meal plan can lessen the burden of stress and pain, helping to preserve good health. Options range from including omega-3-rich fatty fish like tuna and salmon into a weekly meal plan to adding omega-3-rich foods to common meals (for example, tossing chopped nuts or avocado into a salad). The sidebar “Foods That May Help to Fight Pain” suggests more nutrients and foods that may assist with managing pain.

Nutrition Is Medicine

Ultimately, nutrition plays a substantial role managing chronic stress and pain, though the precise mechanisms and requirements for attaining this benefit are still under active scientific investigation. While scientists unravel the details, thinking of nutrition as medicine may improve the outlook of people who endure chronic stress and pain, while also enhancing their overall health.

Stress-Fighting Foods

The following foods may not make the stress go away, but they may reduce the negative health effects that are highly associated with chronic stress, including depression, anxiety, insomnia and cardiovascular disease.

  • Turkey, shrimp, dairy, soy and pumpkin
    seeds contain high amounts of the amino acid tryptophan, which is associated with a boost in the “happiness hormone” serotonin, which in turn may lessen depression and anxiety.
  • Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and asparagus are loaded with folic acid, a vitamin associated with serotonin production.
  • Dairy products, sunshine and other sources of vitamin D may boost serotonin levels through an increase in the enzyme that converts tryptophan to serotonin.
  • Oatmeal and other complex carbohydrates can stimulate the brain to produce serotonin. Carbohydrates that are absorbed more slowly help to ensure a steadier supply of seroton


Amsterdam, J.D., et al. 2009. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of oral matricaria recutita (chamomile) extract therapy of generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 29 (4), 378-82.
APA (American Psychological Association). 2013. Stress in America. Accessed Jan. 2, 2015.
Aschbachar, K., et al. 2013. Good stress, bad stress and oxidative stress: Insights from anticipatory cortisol reactivity. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38 (9), 1898-1708.
Calder, P.C. 2013. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammatory processes: Nutrition or pharmacology? British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 75 (3), 645-62.
Fox, J.C. 2015. Research suggests vitamin D could affect brain function. Boston Globe. Accessed Jan. 5, 2015.
Howatson, G., et al. 2012. Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. European Journal of Nutrition, 51 (8), 909-916.
IOM (Institute of Medicine). 2011. Relieving pain in America: A blueprint for transforming prevention, care, education, and research. Accessed Jan. 2, 2015.
Kuptniratsaikul, V., et al. 2009. Efficacy and safety of Curcuma domestica extracts in patients with knee osteoarthritis. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15 (8), 891-97.
Leong, D.J., et al. 2013. Nutraceuticals: Potential for chondroprotection and molecular targeting of osteoarthritis. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 14 (11), 23063-85.
Ribel-Madsen, S., et al. 2012. A synoviocyte model for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis: Response to ibuprofen, betamethasone, and ginger extract–a cross sectional in vitro study. Arthritis. doi: 10.1155/2012/505842, epub 2012 Dec. 31.

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD

"Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP, is a board-certified pediatrician and obesity medicine physician, registered dietitian and health coach. She practices general pediatrics with a focus on healthy family routines, nutrition, physical activity and behavior change in North County, San Diego. She also serves as the senior advisor for healthcare solutions at the American Council on Exercise. Natalie is the author of five books and is committed to helping every child and family thrive. She is a strong advocate for systems and communities that support prevention and wellness across the lifespan, beginning at 9 months of age."

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