The Stress Response and Nutrition

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. About one-third of adults surveyed 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.

Stress triggers a series of reactions in the human body:

  • When the brain detects stress, it secretes a substance called corticotropin-releasing hormone from the hypothalamus, a part of the brain responsible for linking the nervous
    system with the endocrine system.
  • This signal tells the pituitary gland, a pea-sized part of the brain just below the hypothalamus, to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).
  • ACTH travels to the adrenal glands, which release the “stress hormones”—cortisol, noradrenaline and adrenaline.
  • Stress hormones cause heart rate, breathing and blood pressure to rise. The hormones also help to increase blood flow to the large muscle groups, dilate the pupils to increase vision and release stored glucose into the bloodstream.

During acute stress, these hormones assist the body in mounting the critical fight-or-flight response. The larger problem for most people is chronic stress, which can keep cortisol levels elevated and cause considerable harm to the body, including disruption of serotonin balance and chronic inflammation, which contributes to chronic pain.

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 serotonin.
  • Oranges, grapefruits, red and green peppers, and many other fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamin C, which can aid in lowering blood levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and ease the subjective feeling of being stressed.
  • Crunchy veggies like carrots and celery sticks don’t possess any special nutritional content for fighting stress per se, but the crunchy sensation that comes from eating them provides mechanical stress relief.

To read more about how food can counteract the effects of stress, please see “Nutrition Strategies for Stress and Pain Management” in the online IDEA Library or in the April 2015 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.


References

APA (American Psychological Association). 2013. Stress in America. Accessed Jan. 2, 2015. www.stressinamerica.org.
IOM (Institute of Medicine). 2011. Relieving pain in America: A blueprint for transforming prevention, care, education, and research. Accessed Jan. 2, 2015. www.icm.edu/Reports/2011/Relieving-Pain-in-America-A-Blueprint-for-Transforming-Prevention-Care-Education-Research.aspx.

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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