There’s an unmistakable link between stress, food and pain. In fact, there are a couple of links.

Stress can increase your blood pressure and increased blood pressure means everything in your body has to work harder and that means everything hurts more. Certain foods also increase blood pressure so the combination of food and stress is a double-whammy for pain patients.

But more than that, stress leads to food choices that increase blood pressure. We all do it —  when we’re stressed out, tired, overwhelmed and in a hurry, we don’t want to go home and cook vegetables, we want to pick up fast food at the drive-thru. But fast food has all the ingredients you need to increase blood pressure – and pain.

The big three

Inflammation is the most common cause of chronic pain in my line of work. Salt, sugar and alcohol are the three biggest dietary contributors to inflammation – even without the stress.

And since salt, sugar and alcohol are also the things people reach for most when they’re stressed out, nutrition and stress relief go hand-in-hand when it comes to pain management.   

I personalize everything for each client. Some people have way more of a sugar problem so I give them something to replace a lot of their sugar. For some people, the issue is salt so we talk about ways they can cut back on that. I never completely take away someone’s sugar, salt or alcohol but I do look for ways clients can cut back on them.

The intake

When a new client comes in, the first thing I do is find out what they ate in the last 24 hours. Of course, what people initially say they ate is not exactly what they ate. Everybody comes out in the beginning and says they eat 10 salads a day. After some questioning, they’ll eventually say they eat 10 bags of potato chips a day.

Sometimes they’re overestimating how much salad they actually ate and sometimes they legitimately don’t remember all the times they reached for a potato chip. But either way, it takes some time to get an honest accounting of what a person ate in the last 24 hours.

From there, we determine whether the last 24 hours were typical. If you ate 10 bags of chips yesterday, was that unusual or do you eat 10 bags of chips every day? Are Mondays different than Tuesdays? Are weekends different than weekdays?

After we figure all of that out, we’ll start putting together a plan of action – which includes keeping a food diary.

Make it easy

Eating healthy can be a hard habit to get into – our entire society is set up for cheap and convenient snacks that are not generally very nutritious. But there are some easy options and that’s important because the last thing you want to do when you’re stressed is have to stress about finding healthy food.

The easiest thing is to always keep fruits and vegetables on hand for quick snacks. Oranges, apples, celery, carrots – anything you can reach for when you just need to grab something and go.

Another great choice is a peanut butter and banana sandwich. It’s fast and easy to prepare and it’ll fill you up for a long time.

Eat more

Everyone hopes that they can just eat something extra to stop their stress or inflammation. “What can I take?” is a common question we get. Sometimes, you can add foods to your diet – especially if your problem is caused by a vitamin or mineral deficiency. Folic acid and B vitamins are the big ones so you can increase foods like dark leafy greens, beans, eggs and fish.

There’s also some evidence that peppermint may be good for lowering stress and turmeric is good for lowering inflammation in general.

A lot of people ask about apple cider vinegar – the Internet is full of claims about apple cider vinegar as a miracle cure for everything from dandruff to high blood pressure. Most of that is old wives tales but it won’t hurt you. Drink it if it makes you happy.

Eat less

There’s no way around it though — you can’t just eat more healthy things to feel better; you also need to cut back on the salt, sugar and alcohol. Caffeine also causes stress and anxiety in most people. Plus, individual people react badly to individual foods. We offer a test that checks the sensitivities of 130 different foods and 40 different chemicals (including red #40) on your individual body.

One thing I always want people to keep in mind though, is that there’s no moral compass attached to food. People sometimes talk about eating “bad” food but remember that there’s really no “bad” food, only bad quantities.

Grab a vegetable first

So if you really need potato chips or ice cream today, try eating a healthy snack first. Sometimes when you have a craving, it isn’t what you think it is. You may be craving potato chips but you haven’t had enough Vitamin A and your body really wants you to have a carrot. Try eating fruit and vegetables and drinking some water first, because the craving may be satisfied.

That goes for “junk food” in general – get your dietary requirements for the day before you reach for less healthy options. You may not want as many potato chips once your body has gotten what it needs, but regardless, at least you’ll get the nutrients you need before you fill up on salt or sugar.

And when you’re craving sugar, eat fruit instead. I know some dieticians say you shouldn’t eat too much fruit, and if you’re trying to lose four pounds, maybe we would talk about not eating bananas. But for the vast majority of people, fruit is a wonderful snack. Eat all the fruit you want – get your sugar from that as much as possible.

Chill out

Of course food just isn’t about taste and nutrition – eating is also a stress response in and of itself. People get stressed out or depressed and they eat. It’s not just that we get stressed out and so we have to get meals quickly and easily; it’s that being stressed out makes us want food that we don’t need.

Managing that emotional response is another part of my job so I talk with my clients about stress responses. When you get upset or anxious or depressed, what are some other things you can do instead of eating? If we can change your stress response, we can change the way you feel.

Bottom line? Exercise a little more and keep an eye on quantities. Less salt, less sugar, less alcohol. It’ll make a big difference.

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