Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands. This hormone is key in helping your body deal with stressful situations.
Short-term cortisol release helps you to run from danger, and cortisol levels are meant to drop once the stressful event is over, such as getting away from a lion that was chasing you. When cortisol levels remain high – when the body doesn’t recognize that stress isn’t a physical threat – your body remains in “fight or flight” mode and ends up paying the toll.
What Does Cortisol Do to the Body?
Cortisol is your body’s primary stress hormone; its release can be triggered by any type of stress: a late deadline, a missed alarm, as well as actual danger like getting into a car accident or experiencing a natural disaster. No matter the cause, your body secretes cortisol.
Normally, the release of this stress hormone is a good thing, as it causes your body to quickly mobilize glucose into the bloodstream. This increase in blood sugar is meant to fuel your muscles and give your body a boost of energy so you can respond to the stressor rapidly.
However, several health issues can arise if your cortisol levels remain high, as they do for many people who experience stress at work, at home, and in their daily lives.
Symptoms of high cortisol levels include:
- Digestive issues like IBS
- Fatigue and insomnia
- Lowered immune function
- Weight gain
- Increased blood pressure
Seven Foods That Reduce Cortisol Levels
Lowering stress levels, and consequently cortisol levels, comes down to three basics: getting enough sleep, exercising, and managing your mental health. But did you know there are some foods that can lower stress levels, too?
Green tea is high in L-theanine, an amino acid that helps ease levels of stress and anxiety. Although green tea is high in caffeine, low-caffeine green tea has been shown to improve sleep health.
B-vitamin rich foods
Several studies have linked high doses of vitamin B with lowered stress levels due to their ability to regulate the adrenal glands (which control cortisol production) as well as the body’s serotonin and norepinephrine levels. Foods rich in vitamin B can also aid in heart and brain function. Such foods include:
- Lean proteins, like chicken, fish, eggs, and turkey
- Nutritional yeast
- Fortified cereals
Leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, collards, and Swiss chard are high in folate, which helps your body manufacture mood-regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Higher levels of these “happy hormones” correlate to lower levels of cortisol in the bloodstream.
Fish (including salmon, cod, tuna, and halibut) provide essential omega-3 fatty acids, which work to keep cortisol levels from rising during bouts of anxiety. Studies have found that fish oils “inhibit the adrenal activation elicited by stress.”
Avocados are high in magnesium, a vitamin that assists in the regulation of blood pressure. A 2020 study also found that magnesium deficiency can increase susceptibility to stress, which may amplify symptoms of anxiety.
Like fish, many seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids, and several varieties (including almonds and sunflower seeds) are high in vitamins A, C, and E. These vitamins can help prevent cell damage to the brain, allowing your brain to interpret stressors more accurately, resulting in less unnecessary stress on the body.
Fermented foods, like kombucha, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles, are chock full of good-for-your-gut probiotics. Probiotics can play a role in “alleviating negative emotions, reducing abnormal behaviors, improving cognitive function...and relieving psychological stress.”
Foods to Avoid for Reducing Cortisol Levels
Comfort food and drink can make you feel better in the moment because they taste good or remind you of a warm memory, but their perceived effects may be short-lived.
When it comes to how diet may affect stress levels, many typical comfort foods are found on the list of foods to avoid, as they contain compounds or ingredients that have been linked to stress, anxiety, and depression.
Although alcohol can have a place in a healthy lifestyle, excess alcohol consumption – defined as more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women – can lead to weight gain, liver disease, heart problems, and some cancers. Heavy use of alcohol leads to an elevation of cortisol levels, too.
Caffeine has been shown to increase stress and anxiety levels in children, and it may also have negative effects on stress and anxiety levels in adults who consume it in high amounts. How one tolerates caffeine is truly bio-individual! Try swapping one of your daily coffees for matcha or green tea. While they contain the same amount of caffeine cup for cup, the compounds found in green tea help release caffeine into the bloodstream more slowly.
Processed foods, which can include many breads, potato chips, and candy, were found to affect feelings of anxiety and overall mental health. Other highly processed foods include ice cream, hot dogs, energy drinks, cookies, and foods high in fructose corn syrup.
The Bottom Line
Although stress is a normal part of the human experience, prolonged stress can be detrimental to your health. Managing stress can’t be done with diet alone. Sandra Emmanouilides, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, recommends investing in mental wellness, connecting with nature, practicing self-care, and moving your body. Exercise can reduce anxiety by making your brain’s fight-or-flight system less reactive.