Your Ultimate Anti-Stress Diet: Foods that Reduce Cortisol
Feeling stressed? High cortisol levels can lead to weight gain and other health issues. Learn about the top foods that reduce cortisol and stress.
This post is sponsored by New Chapter, maker of whole-food vitamins & supplements. All opinions are my own.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone and its release can be triggered by any type of stressor: a late-wake up, a deadline, or actual danger. Whatever the cause, when you hit fight-or-flight mode, your body secretes cortisol.
It’s inherently a good thing because it causes the body to quickly mobilize glucose (aka blood sugar) into the blood by changing blood flow and stimulating the liver to produce glucose. This glucose is meant to fuel the muscles and give the body a natural energy boost so that you can quickly respond to that stressor.
However, when your cortisol levels are constantly elevated from living life stressed out, it becomes a not-so-good-thing.
Why is High Cortisol a Problem?
Cortisol levels that are too high for too long can cause constantly elevated blood sugar levels and can increase your appetite and cravings for highly palatable foods, like fatty and sugary foods. It can also affect fat distribution by causing more fat to be stored as visceral fat (aka belly fat).
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce cortisol levels naturally. Beyond the obvious, like getting enough sleep and engaging in relaxation techniques (i.e. yoga, meditation) regularly, you can also make changes to your diet to help you regulate your cortisol levels.
Diet for Less Stress and Lower Cortisol
A diet low in added sugars and other refined carbs is your first line of defense here. Added sugar-rich foods and other refined carbs lack one big thing: fiber. Fiber is what helps prevent those drastic blood sugar swings that result in moodiness, fatigue, and hanger, all of which can leave you feeling stressed.
Sure, refined carb-rich foods may provide very temporary, short-term stress relief (we don’t call these “comfort foods” for nothing), but excess intake of them can contribute to chronic inflammation and stress, and can impair your ability to handle stress. In fact, a diet high in sugar has been linked to cognitive impairments and emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Foods that Lower Cortisol Levels
I mentioned a few things to limit in a zen-friendly diet, but are there any things you can add to your diet to help lower cortisol levels and therefore reduce stress? Yes!
Here are my top food types to include in the diet for helping to reduce cortisol levels and stress:
If you’re a “carbophobe”, it could be affecting your stress levels and sleep. Your body treats low blood sugar as a stressor, causing cortisol levels to rise. So, eating carbs can help lower cortisol levels and consequently, not eating enough carbs can increase them.
Plus, carbs help clear the way for the amino acid tryptophan to enter the brain which ultimately helps us produce melatonin. Yep, that’s that hormone that promotes good sleep. So, by not eating enough carbs, you could be hurting your sleep, too.
It doesn’t end there, because the body perceives lack of sleep as a stressor, too, which puts you right back on the cortisol train. That’s a train we’d like to stay off of thank you very much.
I’m not giving you the green light to consume any and all carbs ad libitum. As you now know, eating too many refined carbs could make stress worse. However, getting a lot of unrefined, fiber-rich, complex carb sources in the diet can help you control blood sugar and therefore cortisol levels. These include fruits, veggies, whole and ancient grains, and legumes (i.e. beans, chickpeas, and lentils).
Did you know nearly half of Americans aren’t meeting the recommended intake for magnesium? One reason being, drum roll please… stress! When experiencing stress and elevated cortisol levels, the body loses more magnesium than usual through urine and sweat. This results in a vicious cycle: stress causes magnesium depletion and magnesium deficiency then amplifies stress.
But don’t worry, there seems to be an inverse relationship between cortisol and magnesium levels – the higher the magnesium, the lower the cortisol. In fact, one study found that rugby players who supplemented with magnesium had lower cortisol levels before a big game than the players who didn’t.
You can increase your intake of magnesium by including magnesium-rich foods in the diet, like avocado, whole grains (like quinoa), dark leafy greens, black beans, and chocolate. Try this Instant Pot Chicken Burrito Bowls recipe for an easy weeknight magnesium-rich meal!
You can also consider a magnesium supplement to support natural calm and relaxation. My go-to is New Chapter’s Magnesium + Ashwagandha, which has 2.5x better absorption than the leading brand. It contains magnesium bisglycinate – a highly absorbable form of magnesium – and the adaptogenic herb ashwagandha for added stress support.
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated good-for-you fats that play a variety of important roles in your body.
Low blood levels of omega-3s have been associated with increased cortisol levels. Luckily, the relationship is likely bidirectional, meaning that increasing your omega-3 intake could help to reduce cortisol levels. Although we don’t exactly know the how and why, research suggests it has something to do with their inflammation balancing effects.
The three main types of omega-3s are EPA, DHA, and ALA. EPA and DHA are found mostly in fatty fish and some other seafood, which is why the Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming two servings of seafood per week.
ALA is found in plant foods, like flaxseeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. ALA isn’t effective in the body until it’s converted to EPA or DHA; however, only a small amount end ups converting to these biologically active forms. That’s why it’s important to get EPA and DHA in the diet.
It’s more than just a “gut feeling” – the gut-brain connection is no joke. Although the exact mechanisms are not yet fully understood, we know that our gut bacteria can influence our emotions. There is constant communication between the two, so it makes sense that an unhappy gut can manifest itself as anxiety and stress.
One way to support a diverse and thriving gut microbiome? Eat more probiotic-rich foods! One study found that medical students who drank fermented, probiotic-rich milk for 8 weeks while preparing for a big exam had lower day-of-exam cortisol levels than the medical students who drank non-fermented milk.
Some popular probiotic-rich foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, and miso. Give this Kimchi Fried Cauliflower Rice recipe a try.
You can also consider a probiotic supplement: My go-to supplement is New Chapter’s Probiotic All-Flora, because it contains clinically studied and DNA tested strains in the amounts you need to make a difference you can actually feel. It delivers 5 billion CFUs (colony forming units) each of beneficial bacteria and yeast. Plus, it’s got prebiotics too, which act as fuel for the probiotics so they can do their job.
Cortisol is an important hormone that helps us deal with stressful situations. However, you want to avoid constantly elevated levels as they can be harmful to your health.
Dietary changes, like including more carb-, magnesium-, probiotic-, and omega-3-rich foods in the diet, can help you control and reduce cortisol levels naturally.
If you think you’re missing out on one or more of the above, you can consider a supplement. Not all supplements are created equal, which is why it’s important to choose quality supplements, like those from New Chapter.