Ever wonder if there are foods that you can eat to actually reduce stress and the stress hormone cortisol? The answer is yes! In this blog post I'll give you over 30 foods to reduce cortisol as well as other tips & tricks to reduce your body's stress response!
What is cortisol?
Hormones are powerful molecules that our body uses to send signals to other systems in the body quickly. Cortisol is a steroid hormone made by the adrenal glands and sent to our body from our HPA axis, which consists of our hypothalamus (H), pituitary gland (P), and adrenal gland (A).
Cortisol is sent to ‘wake us up’, or bring us to a more alert state that something needs attention, and increases when we’re stressed (think a busy season of life, dieting, over exercising, etc.) to increase our blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar, breathing, and muscle response.
Most cells in the body have cortisol receptors (things that recognize hormones) so it is an effective ‘siren’ to signal something is up to every system in the body. Cortisol can also ‘shut off’ our digestive and reproductive glands (say skipping a period) when we are stressed because our body views them as nonessential things.
Think of it this way: when we’re stressed and needing to run away from a bear, our body doesn’t need to break down our lunch for energy or have a baby - we NEED to get away from that bear NOW. We NEED immediate energy (raised blood sugar) and to run (muscle response, increased heart rate, increased breathing, increased blood pressure) to get away from the bear.
We measure cortisol from either hair, saliva, blood, or urine. All have pros and cons, which are important to note.
Cortisol measurements in bodily fluids (salvia, blood, urine) are easily affected by the short term (say a bad night of sleep) and daily rhythms so they are not representative of long-term cortisol in our body.
The preferred measurement is using saliva versus blood cortisol as saliva cortisol is a more accurate measurement of cortisol in the body. Urine collected over 24 hours can be beneficial for measuring cortisol, though sometimes those needing the measurement for urine can have difficulty collecting their urine for 24 hours (say if you work in an office).
Sometimes, it is preferred to use hair as a sample to evaluate disturbances in our HPA axis and even Cushing’s syndrome (explained in a bit below). When using hair to measure our cortisol though a bit of hair is taken, we can get a ‘bigger’ picture of how cortisol has changed over time, versus at a moment with bodily fluids.
Not everyone needs a cortisol test. I'd recommend speaking with your health care provider if you're concerned.
Effects of Food Rules on Cortisol
When we diet or restrict ourselves with food rules, a meta-analysis (a review of all the research on a topic to determine patterns, the ‘pinnacle’ of best research sources) determined that dieting led to significant increases in cortisol, especially among those who fast (see my post on intermittent fasting here!).
This meta-analysis also indicated that the less levels of cortisol were highest in the initial period when one started the period of restriction, which could contribute to the high number of diet drop outs or ‘yo-yo’ dieters. It’s even been observed that restricting calories increases our cortisol, and monitoring calories can raise our perceived stress. Restricting carbs and fat in women has even been shown to increase your cortisol.
What Are Symptoms Of High/Low Cortisol?
Symptoms Of High Cortisol
Some symptoms of high cortisol include:
- Mood swings that can induce anxiety, depression, or irritabilityFlushed and round face
- High blood pressure
- Skin changes (bruises and purple stretch marks)
- Muscle weakness
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination
- High cortisol over a long period of time can also alter a women’s libido and period
Cushing Syndrome is a hormone disorder categorized by high cortisol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, thin skin, purple striae, unwanted hair growth, mood disorders, face rounding, and a ‘hump’ of fat behind the shoulders. It is rare, but can also be a source of high cortisol. Speak with your doctor about this if you’re concerned or need more info.
Symptoms Of Low Cortisol
Primary Adrenal Insufficiency/Addison Disease
Too low of cortisol can also be an indicator of Primary Adrenal Insufficiency aka Addison Disease, an autoimmune disease that damages the adrenal gland or pituitary gland. The onset of this disease is gradual. Symptoms appear gradually, and include changes in mood, darkening of the skin, fatigue, dizziness and weight and muscle loss/weakness.
Again, when suspecting any of these illnesses, it is important to see an endocrinologist to determine if there is something more serious at play.
How can I naturally reduce my cortisol levels?
Exercising has multiple health benefits to improve our heart health, our mood, and even our cortisol levels. Exercising has been shown to improve cortisol levels in the elderly and those with depression.
The kicker here though is we want to make sure we aren’t overdoing it. Too much exercise, especially high intensity interval training (HIIT) could cause our body to increase cortisol! Do what feels good and don’t overwork yourself.
We know that sleep allows for our bodies to reset from the day prior and prepare for the day ahead. Sleep deprivation can also affect our cortisol levels and other hormones and can mess with our hormone regulation. Be sure you’re getting enough sleep to keep those things in check!
Being outside (no excuse now that’s the weather’s warmer!) can also help to lower your stress and improve your cortisol levels. Enjoy the great outdoors with some greenery and those you love!
Practicing mindfulness and yoga that encourage us to be intune with our bodies can help to reduce our stress and cortisol. Take a moment for yourself and your health (and cortisol levels!) will thank you. See my podcast here with Amanda Sauceda, RD how mindfulness can even improve our gut health!
No one single food can help to reduce our cortisol, but eating a diet full of all the macronutrients and micronutrients we need can help get us there! Focusing on good nutrition during times of stress can help us feel better by having balanced amounts of carbohydrate, fat, protein, fruits and veggies for micronutrients.
We want to be sure we aren’t dieting. Diets and food restriction, especially those fad diets that restrict entire food groups, are definitely not something that is going to help our cortisol levels. One study shows that this is actually going to cause them to increase!
Not only can dieting increase cortisol levels but it can actually result in metabolic damage. Be sure to checkout my blog post discussing metabolic damage here.
I recommend an intuitive eating approach and using what I call ‘gentle nutrition’. This approach that I teach in The SociEATy membership community will help you to achieve “#balance” with your eating- meaning you eat in a way that fosters physical health but can also enjoy the cake without worry, guilt or stress and in a way that feels good!
What micronutrients help to reduce cortisol?
Micronutrients that help reduce cortisol are those that help to reduce stress in the body from metabolism and exercise that are vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and phytochemicals. Those vitamins include vitamin C, E, coenzyme Q10, β-carotene, polyphenols, glutathione, lipoic acid, flavonoids, Ω-3 fatty acids, L-theanine, and phenols.
Where To Find Micronutrients to Lower Cortisol in Foods and Drinks
- Plants high in Vitamin C - Vitamin C is a key antioxidant in metabolism, so foods like oranges, bell peppers, kiwi, and broccoli can all help to improve our inflammation and cortisol.
- Plants high in Vitamin E - Vitamin E is another key antioxidant in metabolism, so foods like sunflower seeds, almonds, peanuts, collard greens, spinach, pumpkin, and red bell pepper can all help to improve cortisol.
- Foods high in coenzyme Q10 - coenzyme Q10 helps organs to function properly and is a cofactor in metabolism. You can find it in organ meats (heart, liver, kidney), fatty fish, spinach, cauliflower, oranges, strawberries, and legumes.
- Plants high in β-carotene - β-carotene helps to promote cell growth + maintain healthy organs; all things that we need to keep stress (and cortisol!) low in our bodies. Find it in sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, broccoli, cantaloupe, red/yellow bell peppers.
- Foods high in polyphenols, such as dark chocolate - There’s a reason why we crave chocolate on our periods! Eating dark chocolate for its polyphenols can help to improve our cortisol. (Ps. Checkout my blog post on 7 foods to include on your period for more period related tips!)
- Foods high in glutathione - Glutathione works to defend against antioxidants and regulate cell process throughout the body. When we don’t get enough, pour stress response can increase. Find it in spinach, okra, asparagus, and avocados,
- Foods high in lipoic acid - lipoic acid helps to break down carbohydrates and make energy and also serves as an antioxidant. Find it in spinach, broccoli, potatoes, yeast, tomatoes, carrots, and red meat.
- Foods high in flavonoids - flavonoids function as signal molecules and protect against stressors from metabolism. You can find them in berries, onions, hot peppers, kale, rutabaga, and spinach.
- Foods high in Ω-3 fatty acids, such as fish, can help to improve our inflammation and then our cortisol levels.
- Foods high in L-theanine, such as green tea, give us an amino acid that is a part of our cognition and mood; green tea can help to improve our cognition/mood and consequently our cortisol/stress response.
- Foods high in phenols - These are a special structure molecule that helps to reduce stress in the body. These can include carotenoids, vitamins C and E, and help protect the body against oxidative stress. You can find them in tomatoes, peanuts, bananas, oranges, cocoa, red grapes, and milk.
Stress Reducing Foods To Lower Cortisol FAQs
Maybe- a study showed that diffusing magnesium salts in a quiet room can help to reduce cortisol, though they were also in a quiet dimly lit room to help calm them. Hard to identify it was the magnesium itself.
Perhaps - a preliminary animal study in cows indicates that turmeric may be helpful in reducing cortisol levels
Yes, it can. A study in humans who drank 400 mg caffeine (roughly about 4 cups) found that their cortisol was increased, but their positivity about the ‘stress’ was better, though it didn’t necessarily improve how they responded to the stress.
For now, no - A preliminary animal study in shrimp showed that cortisol was not improved when consuming apple cider vinegar. I talk more about the truth about the whole apple cider vinegar trend for health in my ACV Goli review here.
It can! Personally, I do take CBD for my stress/anxiety. It does wonders in helping me relax and manage my stress itself, which can reduce cortisol levels.
I get asked about my CBD routine a lot and I use the brand Equilibria. Everyone's routine is different (their dosage consultants can help you figure out yours- they're fab) but I use a combo of the drops (fast acting) and the soft gels (more slow releasing). Not only does it help with stress and anxiety but I sleep like a BABY! Which also helps with cortisol levels!
You can use this link for 15% off your first order if you want to give it a try Equilibria too. (Side note: It's the best tasting CBD I've ever had!)
A Final Note On Foods To Lower Cortisol
As you can see overall from the comprehensive list I’ve compiled above, a well balanced diet that fulfills all of our macro- (carbohydrate, fat, protein) and micro-nutrients (vitamins, minerals, enzymes, phytochemicals) needs is what’s important to reduce our cortisol levels.
How do we achieve this "balanced diet"? By not dieting (this actually increased our body's stress!), instituting self care practices and eating intuitively while implementing gentle nutrition which is what I teach & preach inside of The SociEATy intuitive eating membership community.
Need more guidance? Be sure to checkout my YouTube channel for more tips to help in your intuitive eating journey and take the no food rules quiz which will tell you what's holding you back from truly finding food freedom and give you customized resources (and a workbook!) to overcome it!
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This blog post was written by Colleen Christensen, RD and researched and written with the help of Amy Sharn, MS, RDN, LD.