I’m Emma McAdam. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist. And today we’re going to talk about foods that naturally decrease cortisol, which is also known as the stress hormone.
Managing stress involves a lot of things: a healthy work-life balance, good boundaries, sleep, exercise. But changing what you eat can also have a big impact on your stress levels. And that’s because what you eat impacts cortisol levels.
Now, cortisol is known as the stress hormone. It’s part of the activating, energizing response in your body, and it triggers the fight-or-flight response, but it plays a lot of other important roles in your body too. Cortisol helps regulate everything from sleep cycles and inflammation to blood pressure and blood-sugar levels.
Cortisol is released by the adrenal gland in response to a physical threat like an injury or a mental threat like a deadline.
And cortisol isn’t inherently bad; it’s helpful in the short term. But being exposed to it for too long can lead to a chronic stress response, which can contribute to more anxiety, depression, fatigue, inflammation, weight gain, higher blood pressure, a decreased immune system, a higher chance of diabetes and heart disease.
So you can see how decreasing cortisol can have a big impact on both physical and mental health.
How Does Diet Affect Cortisol Levels?
When researchers explored how diet impacts cortisol, they found that people on a traditional American diet of high fat, sugar, and carbs had much higher cortisol levels than people who are eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and polyunsaturated fats. So an anti-inflammatory diet can counteract the impact of cortisol.
Inflammation is essentially a low-level stress response in the body. Your immune system sends out macrophages and cytokines to kill off pathogens. But the side effect is that it also damages healthy tissue and leads to chronic stress on the body.
Inflammation also increases intestinal permeability, which is known as leaky gut, and this can allow bacteria into the bloodstream, and that can trigger even more inflammation to counter it.
So when we eat foods that cause inflammation, we essentially trigger that stress response in the body. But you can choose foods that lower cortisol, inflammation, and the stress response.
As we go through this list of foods, you may recognize it as having a lot in common with the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet has been found to be quite effective at decreasing inflammation, and it’s been shown to improve mental health.
One last thing before we jump in: While you can supplement with many of these nutrients, you’ll almost always be better off eating whole foods that are nutritionally dense and not just supplements. That’s partly because your gut health depends on the fiber from the whole food, and also because the nutrients in foods are more diverse and complex than the simple concentrated supplements.
Which Foods Decrease Cortisol?
So let’s talk about foods that naturally decrease cortisol.
First, foods high in B vitamins can help metabolize or burn off cortisol. And this is especially true of foods that are high in B12. These include organ meat, beef, chicken, eggs, nutritional yeast, and fortified cereals (this is when they add B12 to cereals).
Next, foods high in omega-3s. These reduce inflammation. Now, fish are often the best source, but you can get omega-3s from plant-based sources as well. So these include walnuts, avocados, salmon, chia, flax, olive oil, tuna, mackerel, herring, anchovies, etc.
Next is magnesium-rich foods. Magnesium is essential for tons of bodily processes, but it’s especially essential for relaxing muscles, reducing inflammation, and metabolizing cortisol. It also helps regulate the heartbeat and decrease blood pressure.
When we’re stressed, we excrete magnesium and potassium in our urine, and low levels of magnesium can intensify stress, which can create a vicious cycle. Getting enough magnesium has been shown to help decrease anxiety and stress.
You can find magnesium in pumpkin seeds and other seeds like almonds and pistachios. You can also find magnesium in broccoli, bananas, avocado, artichokes, spinach. Also, dark chocolate contains magnesium, and it has high amounts of flavonoids, which lower stress reactivity in the adrenal glands. So yeah, chocolate, right?
Foods That Help Regulate Blood Sugar Can Regulate Cortisol
The next thing that you want to think about is foods that help regulate blood sugar. So these are also important to decrease cortisol. If you let yourself get too hungry by going too long between meals, that can actually be quite stressful for the body. So eat regular meals and protein-rich foods, especially beans and legumes, which have antioxidant properties.
Foods for a Healthy Gut Microbiome
Another thing that’s helpful is foods that promote a healthy gut microbiome. Now, I’ll make an entire video on how important your gut bacteria is for mental health, but long story short: Most of the serotonin in your body is in your gut, and having good bacteria in your gut can really improve mental health.
Now, there’s two ways to do this: First, eat lots of high-fiber foods and a lot of variety. Fiber comes from plants, so fruits and vegetables are really important. And the different fibers from the different fruits and vegetables is what the good bacteria eat, so having lots of fiber keeps them happy and keeps your gut healthy. Fiber is called a prebiotic.
One dietitian I spoke with recommends that you eat 30 different types of plants per week, and that’s going to help keep the probiotics happy in your gut. And so that’s what we’re talking about for number two: probiotics. These are foods that have good bacteria in them, like live yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, and sauerkraut.
And lastly, just stay well-hydrated. Dehydration is a stressor on the body. So one study showed that young soccer players who were more dehydrated also had higher cortisol levels. So just drink enough water every day.
Which Foods Increase Cortisol?
Also, it’s important to know, some foods that can really increase cortisol include alcohol, caffeine, saturated fats, simple sugars like sodas and candy. But also simple carbs like white breads can contribute to more cortisol. Now, not all carbs or sugars are bad for you. You can eat them in moderation. You just want to be mindful of how they’re impacting your stress levels.
Foods that decrease cortisol
So there are five types of food that can help you decrease cortisol and stress levels. Now, like I said before, you can’t just rely on food for stress management. It’s better to take a whole-body approach. But knowing what foods to eat and not to eat to manage cortisol can be one really important piece in your treatment puzzle.
I hope you found this video helpful. If you’d like to learn more about how to calm the stress response in your body, check out my free course, Grounding Skills for Stress, Anxiety, and PTSD. I teach about 20 skills to soothe anxiety in your nervous system.