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These Eating Habits Can Reduce Cortisol Levels, Says Expert

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April 1, 2024
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Some stressors are inevitable. You miss the bus, you stub your toe, you’re late to work and realize you forgot your lunch at home — all of these types of stressors are pretty much out of our hands as soon as they occur. But a toxic boss, relationship problems, burnout — these types of stress don’t go away so easily, and too much constant stress can lead to poor health. The good news is, following a few specific eating habits can help you manage your stress response, and lessen the impact stress has on your health.

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What is cortisol?

Cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” is secreted by the adrenal glands . Along with mediating the stress response, it plays a role in inflammation, metabolism, and the immune system. Our bodies are designed to release cortisol in response to moments of acute stress (like missing that bus), then stop when the stress passes. But if you’re chronically stressed and your cortisol levels remain high all the time, your body will feel the effects. This includes your nervous, immune, cardiovascular, respiratory, and reproductive systems, among others. Symptoms of chronically elevated cortisol include high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, muscle weakness, and more.

Chronically elevated cortisol also increases the appetite, which can cause you to reach for foods with high amounts of energy — that is, foods high in calories, with fats and carbohydrates.

“You can see how this could add up to weight gain over time,” says dietitian Kitty Broihier, — reator of the Eating Habits Lab and owner of NutriComm nutrition communications. “It’s also likely that people who have a cortisol-sensitive genetic makeup are more likely to gain weight in response to higher cortisol levels.”

So the answer is to just not stress right? Let’s be real — life involves stress, there’s no way around that.

“People tend to think we need to lower our cortisol levels as much as we can and that’s just not true,” Broihier says. “Our bodies need cortisol, in varying amounts, for lots of different functions including fighting inflammation, regulating blood sugar and blood pressure, assisting with metabolism, and others.”

So while certain types of stress are inevitable, and we do need to keep some cortisol in our systems, research shows that your eating habits can help to manage cortisol levels and keep them in a healthy range. Here’s how.

1. Eat a balanced diet and regular meals

Yes, what you eat really does matter when it comes to your cortisol levels. If you’re consistently eating a poor diet, you likely are feeling stressed and anxious regularly throughout the day. If your diet is full of healthy, whole foods, you likely feel more at ease.

“Eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of plants helps because the variety of nutrients helps us make the neurotransmitters and other compounds that we need to fight stress and inflammation in the body,” says Broihier.

According to Harvard Health, a balanced diet can support a healthy immune system and repair damaged cells. These foods can help provide extra energy when coping with stressful situations. Plus, by having regular meals, you are satiating your body and are less likely to “stress eat” in those particularly hard situations, which is when we tend to crave “fast” energy foods that are highly caloric and not so great for our body’s overall health and digestion.

Get started with these 9 Recipes That Seriously Reduce Your Stress Levels.

2. Focus on anti-inflammatory foods

In particular, Broihier suggests focusing on adding anti-inflammatory foods to your meals in order to reduce those stress levels.

“Eat more whole foods, get plenty of foods rich in omega-3 fats (chia, flax, fatty fish, walnuts), and choose good sources of magnesium, like pumpkin seeds, spinach, bananas, and avocados,” she says.

In particular, omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to reducing anxiety and inflammation in the body in multiple randomized control studies. In particular, anti-inflammatory foods can positively affect neurochemical mechanisms in the brain, meaning they’re especially beneficial for brain health.

Foods high in dietary fiber also help with reducing inflammation in the body, while also reducing the risk of other stressful mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 25 to 30 grams of fiber in your diet daily, which also benefits digestive health and lowers the risk of metabolic syndrome.

Related: The Best 8 Foods to Reduce Inflammation, Say Experts

Salmon salad with leafy greens

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3. Try intermittent fasting

While there’s still a lot of research underway on the effects of intermittent fasting, some dietitians find some of the more relaxed practices of intermittent fasting to be beneficial when it comes to weight management. By regulating a time period for when to eat throughout the day — like having a 12-hour fasting window, eating only from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. — you reduce or eliminate mindless snacking, and according to Broihier, even reduce cortisol levels.

“There’s evidence that a late-day eating window decreases morning cortisol levels, which isn’t ideal, but an early day window helps cortisol decrease at night, which is desirable,” says Broihier. So if you’re going to try intermittent fasting, shift your eating window to earlier in the day.

4. Limit alcohol and caffeine

It may seem like having a glass of wine reduces stress, but in fact, alcohol stimulates cortisol secretion and causes feelings of intense anxiety.

Related: The Psychological Effects of Alcohol You May Not Know About

As for caffeine, a 2022 systematic review published in General Hospital Psychiatry found that high consumption  can induce anxiety, and drinking five cups a day or more can induce panic attacks. The FDA says it’s safe to consume 400 milligrams of caffeine in a day, which is equivalent to four cups (28 ounces) of coffee. But individuals react differently to caffeine, and your tolerance may be lower.

If you have a daily caffeine and/or alcohol habit, reducing either or both may help with cortisol levels. If you drink coffee every day, it may be helpful to reduce the amount slowly over time to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

5. Drink herbal tea

“There’s a decent amount of research on certain herbs for lowering stress and therefore can help lower cortisol levels, including ashwagandha, chamomile, Rhodiola, and lemon balm,” says Broihier. “While drinking chamomile or lemon tea is generally safe and can help you de-stress, taking supplements of any of these is something that you should discuss with your doctor.”

Read next: 6 Eating Habits That Might Be Increasing Your Stress

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