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These Eating Habits Can Reduce Cortisol Levels, Says Expert

April 23, 2023
woman eating healthy bowl with foods that reduce cortisol levels

Some stressors are inevitable. You hit your knee on the table, you miss the bus, you’re late to work and realize you forgot your lunch at home — all stress that are pretty much out of our hands as soon as they occur. But what if we told you there were stressors that you could control by simply following a few eating habits that can reduce your cortisol levels?

Cortisol is a hormone that is secreted from the adrenal glands in the body and is known for mediating the stress and inflammation response, regulating your metabolism, and taking care of your immune system. While cortisol is a natural response in stressful situations, if your cortisol levels are chronically high due to stress, different systems in your body will feel the effects. This includes your nervous, immune, cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive, musculoskeletal, and integumentary systems.

It also increases one’s appetite, which can cause a person to reach for foods with high amounts of energy — meaning foods high in calories, with fats and carbohydrates.

“You can see how this could add up to weight gain over time,” says Kitty Broihier, MS, RD, LD, creator 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 — we know dealing with stress it’s a lot more complicated than 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 during day-to-day life, research does prove your eating habits can help to reduce cortisol levels. Here’s how.

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Eating 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.

Focusing 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 polyunsaturated fatty acids have been linked to reducing anxiety and inflammation in the body in multiple randomized control studies, helping to lower stress levels and reducing the of disease, according to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. In particular, anti-inflammatory foods can positively affect neurochemical mechanisms in the brain, meaning they are especially beneficial for our 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


Intermittent fasting

While there is still a lot of research that is being done on the effects of intermittent fasting, some dietitians do 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 are able to 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.

Limiting alcohol and caffeine

Research shows the ways that alcohol, sugar, and caffeine consumption can significantly affect one’s cortisol levels. Alcohol stimulates cortisol secretion and causes feelings of intense anxiety, even if it seems that alcohol is meant to relax and calm you.

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

While there’s no science to show that caffeine can directly cause stress and cortisol levels, if you’re already feeling anxious or stressed, caffeine will only enhance the feeling, given how it stimulates the brain. A 2022 systematic review published in General Hospital Psychiatry found that high consumption of caffeine can induce anxiety, and drinking at least five cups a day can induce panic attacks. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it is safe to consume 400 milligrams of caffeine in a day, which is equivalent to four cups (28 ounces) of coffee.

Drinking herbal tea

“There is 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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