9 Worst Foods for Your Stress Hormone
There are plenty of things that can stress someone out: financial issues, health, family, work, friends, and many other problems that someone might encounter throughout their lives. Another way someone can get stressed out? Eating the wrong foods. Certain foods and drinks can lead to sleeplessness, increased anxiety, and can have a major impact on the body’s stress hormones.
“Stress can be influenced by various factors, including diet,” says Chrissy Arsenault, RD at Athletic Muscle. “While no single food directly causes stress, certain dietary choices can contribute to stress hormone imbalances, sleeplessness, anxiety, and other related issues.”
From foods that leave you staying up all night, to foods that cause drastic blood sugar spikes and leave you feeling overwhelmingly anxious, here are nine of the worst foods for your stress hormone.
While coffee is an important start to the day for many people, it can also make your day more stressful. Unless it’s decaf, coffee contains caffeine, which helps to provide your body with energy because it’s a stimulant, but it also leads to restlessness and feelings of anxiety and stress. It’s not only coffee that’s detrimental to the body’s stress hormone, anything with caffeine induces stress, including some chocolate, teas, and chewing gum.
“Caffeine is a stimulant that can lead to increased heart rate, restlessness, and exacerbate feelings of anxiety and stress,” says registered dietitian Mary Sabat. “Caffeine stimulates the release of adrenaline and can raise cortisol levels. It can also interfere with sleep, which can further contribute to stress.”
Sabat recommends switching to decaffeinated coffee if you want to avoid additional stress or switching to herbal teas, which can help the body relax.
2. Salty snacks
Foods that have a high sodium content, like processed and salted nuts, can stress you out by increasing blood pressure.
“High-sodium diets can lead to increased blood pressure, which can exacerbate stress and anxiety,” Sabat says. “Excess sodium can cause the body to retain water, leading to higher blood pressure and increasing the workload on the heart.”
3. Red meats
It’s fairly well known that red meat isn’t the healthiest option. Red meats, like steak and burgers, can raise the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. If the thought of that isn’t enough to stress someone out, then red meat can do the rest of the work, as red meat is also detrimental to the body’s stress hormone.
“Large quantities of red meat can contain high levels of saturated fat and arachidonic acid, which may promote inflammation and stress,” Arsenault says. “Opt for leaner cuts and balance your diet with plant-based protein sources.”
Instead of eating red meat, Arsenault recommends choosing a white meat substitute, like chicken or turkey, or a plant-based substitute, like tofu or a soy burger.
Sometimes when people are stressed out they find comfort in snacking. Oftentimes snacking is counterintuitive because the food that people find comfort in is often laden in fats and sugar, like candy. Foods with a high sugar content can actually lead to more stress, as they’re among some of the worst foods for your stress hormone. The large amount of sugar in the foods leads to unsteady blood sugar levels, which can result in anxiety and stress.
“Foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates can cause rapid spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels,” Sabat says. “This leads to increased cortisol release and can contribute to mood swings, irritability, and anxiety. High sugar intake can activate the body’s stress response, leading to the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These fluctuations can disrupt mood and energy levels.”
5. Processed foods
“Chips, cookies, and other highly processed snacks often contain a combination of sugar, unhealthy fats, and additives,” Arsenault says. “Processed foods often contain trans fats, refined sugars, and artificial additives, which can contribute to inflammation and negatively affect mood. These ingredients can trigger inflammation in the body, potentially affecting mood and stress.”
To lower stress, Arsenault recommends replacing potato chips, and any other highly-processed snack, with whole-grain snacks, like air-popped popcorn or whole-grain crackers with hummus.
6. Fried foods
One of the many things that people can feel stress about is their health, and it’s not likely to go away with the consumption of fried foods for two reasons — because fried foods are overwhelmingly unhealthy as they’re high in saturated fat and trans fat, and because eating fried foods can be bad for your body’s stress hormone.
“Deep-fried foods, laden with unhealthy fats, promote inflammation and oxidative stress, triggering cortisol production as a countermeasure,” says Trista Best, RD at Balance One Supplements.
Fried food doesn’t only have a link to increased stress, but also increased anxiety and depression, according to a 2023 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The study found that people who habitually consumed fried foods, especially fried potatoes, have a 12% higher risk of having anxiety, and a 7% higher risk of developing depression.
Alcohol is frequently seen as an easy way to destress after a tough day, but alcohol can actually contribute to even more stress, as drinking it in excess can be harmful to the body’s stress hormone by elevating cortisol levels.
“Alcohol, when consumed in excess, can disrupt sleep patterns and cause dehydration, both of which can elevate cortisol levels,” Best says.
Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone, and when cortisol levels are elevated the body’s heart rate and blood pressure increase.
Used as a flavor enhancer, monosodium glutamate (MSG) has been unfairly maligned as being overall unhealthy to consume. While that rumor has been mostly disproven, there are some downsides to consuming MSG for anyone who has a sensitivity to it, as the additive can naturally contribute to stress. MSG is naturally found in a lot of foods, including processed meats like hot dogs, as well as condiments like mayonnaise, and ketchup.
“Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a common food additive, can trigger symptoms like headaches, sweating, and chest pain in some individuals, contributing to stress-like responses,” Sabat says. “The exact mechanism isn’t fully understood, but some people are sensitive to MSG and may experience adverse reactions.”
Eating a food that is high in MSG won’t impact everyone’s stress hormones — just those who have a sensitivity to the additive.
When it comes to breakfast, cereal is a quick and easy way to start the day. But while you may be saving the stress of having to prepare breakfast, you might be creating more stress for yourself later on.
Some cereals are high in carbohydrates and added sugar, but low in fiber, and can lead to elevated cortisol levels, and a spike in blood sugar. The higher cortisol levels have an impact on the body’s stress hormone, making you more anxious and feeling increasingly stressed.
“Cortisol is a hormone that is produced by the adrenal gland, which is located above the kidney,” Best says. “Cortisol is involved in many different functions in the body, including regulating metabolism, maintaining blood pressure, and helping the body respond to stress.”
For a stress-free breakfast, opt for something high in fiber, like a fruit-filled smoothie, or whole wheat pancakes.
Good food brings people together. So do good emails.