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6 Types of Food That Naturally Reduce Cortisol and Stress

Do you constantly feel overwhelmed and anxious? Your cortisol levels might be high, and it’s taking a toll on your health.

High cortisol, known as the stress hormone, can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, and even mood swings. It’s not just about feeling stressed—chronically elevated cortisol can disrupt your sleep, weaken your immune system, and cause serious health issues over time.

Fortunately, you can take control of your cortisol levels by making simple dietary changes. In this article, we will explore how eating specific, nutrient-dense foods can help lower cortisol naturally, promoting a calmer, healthier, and more balanced you.

Understanding Cortisol

Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands that plays a vital role in your body’s response to stress. 

Cortisol helps regulate many processes in your body. It controls your mood, motivation, and fear. Your liver also uses cortisol to manage how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

Another key role of cortisol is to help with your sleep-wake cycle. It wakes you up in the morning and helps wind you down at night. 

In short spurts, cortisol can even reduce inflammation and boost your energy so you can handle stress. However, consistently high levels of cortisol can actually have the opposite effect. 

Effects of High Cortisol Levels

When your body produces too much cortisol, it can lead to health issues. High cortisol levels can cause weight gain, especially around your belly. It can also lead to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis.

Other problems from high cortisol levels include trouble sleeping, mood swings, and memory issues. It can weaken your immune system, making you more likely to get sick. 

Other symptoms of high cortisol levels include:

  • Fatty deposits between your shoulder blades
  • Wide, purple stretch marks on your abdomen
  • Muscle weakness in your upper arms and thighs
  • High blood sugar
  • Excessive hair growth
  • Weak bones

Stress and the Cortisol Connection

Stress is a major trigger for cortisol release. When you’re stressed, your brain sends a signal to your adrenal glands to produce cortisol. This is part of your body’s “fight or flight” response.

Once the stressor is gone, your cortisol levels should go back to normal. But if you’re stressed all the time, your body stays in high alert, leading to chronically high cortisol levels.

Managing stress is key to keeping your cortisol levels balanced. But diet can play an important part as well. 

Your Diet Can Actually Trigger A Stress Response in Your Body

Before we dive into how diet can help you lower cortisol, it’s worth noting how our diet can actually contribute to increased cortisol levels. 

Eating too much sugar and processed foods can cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, which stress the body and trigger more cortisol.

Inflammatory foods cause inflammation in the body (hence the name), which the body perceives as a threat. Cortisol is released to help manage and reduce this inflammation. 

But if you’re constantly eating inflammatory food, eventually you’ll experience the long-term health problems discussed above. 

An Anti-Inflammatory Diet Can Help Reduce Cortisol Levels

Eating the right foods can play a significant role in reducing cortisol levels and managing stress. Incorporating a diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods helps support the body’s natural stress response and keeps cortisol levels in check. 

In this section, we will explore specific foods that are known to reduce inflammation, stabilize blood sugar, and promote overall well-being, all of which contribute to lowering cortisol. 

A woman smiles as she chops vegetables in her kitchen
foods that help reduce cortisol levels naturally

1. Foods Rich in Omega-3

Consuming foods high in omega-3 fatty acids is beneficial for lowering cortisol. You can find omega-3s in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. 

These not only reduce cortisol but also promote heart health. For plant-based options, try chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts. 

Adding these foods to your diet can decrease inflammation. And while natural, whole food sources of omega-3 are best, if you can’t make it work, supplementation is also an option. 

2. Foods Rich in B Vitamins

B vitamins, especially B6 and B12, play a crucial role in cortisol regulation. You can get these vitamins from lean meats, organ meat, eggs, and dairy products. Vegetarians can opt for whole grains, legumes, or nutritional yeast. 

Consuming foods rich in B vitamins helps your body manage stress better and burn off cortisol. These nutrients support brain function and energy levels, making it easier to cope with stress.

3. Fermented Foods with Natural Probiotics

Fermented foods are essential for good gut health, and a healthy gut can help lower cortisol. Yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha are excellent sources of probiotics. 

These foods introduce good bacteria into your gut, which can help reduce stress and improve overall health.

A balanced gut microbiome is crucial for overall health and can influence stress levels. When the gut is healthy, it can help regulate the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. 

Probiotics also help reduce inflammation and improve the gut-brain connection, which can further lower stress and cortisol levels. 

4. Magnesium-Rich Foods

Magnesium is a powerful mineral that helps manage cortisol levels. Foods like dark chocolate, spinach, almonds, and black beans are rich in magnesium. You can also find them in pumpkin seeds, almonds, and pistachios.

Magnesium helps relax your muscles and nerves, reducing stress. It helps regulate your heartbeat and blood pressure. 

Interestingly enough, when we’re stressed, we actually excrete magnesium in our urine, which can lead to low levels of magnesium in our bodies which, in turn, can lead to more stress.

It’s a vicious cycle that way. 

So it’s especially important to focus on incorporating magnesium-rich foods into your diet if you’re dealing with elevated cortisol and stress levels. 

a bowl of nuts, seeds, and legumes
magnesium-rich foods can help reduce cortisol naturally

5. Foods That Help Regulate Blood Sugar

Maintaining stable blood sugar levels is important for keeping cortisol in check. Going too long between meals can cause stress on the body. 

This is why it’s important to eat regular meals, in particular, protein-rich foods that can help keep your blood sugar levels stable. 

Opt for foods with a low glycemic index (GI) such as whole grains, beans, and non-starchy vegetables. These foods release sugar slowly into your bloodstream, preventing spikes in blood sugar levels. 

Avoiding refined sugars and processed snacks can also help maintain a balanced cortisol level. A diet focused on low GI foods promotes better energy levels and reduced stress.

6. High Fiber Foods

High fiber foods are excellent for reducing cortisol because they help keep your digestive system healthy. 

Foods like oatmeal, brown rice, apples, and carrots are good sources of fiber. These foods keep you feeling full longer, reducing stress-related eating and stabilizing blood sugar levels. 

It’s also good for gut health, which plays a pivotal role in maintaining good mental health.

Including a variety of high fiber foods in your diet can help with weight management and lower cortisol levels effectively.

Feeling extra hardcore? 

In 2018, the American Gut Project published a study that found that people who ate 30+ different plants each week were more likely to have good gut “bugs” than those who ate 10 or fewer. 

It’s not quite as scary as it sounds. Plants include vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices. When you think of it like that, eating 30 different types feels much more doable. 

Foods to Avoid if You Want to Reduce Cortisol Naturally

To help keep your cortisol levels in check, there are some foods you might want to steer clear of.

  • Sugary Snacks: High sugar foods like candy, soda, and pastries can cause a spike in blood sugar, which may lead to increased cortisol. Try to avoid these to keep stress levels down.
  • Caffeine: Caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, and energy drinks can increase cortisol levels. Limiting these drinks might help you feel more relaxed. Yes, green tea is anti-inflammatory but if you’re particularly sensitive to caffeine, you may want to skip it. 
  • Processed Foods: Processed foods often contain high amounts of salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats. These can all contribute to stress and higher cortisol levels.
  • Trans Fats: Found in many fried and fast foods, trans fats can increase your body’s cortisol production. It’s best to eat these foods in moderation or avoid them altogether.

Lifestyle Adjustments To Reduce Cortisol Levels (The Other Stuff)

Making changes to your lifestyle can significantly impact cortisol levels. Focus on getting enough sleep, incorporating regular exercise, practicing meditation, and using stress management techniques.

The Importance of Sleep

Adequate sleep is crucial for maintaining balanced cortisol levels. When you get enough rest, your body is better equipped to handle stress. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night to help your body recover and reset.

Sleep hygiene practices can improve sleep quality. This includes maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, and ensuring your sleep environment is cool and dark. Limiting screen time before bed can also help you fall asleep faster and improve the overall quality of your rest.

Regular Exercise

Physical activity is a powerful tool for lowering cortisol levels. Regular exercise, such as brisk walking, light jogging, hiking, or swimming, can help manage stress and promote a healthy body. 

Aim for around 150-200 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity exercise each week.

Incorporating activities like yoga can also be beneficial. Yoga not only provides physical benefits but also incorporates deep breathing exercises that help reduce stress. 

The combination of movement, breath control, and meditation in yoga can be particularly effective for cortisol management.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Practicing meditation and mindfulness can have a profound effect on stress and cortisol levels. Meditation involves deep breathing and focus, helping to calm your mind and body. 

Setting aside just 10-20 minutes a day for meditation can make a significant difference.

Mindfulness, which is about staying present in the moment, can be practiced at any time. Techniques like mindful breathing or mindful walking can be done throughout the day to reduce stress. 

These practices help you stay grounded and can lower cortisol by promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety.

Stress Reduction Techniques

Technically, everything we’ve discussed is a stress reduction technique, but if you’re making significant lifestyle changes and still struggling with elevated stress levels, it may be time to work with a counselor or participate in a group where you can learn healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress and maintain a stronger sense of balance in your life. 

Personally, I opt for talk therapy and have found that incredibly valuable. There is a lot of good information out there for free, but it’s hard to know which strategies work best for you without a ton of trial and error and endless hours of research.

This is one of those things I leave to the experts. 

If you’re interested in trying counseling, check out Talkspace! They have a really simple process, flexible scheduling options, and they take many insurance plans. 

Try Talkspace.

You don’t have to do this alone. Talk therapy can help.

Take a quick assessment and get matched with a specialist who understands your needs. Many insurance plans are accepted.

Soberish is a Talkspace affiliate partner.

You got this!

Incorporating these dietary and lifestyle changes can make a substantial difference in your stress levels and overall well-being. 

Remember, small changes can lead to significant improvements, so start incorporating these tips today and experience the benefits of a healthier, more relaxed you.

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