When it comes to coping with stress, nutrition is one of the most effective tools available. A diet designed around certain foods and nutrients can help balance stress hormones and mitigate the negative experience of stress on the body.
This article will provide pointers for creating an anti-stress diet and give you a list of nutrients that can help lower cortisol.
A Little Bit About Cortisol
We call cortisol a stress hormone, but in reality it is a metabolic hormone whose main purpose is to regulate blood sugar and energy levels when we are under a threat. Cortisol breaks down fat, protein (lean tissue), and stored carbohydrates to provide energy during stressful times.
Not only is cortisol increased in response to outside threats, such as a close call on the highway, a fight with a spouse, or an annoying interaction online, but physical stress, such as skipping meals, lack of sleep, and intense exercise, elevate cortisol as well.
Cortisol follows a circadian rhythm, which means that it is naturally elevated in the morning to help you get out of bed and get moving. Then, it decreases over the course of the day, reaching a low level in the evening so that you can get a restful night’s sleep.
However, when you suffer stress all day long, your body’s release of cortisol can become out of balance. Cortisol levels remain unnecessarily high, causing several negative effects, including increased hunger, cravings for unhealthy foods, anxiety and a racing mind, inability to sleep, increased fat gain around the abdominal area, and loss of muscle and lean tissue. Over the long-term, high cortisol causes insulin resistance, damages blood vessels, and triggers inflammation—a combination that increases disease risk.
Manage Stress With A Healthy Eating Plan
Your first line of defense against high cortisol is to eat regular meals at the same time of day to take advantage of your circadian rhythm. Your first meal of the day will lead to a marked decrease in cortisol as blood sugar rises, providing your body with nutrients and energy.
Cortisol is an insulin antagonist, which means that when you eat a meal and your blood sugar increases, insulin is released and cortisol goes down. Eating every 4 to 5 hours can help keep cortisol in check by avoiding blood sugar from dipping to low.
The next step is to design meals around high-quality protein foods, such as fish, meat, eggs, dairy, beans, and nuts. Protein is great for balancing blood sugar and supporting immune function, while also supplying the raw materials to prevent the catabolic effect of cortisol whereby it breaks down lean tissue. The amino acids in protein also help avoid food cravings by leading to the release of hormones in GI tract that decrease appetite and hunger.
Carbohydrates are an essential part of an anti-stress diet, however, the type, amount, and timing of when you eat your carbs will depend on several factors, including body composition and how active you are.
One of the hallmarks of high cortisol is a craving for highly palatable, refined carbs—what we often call “comfort foods.” Refined carbs are rapidly digested, leading to a robust increase in insulin, which has the side effect of lowering cortisol (remember cortisol is an insulin antagonist). Therefore, you crave carbs almost as a proactive effect to avoid cortisol from going too high and overwhelming you with stress.
Unfortunately, refined carbs are incredibly easy to overeat because they are engineered for their palatability. They also lead to spikes and valleys in blood sugar, and this seesaw effect triggers an increase in cortisol during the low points.
Just about everyone will benefit from favoring whole carbs (vegetables, fruit, beans, boiled grains) over refined options (crackers, bread, pasta, sweets, chips). Including lower carb fruits and vegetables at meals throughout the day will also help moderate cortisol.
For people who want to lose body fat, having higher carb foods after exercise or at dinner is recommended for relaxation. For athletes, carb intake around training sessions will help keep cortisol in check. Strength and power athletes will benefit from consuming higher carb foods after workouts to promote recovery, whereas high-volume endurance athletes may require pre- or during workout carb supplements to maintain training
Use Cortisol-Balancing Nutrients
When you are under chronic stress, the body burns through certain nutrients in an effort to pump out the various chemical messengers that are involved in the body’s stress response. These raw materials get depleted and your body isn’t able to effectively balance your stress. What follows is a list of cortisol-balancing nutrients that can support the body during high-stress times.
#1: Phosphatidylserine (PS): A phospholipid that helps metabolize cortisol and improve brain function, PS may be most beneficial for athletes who are under intense pressure or experiencing mental fatigue because it enhances neurotransmitter function and supports the hypothalamic pituitary axis for a more balanced cortisol response to stress. Supplied in egg yolk and other protein-rich foods like pork and soy, PS can be supplemented at 400 mg a day to lower secretion of cortisol.
Best taken in the evening due to its ability to promote sleep, tryptophan is an amino acid that is used by the body to synthesize serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps you feel good, improving mood, motivation, and cognition. It also promotes restful sleep and satisfaction after eating.
Serotonin is depleted when cortisol is elevated because cortisol raises levels of an enzyme that is involved in tryptophan metabolism. One of the reasons it’s recommended to eat carbs at night is that tryptophan is not take up for conversion when other amino acids are present. When you eat carbs they trigger insulin, which reduces amino acid levels in the blood so that tryptophan can easily cross the blood brain barrier for conversion to serotonin, easing stress and preparing you for bed.
#3: Taurine & Other Nutrients That Support GABA
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that calms anxiety and lowering release of Corticotropin Releasing Hormone, a precursor to cortisol release from the adrenals. Taurine is an amino acid that calms the nervous system by facilitating the release of GABA. Other nutrients that affect GABA are the B vitamins B6, B12, and folate. Natural sources of GABA include fermented milk, brown rice sprouts, barley, and beans. It’s also possible to supplement directly with GABA.
#4: Vitamin C
Vitamin C helps the body metabolize cortisol once it’s elevated. One study found that in elite endurance athletes involved in high-volume training, vitamin C supplementation resulted in a faster return to baseline cortisol levels after workouts. The athletes also experienced less muscle pain and improved muscle recovery, which researchers attribute to lower post-exercise cortisol levels.
We all know that citrus and other fruits are vitamin C-rich foods, but it appears that high doses are necessary to clear cortisol in the range of 1 to 3 grams of vitamin C a day, making supplemental vitamin C useful.
Known as the anti-stress mineral, magnesium calms the central nervous system and lowers cortisol release by several mechanisms. Cortisol is the result of a complex synthesis via which cholesterol is used to make pregnenolone, which is converted to progesterone and finally to cortisol. Magnesium can inhibit excessive cortisol synthesis at the stage of conversion of cholesterol to pregnenolone. It is also necessary for the body to metabolize cortisol once it is released.
Magnesium is present in many foods including leafy greens, meat, fish, and nuts. Many people find supplementation helpful when dealing with excess stress.
#6: Fish Oil
No surprise that EPA and DHA fish oil can lower stress in light of the many benefits they provide. Fish oil helps abolish inflammation and it improves insulin sensitivity by increasing insulin binding with cells. One study found that participants who took 4 grams of fish oil for 6 weeks reduced cortisol for better hormone balance. Another 3-week study showed lower cortisol and a reduction in subjective feelings of stress from a fish oil supplement.
#7: Green & Black Tea
Green and black tea contain antioxidants that lower cortisol release during mental and physical stress. Although more research is needed, it appears that supplementation is the best way to go if you want to use tea to lower cortisol due to the caffeine both green and black tea contain.
Caffeine is generally a no-no when it comes to balancing cortisol because consumption leads to a significant increase in non-habitual users. In regular drinkers, when consumed in the morning daily, the cortisol spike tends to go away, but when they drink it later in the day (after 11 am), they tend to get a significant increase in cortisol. The one possible exception to the no caffeine rule is prior to exercise training. Studies show that caffeine can increase testosterone and improve the testosterone to cortisol ratio, especially when sleep deprived, allowing for a better quality workout.
#8: Rhodiola Rosea
An herb used in Chinese medicine, rhodiola rosea (also known as golden root) helps to reduce the prolonged effects of physical exhaustion that results in fatigue by affecting cortisol receptors. Rhodiola may also improve cognitive function in people who are under stress or are very fatigued. It is available in supplement form.
#9: Anti-inflammatories—Curcumin, Resveratrol & Betaine
When cortisol is chronically elevated it has a powerful inflammatory effect, damaging cells and tissues in the body. Compounds in curcumin (from the herb turmeric), resveratrol (from red grapes), and betaine (an amino acid found in beets, quinoa, and spinach) can protect against the development of inflammation in response to high cortisol levels. Although these compounds can be derived from food, supplementation can be beneficial to achieve a dose that is capable of making a noticeable impact on lowering inflammation in the body.
Best known as a bone nutrient, boron has been found to regulate the release of steroid hormones including cortisol. One study found that supplementing with 11 mg of boron in the morning led to better cortisol balance and an improved testosterone-to-cortisol ratio. Inflammatory markers were also reduced suggesting that boron can have a protective effect against oxidative stress.
#11: Holy Basil
Holy basil (also known as tulsi) in an herb that has been shown to have stress-relieving effects, improving cognitive function during high-stress times. It also impacts metabolic function and can help balance blood sugar, which has implications for cortisol release and stress management.
Although it doesn’t directly lower cortisol, creatine is an amino acid compound that can boost cognitive function during fatigue or sleep deprivation by replenishing brain stores of phosphocreatine. In fact, creatine has been found as effective as caffeine for improving reaction time and exercise performance in athletes, but without the cortisol spike that comes with caffeine.