Nutrition is a powerful tool you have to balance cortisol and improve the release of related metabolic and performance-boosting hormones. By planning your diet wisely, you can help lower cortisol post-workout or in the evening before bed. This will allow you to avoid food cravings, reduce stress, and get all-around better fat loss results when trying to improve your body composition.
Choose the wrong foods, or eat certain foods at the wrong times, and you increase cortisol. This list will tell you which foods to avoid so that you are better able to avoid elevated cortisol.
#1: Trans Fats
Pretty much everyone agrees that trans fats are dangerous because they’re associated with a boatload of diseases and there’s evidence from animal studies that they raise cortisol.
Plus, human studies show a higher intake of trans fats is associated with aggressive behavior and greater risk of depression—both of which are likely linked to dysregulated hormones.
Avoid trans fats by favoring whole foods over packaged junkfood and reading all labels for “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils.
#2: Vegetable & Seed Oils
Vegetable and seed oils, such as canola, corn, soy, and sunflower, are highly processed oils that are heated, washed, and treated with the chemical hexane before adding them to chips, cookies, cereal, or bottling as a “heart” healthy oil.
The over-processing strips them of nutrition and contaminates them with toxins. These oils are also easily destroyed by oxidation, which is harmful to the body, causing inflammation, activating the immune system, and altering stress hormone balance.
In addition, most people consume too much of the omega-6 fats that vegetable and seed oils contain, making it prudent to avoid these oils in favor of a variety of less processed fats such as olive oil, butter, and coconut oil. If you have a skewed ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, disease risk and obesity increase significantly.
#3: Fruit Juice
Drinking fruit juice frequently is associated with increased diabetes risk and poor metabolic health, a state that often leads to an altered cortisol curve and elevated inflammation.
Eating fruit has the opposite effect, reducing diabetes risk. The reason is that juice usually removes the fiber that naturally occurs in fruit. Lack of fiber causes a cascade of actions that involve elevated cortisol:
The sugar in the juice causes a rapid spike in blood sugar and too much insulin release, which leads to low blood sugar as insulin quickly shuttles all the energy from the blood into cells. Cortisol is released and we feel hungry again, often causing us to overeat.
#4: Foods You Are Sensitive or Intolerant To
A food sensitivity is when you have a negative response to eating a certain food because your immune system is activated, leading cortisol to be elevated. It’s much milder than an allergic response, such that we often don’t even realize why we feel crappy; we just know we feel “off.”
You can develop a food intolerance to any food, especially if you live a high stress life and have elevated cortisol, but most common ones are beef, eggs, casein protein, shellfish, gluten grains, and tree nuts.
#5: Chocolate Cake
Of course, there are many different kinds of chocolate cake, but most will have antioxidant-poor chocolate and a lot of refined sugar. Foods higher in refined sugar lead to a greater release of cortisol, adrenaline, and epinephrine—a combination that will make you feel great for a few minutes, until you crash and your “sugar high” is over and you just want more.
For example, in one study, women who suffered greater life stress and had imbalanced cortisol ate more chocolate cake and fewer vegetables at a lunch buffet, indicating a reciprocal effect where altered cortisol drives the desire for sweet foods, which in turn elevates cortisol.
#6: Factory Farm Beef
Frequently eating factory-farmed beef is a poor choice if your goal is to balance cortisol. Conventional beef comes from animals raised on mixtures of genetically modified corn, chicken manure, antibiotics, hormones, and ground-up parts of other animals.
It also contains fewer omega-3 fats and more omega-6 fats, which are pro-inflammatory when not balanced with omega-3 fats. Factory farmed beef also has more of the type of saturated fat that is detrimental to cholesterol (called myristic and palmitic acid), whereas grass-beef has more stearic acid, which is neutral for cholesterol.
#7: Fat-Free Flavored Yogurts
High-quality yogurt that contains live probiotic bacteria has been found to lower cortisol, but fat-free and low-fat flavored yogurts are basically just junk foods masquerading as health food. They tend to taste terrible because all the fat has been removed and replaced by sugar or artificial sweeteners and fake flavorings and dyes.
These yogurts are unlikely to contain any live probiotic bacteria because they tend to go though extensive industrial processing, so they aren’t doing your gut or your cortisol level any good.
Alcohol causes oxidative stress in the liver, depresses mood, and has been found to raise cortisol, particularly when drunk after intense exercise.
For example, a recent study found that when trained men consumed alcohol after a workout, they had elevated cortisol and a worse free testosterone to cortisol ratio compared to a placebo group. Long-term use could be even more detrimental because it is associated with even greater hormone imbalances.
#9: Low-Fiber Carbs
Carbs that lack fiber can lead to elevated cortisol because they are rapidly digested, leading to a greater spike in blood sugar and insulin, which is followed by cortisol release once blood sugar plummets. Plus, low fiber diets tend to lead to poor gastrointestinal function and inflammation, which alters cortisol balance.
Carbs that lack fiber tend to be refined or processed foods like bread, cereal, cookies, or crackers. Naturally fibrous carbs include almost all veggies and fruits.
Although it’s possible to have healthy cortisol levels with caffeine use, people who suffer from the effects of their high-stress lives can benefit from avoiding caffeine. For example, new caffeine users experience a large cortisol spike that lasts throughout the day. Even habitual users who drink it in the morning and then again at lunch get a big afternoon spike in cortisol, and the effect is worsened if you are anxious or mentally stressed.
Be wise about your use and know that having hormone imbalances or adrenal exhaustion reduces your ability to metabolize caffeine. Certain genotypes have the same problem.