Use these 10 foods to balance cortisol for optimal body composition and performance. Many people vilify cortisol as the enemy of leanness and recovery from training, but the truth is that cortisol only has negative effects when it’s out of balance.
Nutrition is one powerful tool you have to balance cortisol and improve the release of related metabolic and performance-boosting hormones. Certain foods and nutrients can help you lower cortisol post-workout or in the evening before bed. Others need to be avoided because they activate the brain in a way that leads to elevated cortisol release and excessive stress.
This article will give you the top 10 foods that help you balance cortisol. Also included are 10 foods to avoid because they unnecessarily increase cortisol and impede optimal body composition. You can read more about these foods here.
#1: Cold Water Fish: Salmon, Whitefish, Sardines & Anchovies
The cold water fish are well known for a high concentration of the omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA, which have been found to reduce cortisol in a series of studies.
For example, a 2010 study found that participants who took 4 grams of EPA- and DHA-rich fish oil for 6 weeks reduced cortisol for better hormone balance. They also reduced body fat by 0.5 percent, which was considered significant since they weren’t exercising or modifying diet.
There are additional ways DHA and EPA promote hormone balance: They improve insulin sensitivity so that the body is better able to sustain protein synthesis to build muscle and use glucose in the bloodstream for energy.
Avoid This: Trans Fats
#2: Flax Seeds & Walnuts.
Flax seeds and walnuts are rich the third but less heralded omega-3 fat, alpha linolenic acid (ALA). In addition, they both contain protective polyphenols, which have been found to reduce cortisol following a stress test.
Researchers believe the combination of antioxidants and omega-3s allowed for better stress management and improved hormone and neurotransmitter function.
Remember that ALA isn’t a substitute for EPA and DHA that are found in fish, but it is associated with better health, improved cognition, and lower inflammation.
Walnuts need no instructions because they’re delicious just as they are. To get the most out of flax seeds, grind flax seeds and add them to protein shakes or sprinkle on a salad.
Avoid This: Vegetable & Seed Oils
#3: Swiss & Rainbow Chard
We know that the body’s glycemic control, which is the ability to metabolize carbohydrates efficiently so that we don’t experience peaks and valleys in blood sugar, influences cortisol release. If you have poor glycemic control, cortisol balance is altered and the central nervous system is activated.
Swiss and rainbow chard can help prevent this because they contain some of the more exotic antioxidants, which have been found to help manage blood sugar. In fact, chard is used in Turkey to treat diabetes. In addition, these greens are incredibly nutrient dense, providing vitamins A, K, C, and magnesium.
Avoid This: Fruit Juice
Eggs are a perfect protein source because they contain an amino acid lineup that is readily used by the body for tissue repair after muscle damaging exercise. They also contain a nice dose of choline, which the body uses to make brain transmitters that improve motivation and focus, both of which are useful when facing high-stress times.
In addition, eggs are rich in antioxidants that lower inflammation and improve blood sugar balance and insulin release. For example, a 12-week study that had overweight men eat a low-carb diet containing three eggs daily lost 5 kg of body fat and decreased inflammation and cholesterol levels more than a group who ate a low-carb diet but no eggs.
The decrease in inflammation and greater fat loss was attributed to the fact that the egg eaters improved insulin sensitivity more, which indicates better metabolic and stress hormone balance.
Avoid This: Foods You Are Sensitive or Intolerant To
#5: Dark Chocolate
Super dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cocoa solids) has boatloads of benefits:
• It’s been found to boost mood and aid clear thinking during deadline-driven mental efforts.
• It improves vascular health by increasing blood flow and reducing inflammation.
• It aids gut health and improves digestion—a key action that will lead to altered cortisol if not functioning properly.
• It improves metabolic hormone balance of insulin, and was found to reduce cortisol output in at least two studies.
Science hasn’t identified an optimal chocolate dose, but a good bet is a square or two of dark chocolate that is more than 70 percent dark because this will be higher in the protective polyphenols. Check the label and make sure there are no chemicals, fake sweeteners, or high fructose corn syrup in your chocolate.
Avoid This: Chocolate Cake
#6: Organic Beef Liver
Beef liver is nutrient-rich but low in calories and fat. It provides an array of protective nutrients in a source that the body can easily absorb, including phosphorous, potassium, vitamin A, copper, iron, folate, and choline. Best of all, beef liver is packed with bioavailable zinc, which fights inflammation and promotes cortisol balance.
Beef also promotes metabolic and stress hormone balance: When people eat it for breakfast, they have greater satisfaction and less hunger than when they eat a carb-based breakfast. They also eat fewer calories over the course of the day because beef allows for a more moderate, gradual increase in blood sugar and insulin that is sustained to keep people steady and stress-free.
Avoid This: Factory Farm Beef
#7: Greek Yogurt
Greek yogurt that contains live probiotic bacteria can reduce cortisol by lowering oxidative stress and improving gut health when you’re under stress. For example, when students who were under intense academic stress drank milk fermented with yogurt cultures daily for 3 weeks, they experienced a smaller spike in cortisol and better immune function than a control group that didn’t get the beneficial bacteria.
Because it improves hormone balance, eating plenty of probiotic rich foods including sauerkraut, kimchi, keifer, fermented dairy, or pickled ginger can help you lose body fat as well. A Japanese study found that drinking fermented milk containing probiotic bacteria for four weeks led to a decrease in belly fat of 8.2 percent.
Avoid This: Fat-Free Flavored Yogurts
#8: Citrus Fruits & Papaya
The citrus fruits (oranges, limes, lemon, and grapefruit) and papaya are packed with vitamin C, which has been found to lower cortisol after intense exercise. For example, when men consumed 1,000 mg of vitamin C a day for 2 weeks, they had significantly lower cortisol after a 2.5-hour endurance run than a placebo group.
Of course, you’d have to eat at least 16 servings of citrus and papaya a day to equal 1,000 mg, but leafy greens are also rich in C and optimal immune function can likely be reached with lower doses than 1,000 mg. Ways to get more C into your diet are to add lemon or lime to water, use citrus in salad dressing and meat and fish marinades, and eat leafy greens at every meal.
Avoid This: Alcohol
#9: Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin seeds are high in magnesium—the darling of the anti-stress nutrients—and they have been found to help manage blood sugar release for better metabolic hormone levels. Other nutrient-rich seeds to try that can promote hormone balance include fenugreek (regulates blood sugar by mimicking insulin and boosts testosterone), chia (packed with magnesium), and sesame (helps metabolize estrogen).
Avoid This: Low-Fiber Carbs
#10: Spinach & White Beans
Spinach is packed with magnesium, the B vitamins, and antioxidants, which all tamp down stress and aid metabolic health, but white beans contain a special nutrient that is especially effective for reducing cortisol: Phosphatidylserine (PS).
PS has been well tested for lowering cortisol when under stress and it’s particularly useful for clearing cortisol and improving hormone balance after intense exercise.
For example, a 2008 study tested the effect of a PS dose of 600 mg for 10 days on cortisol after high-intensity intervals and found that cortisol was significantly lower, and the testosterone-to-cortisol ratio was more favorable compared to a placebo group.
Other PS-packed foods are soy lecithin, cow brain, mackerel, chicken heart, herring, and tuna. Enjoy!
Avoid This: Caffeine