If you’re trying to lower your stress levels, you probably already know to start with the basics: self-care, sleep management, and exercise. But did you know there are some foods that lower stress levels, too?
Dietitian Courtney Barth, MS, RDN, LD, CPT, explains how certain foods can help reduce your levels of cortisol — the primary hormone responsible for stress.
What cortisol does
Cortisol plays a number of roles in the body, including:
- Regulating sleep cycles.
- Reducing inflammation.
- Increasing blood sugar.
- Managing how the body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
- Controlling blood pressure.
Importantly, cortisol is sometimes known as the “stress hormone” because your adrenal gland releases it when you’re in a stressful situation, or when your body is under physical stress (like inflammation). It’s the key to helping your body manage its fight-or-flight instinct — which is a good thing.
“Cortisol is healthy for a short period of time as a protective mechanism,” Barth says. “It gives your body the energy you need to respond to a short-term stressful scenario.”
In the long-term, though, too much cortisol actually creates stress in your body, leading to more inflammation and increasing your blood pressure — essentially, the opposite of all the good things it does for you in short-term scenarios.
“Managing stress is the number one treatment for lowering cortisol levels,” Barth says.
Foods that are promoted on the Mediterranean diet are the same foods that are good to eat when you’re stressed: fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats. In fact, Barth encourages patients to adopt a Mediterranean diet for overall health and wellness, including stress relief.
“The best way to lower cortisol in the body is to focus on an anti-inflammatory diet,” Barth says. “That means fewer processed foods and more whole foods.”
The goal is to eat foods that reduce inflammation in your body, thus reducing cortisol levels. Here are some foods that help combat stress by lowering your cortisol.
Foods high in vitamin B
“Fortified whole grains and some animal sources have lots of B vitamins in them — particularly vitamin B12, which can help with metabolism of cortisol,” Barth explains. Try:
- Fortified cereal.
- Nutritional yeast.
- Organ meats.
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acid
These foods reduce inflammation. “The best-activated form is through fatty fish, but you can also get it from some plant sources,” Barth says. Such foods include:
- Chia seeds.
- Flax seeds.
- Olive oil.
“Magnesium is hugely beneficial when it comes to reducing inflammation, metabolizing cortisol and relaxing the body and mind,” Barth says. She suggests:
- Dark chocolate.
- Pumpkin seeds.
“Foods such as meat, fish, poultry, beans, and legumes promote balanced blood sugar levels,” Barth says. Specifics include:
- Chicken breast.
- Lean beef.
- Turkey breast.
“Seventy to 80% of our immune system is reliant on our gut, so if we correct our gut, we correct a lot of our immunity,” Barth says. These probiotic-rich and fermented foods can help balance blood sugar and reduce cholesterol:
- Greek yogurt.
If you need to de-stress in a hurry
Stress management through food is a long game, not a get-relaxed-quick trick. That said, magnesium-rich foods are a good choice if you’re trying to unwind and want a little natural assistance.
“High-magnesium foods are my first line of treatment,” Barth says. “Magnesium helps to relax the body, which helps reduce stress. It’s also a mineral for important body function, including heart rhythm, strong bones, keeping blood pressure normal, and helping to decrease risk of risk chronic diseases.”
In a pinch, she suggests popping some pumpkin seeds or letting some dark chocolate melt in your mouth (just make sure it’s at least 90% cacao). Try it at the end of the day for a little bit of nighttime relaxation.
Foods to avoid
In contrast, some foods raise cortisol levels. Foods that cause stress on your body include:
- High-sugar foods.
- Simple carbs, such as cakes and pastries.
Eat well and eat consistently
If you’re hoping to reduce stress, keep in mind this one key piece of advice: Don’t skip meals. Eating on a regular schedule — every three to five hours — helps balance your blood sugar levels. Being in a chronic state of low blood sugar is stressful on your body and can increase cortisol, so maintaining a balanced blood sugar can go a long way.
And tempting though it may be, don’t turn to supplements to get the vitamins and nutrients your body needs.
“We know what impact nutrition has on your body, whereas supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration,” Barth says. “I always tell people: Go with food first.”
Don’t rely on food to de-stress
Yes, these foods may help reduce your cortisol levels — but they won’t have a significant impact on their own if you’re not prioritizing stress management in other ways.
“If you have a healthy diet but you’re still incredibly stressed and not sleeping enough, you won’t see the results you’re looking for with food alone,” Barth warns.
The key to lowering stress is a whole-body approach that includes exercising, getting enough sleep and managing chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity — all of which can put your body in a prolonged state of inflammation.
And although we can’t control our genes or, to some extent, our environment, we can help our bodies when we make smart decisions about the food we eat.
“When it comes to our health, nutrition is the one thing we can control,” Barth says.