Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone,” is necessary to help the body deal with many of the stresses in life. Just like with other hormones (like insulin) too much of it can lead to some chronic issues in the body.
Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands as part of its “flight or fight” mechanism. It helped our hunter gatherer ancestors survive when dealing with a frightening or stressful event like being attacked by a lion, tiger or bear…oh my.
The thing is most of us never have to fight off a wild animal or defend our families from an invading Mongol horde. Most of the stress we face comes from non-life threatening events like a long day at work or some jerk in front of you on the highway.
Because our lives are so much more sedentary than our ancestors, we have no means to reduce our cortisol levels and this is why stress is related to so many health issues.
In this article I’ll discuss a little more about what cortisol does in our bodies, how we can keep the levels in check and what foods we can eat to reduce our cortisol levels as well as some other stress reduction techniques.
The Basics of Cortisol
Cortisol is supposed to help us prepare for a stressful event by giving us more available energy. It does this by shutting down other bodily processes that aren’t needed for immediate survival.
The way cortisol gives us more energy is by raising our blood sugar (glucose) levels. One of the ways it does this is by breaking down your muscle tissue into amino acids that can be converted into blood sugar. This means over time chronically high levels of cortisol will decrease your muscle. This is why cortisol is known as a catabolic hormone. The less muscle you have the lower your metabolism and the higher chance that you will gain fat.
When your body has this extra glucose in the blood it is supposed to be for immediate energy and not to be stored so the cortisol will stop the production of insulin. Insulin lowers blood sugar levels by storing the extra glucose in your muscles and fat.
Type 1 diabetes is when the body does not produce insulin to lower blood sugar. Sound similar to what happens with constantly high cortisol levels?
If you are running away from a saber tooth tiger then it’s good to have extra glucose in your blood that your body can convert to energy. After you escape, the cortisol levels go down and the body returns to status quo.
If your cortisol levels are high all the time with no activity to bring your body back to normal then your blood sugar will remain high. Constantly high cortisol levels can lead to insulin resistance which is one of the causes of type 2 diabetes. Another study also showed a link with cortisol, type 2 diabetes and risk of heart disease.
There is also a correlation between cortisol and obesity and it is also linked to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Chronically high cortisol levels can also lead to adrenal fatigue and a decreased immune system. Adrenal fatigue is a condition where the adrenal glands are not functioning at their optimal level. Symptoms for this include always being tired for no reason, not wanting to get out of bed and having more energy at night than during the day.
Best Foods to Reduce Cortisol
So it is not good to have constantly elevated cortisol levels. The foods we eat play a role in reducing the negative effects of chronically high cortisol levels. Here are my top picks for the best foods to lower cortisol.
Dark Leafy greens
Spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collard and turnip greens are all high in magnesium and magnesium lowers cortisol levels. They are also full of vitamin K and beta carotene, both of which are good for cognitive function. Leafy greens are also packed full of other nutrients and are low in calories so they are great if you are trying to lose weight.
While not as good as real food, you can also get the benefits of magnesium from magnesium capsules.
Citrus like oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruits are high in the antioxidant vitamin C. This reduces cortisol a few different ways. Vitamin C reduces stress and reduces the production of cortisol. Antioxidants reduce oxidative stress and lead to reduced cortisol levels. Citrus fruits also contain flavonoids, which help to reduce inflammation.
If eating a lot of citrus fruits is not for you, you can also get the benefits of Vitamin C from Pure Ascorbic Acid Powder.
Here it is again. Garlic is a great food that I just mentioned in my last article about the best foods to improve gut health. Actually it seems like every time I make a list of top foods, I mention garlic. Like oysters, garlic also increases testosterone and reduces cortisol. In addition to adding a great flavor to your food, garlic has also been shown to reduce blood pressure and may reduce the risk of cancer. Garlic also helps to fight inflammation.
Since garlic is so healthy but also has a strong smell, odorless garlic extract is also avaialble.
Wild-Caught Fatty Fishes
Another great food that is also on a few of my top food lists is wild-caught fatty fish. Fishes like salmon, mackerel, albacore tuna and trout are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega 3s have been shown to reduce cortisol levels. Omega 3s has other benefits such as reducing your risk of heart disease, cancer and cognitive decline. They are also great for reducing inflammation.
If you don’t eat fish, you can also try some Fish Oil with Omega-3s instead.
Chocolate is another food that reduces cortisol levels. The cocoa in dark chocolate is rich in polyphenols which helps to reduce perceived stress. Dark chocolate may also help to improve mood and energy levels. The reason you want to go with dark chocolate over any other kind of chocolate is because there is less sugar in dark chocolate and as we all know, sugar is bad. I usually recommend my clients choose dark chocolate that is 85% or higher from the cocoa bean.
Click here for some Ghirardelli 86% Dark Chocolate. You can also 100% Cacao Unsweetened Chocolate. 100% is meant for baking so it has no sugar. That means it’s a lot healthier but you may need to get used to the taste.
Many people, including myself, don’t like to eat them but oysters are good for your health. They are extremely high in zinc. In fact, no other food even comes close to the 78.6 milligrams per 100 grams of oysters. Zinc has been shown to inhibit cortisol production. It also increases testosterone levels, which is great if you are trying to build muscle.
If you don’t like oysters but still want to get the benefits of zinc, you can try a Zinc Supplement.
Other Cortisol and Stress Reduction Techniques
Eating healthy is not the only way to lower your stress hormone levels. One of the best ways to reduce the cortisol in the body is to get a good night sleep. The body will naturally regulate your cortisol levels while you are sleeping as a part of your circadian rhythms. It is normal for cortisol levels to be lowest 3-5 hours after falling asleep and highest right before you wake up. Here are some tips for a better sleep.
Avoid Stressful Situations
Since stress causes the body to make cortisol, it seems like common sense that in order to lower our cortisol we need to also lower our stress. The simplest way to do this is to avoid situations that make you anxious or angry. Sometimes they can’t be avoided so finding other ways to relax can also help. Some popular relaxation and stress reduction methods include meditation, listening to relaxing music, a massage, and of course a good workout.
Not only can exercise help you reduce stress, but it’s also a great way to lower cortisol. During the workout itself your cortisol levels will actually be elevated. They will even go higher the more intense you work out. But, with exercise your body will start to release more endorphins, which give people a feeling euphoria, and as long as you give your body enough time to recover, over time your cortisol levels will go down.
The sun plays a role in the amount of cortisol in out body. More sunlight seems to lead to reduced cortisol production. Sunlight will also help your body make vitamin D3. While too much sun can increase your risk for skin cancer, it lowers the risk for other chronic diseases.
If you are looking for a good short term boost of energy, caffeine is great. (It’s actually one of the best pre-workout supplements. ) But if you want to reduce the overall cortisol in the body, you need to limit your intake. Caffeine increases cortisol levels but over time it’s effect seems to be reduced.
Cortisol is supposed to reduce the inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to chronically high cortisol levels and this can wreak havoc on your immune system. This means that reducing inflammation will also reduce cortisol. Eat more inflammation fighting foods like turmeric and ginger and reduce inflammation causing foods like sugar and omega 6s.
Big Take Away
Cortisol and stress can decrease your muscle and make your workouts less effective. Eating some of these foods as well as using these other methods to reduce cortisol can help increase your results.
Even if it did not effect your results at all, chronically high cortisol is not good for your overall health so it’s a good idea to start to eat some of these great foods anyway.