Everyone experiences stress to some degree, some more so than others. When we think about reducing our stress levels, we often think about taking a bath, going for a walk, relaxing and watching a TV show, or just taking a quiet day to ourselves. However, did you know that there are some foods that reduce stress, too? We cover which are the best foods for lowering cortisol so that you can reduce stress!
What Is Stress
Stress is a hormonal response to a stimulus either externally or internally. The hormone activated here is called cortisol, which is a glucocorticoid, produced in our adrenal glands. There are many biological functions that cortisol is involved in, such as regulating our sleep, and blood sugar, digesting and metabolizing macronutrients like protein, carbs, and fats, controlling blood pressure, and even contributing to inflammation levels in the body.
RELATED: What is Oxidative Stress
Is Stress Good For You?
There are two types of stress, good stress, and bad stress. Good stress is the type of stress that you experience that helps you focus or perform better or the type you get when you exercise. Bad stress is the kind that takes a toll on you. Bad stress can spike your adrenaline or send your nervous system for a roller coaster ride, leaving you shaky, upset, and in a panic.
In short bouts, like when exercising or slamming on the brakes to avoid running a yellow light, cortisol is a very proactive mechanism. However, in prolonged secretion and elevated levels, due to chronic stressors, like over-exercising or a high-impact job, high cortisol levels can begin to take a toll on the body and overall health.
RELATED: How To Control Cortisol Levels
While there are many ways of managing stress, it is important that you do them regularly, whatever your mechanisms of action are. This might be having a self-care routine, a bedtime routine, doing self-check-ins, and asking your body what it needs throughout the day. It also might mean practicing healthful behaviors, like drinking water, hanging with a friend, seeing a therapist, or exercising regularly. By managing stress, we can have healthy fluctuations between good stress and bad stress, properly regulating our nervous system response so that we can react quickly and think clearly while also encouraging ourselves to reach new goals and work towards our personal aspirations.
Stress & Cortisol-Reducing Foods
Food is one of those things that people gravitate towards as a response to both good and bad stress. Most commonly, people will turn to food as a stress relieving tactic, but they’ll choose low-density or highly processed foods for that immediate spike in dopamine and serotonin. In the search for self-soothing with these types of foods during bouts of stress, we can become emotional eaters, and use this as a negative coping mechanism, leading to an expanded waistline.
Other times, we can use food as a soothing tactic to stress, but we can choose more nutrient-dense foods so that we receive the benefit of the added nutrients and don’t spike our hormone levels, leading to a crash. In doing so, we can effectively reduce cortisol levels, reduce inflammation, and soothe that ‘fight or flight’ response that we get from the adrenal secretion of cortisol in the body.
Foods That Reduce Stress
Whole foods are the way to do when you’re wondering which food reduces stress. It isn’t really one particular food, but rather a wide variety of foods that can reduce stress levels. These food categories are things like fish, lean meats, fruits, dairy vegetables, whole grains, and omega-3 rich fats. Most of the nutrients in these foods are stripped away when they’re processed, so while yes, French fries and a high-fat milkshake might put your stress at ease for a moment, opting for a more whole food-based meal will keep you satiated, nourished, and less stressed for a longer period of time as compared to the former.
Also, those fries and shake are going to work against you, potentially spiking cortisol levels further because of the sugar and increasing inflammation because of the processed and hydrogenated fats, as well as the sugars.
Nutrients That Reduce Stress
Within the food categories mentioned, there are specific nutrients that you want to look for or keep in mind that can help combat high levels of stress, improve biomarkers like cholesterol and blood pressure, and regulate a healthy stress/immune response.
Probiotics are great for helping the body’s immune response. Probiotics provide the gut and GI with healthy bacteria to better digest and absorb food contents, while also helping to regulate blood sugar levels in a positive manner. Our gut is often considered our ‘second brain’ and when under high levels of stress, our immune system and GI function can dip, leading to burnout, stress fevers, indigestion, and even constipation. Probiotic-rich foods include:
- Greek Yogurt
- Fermented Foods like Sauerkraut and Kefir
- Probiotic supplements (like PROBIOTIX)
RELATED: How To Choose A Probiotic Supplement
Protein is important to eat on a regular basis as well as when you’re stressed because it will give your body quality nutrients to balance out blood sugar levels and keep your hunger levels in check. The protein-rich foods that reduce stress include:
- Lean beef
- Beans and Legumes
- Fresh Fish (Salmon, halibut, etc.)
- Nuts and Seeds
- Whey Protein Isolate
- Plant Protein
- Collagen Protein
Omega-3 Rich Foods
Reducing inflammation? Omega-3s are your go-to foods for this. Not only that, but they’ll help out your cholesterol levels, blood pressure levels, and blood sugar levels, give you brain energy and keep your heart in tip-top function. All of those indicators when negatively affected can contribute to higher stress levels and systemic inflammation. Think of foods like:
- Chia, Flax, and Pumpkin Seeds
- Olive Oil
- Krill Oil Supplement
- Beans & Legumes
RELATED: Is Krill Oil Better Than Fish Oil?
Foods High In Vitamin B
B vitamins, specifically b12, can help with reducing cortisol response and cortisol levels. You can also supplement with b vitamins which may be beneficial in addition to improving your overall food quality and diet. These cortisol-lowering foods include:
- Lean Beef
- Fortified cereal and milks
- Nutritional Yeast
- Organ meats (liver, etc.)
- B-Complex Supplement
RELATED: The Quick Guide To B-Vitamins
Magnesium-rich foods are great for reducing stress levels and balancing blood sugar levels. They also promote a healthy inflammation response and cortisol levels. These foods also provide soothing responses and promote relaxation. Magnesium-rich, cortisol-lowering foods include:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower
- Seeds (pumpkin, chia, etc.)
- ZMT Supplement (Sleep + Testosterone Boosting)
RELATED: 3 Benefits Of Magnesium Glycinate
Foods That Make Stress Worse
There are also foods and drinks that raise cortisol levels, systemic stress, and inflammation, and that negatively affect your sleep. These types of foods and drinks should be avoided as best as possible, or at the very least, consumed in moderation. These foods include:
- Beer, wine, hard liquor, or any other type of alcohol
- High levels of caffeine (over 400mg typically)
- High sugar foods
- Foods that contain hydrogenated oils or Trans Fats
- Processed and pre-packaged baked goods (cakes, pastries, etc.)
- Soda, sugary drinks
Other Stress-Relieving Techniques
While food may be soothing and stress relieving, especially whole foods and minimally processed foods, food isn’t always the best go-to for relieving stress. If you have a very healthy diet, but you’re only sleeping 2-3 hours or you’re working 14 hours a day and sitting the whole time, there are other areas of stress relief that need to be taken into consideration. These things might be like going for a walk, taking standing breaks, or establishing a sleep routine.
Which Foods Reduce Stress: Takeaway
While stress is part of normal life and we all experience it to some degree, managing bad stress is important not just for the now, but for the long-term game, too. You need to nourish from the inside out with the way that you talk to yourself, feed yourself, and hydrate yourself. The better you can do this, the better your body can respond to environmental, social, or situational stressors, without leaving you feeling completely worn out, shaky, nauseated, or out of wack. Who wouldn’t want that!? By including whole, nutrient-dense, cortisol-lowering foods, and foods that make you feel good and energized, you can really improve your health and daily life.
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