Updated: Apr 10, 2019
We live in a fast-paced society. We go, go, go.
Stressors are everywhere… emotional, physical, environmental and even food! Traffic, your boss, computers, deadlines, overexercising, an old injury, pesticides, herbicides, sugar, processed foods, chemicals, synthetic hormones, and the list goes on. We are exposed to stressors everywhere we turn. In fact, just thinking about all these stressors is … well … stressful.
Our natural “fight or flight” stress response is supposed to help us escape injury or death in an emergency and then return to normal after we’ve fought or flew. We run from a sabre tooth tiger. We are safe. We recover.
Unfortunately, recovery doesn’t happen enough in today’s society. Stress becomes a moment-to-moment long-term reaction. Stress is chronic. And it’s chronic stress that undermines your health.
You’ve probably heard of the main stress hormone, “cortisol.” Cortisol is naturally high in the morning (this is what gets you up and going), and it slowly fades during the day, allowing you to wind down and go to sleep. This is a normal, healthy process.
You run into problems when stress is constantly high, due to everyday stressors. Too-high levels of cortisol are associated with belly fat, poor sleep, brain fog, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and even a lowered immunity.
Do you experience any of these? Well then, read on because I have a list of foods, nutrients and lifestyle recommendations to help you naturally lower your stress hormone.
Food and cortisol
Let’s start with one of the biggies… sugar. People don’t think of sugar as a stressor. Sugar is usually associated with moments of enjoyment or a treat. However, sugar increases your cortisol levels. This is closely related to the spike and crash of insulin you can experience when you consumer sugar in food or drinks. So, it makes sense that if you reduce the sugar you eat and drink, it’s a great first step to stress less.
Sugar comes in various forms, so be mindful. Yes, candy and obvious goodies are sources, but so are refined flours! In fact, two pieces of bread have the same impact on your blood sugar as six teaspooons of table sugar. That’s because refined flours are digested, broken down into glucose and then absorbed into your blood stream VERY quickly (like 60 minutes if you don’t combine it with anything else). Insulin surges and jumps into action by shuttling all that glucose into cells for energy or storage in fat cells for use later on.
And then insulin crashes – as quickly as it soared. Your blood sugar is now too low. Your body calls on cortisol (and other hormones) to help re-balance blood sugar by breaking down proteins in your liver and muscles to produce glucose, a process called gluconeogenesis. Despite this response, you’re left feeling hungry, irritable and lethargic, so you reach for another quick “feel good” meal … usually refined flours or carbohydrates, and the whole cycle repeats.
Now, this is a very simplified explanation, but you get the idea. The takeaway? Your morning bagel or tea with toast can send your insulin and stress hormones on a roller coaster ride for the remainder of the day. If this speaks to you, you can read more on one of my previous posts here.
If you’re craving something sweet, reach for a piece of fruit that is high in fibre, vitamins and minerals. Or pair your bagel with some lean protein and healthy fat to slow digestion and better balance your blood sugar. Better yet, ditch the bagel and choose some lean protein, healthy fats and vegetables that will provide a steady stream of energy your body can use for hours instead of moments.
High doses of caffeine also increase your cortisol levels. If coffee makes you feel anxious and jittery, then cut back on the amount of caffeine you ingest. Opt for green or black tea instead. Studies show tea can help people experience a lower cortisol response when faced with a stressful task.
Lastly, did you know that simply being dehydrated increases cortisol? Make sure you’re drinking enough water every day, especially if you feel thirsty or you are an avid exerciser. All of your organs require adequate water for optimal function. Water is also required for thousands of metabolic reactions in your body. If you are dehydrated, your body is not functioning well, and that can increase your cortisol levels.
Nutrient-dense whole foods are your ticket to managing stress, and they help all aspects of your health.
This means you should eat quality protein at all three meals for recovery and repair. Daily doses of healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocado, fish, coconut) feed your nervous system – in a good way! And plants (in whole form) provide fibre to slow digestion and balance blood sugar, while also feeding your body with essential vitamins and minerals.
If you combine all three macros at each meal, you will have a winning combination for stress-less eating. Oh! And dark chocolate is also beneficial. It’s high in polyphenols and has been shown to help reduce stress hormones! That’s right. You can have your chocolate and eat it too!
Lastly, don’t forget your probiotics and prebiotics! There is so much new research about the gut-mind connection, and how taking care of your friendly gut microbes is key to stress management! Make sure you’re eating probiotic-rich fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir, while also getting a healthy dose of prebioticfiber (prebiotics feed good bacteria). No special supplements required. You can find prebiotics naturally in vegetables!
Lifestyle techniques to lower cortisol
Beyond food, there are lots of things you can do to lower cortisol.
Reduce your stress with mindfulness. Many studies show that reducing stressful thoughts and worry reduces cortisol. Our family is currently taking part in Oprah’s and Deepak’s free 21 day meditiation. My son keeps falling asleep, but clearly, he is relaxed. And he is thinking about gratitude before he gets his shut-eye.
Exercise is often the number one lifestyle change doctors recommend to combat stress. This doesn’t mean you have to go out and run a marathon. Heck no! Just start walking. Thirty minutes a day (ideally outside) will feed your body, mind and soul, while reducing your overall cortisol levels.
Get enough sleep! Sleep helps normalize cortisol levels. Your body turns off its stress response and turns on its repair hormones while you sleep. Recovery. Remember that sabre tooth tiger? Sleep is part of the program. NOTE: if you experience mid-night waking, that can be a sign of imbalanced blood sugar.
Relax and have fun. Things like deep breathing, massages, dancing, singing, art and listening to relaxing music all reduce cortisol.
Be social and bust loneliness. Would you believe me if I told you that science has shown health risks from social isolation and loneliness? It’s true! Maintaining good relationships and spending time with people you like (and who support you) is key. In fact, I’ve been a bit of stress mess this winter. I’m tapped out of my regular routine this week and took 24 hours to hang with girflriends up north for a mid-week getaway. The gift of laughter and bonding is an amazing thing.
Too much of the stress hormone cortisol can have several negative impacts on your health. There are many proven ways to reduce levels of cortisol naturally.
In terms of foods and nutrients, consume less sugar and caffeine. Balance your meals with all three macros … quality protein, fat and cabohydrates. And round out your stress-less nutrition plan with water, fruit, tea, dark chocolate, probiotics and prebiotics.
Lifestyle factors are huge when it comes tocortisol. To lower yours, exercise in moderation, sleep more, relax, and have more fun.
Recipe: De-Stressing Chocolate Pudding
3 ripe avocados
¼ cup cacao powder (unsweetened)
¼ cup maple syrup
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 dash salt
Place all ingredients into a food processor and blend until smooth.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: Try adding a pinch of cinnamon or ginger for a deeper flavour.