Feeling stressed? Your diet could play a role. No foods contain the stress hormone cortisol, but there are foods that affect cortisol levels in the body. Here's how to eat to help manage your cortisol levels and how stressed you feel.
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Eat Whole Foods
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone because your body produces it under stress, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
"Part of the system that regulates cortisol in the body is the adrenal gland," says New York City-based board-certified internist and gastroenterologist Niket Sonpal, MD. "So, you want to eat foods that help optimize its functions."
The best foods for your adrenal glands are those that are natural, whole foods, Dr. Sonpal says.
The ideal natural, whole foods diet, he says, is one that emphasizes:
- Baked or grilled lean meats, poultry and fish
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Healthy fats
"You don't want foods that are highly processed, that are deep-fried and that contain lots of added sugars," Dr. Sonpal says.
Get More Vitamin C
Foods high in vitamin C also support your adrenal glands, which, in turn, support healthy cortisol levels, says Robin Foroutan, RDN, a New York City-based registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
According to the Office of Dietary Supplements%20%5B8%2C12%5D) (ODS), some foods high in vitamin C include:
Foroutan says some foods that have been tied to lower cortisol levels include:
Certain drinks may also help. "Things that help you relax can be helpful in calming stress responses in the body, so chamomile and linden tea can be helpful in this sense," Dr. Sonpal says.
Drinking water and staying hydrated can help, too, Foroutan says: "Being well-hydrated also reduces cortisol because dehydration is a stress on the body."
At least one herb — ashwagandha — has been shown to reduce cortisol levels over time, Dr. Sonpal says. And a small, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled September 2019 study of 60 adults in Medicine found that ashwagandha had stress-relieving effects on healthy adults who reported being stressed compared to a placebo.
Foods That Spike Cortisol
High blood sugar can spike cortisol levels, Foroutan says, "so, if you're stressed out, anchor each meal with protein and fiber to slow the absorption of carbohydrates from that meal," she says.
Because both white sugar and artificial sweeteners can increase blood sugar, "by connection, soft drinks and sugary treats should be kept to a minimum," Dr. Sonpal says.
High amounts of caffeine can be a stressor, too, he says, so you want to keep your caffeine intake to a minimum to manage your cortisol levels.
Other Ways to Reduce Stress
Stress reduction isn't all about diet. While evidence supporting the ability of stress-lowering over-the-counter vitamin and mineral supplements to reduce cortisol levels is minimal at best, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there are other methods that can be effective.
Mindfulness practices, for example, can also help improve cortisol levels, Foroutan says, such as:
- Guided imagery
- Breathing exercises
Other way to reduce stress include:
- Getting adequate sleep, which may be as important as diet, as cortisol helps coordinate your sleep cycle, Foroutan says.
- Exercising regularly.
- Socializing with friends and family, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
If stress becomes debilitating, seek professional help. Counselors and other professionals are trained to help you find ways to best cope.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Definition and Facts of Adrenal Insufficiency & Addison's Disease”
- Robin Foroutan, MS, RDN, HHC, registered dietitian nutritionist; integrative and functional nutrition counseling; spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; New York, New York
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Lifestyle and Managing Stress”
- Niket Sonpal, MD, board-certified gastroenterologist; associate residency program director, internal medicine training program; assistant clinical professor, Touro College of Medicine; New York, New York
- Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin C: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals”
- Medicine (Baltimore): “An Investigation Into the Stress-Relieving and Pharmacological Actions of an Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Extract: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study”