If you've ever felt stressed (and as we look back over the past few years it's likely that we're all feeling varying amounts of it), you know that takes a toll mentally and physically. This is no coincidence.
Stress triggers the production of the hormone cortisol, which can leave us in a constant state of alert or that "fight or flight" feeling. "In appropriate amounts, cortisol regulates almost every system in our body, including mood, metabolism, immune function, memory, and cognition," says Kibby McMahon, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and co-host of the podcast A Little Help For Our Friends. "However, cortisol can have damaging effects on all these systems if levels stay elevated for long periods of time."
Here's what you need to know about cortisol production, including ways to keep it in check using food and nutrition.
Why high cortisol levels are harmful.
Before you stress out about feeling stressed, it's important to remember that cortisol spikes can sometimes be a good thing. "Having high cortisol levels is a necessary adaptive response," says William Davis, M.D., cardiologist and author of Super Gut. "We want a high cortisol level to wake up in the morning and deal with acute stressful situations."
One of the most prominent side effects of prolonged high cortisol levels is weight gain, explains Davis, specifically visceral fat. "This is the fat that encircles the organs, intestines, and liver, and is inflammatory fat," he says. "Visceral fat leads to insulin resistance and contributes to diseases like high blood pressure, coronary disease, and type 2 diabetes."
Signs you have high cortisol.
"If you're dealing with high cortisol levels for a long time, this may develop into or be a sign of a disease called Cushing's syndrome," says McMahon. Actual root causes of Cushing's can range from chronic use of corticosteroid medications and familial genetic tendencies, to tumors of the pituitary, adrenal glands, or other areas of the body. Some symptoms of Cushing's syndrome may include:
- Rapid weight gain (especially in the abdomen, chest, and face)
- Pink or purple stretch marks on the skin
- A fatty hump or bump between the shoulders
- Red face or excessive acne
You don't have to have Cushing's syndrome to have high cortisol levels, however. Many of us do not, but the "silent" signs of high cortisol over an extended period time can still wreak havoc on our health. Moday says some other signs that your cortisol is cruising at higher, prolonged altitudes than normal include:
- High blood pressure
- Suffering from frequent brain fog
- A consistent high heart rate
- Insomnia or difficulty falling and/or staying asleep
15 foods & ingredients to look out for.
There's no magic food to instantly lower cortisol and stress levels, but certain ingredients can decrease inflammation in the body and help regulate the release of cortisol. That's because there's a link between high cortisol and intestinal permeability, says Davis.
"All of us have some degree of intestinal permeability. Because the GI tract is semi-permeable, things get in and out all the time," he explains. "But when cortisol is high, that degree of permeability gets higher. When that happens, bacterial breakdown products enter the bloodstream causing inflammation, insulin resistance, and stimulates the release of more cortisol."
There are a few foods and ingredients that can help slow this process down. They are:
"The catechins in green tea bind mucin protein in intestinal mucus," says Davis. "It converts intestinal mucus from a semi-liquid to a semi-gel, making it more difficult to penetrate the GI tract." Research published in PLoS One also found that the polyphenolic compounds in green tea can inhibit cortisol-producing enzymes1, which can decrease cortisol levels.
Red peppers, kiwi, citrus fruits, and strawberries.
These foods are all high in vitamin C, which plays a big part in stabilizing cortisol levels, says Moday. Research has found that adrenal glands have high concentrations of vitamin C3, and eating these foods can feed the adrenal glands and keep cortisol levels balanced.
Bananas, oranges, melons, spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and prunes.
"Excess cortisol can cause the kidney to excrete potassium, so these potassium-rich food sources can restore those levels and decrease the side effects that come with stress and elevated cortisol," says Moday.
Sauerkraut and kimchi.
Lactobacillus reuteri is a probiotic microbe naturally found in the GI tract of humans, yet Davis says over time many Americans lose it after taking anti-inflammatory drugs or being exposed to certain environmental factors. "One of the many effects of Lactobacillus reuteri is that it provokes the brain to release oxytocin," says Davis. "This helps reduce perceived stress and reduces cortisol."
You can find Lactobacillus reuteri in fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi. These bites are sources of many beneficial microbes that can rebuild the intestinal barrier, says Davis. "Getting that microbiome back into shape will greatly decrease cortisol," he says.
Other ways to relieve stress.
Your diet plays an important role in managing stress symptoms, but it's only one piece of the puzzle. "The main thing in lowering stress is working on daily habits to change our body's response to stressors around us," says Moday. "This way you can blunt the release of cortisol over time regardless of the situation." Here are some techniques that can help:
Think, feel, act.
"Taking a moment to examine thoughts and emotions related to a stressful event instead of immediately reacting will engage a parasympathetic or calming response instead of initiating that sympathetic fight-or-flight response," says Moday. If you need help feeling calm, consider one of these supplements for stress.
McMahon notes that any mindfulness-based practice has a direct impact on reducing cortisol and other physiological signs of stress4, including blood pressure and heart rate.
Make sleep a priority.
Going to bed and waking up at around the same time every day in addition to logging eight hours of sleep is key to reducing stress. "This will regulate the cycle of melatonin and cortisol that is so important for health," says Moday. These expert tips can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep through the night, and here are our favorite sleep supplements.
The bottom line.
Stress can cause mental health issues in addition to physical problems like pain and even the development of diseases down the road. That's what makes stress management vital to maintaining your overall health. Utilize natural remedies to relieve stress in addition to eating more cortisol-reducing foods to feel better and cope with stress.
Colleen Travers is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in health, nutrition, diet, fitness, and wellness trends for various publications and brands. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, SHAPE, Fit Pregnancy, Food Network, and more. She lives on Long Island with her two kids, two rescue pets, and husband.